Q&A

Must I Refrain from Eating the Kind of Animal I Liberated?

Among all negative karma, that of killing is the heaviest.
Among all positive karma, that for releasing life is the highest.

– Acharya Nagarjuna (The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom)

Question: A common question on the Buddhist practice of animal or life liberation is this – ‘After setting free a certain kind of animal, can I still eat its kind?’ A more specific version of this question is as such – ‘If I liberated a few fish into the sea, does it mean I should abstain from eating all fish for life?

Answer: There are three possible answers to this question, beginning with the most ‘liberal’ one:

[1] NO, it’s not a must : As saving animals on the brink of death purifies much negative karma, it is good to participate in proper animal liberation once there is the opportunity to do so. In fact, one should participate as much as possible. There is no need to hesitate as such a deed of charity is wonderful in itself – whether one refrains from eating similar animals or not is secondary. There is no obligation to abstain from consumption of the kind of animal you liberated. What matters is not to consume the specific animals you liberated. For example, if one catches or commissions others to capture the individual fishes freed moments ago for eating, this would defeat the purpose of setting them free in the first place – rendering it a somewhat hypocritical act of kindness.

It is not always easy to be sure that any of the fish one eats in future are not the ones once liberated by oneself – which is why it is safer to abstain from all fish. However, since the Buddhist practice of animal liberation aims not just to save animals’ physical lives, but to ‘jumpstart’ their spiritual lives by connecting them to the Triple Gem for better rebirths, it is still important to liberate animals if one adheres to the ‘No’ answer.

[2] MAYBE, as it’s up to you : This is so as it is natural to toggle in uncertainty between yes and no on this tricky question. If one is uncomfortable with a straightforward yes or no, it might be a sign of one’s compassion and wisdom with regards to animal welfare still in gentle blossoming. One should reflect on the pros and cons of eating versus not eating the kind of animals liberated before deciding to do either.

But what if one is still undecided after much consideration? The moderate approach for beginners is to make a resolution, according to one’s personal comfort, to refrain at least from eating that kind of animal liberated – for a certain duration. For example, for that day the animal liberation was done, or for a week, a month, or longer. To take baby steps to cultivate compassion is better than not taking any steps at all. One can also resolve to be vegetarian on new and full moon days, or any other special days, including those with celebrations which involve larger meals and possibly more demand for meat. One can also resolve to abstain from eating animals that one sees, hears or suspects to be killed for oneself (e.g. live seafood).

[3] YES, you should : Since the practice of animal liberation is ultimately to help us nurture universal compassion for all animals, it should be an extension of the cultivation of compassion to abstain from eating animals – at least the kind one liberated – for a start. In time to come, the more kinds of animals one liberates, the more kinds of animals one should resolve to abstain from consuming or exploiting, directly or indirectly.

The fuller meaning of animal liberation is to free all animals from one’s dining table too. However, even if this is not accomplished within this lifetime, it is alright – because whatever worthy acts of animal liberation done are still worthy, spiritually meritorious in their own right. It is better to have liberated a single animal but still eat all kinds of animals, than to not liberate any animal and remain non-vegetarian.

Analysis:

There is no one-size-fits-all right or wrong answer to the question as different individuals have different capacities of compassion towards animals in the moment. However, it is good to consider the rationale for each of the answers – before picking that which one prefers for now. It is important to note that the path towards the perfection of compassion does involve voluntary stretching of one’s limits of compassion. Generally, to one who is very apprehensive of commitments after liberating a kind of animal, the first answer (No) is a skilful one to give when the question is asked. For those with moderate apprehensiveness, the second answer (Maybe) is skilful, while the third answer (Yes) is the most skilful for those who have no apprehension at all. This article can be shared with those who ask the question too.

Ideally, with more practice of animal liberation, greater compassion in action, the easiest being abstinence from eating the kind of animal freed, will arise as the natural response to resolve any moral uneasiness. If one is true to the essence of the practice, the answer one is comfortable with will naturally graduate from ‘No’ to ‘Maybe’, and ‘Maybe’ to ‘Yes’. It is important not to be moralistically demanding of others in terms of expected future dietary commitments, as this would deter many beginners from contributing funds and efforts to animal liberation. This means there would be no opportunity to even be comfortable with the ‘No’ answer, much less to graduate from ‘No’ to ‘Maybe’ and ‘Yes’. It is better to start by sticking to the ‘No’ answer and begin practising animal liberation, than to have no answer and not even begin.

With regular practice of animal liberation, ideally in person, as one has more contact with various species of animals, one is likely to develop greater compassion for more beings. Nurturing compassion to different kinds of animals over time can urge one to progressively and eventually become vegetarian, and even vegan (by abstaining from use of any animal products – e.g. leather, milk, eggs, honey, silk, wool, fur, gelatine) too.

May all being be free of fear and harm.
May all beings be well and happy.

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Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!