Disciple: As to the precept against taking life as it relates to not eating meat, I want to ask how we can live without taking life. Plants, for example, seem to have a higher consciousness than most animals. They have a consciousness that's everywhere at once. They display emotions such as fear and recognize individuals. Personally I don't feel any more comfortable eating plants than I do eating animals. According to scientific experiments, you can pinch one plant here and its partner will feel the pain at exactly the same time even though it is a thousand miles away. Since they have emotions, how can we kill and eat them any more easily than we can kill and eat animals? How can we stay alive in this world?
Venerable Master: That which has a life is said to be "sentient." Plants are said to be "insentient." This includes the earth, wood, rocks, and minerals. Rocks may appear insentient, but they are alive. Their "life" is a bit less, however; it's not as complete, and they cannot be compared with human beings, who have eight consciousnesses. Although we can say that plants have some sort of awareness, it is incomplete. That's why we have the term, "senseless rocks." Although they are said to be senseless, they actually do have emotional feelings. What proof is there?
In China, Dharma Master Daosheng lectured on the Nirvana Sutra at Huqiu Mountain. The first half of the Nirvana Sutra said that icchantikas, that is, unbelievers, did not have the Buddha nature. Dharma Master Daosheng said, "Icchantikas also have the Buddha nature." When he said that, all the other Dharma Masters objected. "The Sutra plainly says that icchantikas don't have the Buddha nature; how can you say that they do?" and they told everyone to avoid his lectures. So he went up to Huqiu Mountain and lectured to the rocks. He addressed them, saying, "I say that icchantikas have the Buddha nature. What do you say?" At that point the rocks nodded their heads! It is said,
When Sheng, the Venerable, spoke the Dharma,
Even the rocks nodded their heads.
This proves that insentient things, such as rocks, also have the Buddha nature.
Well, then, how can one remain alive in this world? If you were to be very strict in your interpretation, then even eating plants is killing. But it's a bit less serious. If you did not eat, you could not stay alive. "Killing" vegetables is less offensive to one's compassionate sensibilities than wantonly killing animals for food. Killing animals creates thoughts of hatred, not of compassion. Your compassion grows lighter while your hatred increases. His question is pretty tough to answer.
Since plants have no blood or breath, how can we prove that they have "life"? Ginseng, for example, after 1500 years can turn into a human being. It can transform into a child and run around. These transformations are called "ginseng immortals."
Disciple: In some people's view, when you eat one bowl of rice, you take the life of all the grains of rice, whereas eating the meat of, say, one deer, you take only one animal's life.
Venerable Master: On the body of one single animal are a hundred thousand, in fact several million little organisms. These organisms are fragments of what was once an animal. Why did they become organism? Because they did not believe in Buddhism.
All animals are fragments of the consciousnesses of people. The spirit of a human being at death may split up to become many animals. One person can become about ten animals. That's why animals are so stupid. The spirit of an animal can split up and become, in its smallest division, an organism or plant. The feelings which plants have, then, are what separated from the animal's spirit when it split up at death. Although the life force of a large number of plants may appear sizeable, it is not as great as that of a single animal or a single mouthful of meat. Take, for example, rice: tens of billions of grains of rice do not contain as much life force as a bit of meat the size of a grain of rice. If you open your Five Eyes, you can know this at a glance. If you haven't opened your Eyes, no matter how one tries to explain it to you, you won't understand. No matter how it's explained, you won't believe it, because you haven't been a plant! Do you understand?
Disciple: Not for sure.
Venerable Master: I know you aren't sure. Another example is the mosquitoes. The millions of mosquitoes on this mountain may simply be the spirit of one person which has transformed into all those bugs. It's not the case that a single human spirit turns into a single mosquito. One person can turn into limitless, boundless numbers of mosquitoes.
At death, the nature changes, the spirit scatters, and its smallest fragments become plants. Thus, there is a difference between eating plants and eating animals. What is more, plants have very short lifespans.
The grass, for example, is born in the spring and dies within months. Animals live a long time. If you don't kill them, they'll live for many years. Rice, regardless of the conditions, will only live a short time. So, if you really look into it, there are many factors to consider, and even science hasn't got it straight. Okay, that's all I'm going to say. The more I say, the more you will disbelieve.
Disciple: The Dalai Lama, the highest lama in Tibet, eats meat, because Tibet is a very cold place. What is his view on eating meat?
Venerable Master: Are you asking these questions because you can't stop eating meat?
Disciple: I've been asking myself this question for twenty years now. I can eat meat, and I can also not eat meat. I believe it's a matter of degree.
To be continued