Shunryu Suzuki, Hamburgers, Zen and Lemonade. What more do you need?

The following story kindly portays the line that many Dharma students dance across between having a sincere dedication to their practice and being self-righteous or judgmental about it. It is one of my favorites stories about Suzuki Roshi because he so skillfully addresses ego-attachment to some of the things we hold most dear, our practice. Two of the most difficult and subtle of the Ten Fetters is attachment to rites and rituals and measuring oneself and comparing oneself to others. A judgmental attitude to vegetarianism (or to vegetarians for that matter) would encompass both. Suzuki strips down the beliefs to simple attachment and the schism it causes.

The point is that any belief or practice can be a fetter. Especially the ones that we use to so delicately construct a self around us. A self that we become attached to. The self that states “I’m a Buddhist” or “I’m a Vegetarian” or what ever we use to assume a stronger presence of self.

Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments here that I started on my Vegetarianism and Buddhism open forum post. (I discontinued comments over there due to spam but read through them, good stuff will entail, and most of it is meat-free).


During some work at Tassajara, Suzuki Roshi crushed his finger. A student drove Suzuki Roshi into Monterey to see a doctor. On the way back, as they were driving along Suzuki Roshi said “I’m hungry.” All the student, a vegetarian, could see were a line of fast food restaurants. Suzuki Roshi said, “Pull over here.” into a cheap drive-in. 

The student ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. Suzuki Roshi ordered a burger. When the food arrived the student looked at his grilled cheese sandwich. As it was his first animal product meal in two years, he was unsure what to do. Suzuki Roshi took a bite of his own burger and said “I don’t like this. Let’s switch.” He picked up the student’s sandwich and his and then exchanged them…

…During a practice period there was a battle between the vegans and some other vegetarian-types. Suzuki Roshi didn’t like the fanaticism. Almost everyone had issues with sugar, especially unrefined white sugar. One day a big pitcher of lemonade was put out near for the afternoon tea break. Suzuki Roshi walked up and someone offered him a glass of lemonade. Suzuki Roshi: “Is there sugar in it?” When he found out that there wasn’t sugar in the lemonade he put in one spoonful then another then another and he drank it with great relish to the amazement of those watching.

[original story here I edited for brevity]

Is vegetarianism or any dietary restriction necessary for Buddhist practice? I don’t think so. Should you strive to be a vegetarian or celibate or a teetotaler? No, I don’t think so. Rather you should let your actions, diet and thoughts be an off-shoot of your practice. As you practice, if you find yourself not eating meat or drinking then allow it to proceed. It is neither here nor there. The more you attach to a specific belief or practice the more you pick and choose. And the more you pick and choose the more you discriminate and judge good vs. bad.


2 thoughts on “Shunryu Suzuki, Hamburgers, Zen and Lemonade. What more do you need?

  1. Hi Jack, What a lovely site. I read your piece in the Tiferet News today. More and more I find that I don’t know anything. And one of the things that points to this is my own tendencey toward fundamentalism, when I find something that works for me. Especially a so-called spiritual practice. I’m just coming off of a cleanse right now, and that burger in the photo looks amazing. I’m quite certain my body would go insane if I took even a bite of a burger right now. Maybe next week . . .Best,Carin

  2. Hi There,A year ago I was having some “self” troubles. I was experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts and made the choice to voluntarily enter a psychiatric unit at the local hospital. I came in around 5pm and around 6pm sat down for my first hospital meal. I sat at the table and one of the staff brought me a tray of food. I had not been eating red meats or pork for about 5 years prior to this. To my initial dismay the main dish was macaroni with ground beef and a tomato sauce. At first I was disappointed, but as I reflected on my situation I soon burst into tears. I felt so helpless, I was having a psychological “eruption” of sorts, but also grateful. Here I was, finally admitting to needing help and being unable to provide for my self but at the same time being surrounded and supported by complete strangers. Some of them having much less favorable circumstances in life but never the less attempting to comfort me. I cannot fully articulate the unwinding that happened to me in those moments. I experienced intense waves of a spectrum of emotions, nightmare images of screaming cattle flashed in my mind, I also I felt the love from the people around me, a deep connection to life, and the absence of separation from others. As the waves began to settle I was left feeling drained but peaceful. I ate the food, all of it, and I felt full.My perspective on food has changed since then. I feel in some ways it is better for me to choose to eat carrots (or cashews, I need protein!) instead of cows. Surely carrots suffer less. However, in another sense these views of mine are just that, views. Views that have no inherent substance or ground. I still tend not to eat red meat. I choose not to buy it.. But also I am learning to let go and navigate these views more freely. If I am offered it I will accept it graciously. If I visit my mother I will sit down and eat whatever she makes for me, which makes her very happy. I also choose to acknowledge the very real suffering of the animals and also the emptiness of that suffering.

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