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.