Consider for a moment the plight of the carnivorous beast. Skulking about the forest brush, sniffing and listening with intense concentration, hunger gnawing at his belly and burning in his eyes, he searches for prey. His meditation is single-pointed in hopes of a kill. But his task is difficult: to find his prey inattentive and unwary. He must be ready for whenever the opportunity comes and his attack must be swift, fearless, and lethal. And at last it does come the kill: the fearful eyes of the victim, the screams of pain and terror, and the stench of fresh blood. For us this would certainly be a repulsive task simply for the business of eating. And this sort of act this barbarity, this furtive slaughter marks the difference between civilized and bestial existence.

For animals, however, this gross violence is acceptable, without any consideration of right or wrong. The anguish and suffering of hapless prey is hardly the concern of predators in the animal kingdom. And, of course, the killer incurs no sin. For us human beings, however, even to witness such brutal killing is painful, because we are endowed with the quality of compassion. If necessity suddenly forced us to prowl the jungle for creatures to leap on, kill, and devour, most of us would starve. Our bodies, when pitted against the prowess of the animal kingdom, are frail. Our intelligence facilitates devising other means of nourishment, and our philosophical vision and capacity for empathy lead us to regard the feelings of others.

Nevertheless, our so-called civilized society promotes the slaughter of animals as a necessary clement of modern living. We may not have to see the brutality behind those neatly wrapped and ordered packages of red meat displayed under lights in our local supermarkets, but the savage slaughter was there as surely as in the jungle. Although our modern approach to getting food may appear civilized, in essence it is inhuman. Thanks to our superior intelligence, our approach is more sophisticated and controlled, and we feel sufficiently removed from the ghastly carnage by the intervention of industry and commerce. Most of us will never see the throngs of cows herded into the slaughterhouse, or hear their pitiful cries, or witness their anguish.

Of Mice And Meat

Indeed, what we often see of the meatpacking industry is cartoons of smiling cows, chickens, and pigs dancing across the TV screen, inviting us to relish their tasty flesh. Our language buffers us from any suspicions about the origin of our prized sirloin steaks, as we regularly eye slabs of rotting carcasses and refer to them as "cuts of meat," or "tender aged beef." Mothers encourage their little ones to eat their hot dogs, which are stuffed with toxins and intestinal wastes, and smiling waitresses serve hamburger patties comprised of the most repulsive organs of the cow and often containing such substances as earthworms and decayed rodents. Yet most of us are somehow convinced that our daily quota of meat is not only safe but necessary for our nutritional well-being, a conviction we maintain even when confronted with the most gruesome details of animal slaughter and meat-eating.

Recent investigations into the practices of a meat-packing plant in the western United States provide a strong challenge to such false security regarding the sanctity of our red-blooded American diet. Rudolph "Butch" Stanko, owner of the Colorado-based Cattle King Packing Company, is presently facing charges for alleged discrepancies in the cleanliness and purity standards at his plant. The company was a big supplier of meat to the U.S. Defense Department, to fast-food restaurants, and to local supermarkets. Larry Andrews, a former employee, testifies, "He told us not to throw away anything, to use every bit and piece, even the blood clots." The company was accused of regularly bringing in already dead animals and animals known to be diseased to mix in with the ground meat products. In defense against the charges. Cattle King's attorney acknowledged, "Yes, these things happened like they do at every other plant in the United States."

Certainly these statements suggest a nasty business full of cheating at the expense of the customer, and you may find yourself viewing your next hamburger with a new wariness. But even without these horrid details, if we think about it objectively, where is the consideration of any real cleanliness or purity when dealing with carcasses? The meat that people are purchasing for their families' dinners is nothing more glorious than contaminated slices of flesh, slashed from animals ruthlessly killed after their brief, miserable, disease-ridden existence, which ended in violence and terror. To ignore the suffering of the animal from whose very body your steak or cutlet has been obtained and to romanticize the business of animal slaughter as healthy, sanitary, and necessary is a kind of madness. What you're getting is simply a package of decaying flesh, toxins, and wastes, and in exchange you implicate yourself in the most horrible kind of violence imaginable.

Human beings possess a higher intelligence and a finer sensitivity that allows for moral judgments. To witness the death of an animal such as a cow, therefore, would be very painful for us. That's our natural human compassion. And yet we eat the flesh of the cow without any qualms of conscience. The heinous act of slaughter may be out of sight and out of mind, but by eating the flesh we become implicated in sin.

According to the strict laws of karma, every human being is responsible for his actions. These actions create reactions, which propel each of us into particular circumstances of happiness or distress. In the case of animal slaughter, a grievously sinful act for one with human discretionary resources, the reaction is that the offender is forced to accept an animal body in his next birth and to suffer the same horrible life and death.

Our meat-eating isn't as bloody as that of the animals hunting in the forest, but in light of our superior capacity for understanding suffering and death, it's far more horrible. We don't need to eat the flesh of animals to survive, and to remove this violence from our lives would create an immediate improvements in consciousness. Being vegetarian may not be the perfection of human life, but it is one of the first steps on the path of perfection.