“Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” The President started a new Thanksgiving tradition on November 17, 1989 when the safety and happiness of one turkey, a sentient being, a “plump gobbler” was pardoned.
The Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1789, was not to give thanks for food, but “…opportunity to peaceably to establish a form of government for their (people) safety and happiness.” It took 200 years for this safety and happiness to be given to life itself, to a sentient being. But the sad truth is that today, the commercially bred factory production of turkeys doesn’t allow for a pardon with safety and happiness. They survive a very short time after their pardon – their skeletal structure and organs simply cannot support the weight forced on them.
But gratitude for food is important. Cultures since the distant past expressed gratitude this time of year for a successful harvest. For them a bountiful harvest meant enough food through the cold dark winter months and the hard spring until new crops of food grew from the land. Starvation and death were likely if the harvest was meager. A successful harvest literally meant life.
Covid made us rethink how we interact, what is important, and how we live our life. With the recent increase in Covid cases large family gatherings this Thanksgiving are unlikely. Kroger’s, a supermarket chain, anticipates “as first-time holiday cooks are presented with the opportunity to create new meal traditions.” Kroger will offer plant-based meats for the growing demand for vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian options.
Is there a Buddhist rule for not eating animal meat? No.
Buddhist monks and nuns ate what was offered to them as food. There were few prohibitions. Not eating carnivores and not eating animal meat killed specifically for them was the guideline.
A 21st century vegetarian who became a monk in Thailand relates having to eat what was offered to the monastics from the people in town: “.. boiled frog (the whole body bones and all), or rubbery snails, red-ant curry or fried grasshoppers - I would have given ANYTHING to be a vegetarian again!” When a visiting American promised the monastery a plump turkey for the holidays, they had to refuse. They could not accept a turkey killed for them.
For several years I hosted Compassionate Thanksgiving Dinners at my home, no animal meat. The first year we were about 15 people. The next year I expected fewer to accept my invitation but we grew to about 25 people putting tables end to end. We shared a bountiful meal. Collectively, we pardoned all sentient beings from the feast. Was it different? Yes. Did it matter? No. It was the gathering and the collective gratitude we expressed for this life that was key.
Will this be the right choice for you? Perhaps not. Traditions are difficult to change. So many traditions we took for granted are being questioned these days.
Perhaps we may emulate the President of the United States at Thanksgiving by granting our Pardon to a turkey. This act of kindness is one expression of the Buddhist understanding of compassion by not causing suffering of sentient beings.
As Shin Buddhist, we may eat animal meat. When Shinran Shōnin left the mountain and became a lay person, he understood lay people had few options. For them, it was difficult to follow the Buddha’s teaching. Today, in this country, we do have options and the choice remains ours alone to make.