How About That Fish?

Recently when I was in Kuala Lumpur (KL) to speak at a conference, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of 50~60 nice folks from Kelantan, Malaysia.  Very friendly and lovely bunch I must say.

I noticed that some of the locals in KL were eating live seafood and so I quizzed them on how that relates to the first precept of non-killing.  After a very lively discussion, we concluded that eating live seafood crossed the line for non-killing.  Consider how the fishes were happily swimming around in the tanks … ok, maybe not so happily … but nonetheless, alive and swimming.  Then someone may come along to the restaurant and order a meal, resulting in one or more of them being killed for our consumption.  At that point, it became clear that the meal was quite the cause of death or at least the reason.  So far so good, as far as understanding how we relate to the first precept of non-killing.

Then someone pointed out that sometimes, actually most of the time, only one person do the ordering, so perhaps he is the only person bearing the karma of killing.  I threw it open to the floor for discussion and went through a few possible scenarios regarding the causal consequences of the meal.

Case A: Person ordering get 100% of killing karma, while the eaters get none.
Case B: Person ordering get a majority percentage of say N% of killing karma, while the rest share in the 100% – N% of killing karma.
Case C: Everyone gets an equal share of the killing karma.  So if there were five diners, each get 20%.

Then someone further suggest that those who eat more, should be more responsible!  So the formulae became

Case A: Person ordering get 100% of killing karma, while the eaters get none.
Case B1: Person ordering get a majority percentage of
say N% of killing karma, while the rest share in the 100% – N% of killing karma.
Case B2: Person ordering get a majority percentage of say N% of killing karma, while the rest share in the 100% – N% of killing karma on a pro-rata or weighted basis.
Case C1: Everyone gets an equal share of the killing karma.  So if there were five diners, each get 20%.
Case C2: Everyone gets a share of the killing karma depending on the amount they ate.

Things were getting complex!  In the end, we simplified and just considered the original three cases, although as you will see, the reasonings for each case would lead us to similar conclusions.  Bear in mind that we did not assume any of the case to be the actual mechanism behind how karma would or should work out; we simply cover all possible scenarios as much as we can.  So for the following analysis, we then look at each case and say, if this were true, how would or should we act differently?

Case A, while the person ordering gets 100%, should Buddhists who embrace values and qualities like Loving Kindness and Compassion allow someone to bear the brunt (100%) of painful results for one’s meal while one selfishly tucks into the meal knowing that someone else (both the fish and the orderer) is suffering for us.  While highly unlikely, we saw it unseemly for us to partake in such a meal as it is both selfish and unkind.

Case B, letting someone get the majority share and each diner receiving partial payout for the karma of killing didn’t seem to be such a good idea as well.  Nope.

Case C, for most people in the discussion, going pro-rata seem to be the most likely mechanism for karma, but it then becomes even clearer why we should not partake in the meal altogether!

We could have, and were tempted to, gone further and consider many other factors, including those who arrive late, those who fail to turn up but were on the diners’ list, those who were not, but turn up after the ordering, those who were not but turn up before the ordering etc etc.  But we did not.  Most were duly satisfied with the discussion and analysis and left it knowing how better to relate to the precepts in future.

So what did you eat today?

PS: I do not advocate eating as a means of enlightenment, and the discussion of food was really a day-to-day affair that to me mattered to some of those lay Buddhist I met.