Hillshire Farm Incident Indicative of Problems in Western Buddhism

VeggieDharma.Org, November 3, 2004

Cincinnati, OH (USA) -- Cincinnati, Ohio, based Hillshire Farm and Kahn's claims "sensitivity" in using a Buddhist monk in their advertisements promoting their processed meat. Karen E. Baker, spokesperson for the company, stated "our decision to use a Monk [sic] in the commercial was done with the utmost sensitivity," and that "the person we used is a real-life Lama."

"Our Monk was a Tibetan Monk," says Ms. Baker, "who will eat meat if the animal was not killed specifically for his benefit." Similar sentiments were conveyed in a form letter to other Buddhists that contacted the company with their concerns about the Hillshire Farm campaign disparaging the teachings of the Buddha.

Ms. Baker has not responded to requests for the identity of the alleged "real-life Lama."

The Hillshire Farm incident is indicative of two growing problems within Western Buddhism. The first problem is the popularity of using Buddhist imagery to enhance corporate gain. In the past couple of years it has become commonplace to find Buddhist iconography, statues of the Buddha, or actors appearing as Buddhist monks in advertisements for computers, laundry soap, headache medicine, etc.

In recent months Victoria's Secret faced an onslaught of upset Buddhists for their depiction of the Buddha on a line of swimwear. Victoria's Secret quickly apologized for the offense and withdrew the products.

This is not to mention advertisers who have added market branding techniques to the Zen school of Buddhism to promote Zen tea, Zen face wash, Zen candles, and a myriad of other "Zen" products.

There seems to be no resolution to this problem other than a grass-roots effort of people contacting these companies and explaining that disparaging a 2,500 year-old religion so they can experience an influx of profit is, in fact, disrespectful. Sara Lee, the parent company of Hillshire Farm, has missed this point all together.

The second problem is even more egregious because hundreds of thousands of sentient beings are slaughtered in North America every year to slake the hunger of meat-eaters-and some Buddhists take part in this harmful practice. Harmful not only to the animals, but to the meat-eater's karma as well.

Hillshire Farm and their supposed monk have taken a position to promote meat-eating amongst Buddhists despite the voluminous teachings from the Buddha and qualified teachers on the subject.

"The 'not killed specifically for his benefit' excuse," says Katherine Perlo, a doctor of philosophy and long-time Buddhist, "comes from the Jivaka Sutta, which-whether inserted into scripture by meat-eating monks (as asserted by Roshi Philip Kapleau), or mistranslated (as asserted by Dr. Tony Page)-is, as both scholars agree, totally inconsistent with the prevailing Buddhist values, especially the first precept of non-injury and the principle of 'right livelihood' which proscribes the occupations of butcher, hunter, and fisherman. Even if one accepts the Sutta's message, it's at the very most a concession to meat-eaters, never an encouragement."

The Buddha did foresee confusion over his teachings and sought to clear them up. In his discourse on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Buddhist scholar Dr. Tony Page says "in his final teachings before he physically left this earth, the Buddha foresaw that a situation would arise in the future where those speaking in his name would pervert his doctrine and encourage meat consumption. So here, in this great Nirvana Sutra, he lays down his last will and testament on the matter: in no circumstances should one eat meat or fish-nor animal corpses, found in the jungle, for instance-nor even accept from a donor a meal which contains an abundance of flesh-foods. The very contact of other food with meat is deemed defiling and requires purification of the food by water. It is quite evident from all this that the Buddha in no way condoned the eating of meat and was keen for his monastic and lay followers to abjure the uncompassionate practice of meat eating and follow the pure path of vegetarian Mahayana. In this, we would be wise and benevolent to follow him."

Indeed, the confusion over spiritual translations exists within many religious traditions. This confusion, however, may not matter. "Ultimately the case for shunning animal flesh," says the late Roshi Philip Kapleau in his classic tome To Cherish All Life, "does not rest on what the Buddha allegedly said or didn't say. What is does rest on is our innate moral goodness, compassion, and pity which, when liberated, lead us to value all forms of life. It is obvious, then, that willfully to take life, or through the eating of meat indirectly to cause others to kill, runs counter to the deepest instincts of human beings."

The Hillshire Farm case illustrates a disturbing situation where a corporation not only utilizes Buddhist imagery for financial gain, but also puts itself in a position where it is attempting to influence religious thought.

"I find even more shocking than the advertisement itself the fact that a monk would lend himself to it," says Katherine Perlo, "I know that many Tibetans eat meat, but the advertisement amounts to a positive exhortation to other Buddhists to do so."

In an age where rampant commercialism appears to rule the day, Buddhists must be ever vigilant in these attacks on the Dharma.