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I am Buddhist, but not a strict vegetarian. When new acquaintances discover this they are often shocked and wonder, "How can this be??!!"

I'm going to try and explain my answer and see what others think. I contend that being a vegetarian can often act as a temporary hindrance for some Buddhists. They miss the forest for the trees.

One of my own preceding factors for learning about the Dharma was a decision to look deeply at my own consumption of meat and to explore the ethical and moral implications thereof in an honest and heartfelt way that I had never done before. I made a choice not to eat meat and became a vegetarian for five years more or less in parallel to my discovering and contemplating the Buddha Dharma, but to be clear I became a vegetarian strictly BEFORE I became a Buddhist or began practicing Buddha Dharma in earnest.

Over the ensuing years since then I have abandoned being a strict vegetarian and have continued and strengthened in my practice of the Buddha Dharma.

At first, the two seemed to coincide completely, but over time I found myself dwelling on being a vegetarian and being greatly disturbed to find other Buddhists who were not. Upon hearing that another member of the Sangha ate meat I would tend to distrust them and look at them as hypocrites at worst and misguided or lower than me in their ethical understanding of Buddha Dharma at best. I was a proselytizer for becoming a vegetarian to my buddhist/ non-buddhist friends alike and worried about what more I could do to convince others.

I grew despondent and anxious over my inability to convince others and suffered thinking about and empathizing with all the animals that were being killed on a daily/hourly/second-by-second basis merely to provide the flesh for the insatiable human demand for meat. When I looked at the scale of the problem, billions of animals dying and billions of people consuming their flesh in this carnivorous world I became hopeless that it would ever stop. I thought all of these thoughts indicated progress on the path as my heart opened up with compassion for all these animals.

But there was this nagging thought that I was actually not at all happy and was actually suffering thinking about all this in a repetitive way day after day. It occurred to me that this seemed inconsistent with what my teachers said that progress on the path - on a coarse level - is seen commensurate with an increase in happiness and a decrease in suffering.

Finally, it got bad enough that I more or less confessed all the above to my teacher and his response shocked me. He laughed with a deep and merry belly laugh and advised that I should get over being a vegetarian and the best way to do this was to eat a little meat.

He asked me how many animals I had saved today suffering at being a vegetarian and how many I would save tomorrow. He contended that my choice of being a vegetarian had not helped even one animal to escape from samsara and that I had yet to even begin to reconcile with the scale of the problem of samsara as opposed to the nearly insignificant in comparison problem of the human market for meat.

He told me I needed to let go of this attachment to being a vegetarian and congratulating myself on how ethical and moral I was compared to all those who were not and to get busy doing the actual work of becoming enlightened so that I may actually help all those animals.

When I look back I think my teacher was entirely correct. Being a vegetarian had become a hindrance for me. And since that time I think of all the people (including fellow Buddhists) who react with outrage at the idea that I am not a strict vegetarian and wonder if they are not all on a similar path that will require them to put down this hindrance in the future in order to make progress.

Of course, it is my responsibility to overcome this hindrance and make it temporary. No one can do this for me. It simply isn’t the case that being a vegetarian is necessarily a hindrance for some like there is some property of being a vegetarian that makes it impossible for some to progress. There is nothing inherent to being a vegetarian that makes one fall into the trap that I fell into. Rather, it was my own karma and ego that made it so and it is my responsibility to overcome this so that being a vegetarian will no longer be a hindrance for me just as it is not for OyaMist who has the most wonderful answer I could imagine and one I aspire to.

So there you have it... a question I've been meaning to ask for awhile and inspired by activity in this related post and some of the excellent answers and discussion within.

Can being a vegetarian actually be a temporary hindrance for some?

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I have been vegetarian since 1/1/2000. It was originally a New Years Resolution, but it became a New Millenia Resolution. I figured that given impermanence it would not be too hard to keep. :D

That resolution arose out of an understanding that the mindless consumption of meat causes harm and death to many animals. Basically the resolution was simply to exercise restraint and not require the killing of sentient beings.

Only much later did I encounter the suttas, so I started reading about and keeping precepts much later. And at that point the following made perfect sense, since I had already decided it was good principle:

AN10.172:12.4: Not killing living creatures is a good principle.

I agree that being vegetarian can be a hindrance. Being "vegetarian" is a bit peculiar in that it has for some become a proclamation of virtue and merit that has somehow evolved into an obnoxious and contentious self-righteousness. And that would certainly be a hindrance.

MN8:12.33: ‘Others will be stubborn, but here we will not be stubborn.’

I have found that gentle restraint suffices in body, mind and speech. A quiet explanation that "I avoid eating meat" is enough. And if asked why, I just reply, "it seems kinder."

As my Zen Roshi used to say, "Road kill is acceptable".

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    Wonderful answer. It does not appear that being vegetarian is any kind of hindrance for you :) Mar 2 '20 at 18:40
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It was recently explained to me the the ethical precepts aren't vows so..

A vow - I will never do X again as long as I live

A precept - I am working towards this. I might slip up. I might not be there yet. I might never get all the way. But I'm really trying

So regarding the first precept 'no killing' - You (we all) are working towards it. It might be you are vegetarian and trying to eat less dairy. It might be that you are a vegan and are trying not to harm insects. It might be that you are a meat eater and are trying to eat a bit less red meat. We are all working towards it and doing our best with it and going from where we are. But to rigidly and militantly be a vegetarian/vegan and feel very very fixed that that is who you are - well maybe that is a hindrance in some way. Certainly your sense of self might be quite strong around that.

That said I really don't think you should kill animals for food. However I'm quite happy to bend the 5th precept and have a glass of wine of the sofa some evenings. Go figure.

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  • This question made me wonder about the doctrine around vows and self-views, and I found this -- Which are the Buddhist vows? -- which agrees with your answer. As it happens it is essentially a vow for me, as well as a habit, i.e. my wife asked me to remain vegetarian -- which is something else I often see, i.e. people influenced by their family or girlfriend etc. When she first became vegetarian she told me, "I've decided; but you can keep eating meat if you want to", but I felt she was was right, wasn't wrong.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 3 '20 at 10:03
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    @ChrisW. Funnily enough I became a vegetarian because I married a vegetarian. But as soon as I'd made that decision it felt like a real sense of ethical dissonance had been removed. A weight had lifted. So for me as well it's a vow. Right now I'm trying to move towards veganism but that really is a precept. I might not get all the way there but I want to move in that direction Mar 3 '20 at 21:29
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Upon hearing that another member of the Sangha ate meat I would tend to distrust them and look at them as hypocrites at worst and misguided or lower than me in their ethical understanding of Buddha Dharma at best. I was a proselytizer for becoming a vegetarian to my buddhist/non-buddhist friends alike and worried about what more I could do to convince others.

IMO that's typical, a stereotype, of what you might call "a baby vegetarian": a "recent convert", a militant.

Seeing or describing other people as hypocrites seems like an obvious form of conceit (Māna).

Improving your own practice to behave like a better person is also conceit but of a more useful sort (as described in the Bhikkhuni Sutta).

I thought all of these thoughts indicated progress on the path as my heart opened up with compassion for all these animals.

I think that Theravada teaches that samvega may be the proper reaction.

He laughed with a deep and merry belly laugh and advised that I should get over being a vegetarian and the best way to do this was to eat a little meat.

Serves you right for confessing that. :-)

I assume that's vajrayana-like.

He told me I needed to let go of this attachment to being a vegetarian and congratulating myself on how ethical and moral I was compared to all those who were not and to get busy doing the actual work of becoming enlightened so that I may actually help all those animals.

I guess I see it as an attempt to be harmless -- which is good (i.e. permitted and not necessarily a vice to be abandoned) -- but just normal and not something which makes one better than other people. Given Dandavagga (Dhp X): Violence I like to assume that the sentiment is fairly universal.

If it's a practice which causes no remorse, then why not.

And since that time I think of all the people (including fellow Buddhists) who react with outrage at the idea that I am not a strict vegetarian and wonder if they are not all on a similar path that will require them to put down this hindrance in the future in order to make progress.

The little I remember of preaching vegetarianism is that it "benefits neither self nor others" (I may be a relatively ineffectual preacher, or maybe there's a more proper venue for it, so YMMV) -- it never occurs to me to try now, I see it as "not my business" when I eat with other people -- and I assume that people have heard the arguments already.

Some people as you may know call themselves "flexitarian" now -- e.g. they're vegetarian by choice or personal habit, and/but eat meat when that's convenient e.g. when they're a guest at someone else's house.

One young man I've met, for example, orders vegetarian for himself in a restaurant but might finish uneaten food (meat) off his father's plate if there are remains -- which I think is a bit like the Theravada doctrine.

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  • "I assume that's vajrayana-like." -- I have no idea as I am not now nor have I ever been a student of the Vajrayana... rather, I've only studied Sutrayana in this lifetime anyway :) Mar 2 '20 at 20:57
  • See e.g. the paragraph of this answer which mentions "breaking taboos", or more in-depth in the last reference of this answer.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 2 '20 at 21:01
  • Ah, I can see where you might draw that inference, but the fact is that I have not taken any Vajrayana vows nor entered into such a guru-disciple relationship. The advice my teacher gave me I think was heartfelt and personally proscribed to help me, but I can imagine Theravada teachers giving the same advice. In other words, I don't think there was anything particularly tantric about it. Maybe Andrei will have a different perspective... Mar 2 '20 at 21:05
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    Well I said "-like", I didn't mean anything formal; it was just the idea of having a little bit as an antidote -- like a "don't beat them, join them" sort of idea. I think Andrei might have said once that a lot of Mahayana is skilful means for overcoming aversion .
    – ChrisW
    Mar 2 '20 at 21:20
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Feelings of superiority are always a problem, as are feelings of inferiority, but compassion for the suffering of our fellow sentient beings is always an indication of progress on the path (whichever you are on).

The Buddha taught the path to escape suffering: not desiring what you will not, or cannot have. This a dialectical formula, because even desiring to no longer desire things you cannot or will not have is a subtle desire that may not come to pass. In other words, you may slip up and fail at some time by desiring something you will not or cannot have, and then suffer because of that and more again because you have slipped up.

The compassion for the suffering of our fellow beings is not a desire. To want others to follow you is. Your teacher was correct to tell you to get over being a vegetarian because it was such an obstacle, but I doubt he said killing animals for their skin and flesh was cool all along the path. It was an expedient means to help you along your path.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the Surangama Sutra:

“The next important hindrance and allurement is the tendency of all sentient beings of all the six realms of existence to gratify their pride of egoism. To gain this one is prone to be unkind, to be unjust and cruel, to other sentient beings. This tendency lures them into the bondage of deaths and rebirth, but if this tendency can be controlled they will no longer be lured into this bondage for right control of mind will enable them to keep the Precept of kindness to all animate life. The reason for practicing dhyana and seeking to attain Samadhi is to escape from the suffering of life, but in seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict it upon others? Unless you can so control your minds that even the thought of brutal unkindness and killing is abhorrent, you will never be able to escape from the bondage of the world's life. No matter how keen you may be mentally, no matter how much you may be able to practice dhyana, no matter to how high a degree of Samadhi you may attain, unless you have wholly annihilated all tendency to unkindness toward others, you will ultimately fall into the realms of existence where the evil ghosts dwell.

“There are three ranks of these ghosts: the highest are the mighty ghosts, the next are the Yaksha ghosts who fly in the air, and the lowest are the Raksha ghosts that live under the earth. Each of these ghosts has his double that disguises itself as having attained enlightenment. After my Parinirvana in the last kalpa these different kinds of ghosts will be encountered everywhere deceiving people and teaching them that they can eat meat and still attain enlightenment. But how can any faithful follower of the Lord Tathagata kill sentient life and eat the flesh?

“You of this great assembly ought to appreciate that those human beings who might become enlightened and attain Samadhi, because of eating meat, can only hope to attain the rank of a great Raksha and until the end of their enjoyment of it must sink into the never ceasing round of deaths and rebirths. They are not true disciples of Buddha. If they kill sentient beings and eat the flesh, they will not be able to escape from this triple world. Therefore, Ananda, next to teaching the people of the last kalpa to put away all sexual lust, you must teach them to put an end to all killing and brutal cruelty.

“If one is trying to practice dhyana and is still eating meat, he would be like a man closing his ears and shouting loudly and then asserting that he heard nothing. The more one conceals things, the more apparent they become. Pure and earnest bhikshus and Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas, when walking a narrow path, will never so much as tread on the growing grass beside the path. How can a bhikshu, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings?

“Pure and earnest bhikshus, if they are true and sincere, will never wear clothing made of silk, nor wear boots made of leather because it involves the taking of life. Neither will they indulge in eating milk or cheese because thereby they are depriving the young animals of that which rightly belongs to them. It is only such true and sincere bhikshus who have repaid their karmic debts of previous lives, who will attain true emancipation, and who will no more be bound to wander to this triple world. To wear anything, or partake of anything for self-comfort, deceiving one's self as to the suffering it causes others or other sentient life, is to set up an affinity with that lower life which will draw them toward it. So all bhikshus must be very careful to live in all sincerity, refraining from even the appearance of unkindness to other life. It is such true hearted bhikshus who will attain a true emancipation. Even in one's speech and especially in one's teaching, one must practice kindness for no teaching that is unkind can be the true teaching of Buddha. Unkindness is the murderer of the life of Wisdom. This is the second admonition of the Lord Buddha as to the keeping of the Precepts.”

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  • Oh? Is that so? Why? Jun 2 at 16:15
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    “Literally” is an interesting word to use, as if your ignorance of the moral standards of others is proof that your moral position must be true. Well, if that is your standard, I guess it must be so—for you. But you continue on by denigrating ‘blinkered vegans’ who apparently, in your opinion, have no moral insights, nor apparently moral standing themselves. They posses merely hyperbolic speech. Or, some do have moral insights, and their speech, which apparently you are aware of, undermines your position. Jun 2 at 17:51
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    But doesn’t your acknowledgement that at least none-‘blinkered’ vegans do hold the view that eating animal flesh and killing animals is equivalent, undermine your ‘argument’ that ‘literally’ no one holds this view? If not, why not? And since you are literally pushing a self-undermining argument, aren’t you the one being hyperbolic? My dictionary says that your use of “literally” in this fashion “is common and not at all new but has been frequently criticized as an illogical misuse. It is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis.” Jun 2 at 17:52
  • But here is what the Buddha said about eating flesh and killing animals, regardless of source: (From the Eighth Chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra) Jun 2 at 17:52
  • “Bodhisattvas, who are committed to being compassionate towards all sentient beings, and whose inner nature is compassion itself, choose to refrain from eating animal flesh. For a Bodhisattva to keep good integrity with the Dharma, he or she should not make any exceptions to the eating of animal flesh. He or she is not to eat the flesh of dogs, donkeys, buffaloes, horses, bulls, humans, or any other sentient being whether or not such flesh is generally eaten by some humans in some culture or society. Nor should a Bodhisattva eat flesh sold by others for monetary profit.” Jun 2 at 17:53
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The question presupposes that vegetarianism has some property that would be a hindrance to practice. Since it accords with the practice (see OyaMist's references) it would be strange if it was also a hindrance.

More importantly, what is this property? If you look can you find it? The whole point of Buddhism is to change the way you view the world, not change the world so that you may do what pleases you. That's why you are the focus of the practice.

When I first started along the path I would judge myself as superior because I'd found the right way. I told people they should meditate and looked down on those who didn't because they didn't control their minds - does this make meditation a hindrance? Should I then give up meditation? How many people had I led out of Samsara through my meditation? Not even myself!

That seems to be laying responsibility in the wrong place. It would be better if I continued to practice, to watch my thoughts and understand, than stop doing something of merit. In any specific context there may be a hindrance (you are starving and will die if you don't eat the frozen steak you found at the back of the freezer), that is why there is the concept of skilfulness (Buddhism is not a dogma) but in general, no, obviously meritorious actions that are in accord with the spirit and most basic reading of the precepts (don't kill, don't cause others to kill) are not a hindrance. It seems to me you're trying to justify and excuse something that is obviously not the case and I see no reason why you are the exception that proves the rule.

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  • If someone grasps the water-snake in the wrong way -- "They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate. They don't reach the goal for which [people] study the Dhamma." -- then perhaps it might be appropriate for their teacher to tell them to put it down again for a bit, to let go of it.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 3 '20 at 10:40
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    For what it is worth, I do think meditation can be a hindrance for some in pretty much the same way. Mar 3 '20 at 11:42
  • @ChrisW I agree, which is why I made the point about specifics, but as a general rule, no, Buddhist practice is not a hindrance to enlightenment or it wouldn't be part of the practice.
    – ian
    Mar 3 '20 at 13:27
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    @YesheTenley If you knew the answer then why ask the question? Because the question isn't "is vegetarianism a hindrance" it's "is it a hindrance for some". You want your justification but you won't get it from me. Stop looking down on others, not eating meat has nothing to do with that. Where's the link?
    – ian
    Mar 3 '20 at 13:39
  • I appreciate your perspective, thank you! Mar 3 '20 at 13:59
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Any behavior/habit is a hindrance based on the degree of upadana. Conversely, developing habits with a light hand (non-attachment) will likely be more kusala.

Also, being mindful about cetana, karma and vipaka one can determine whether a certain behavior is upadana or kusala.

Generally speaking, it is helpful to abstract habits to the principles above, instead of myopic dwelling on the literal behavior/habit.

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Yes. Dalai Lama developed a health condition after a period of adhering to a vegetarian diet, so he ceased it upon his doctor's advice. The Buddha himself allegedly wasn't vegetarian either, he ate whatever alms were given to him. Vegetarianism wasn't really a huge part of Buddhism; it's more of a Mahayana thing & typically a strict vegetarian Buddhist is keeping to the diet so as to not break vows (e.g. Bodhisattva vows etc.)

When you adopt a vegetarian diet, the intention should be one of compassion towards sentient beings, and this includes compassion towards yourself; taking care of your own body and health. If you're able to take care of this body, it'll be easier for you to practice dharma.

If you're able to keep a vegetarian diet without causing any issues then its good to do so though. Its a privilege to be in a position where you can choose to not kill - Many beings, both people and animals, are not so fortunate and have to kill to survive.

Your teacher is also right, the best thing you can do is seek to become liberated yourself so you stop contributing to the suffering of others.

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Godd householder,

if one thinks that purification if attained by food, such developes huge hindrances.

If one thinks that desiring plants as food doesn't kill, such developes huge hindrances.

If one maintains the wish to do as less as possible harm, feeling such is possible in choosing to abstain from meat, feeling involved in harm, yet not (because not seeing for now) by desire after non-meat, without having developed foolish extreme views, than going after vegetarian meals might be even kusala, but for the most cases, if not "accepting of what is given or near, views on food are signs of not seeing the danger in the world, not speaking of the path for escape.

If one seriously likes to abstain from getting involved in harmful food organisation, the Sublime Buddha gave his reputations so that one could live from alms if joining his Sangha or going near after it.

[Note that this isn't given for stacks, exchange, other world-binding nourishment and trade, but for escape from a wheel of no end]

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Answering this not from a Buddhist but as a cook: You are not bothering me by being a vegetarian. Most cooks I know either love making people happy or don't care at all. If I can help you in a spiritual way that's just bonus points. You would give me a good excuse to try different things or new recipes. If I'm cooking professionally then making sure everyone eats well is part of the reason I'm there. The Muslims will get a pork-free meal, the allergics will get a meal without nuts/gluten/pineapple/whatever. In any group you will get a few vegetarians so catering for them is just par for the course(s).

Now for how you deal with that inside your head, I'll leave that to you and your teacher.

But as a cook: please let me know any dietary preferences, the impact on me is minimal either way.

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I think being a vegetarian for the wrong reasons is definitely a problem.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is always a problem because conditions change and the behavior is not adjusted properly.

eg

A protection dog can be trained with underground fencing and it will stop wandering. The dog will display the desired behavior. However that dog is now delusional and not expected to protect the owner outside of the boundary even if there is no electricity and he is asked to come. Further training would be needed to overcome this.

One can have two very different systems occasionally giving you the same value.

There are countless ways of making a person do some particular behavior on an occasion, like being in a particular place at a particular time for some reason but if you then want to make him do something else many of the methods that produced the first result will no longer be able to produce the second result.

Being a vegetarian is imo a moderate lifestyle adjustment and requires moderately strong convictions. If the convictions are strong and misplaced then one is expected to do moderately stupid things quite often as this is expressed even in things like his diet.

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Since there was an “update” to this question, I am providing a second answer, one that specifically responds to the OP’s update.

There are two parts to this answer, the first is to the suggestion that her teacher’s instruction to her conflict should be applied generally to others. In Buddhism, it is not the case that all teachings are universal one-size-fits-all comprehensive doctrines. This is why the Buddha always spoke to a particular interlocutor and why there are 84,000 teachings. The OP’s particular issue should not be applied universally, and certainly not by her, to everyone. Below, the Buddha explains this:

The Buddha said, “Son of my lineage, my teaching is not like that of the naked ascetics. I, the Tathagata, established rules of discipline in relation to specific individuals. Consequently, with a certain purpose in mind, I did give permission to eat meat regarded as suitable for consumption after it has been subjected to threefold examination. In other contexts, I have proscribed ten kinds of meat. And yet again, with someone else in mind, I have declared that it is improper to consume meat of any kind, even of animals that have died of natural causes. But I have affirmed, O Kashyapa, that henceforth, all those who are close to me should abstain from meat. ( Mahaparinirvana Sutra: Abstaining From Eating Meat and Fish, Even Died by Natural Causes)

While I chose this quote because of it’s relation to eating meat, my point is the Buddha’s description of the crafting of his responses for different groups and individuals, i.e., skillful means.

My second point is that the OP seems to have missed the point of her teacher’s instructions. The problem wasn’t that she was a vegetarian, it was that she felt superior to others, evidenced by her stated need to proselytize, and she was suffering because preaching to others is a sure way to suffer, as no one will listen to you unless you have standing, such as her respected teacher has with her. But, this meaning was missed, as evidenced by her statement in her update that:

“It might be possible that the thrust of this question is also applicable to some vegans, fruitarians, pescatarians, lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, or other strict idiosyncratic diets based upon resolving abstract moral dilemmas in various ways.” (My emphasis)

The issue, as I said above, was not resolving moral issues. But I point to the characterization of animal suffering in that statement as ‘abstract’ because only one who is not on the receiving end of being killed could call it that.

This characterization shows that the OP still hasn’t seen that she is again manifesting superiority based upon her teacher’s instructions. In a sense, she is now proselytizing that when challenged by a moral issue one should overcome it by choosing the path that is least bothersome (i.e., hindering) to the one who is challenged by the issue (not the one affected by the issue). That’s not the way this needs to go in any case, ever, as it leads to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

But in the context of the question: “will feeling an overwhelming need to convince others that you are right, be a hinderance?” the only correct answer is yes, and the solution is to stop trying. You are your own master, no one else can be. The same goes for everyone else. You can and should share what you know, but never assume that everyone will hold it in the same high regard as you do.

In relation to being vegetarian or even vegan, the best way—in my lifelong experience—to convince anyone of those cuisines’ merit is not to try convincing them, but rather, to give them great-tasting food, in a familiar form, but absent the animal. Serving others is always a pleasure, never a hinderance. And food can speak for itself ☺️

I am not responding to convince the OP of anything. I am concerned that leaving her question update stand without response may lead others into harm thinking that they should not follow the Buddha’s explicit statements about not eating animals.

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