Buddha Didn’t Speak on Eating Popeyes
That question lingered in my mind as I picked apart the flesh and bones of this chicken who probably had a husband, a few kids, and better life insurance than me:
Shouldn’t all Buddhists be vegetarians?
In a sweaty panic, I switched to eating my fries to cope with this question. I wasn’t a devout follower like a monk, but even though I felt like I knew the general ideas of the faith, there were still these seemingly insignificant questions that dropped into my mind. Just last week, I read about a monk who threw a stone and accidentally killed a bird. That bird reincarnated as a boar and pushed down a boulder, killing the monk. Cue existential dread on what’s considered bad karma. I prayed for every fruit fly I “accidentally” killed with a cup of sugar water I just so happened to leave on the kitchen counter.
Here was my reasoning for questioning if Buddhists should be vegetarians and proof that I was just eating up bad karma with every bite of this delicious chicken: all living beings deserve life. All living things have souls. All living beings serve a purpose. This life, this deep-dried, Cajun-style soul I was devouring, its purpose was now to feed my lunch cravings in this shopping mall—but this chicken wasn’t born for that reason. It wasn’t born with its nutritional value branded on its body. It was born with a name. Not a human name but an identity others can recognize. Even if the name was just Chicken #435, #435 probably had way fewer prospects than #248. No one liked #435. He was always late to the roost and hardly ever called in. #248 was a star chicken. I heard he got transferred to Perdue Farms, the Harvard of chicken coops.
I groaned and looked up from my plate. No, this chicken didn’t have a name. The old days of naming your best livestock are over. It’s all factory processed with animals being shoved into industrial farms by the truckload. This animal didn’t have an identity. It became an object. An object to serve my cravings. So, therefore, eating it couldn’t be that bad, right?
I sneezed into my napkin and cupped my face with my hands. What in the hell am I thinking? Did I seriously just call a living, breathing animal an object to justify eating its dead carcass? I might as well say I’m just an object for a local cannibal.
Let me reframe my thinking: all beings deserve life because we seek refuge from suffering. This chicken suffered enough, and being inside my stomach is probably the final circle of hell for them. I could barely stand being inside my own head, so I could only imagine what my upper intestine could do to someone. The mere thought made me shudder while grabbing onto my Buddha necklace. But then an idea dawned on me, like Siddartha sitting by the river. Let me engage in discourse as the Buddha did:
Bodhisattva Chicken: “Did I at least taste good?”
Me: “Yes. Very.”
Bodhisattva Chicken: “Worry not. We both suffer, brother. We are all different meats in this deli called life. We both suffer from pangs of hunger, do we not?”
Me: “Hmm. Yes, indeed, brother.”
Bodhisattva Chicken: “Cravings distract us from our goal: enlightenment. We cannot achieve nirvana unless all needs are satisfied to obtain the unobtainable. Did it ever cross your mind that my nirvana, my breaking of this reincarnation circle, was to be a delicious meal at Popeyes, the best fast-food chicken restaurant in America? As a chick, I dreamed of such a heavenly state of crispiness far away from the dingy coops of my youth. Then it should only make sense: I have fulfilled my purpose. I lived my life full to fulfill your craving. I am the aid, the truth, the light, the way to your enlightenment. Continue to feast on my flesh, brother. Thank me as much as I thank you.”
After some meditation over the mall’s smooth jazz soundtrack, I deduced the chicken was a false prophet. But I did reach closer to the truth:
I’ve been eating Popeyes longer than I’ve been Buddhist, so my priorities might not be in check. Then again, Buddha said only the foolish belief in not training the mind. I know I need to change my mindset. That’s why I decided to follow Buddha’s teachings two years ago. No one forced or convinced me. It was my decision to accept the Four Noble Truths of suffering. My suffering—my downfall—was my overactive, anxiety-ridden mind that could never let me enjoy anything.. The uncertain future was the cyanide creeping into my brain. My weekly panic attacks before driving to work were the confirmation. The attempt on my life was the ultimatum. It was out of character for me to want to drown. I must’ve realized that when I looked out at the lake while sitting behind the wheel. Something told me to go home instead. (Now looking at it, I would like to think it was Buddha. I’ll stick with that unless a divine being comes down to take credit).
That’s when I realized I needed help. But even though the pills kept me alive, not much made me live. Family trips, weddings, births, funerals, sex, cheesy Christmas gifts, pay raises, and not even free pizza at work gave me peace. What gave me peace was the first time I sat down on the floor to close my eyes and only focused on my breath instead of others. I thought about what it would’ve been to have the lake’s water in my lungs when I first meditated, and it caused me so much pain that I hardly noticed my tears.
Without Buddha’s teachings, I wouldn’t be sitting here at this moment. I wouldn’t be at this shopping mall in the food court Popeyes on this plane of reality. I would be too far into my mind, frantically worrying about trivial, inconsequential things while letting them poison my soul…
Like if Buddhists should be vegetarians.
I can’t be a vegetarian. As much as I would love to respect nature and lose weight while doing it, I will indulge in worldly attachments. I love fried chicken. It’s been my go-to for many years, and I have fond memories of eating it with my family. Having my parents come home with a bucket of fried chicken and sides was like Christmas morning for me as a kid. Another deadly attachment: the past. The past is done, and the future hasn’t happened. It’s only the now—this very moment.
Let me observe this moment, then. This chicken breast was nourishing. It’s truly the best part of the chicken. You get the best balance of meat and fried coating. But does it bring me happiness akin to nirvana? No. But that wasn’t this chicken’s purpose. This food is here to keep me alive until I break this cycle of rebirth or until my teeth eventually fall out (whichever happens first). Sure, healthier food like broccoli could keep me alive longer, but you don’t see broccoli stalls at mall food courts.
My true epiphany came unexpectedly: the mashed potatoes my wife returned with for our ten-month-old daughter. When my wife dug the Popeyes mashed potatoes with a spork and gave my daughter her first bite, she nearly jumped out of her high chair, eyes bright and smile brighter. Without Buddha’s teachings, I wouldn’t be here seeing these defining moments. I’d be at the bottom of a lake instead. Why worry? Thoughts are impermanent and never guaranteed, so I shouldn’t be stressed. I should be thankful for fried chicken, Popeyes, my family, and for Buddha teaching us never to carry our thoughts into tomorrow. Even if I was supposed to be vegetarian to be Buddhist, it’s better to fail hard than never fail at all. And if I wasn’t, then I’ll find comfort in another bite.
My wife asked me if something was wrong. I shook my head and pulled out my phone to do a quick Google search (something I should have done in the first place, but Buddha didn’t have the privilege at the time). Buddha did speak on vegetarianism, but it was a choice for Buddhists. I picked a small piece of chicken, mushed it up, and gave it to my daughter.
She smiled. So did I.
Nathan Nicolau is a writer/poet based in Charlotte, NC. Since his published debut in 2019, his work has been featured on multiple websites and magazines. He is also the owner and Editor-in-Chief of New Note Poetry, an indie poetry magazine.