Buddhists Eat Meat

Eat Your Vegetables . . . or Meat . . . Your Choice
Talk given by Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)

The season of charcoal being fired up in the grill is nearly on us. Tasty burgers, tender zucchinis, rich steaks, sweet red peppers, plump hot dogs, crunchy asparagus, barbequed pork steaks, slices of juicy pineapple . . . just to mention some . . . will soon add their delicious aromas to the smoky air. What is a Buddhist to do?

“But the idea that Buddhists have always been, and always should be, vegetarians is pure myth.” Stephen Asma, Why I am a Buddhist: No Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

One of the most frequently asked questions about being a Buddhist is, “Do I have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist?” The answer is no. Though opinions and scholarship differ depending on Buddhist tradition or personal preference, in the end it doesn’t really matter whether, like some Mahayanists strongly believe the Buddha was a vegetarian or not. In the Mahaparnibbana Sutta the dish that the Buddha was served prior to his death was called sukara-maddava (soft pork) and there are differences of opinion whether it was actually pork or a dish of something associated with pigs, mushrooms being one translation put forth. Consider hot dogs. There is no dog in them. This may be the case with sukkara-muddava, no pork in it. Here again, does it really matter?

This inevitably brings up the next question, “What about the Three Pure Precepts: cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others?” While later Mahayanist texts like Lankavatara Sutra strongly favor a vegetarian diet it came about through cultural changes as Buddhist monks began to gather in fixed location monasteries and monks no longer performed alms rounds. Before that the Buddha instructed all monks to wander, to visit the towns and villages, to accept the alms they were given, to teach and to examples to others. Once the monastics spent the majority of their time in monasteries the local lay people began responsible for supporting them. This meant that any meats were most likely killed and butchered by the lay people specifically for the monastic community, one of the Five Instances to be avoided in the consumption of meat that the Buddha explains in the Jivaka Sutta. Zen Master D.T. Suzuki in his commentary on the Lankavatara Sutta states that the chapter dealing with eating meat was added in later versions of the sutta and was likely not the authentic words of the Buddha. There is ample evidence in the Pali Nikayas that show that this total rejection of meat as part of the diet was not part of early Buddhist philosophy.

In the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, #55) the Awakened One answers Jivaka’s questions about the consumption of meat:

‘Thus I have heard:’

‘Jivaka, who ever destroys living things on account of the Awakened One or the disciples of the Awakened One, accumulate much demerit on five instances: If he said, go bring that living thing of such name. In this first instance he accumulates much demerit. If that living thing is pulled along, tied, with pain at the throat, feeling displeased and unpleasant . In this second instance he accumulates much demerit. If it was said, go kill that animal. In this third instance he accumulates much demerit. When killing if that animal feels displeased and unpleasant , in this fourth instance he accumulates, much demerit. When the Awakened One or a disciple tastes that unsuitable food . In this fifth instance he accumulates much demerit. Jivaka, if anyone destroys the life of a living thing on account of the Awakened One or a disciple of the Awakened One, he accumulates much demerit on these five instances.’

The five instances the Buddha speaks of are: 1) if a specific living thing is requested, 2) if the living thing is being mistreated or mishandled, 3) if the intent was the animal was killed directly for the consumption of the monk, 4) if the living thing is nervous or frightened, 5) if knowing any of these things have happened and the person eats the meat anyway. In any of these instances either the consumer, the provider, or both will accumulate demerits. Pragmatically speaking the word demerit is a placeholder for the concept of engendering negative karma. By participating in a negative act there will be negative consequences that we may, or may not realize ourselves. A simple example would be that because the abuse of one animal is accepted then the door is open for the same to happen to others.

This sutta offers that if one wants to make a case for their own choice of vegetarianism it should be from the platform of loving-kindness and equanimity, not from a misguided idea that the “Buddha said so.” Remember it is also about psychoemotional suffering or unsatisfactoriness that eating meat might cause you as well as the harm being done to other creatures.

The first Pure Precept directs us to “cease to do harm”, to refrain from unintentional acts of killing whenever possible. Eating meat is not considered an instance of killing as long as two basic rules are followed: the animal is not tortured or made to suffer, and the meat was not specifically butchered for the monk with their knowledge. So, the issue is causing unneeded pain to animals. It is important to keep in mind that this admonition was for monastics though it can be viewed as a guide to the devout lay person also.

Isn’t the meat we get at the grocery store or local Farmer’s Market killed for us “by proxy”? There is little we consume that hasn’t entailed “killing by proxy” from the electricity we use, the houses we live in, and the clothes we wear. Buddhist scriptures and books are written on paper whose manufacture resulted in the destruction of animal habitat. There are insects, rodents and other critters killed to produce even a vegetarian diet. It is impossible for us to separate ourselves from the reality of the Universe we live in. What we can do is be mindful of where our sustenance comes from and let that guide our intent and limit our consumption.

To better understand this “Middle Path” to the eating of meat we have to look to history as well as intent. In Siddhartha’s time and culture there were no ‘Buddhists’ but there were holy men, seers and mendicants of all types, including followers of the Awakened One who subsisted off the generosity of the people. Lay people offered food out of respect without considering the strictures of the receiver. When meat was offered the monk accepted it graciously and ate it. To reject such an offer would have caused suffering in the person offering it and deprive the lay person of performing a selfless act, one that would gain them merit in this life.

Buddhists all over the world eat meat. In some parts of the world it is common for meals to be cooked in a broth made from meat or fish. As it is unseemly for a Buddhist monk to make special food requests they would have to make a simple choice: eat or starve.

You may have seen or heard the stories of Tibetan monks sifting through dirt to save worms and bugs from being harmed during the building of a temple. Some of those same monks regularly have meat as part of their diet. This may seem contradictory but what it is is situational. There is a need for the human body to have protein, there is a need for the lay person to garner merit in the Tibetan culture, but there isn’t a need to cause unnecessary suffering to living beings. The monks and lay people certainly don’t save every worm and bug but they do what they can, their intention is good and the effort is one that builds merit in their Buddhist culture.

In our own time and culture there are Buddhists, and those of other worldviews who are smug vegetarians likely to judge others for eating meat. In contemporary Theravadan view a monk or lay person who claims spiritual superiority because they are a vegetarian is considered to have an immature practice, one where the ego is still prevalent.

In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Accesstoinsight website in answer to the question: “Do Buddhists have to be vegetarian?”, they answer that the choice of whether or not to eat meat is a personal choice in Theravadan Buddhism. Though many who choose to follow the Middle Path may eventually decline to eat meat out of compassion for animals, vegetarianism is a choice not a commandment.

This is a complicated issue whether one is a Buddhist or not. Buddhist philosophy doesn’t demand that one be a vegetarian but it does offer us ways to make that decision on our own.

Whichever we choose, herbivore or carnivore or omnivore we must remain mindful of our interconnection with everything around us. As part of our daily practice we must develop an awareness of those connections and what we eat can be an opportunity to practice. Before each meal take a moment to respect the journey what you are about to eat took to get to you.

“Let us be mindful of the journey this food took to reach us. May the energy we derive from consuming it be used to promote human flourishing.”

21 thoughts on “Buddhists Eat Meat

  1. Thanks for the thorough post on this very interesting and important topic for all those practicing Buddhism and those who may be contemplating it. What ever I eat I say the meal gatha and hope that all creatures large and small and sentient know that I am blessed by their labors and sacrifices.

  2. This is absurd rationalization. Thie mahaparinirvana sutra goes in depth that Sangaha should NOT eat meat and that previous teachings were expedients. It also succinctly states that eating meat kills the great seed of compassion. Tour a factory farm and tell me.

    • Hello Roy,

      Your comment is appreciated, as are all Buddhist views here. Your passion for vegetarianism is evident, and your anger also.

      To rely on only one sutra, commentary or legacy teaching when defending a point of philosophy or practice does not do justice to the whole of the Buddhist Canon. I offer these other sources as a beginning to a more comprehensive understanding of the subject of eating meat and the Noble Path. On the Access to Insight website: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc1/bmc1.ch08-4.html —- On the Urban Dharma website: http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma3/vegi.html —- the article (In Emptiness There is Law) written by Master Sokei-An in the November 1940 issue of the Cat’s Yawn newsletter —- and research the Five Instances. These writings come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions.

      Research into the eating habits of Buddhists, laypeople and monastics alike, in Buddhist-centric countries is also needed to gain an encompassing and appropriate view of this.

      Eating meat or eating plants, or eating both is a matter of choice and HOW you honor that which gives you strength for good works is part of a compassionate character. To eat only plants because they are “lower forms of life” is missing the point that they are still living things and as deserving of our compassion as all other living things. Choosing to not eat meat is a personal choice whether it is for religious or health reasons. Compassion arises not in the act of “not eating” but in the act of honoring whatever living things that provide you sustenance.

      May you be as passionate about all other aspects of Buddhist practice as you are about eating habits.

      I bow with respect,
      Wayne Ren-Cheng

  3. if you are buddhist you can’t eat meat think about that animal how did someone kill the animal also like to live think about yonisomanasikarya before doing if you don’t know about the buddhist you can say what ever you want

    • Hello mahinda,

      You have the view of some Buddhists across the world, but not all. And for you and them it is a valid choice, but not the only choice.

      I engaged in yonisomanasikarya (wise reflection) as I came to this worldview. Reflections on the words of the Awakened One and of many Buddhist legacy teachers, and a deep look at history, philosophy and practice brought me to a more appropriate view of the Buddha’s intent.

      I bow with respect,
      Wayne Ren-Cheng

  4. Thank you so much for this.

    I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and over the past few years, I have realized my beliefs and moral code just doesn’t fit with the religion in which I was raised. I started a journey of looking at other religions to see if my beliefs aligned with any or if I would be alone in my journey.

    I came across Buddhism and it just made sense to me and it fit so well. I wish to proudly call myself a Buddhist one day, but this is a subject that has caused me much struggle and battle with myself. I get it, but eating meat is something that would be hard for me to stop doing. Alcohol is another thing that I would struggle with, not because I like to get intoxicated, but I enjoy craft beers and it is more about the taste than the intoxication. My goal is to never have more than one at a time. My consciousness would remain intact and I still get the taste.

    My fiance’ doesn’t share my beliefs for one. Cooking together would get very difficult and I don’t want her to not eat what she wants because of me. Wouldn’t that be causing her suffering?

    Although not a solution, but something alternative to do that I have read is to stop and think before eating, think of the suffering and appreciate the food that is in front of me. Reciting a mantra a few times and blowing on the meat can actual help in that animal’s karma. This way, the animal’s suffering wasn’t for nothing.

    This is a lot and I apologize, but this is definitely a subject that I will battle with for a long time. I think that at least it is better than nothing and that either way I’m becoming a better person, isn’t that the goal?


    • Greetings,

      That is exactly the point . . . to become a better human being then you were in the previous moment. It should never be about becoming a better human being then anyone else.

      I bow with respect,
      Wayne Ren-Cheng

      • Blowing on the meat???? I don’t think it’s the animal’s Karma you should be worried about! If you give so little care to an animal’s suffering that you think BLOWING ON THE MEAT is going to appease your participation in his murder by eating his corpse, then you’re completely and ridiculously in denial. Why not try bowing to the animals “with respect” for a change? Seriously. 1,000 excuses to continue eating flesh but not 1 reason to honor life.

    • Hello Monika, To you, what is an act of compassion? What is compassion? If you are a vegetarian or vegan do you honor the lives of all the living things that sustain you? Your declarative statement isn’t enough for others to understand your position. I bow, Wayne Ren-Cheng

  5. I follow some of Thich Naht hanh’s teachings and I always wondered why he was so strict on not eating meat at his Plum Village monastery. I myself have hypoglycemia and I have to eat high protein meals all throughout the day or I will get headaches and dizziness. I live in New Orleans Louisiana and there is a monastery near me in Misssissippi called Magnolia Grove which is 1 out of 3 of Thich’s monasteries.I had wanted to go for 1 weekend but I didnt think I could make it because of their being vegetarian. Also, beans upset my stomach.
    In New Orleans, there are a lot more people who are vegetarian than there are who are following (or interested in) Buddhism. My guess is it is more related to following Yogic principles because a lot of people practice yoga at yoga studios here. It’s sort of the stylish thing to do here. Also I believe vegetarianism in New Orleans is wrapped up in the ‘whole foods’ idea of trying to save the earth by what you eat or at least not allow yourself to be contaminated by chemicals. And not eating meat is an extension of that, rather than of any interest in Buddhism. 2 weeks ago we had a 2 day “Veggie Fest”- vegetarian festival/fundraiser ‘to spread the word about humane diets’ and in order to encourage people to donate to the La. Humane Society. This included ‘a cruelty-free fashion show’. This is how popular vegetarianism is here. But Buddhism isnt popular here- and that contradiction bothers me.

  6. I have to eat meat and fats — it’s just how my body works, I eat these things and I become slender. If I stay away from doughs, tortillas, flours etc (carbs) I am skinny. Quite frankly Buddhism is so wonderful despite eating meat (or killing being a precept) I’ll figure out my own form of worship. I have to eat the way I need to (seriously vegan/veggie makes me 80 pounds heavier). I have to eat meat.

  7. I plan on raising rabbits for meat. Neither my wife nor I are vegetarian although we don’t eat much red meat and would eat only fish if we could afford it (or catch it). I work hard as a carpenter but also after hours on a woodpile, garden, numerous projects. I simply need the protein that meat provides. I believe also that our growing daughter would benefit from the protein that rabbit meat provides. I recently visited another family which raises rabbits for meat and since they have four kids to feed and are rather poor, rabbits make sense-and it is clear that they are, beyond question, humane in their approach to raising animals for meat. It can be done.

    I also have recently begun a Zen practice, though I have considered my philosophy to be Buddhist for most of my adult life. I see no reason why I should continue to eat mass-produced chicken or pork when I can control every aspect of the animals’ lives and then humanely (quickly) dispatch them. In fact, it is thoughtless to continue buying from the local supermarket; I would gladly buy organic chicken for instance but it is about $18 a bird in my neighborhood. If I want meat at a reasonable price and responsibly raised, I really have only one choice.

  8. isnt it true that the vast majority of practices (meditations, retreats, ceremonies etc) in Buddhism require abstinence of meat? you believe there will be enlightenment for you down the road while you knowingly consume the products of suffering and murder? if that were the case, you could awaken with a belly full of meat, but the ancient gurus advised against that for a reason. The cultural excuse could work maybe for people without any other options, tibetans for eg. but for the vast majority of the people eating meat is nothing more than habit

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