by Wayne Ren-Cheng
There are two aspects of what Westerners understand of Buddhism that are likely to deter them from pursuing its philosophy and practice. These constitute engaging in a regular meditation practice and foregoing the eating of meat; sitting with themselves quietly and changing their diet. It is one or the other, or both of these reasons that many Westerners give for not wanting to be Buddhists. The question then is can a person be a Buddhist and do neither, meditation or be a vegetarian? In this moment we’ll delve into the diet issue; in the next moment it will be sitting.
For a Nikayan Buddhist, one who looks to the earliest written down discourses of the Buddha it is clear that the Buddha allowed the eating of meat by his disciples (in these early discourses disciple is what we now call monks). There are strict stipulations but the intent is clear. These are found in the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya #55). Jivaka, a disciple, asked the Buddha about the consumption of meat. The Buddha’s reply was that meat would be unsuitable if the living animal had been chosen by the disciple, if the living animal had been mistreated or mishandled, if the intent was the animal was slain specifically to feed that monk, if the living thing was frightened, or if knowing any of these things to be true the disciple/monk consumed it anyway. In any of these instances either the consumer, the provider, or both would engender negative karmic consequences.
Zen Master D.T. Suzuki in his commentary on the Lankavatara Sutta (an important Mahayana sutra) 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 article ‘What the Buddha Said About Eating Meat’ on the Urban Dharma website (urbandharma.org) Ajahn Brahm, a British Theravada monk offers insight into this subject. Here are some excerpts:
Since the very beginning of Buddhism over 2500 years ago, Buddhist monks and nuns have depended on almsfood. They were, and still are, prohibited from growing their own food, storing their own provisions or cooking their own meals. Instead, every morning they would make their day’s meal out of whatever was freely given to them by lay supporters. Whether it was rich food or coarse food, delicious or awful tasting it was to be accepted with gratitude and eaten regarding it as medicine. The Buddha laid down several rules forbidding monks from asking for the food that they liked. As a result, they would receive just the sort of meals that ordinary people ate – and that was often meat.
However there are some meats which are specifically prohibited for monks to eat: human meat, for obvious reasons; meat from elephants and horses as these were then considered royal animals; dog meat – as this was considered by ordinary people to be disgusting; and meat from snakes, lions, tigers, panthers, bears and hyenas – because one who had just eaten the flesh of such dangerous jungle animals was thought to give forth such a smell as to draw forth revenge from the same species!
The Vinaya, then, is quite clear on this matter. Monks and nuns may eat meat. Even the Buddha ate meat. Unfortunately, meat eating is often seen by westerners as an indulgence on the part of the monks. Nothing could be further from the truth – I was a strict vegetarian for three years before I became a monk.
It is recommended that you read the entirety of the article and search out other insights on the web and at your local library.
So, to be a Buddhist one doesn’t have to be a vegetarian. The question then arises why are so many Buddhists vegetarian, or at least claim to be? There is a good reason.
Some followers of the Mahayana tradition cite, among others, the Brahmajala Sutra, the Brahma’s Net Sutra as a Buddhist text that calls for the abstention of the eating of meat of any kind. This text was written in the 5th century by an unknown author, later translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva. It is considered apocryphal (not accepted as part of the canon) by some, while most Mahayana scholars and monastics hold to the opposite belief, that its words were spoken by the Buddha. This writing offers that abstention from eating meat is part of the broader intent of the first of the Bodhisattva Precepts, Not to kill or encourage others to kill. The idea is that by consuming meat one is requiring others to kill. In the Mahayana version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha is quoted in a final teaching before his death, “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness”, that compassion falls away if one eats meat. Later Mahayanist texts like Lankavatara Sutra strongly favor a vegetarian diet. This likely arose 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 became 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. This precipitated a spiritual need to choose a vegetarian diet.
The most common reason that a Western Buddhist will give for not eating meat is that it strengthens their compassion and loving-kindness. It may do just that. That the eating of meat does encourage industries that treat animals in cruel ways and kill millions of animals is undeniable and that abstention eases some small part of that suffering cannot be denied.
The Buddha Gate Monastery website (buddhagate.org) offers eloquently this view. “There are many expedient means to help us attain purity of body, speech, and mind. Expedient means can be thought of as a bridge or a pathway. Whether at work or in spiritual cultivation, it will not be easy to succeed without using expedient means. In cultivation, a first expedient means is to practice vegetarianism. The spirit of Buddhism is compassion and equality. If we wish to attain a mind of compassion and equality, first, we should not kill; second, we should save and protect lives; third, we should practice vegetarianism. If we can accomplish all these, our compassionate mind will manifest. A compassionate mind is the Buddha’s mind. Therefore, even though practicing vegetarianism seems ordinary, its significance is profound and far-reaching.”
It is a fact though that many Mahayanists around the world do not follow a vegetarian diet.
Again, find other views on the web or at your local library concerning Buddhism and vegetarianism.
In our own time and culture there are Buddhists, and those of other world-views who are smug vegetarians who negatively judge others for eating meat. In the view of both traditional and contemporary Buddhist thought 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?”, the answer is that the choice of whether or not to eat meat is a personal choice in Theravada 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 mindfulness 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.”
It isn’t diet that makes, or unmakes a Buddhist. Does meditation? That discussion comes in the next moment.