Buddhist vegetarianism

Buddhist vegetarianism

In Buddhism, the views on vegetarianism vary from school to school. In the schools of the Theravada and Vajrayana, the act of eating meat is not always prohibited (see Jivaka Sutta, below); the Mahayana schools generally recommend a vegetarian diet, based on the firm insistence by the Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras that his followers should not eat meat or fish. Interestingly, the accepted legend of the Buddha's death also says that he died after accepting tainted meat (pork infected with Trichinosis) from his hosts while travelling. The relevant word to describe this food, however, is contested as to meaning: it is not the usual term for meat - "mamsa" - , but "sukara-maddava", which translates as "pig's delight" and has been interpreted as meaning a kind of truffle beloved of pigs.

Views of different schools

There is a divergence of views within Buddhism as to whether vegetarianism is required, with some schools of Buddhism rejecting such a requirement. The first precept in Buddhism is usually translated as "I undertake the precept to refrain from taking life." Some Buddhists see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat meat, other Buddhists argue that this is not necessarily the case. Some Buddhists do strongly oppose meat-eating on the basis of emphatic scriptural injunctions against flesh-eating issuing from the Buddha himself.

Buddha in the Anguttara Nikaya 3.38 Sukhamala Sutta, describes his family being wealthy enough to provide non-vegetarian meals even to his servants. After becoming Buddha, he accepted any food offered with respect as alms, including meat,Fact|date=June 2007 but there is no reference of him eating meat during his seven years as an ascetic.

On one occasion, according to the scriptures, a general sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. The Buddha declared that

... meat should not be eaten under three circumstances: when it is seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); these, Jivaka, are the three circumstances in which meat should not be eaten, Jivaka! I declare there are three circumstances in which meat can be eaten: when it is not seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); Jivaka, I say these are the three circumstances in which meat can be eaten.
Jivaka Sutta, MN 55 [http://web.ukonline.co.uk/theravada/jivaka2.htm]
In this particular sutta, Buddha instructs to a monk or nun to accept, without any discrimination, whatever food is offered in receiving alms offered with good will, including meat.Whereas the Buddha declares the meat trade to be wrong livelihood in the Vanijja Sutta, AN 5:177 [http://www.accesstoinsight.org/canon/sutta/anguttara/an05-177.html] .
Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison. These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in.

But this is not, strictly speaking, a dietary rule. The Buddha, on one particular occasion, specifically refused suggestions by Devadatta to institute vegetarianism in Sangha.Fact|date=September 2007

According to Kassapa Buddha (a previous Buddha before Shakyamuni Buddha)

:" [t] aking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat." (Amagandha Sutta).

There were monastic guidelines prohibiting consumption of 10 types of meat. Those are humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas because these animals can be provoked by the smell of the flesh of their own kind or the eating of such flesh would generate a bad reputation for the Sangha.

In the Nirvana Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist scripture purporting to give the Buddha's final teachings, he insists that his followers should not eat any kind of meat or fish, even those not included in the 10 types, and that even vegetarian food that has been touched by meat should be washed before being eaten. Also, it is not permissible for the monk or nun just to pick out the non-meat portions of a diet and leave the rest: the whole meal must be rejected. [ [http://www.nirvanasutra.org.uk/mpnsvegetarianism.htm Nirvana Sutra :: Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" ] ]

Also many Buddhist teachers refrain from eating meat (and fish and egg). Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol (1781-1851), was a Tibetan yogi who espoused the ideals of vegetarianism.

Eating meat versus killing

Life is destroyed when farmers plough ground or when food is cooked and insects are caught in fire. Consequently, some Jain sources advocate avoidance of activities which are seen to have a more direct connection to killing, including all farming and eating of food (meat and root vegetables) which result in indirect destruction of animal and plant life. Some Jain monks are known to practice self termination by starving themselves.

In Buddhism, what is most important is to recognise that being alive, by its very nature, is the cause of direct or indirect suffering and death to other beings (samsara). One should avoid gluttony and greedy consumption, while maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle which is conducive to attaining enlightenment. In the Pali Canon, which all Buddhist sects considered to be generally authentic, the Buddha, when asked, refused to institute vegetarianism in the monastic code.fact|date=September 2008

Mahayana Buddhism argues that if one pursues the path of the Bodhisattva for enlightenment, one should avoid meat eating to cultivate compassion for all living beings. Similarly, in Theravada Buddhism, avoiding meat eating for the purpose of cultivation of metta (loving kindness) is also seen to be in accord with Buddhist Dharma. In most Buddhist branches, one may adopt vegetarianism if one so wishes but it is not considered skillful practice to verbally attack another person for eating meat.

In Chinese Mahayana, vegetarianism is seen as a prerequisite for pursuing the path of the Bodhisattva. The argument for vegetarianism is made more forcefully, often to the extent of accusing those who eat meat of lacking compassion. Chinese Mahayanists do not accept the Pali suttas as definitive when they conflict with the Mahayana sutras, and consequently some do not accept that Gautama Buddha ever ate meat or permitted eating it, in accordance with the Lankavatara Sutra.


In the Pali Canon, Buddha explicitly declared meat-eating to be karma neutral and once explicitly refused to institute vegetarianism in the monks' Vinaya.fact|date=September 2008

Theravada commentaries explain the Buddha was making a distinction between direct destruction of life and eating of already dead meat. Moreover, they point out that the cultivation of vegetables also involves proxy killing. In fact, any act of consumption would cause some degree of proxy killing.Fact|date=September 2007

Hence, the Buddha advised his followers to avoid gluttony or any other act of craving which lead to overconsumption. However, Theravadins argue that it is acceptable to practice vegetarianism based on brahmavihara.


Certain Mahayana sutras do present the Buddha as very vigorously and unreservedly denouncing the eating of meat, mainly on the grounds that such an act is linked to the spreading of fear amongst sentient beings (who can allegedly sense the odour of death that lingers about the meat-eater and who consequently fear for their own lives) and violates the bodhisattva's fundamental cultivation of compassion. Moreover, according to the Buddha in the Angulimaliya Sutra, since all beings share the same "Dhatu" (spiritual Principle or Essence) and are intimately related to one another, killing and eating other sentient creatures is tantamount to a form of self-killing and cannibalism. The sutras which inveigh against meat-eating include the "Nirvana Sutra," the "Shurangama Sutra," the " Brahmajala Sutra," the "Angulimaliya Sutra," the "Mahamegha Sutra," and the "Lankavatara Sutra," as well as the Buddha's comments on the negative karmic effects of meat consumption in the "Karma Sutra". In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which presents itself as the final elucidatory and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha on the very eve of his death, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals found already dead) is prohibited by him. He specifically rejects the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it: ". . . it should be rejected . . . I say that even meat, fish, game, dried hooves and scraps of meat left over by others constitutes an infraction . . . I teach the harm arising from meat-eating." The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and falsely claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas he says he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha speaking out very forcefully against meat consumption and unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. In several other Mahayana scriptures, too (e.g., the Mahayana jatakas), the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.

Some suggest that the rise of monasteries in Mahayana tradition to be a contributing factor in the emphasis on vegetarianism. In the monastery, food was prepared specifically for monks. In this context, large quantities of meat would have been specifically prepared (killed) for monks. Henceforth, when monks from the Indian geographical sphere of influence migrated to China from the year 65 CE on, they met followers who provided them with money instead of food. From those days onwards Chinese monastics, and others who came to inhabit northern countries, cultivated their own vegetable plots and bought food in the market. This remains the dominant practice in China, Vietnam and part of Korean Mahayanan temples.


In Tibetan Buddhism, a strong emphasis was placed on number of esoteric sutras which were transmitted from Northern India. In these sutras, it is clearly stated that the practice of Vajrayana would make vegetarianism unnecessary.Fact|date=September 2007 A number of tantric texts frequently recommend alcohol and meatFact|date=September 2007--though not all take such passages literally.Fact|date=September 2007 Many traditions of the Ganachakra which is a type of Panchamakara puja prescribe the offering and ingestion of meat and alcohol.

The Tibetan position is that it is not necessary to be vegetarian if one practices Vajrayana, but that it is necessary to be vegetarian if one practices the Mahayana path. The Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can. When asked in recent years what he thinks of vegetarianism, the 14th Dalai Lama has said: "It is wonderful. We must absolutely promote vegetarianism." ["Buddha Heart, Buddha Mind," 2000]

On 3 January 2007, 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, also strongly urged vegetarianism upon his students, saying that generally, in his view, it was very important in the Mahayana not to eat meat and that even in Vajrayana students should not eat meat:

There are many great masters and very great realized beings in India and there have been many great realized beings in Tibet also, but they are not saying, "I'm realized, therefore I can do anything; I can eat meat and drink alcohol." It's nothing like that. It should not be like that.According to the Kagyupa school, we have to see what the great masters of the past, the past lamas of Kagyupas, did and said about eating meat. The Drikung Shakpa [sp?] Rinpoche, master of Drikungpa, said like this, "My students, whomever are eating or using meat and calling it tsokhoror tsok, then these people are completely deserting me and going against the dharma." I can't explain each of these things, but he said that anybody that is using meat and saying it is something good, this is completely against the dharma and against me and they completely have nothing todo with dharma. He said it very, very strongly. [http://www.shabkar.org/download/pdf/Talk_on_Vegetarianism.pdf]

Japan initially received Chinese Buddhism through Korea in 6th century. And in 9th century, Emperor Saga made a decree prohibiting meat consumption except fish and birds. This remained the dietary habit of Japanese until the introduction of European dietary customs in 19th century. Again around the 9th century, two Japanese monks (Kūkai and Saichō) introduced Vajrayana Buddhism into Japan and this soon became the dominant Buddhism among the nobility. In particular, Saichō, who founded the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism, reduced the number of viyana code to 66. (Enkai 円戒) During the 12th century, a number of monks from Tendai sects founded new sects (Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren) of Buddhism, and de-emphasised vegetarianism - although Ch'an and Zen do tend generally to look favourably upon vegetarianism.

Engaged Buddhism

All Buddhists must practice ahimsa (non-harm / an integral component of the Noble Eight-Fold Path). Buddhists do as little harm to other creatures as possible. Concerning dietary ethics and ahimsa, the specific foods eaten by a Buddhist will vary according to his/her cultural context. If one is a mendicant (a monk, nun, recluse, beggar or scrap-gatherer) then one may eat whatever one non-violently acquires in order to sustain one's life and practice. Some Buddhists feel that for those of us who are consumers and purchase our own food, it is unacceptable to buy meat and other products which promote animal exploitation when other options are available. In their view, many animal products are obtained in an exploitative fashion and non-animal options are readily available. Therefore, according to these believers, consumers who are following the Buddha's Dhamma should practice veganism.

Buddhist views today

In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of South East Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are allowed by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, including meat unless they suspect the meat was slaughtered specifically for them; while in China, Korea and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat. In Taiwan, Buddhist monks, nuns, and most lay followers eat no animal products or the fetid vegetables - traditionally garlic, "Allium chinense", asafoetida, shallot, and "Allium victorialis" (victory onion or mountain leek), although in modern times this rule is often interpreted to include other vegetables of the onion genus, as well as coriander - this is called Su vegetarianism. In Japan, some clergy practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetables have been historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvāstivāda, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can. Chatral Rinpoche in particular, has stated that anyone who wishes to be his student must be vegetarian.

Many followers of Mahayana Buddhism (including monks) also eat meat despite the emphatic denunciation of the practice found in some major Mahayana sutras. Part of the reason is that there are many hundreds of Mahayana sutras and the position on vegetarianism depends on one's position on the authority of any particular sutra. The Japanese Pure Land puts a heavy emphasis on the Pure Land sutras and aims to achieve enlightenment by reincarnating into the Pure Land where one's enlightenment is assured. Therefore, vegetarianism holds very little relevance for them, either. The Vajrayana of Tibet and the Japanese Shingon sect consider that tantric practice makes vegetarianism unnecessary. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monastics. Overall, it can be said that the debate over whether Buddhists should ideally be vegetarian or not continues.

See also

* Buddhist cuisine
* Buddhist ethics
* Vegetarianism and religion


Further reading

*Vegetarianism : Living a Buddhist life series (2004) by: Bodhipaksa
*Releasing life (chapter 4: 'The Debate'): published by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan.
*Phelps, Norm. (2004). "The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights." Lantern Books.
*Page, Tony (1998), "Buddhism and Animals" (Nirvana Publications, London)
*Rangdrol, Shabkar Natshok. (Translated by Padmakara Translation Group.) "Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat." Shambhala Publications, 2004.

External links

* [http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/BuddhismAnimalsVegetarian/BuddhistVegetarian.htm/ Buddhist Resources on Vegetarianism and Animal Welfare]
* [http://www.shabkar.org/ Shabkar.org: Resources on Buddhism & Vegetarianism] - [http://www.buddhistfood.org/vegetarianism/index.htm?gclid=CKCv7tDCuJECFRDMiQoddCmRvA Direct Link to High-Quality Downloadable Resources]
* [http://www.nirvanasutra.org.uk The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (a main Buddhist advocate of vegetarianism)]
* [http://www.cttbusa.org/vegetarianism/cttbveg4.asp A Buddhist Perspective on Animal Rights]

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