Must Buddhist Be Vegetarian?

Publisher: Dian Dharma

“If a person does not harm any living being…
and does not kill or cause others to kill-
that person is a true spiritual practitioner.”
-Dhammapada (The Buddha)


“In order to satisfy one human stomach, so many lives are taken away.
We must promote vegetarianism. It is extremely important.”
-Live in a Better Way: Reflections on Truth, Love and Happines (pg 68) (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)

Must Buddhists be vegetarian?

Why the fuss then?
Though the Buddha never made it a compulsory rule that all His followers have to be vegetarians, He strongly encouraged us to be. In the Boddhisatva practice of minimising harm to all beings and benefiting them as much as possible, the practice of vegetarianism as far as possible plays an essential role. We can see this ini many of the Buddha’s recorded teachings.

“The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great Compassion.”
-Mahaparinirvana Sutra (The Buddha)


“…Ananda, I permit the bhiksus (monks) to eat only the five kinds of pure flesh* which are the product of my transcendental power of transformation and not of animal slaughter. You, Brahman, live in a country where vegetables do not grow because it too damp and hot and because of all the gravel and rock. I use my spiritual power of compassion to provide you with illusory meat to satisfy your appetite. How then, after my nirvana, can you eat the flesh of living beings and so pretend to be my disciple?…”

“…All monks who live purely and all Bodhisattvas always refrain even from walking on grass; how can they agreee to uproot it? How then can those who practise great Compassion feed on the flesh and blood of living beings?…”

“…How can a monk, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of sentient beings?…”

“…If a man can (control) his body and mind and thereby refrains from eating animal products, I say he will really be liberated. This teaching of mine is that of the Buddha whereas any others that of evil demons…”
-Surangama Sutra (The Buddha)


“The Bodhisattva, whose nature is Compassion, is not to eat any meat… For fear of causing terror to living beings… let the Bodhisattva who is disciplining himself to attain Compassion, refrain from eating flesh.”
-Lankavatara Sutra (The Buddha)


“If a bhikkhu sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it.”
-Mahavagga of Vinaya Pitaka (The Buddha)


“Let him not destroy, or cause to be destroyed, any life at all, nor sanction the acts of those who do so. Let him refrain from even hurting any creature, both those that are strong and those that tremble in the world.”
-Sutta-Nipata (The Buddha)


“I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.”
-King Asoka’s Edicts

All true practitioners of the Bodhisattva path eventually relinquish meat-eating. In His previous lives, the Buddha as a Bodhisattva would rather cut His own flesh to feed an eagle than let it eat a smaller bird. All advanced practising Bodhisattvas are thus necessarily vegetarians, since they cannot bear the pain of sentient beings.

While nothing we eat makes us impure, our choice of diet is an action with implications. If our choice of diet arises from greed, sustaining the greed obviously makes us impure.

If being vegetarian is so important on the Bodhisattva path, why was the Buddha not one?
The Buddha and the Sangha in His time were not total vegetarians as they consumed alms food offered by lay followers, whom they encountered “randomly” from place to place. Though the Buddha never requested specific food to be offered, He spoke againts the intentional acquiring of meat for Him and the Sangha. In this way, the Buddha neither directly nor indirectly cause the death of any being for His food. On the other hand, we have the freedom of the choice of our diet, since we do not eat alms food. Why not make the kinder and wiser decision?

Can’t I be a good Buddhist who is not vegetarian?
Of course we can. One who eats meat can culvative a pure heart just as one who is vegetarian might have an impure heart. But why not culvative a pure heart while making the extra effort to further the practice of Compassion by being vegetarian?

*But didn’t the Buddha say there is pure meat?
The Buddha advised monks that meat should only be accepted when certain conditions are met. Meat may be eaten by one who does (1) not see, (2) hear of, (3) or doubt about the animal having been killed purposely for him to eat, (4) but is certain that it either died naturally, (5) or that its flesh had been abandoned by birds of prey.

Isn’t meat from the markets and restaurants considered pure meat?
No, because demand creates supply.

Once, a  disciple of the Buddha asked a man why he kept buying meat. The man replied that he did so since the meat-seller kept selling meat. When the meat-seller was asked why he kept selling meat, he replied that he did so since the man kept buying from him. When the Buddha was consulted as to who was the unskillful (in Compassion and Wisdom) one, He replied that both were unskillful.

Supply and demand is an obvious vicious cycle. The whole universe of meat eating and animal slaughtering is an intricate web of interdependence, of related cause and effect. When we buy meat, we play a part in the circle of life and death of other beings.

What is real pure meat then?
Here are some forms of meat that can be considered pure meat.

  1. Meat Ordered or recieved by mistake
  2. Leftover or discarded meat
  3. Meat from animals that have died naturally or by accident for at least 16 hours (the number of hours is to ensure the consciousness has left the body).
  4. Meat from random alms rounds as practised in the Buddhist tradition.

Isn’t killing vegetables taking life too?
Yes. However, plant life is not sentient life – they are not beings with reason and emotion.

Doesn’t growing vegetables kill many insects too?
This is not true if we choose organic food, which are grown without the use of pesticides (which can be harmful to humans too). In comparison to eating non-organic vegetables, pesticides are used fifty times more when we eat meat – to kill pests to produce animal feed. It takes ten kilos of vegetable protein to produce only one kilo of animal protein!

Much of our daily products also involved animals – such as leather shoes, milk from cows, honey from bees, soap from animal fat, drugs with animal serum (that might be tested on animals)…
However, there are many new products today that are free from animal derivatives. Given more choice, we are at liberty to make wiser decisions on how to live life in a more harmless way. Consider becoming a vegan!

Despite all we can do, merely to live is to deprive other beings of their food, habitat and/or life to a certain extent. Therefore, Buddhists practising the Bodhisattva path should do all they can in their ability to avoid killing, and to protect life instead.

Can you further convince me to be a vegetarian?
Here are some good reasons to be a vegetarian.

  1. Personal well-being – No disease can come from a balanced vegetarian diet. Medical proof states that all kinds of diseases can spring from meat-eating, while having a vegetarian diet can not only prevent, but help cure many diseases. Our body constitution is also not designed for meat digestion. For example, our teeth and intestine structure are very virtually identical to that of herbivorous, not carnivorous animals. Eating animals which die in great fear and hatred, we devour along their toxins of fear and hatred, which affects both our spiritual and physical health.
  2. Well-being of animals – Animals live imprisoned and tortured lives before the final horror of being slaughtered. While alive, they suffer from overcrowding, castration and countless other cruelties.
  3. Well-being of the environment – Animal-rearing depletes the Earth’s resource of energy, land, crops and water. It also creates large amounts of harmful animal sewage and greenhouse gases.
  4. Well-being of fellow humans – More than two-thirds of the Earth’s cropland is user for cultivating animal feed for animals to be slaughtered as meat. No human starvation would exist if animal rearing for the rich meat-consumers was lessened, converting the crops as food for citizens of the Third World Countries.
  5. Peace on Earth – Wars, racial riots and other forms of related human unrest are collective karmic results of generated hatred when group-slaughtered animals, which die in great fear and hatred, are reborn as humans.
    “For hundreds of thousands of years
    the stew in the pot has brewed hatred and resentment
    that is difficult to stop.
    If you wish to know why there are disasters of armies and weapons in the world,
    listen to the piteous cries from the slaughterhouse at midnight.”
    -Ancient Chinese Verse translated by Gold Mountain Monastery Staff
  6. All beings have at one point or another been reborn as our kin. The practice of vegetarianism is thus the practice of filial piety. It is the practice of the Loving-kindness, Compassion and Equanimity to all beings, recognising that they have Buddha Nature (the potential to become Buddhas) like us.

What if vegetarian food is hard to find?
Another reason why the Buddha never made vegetarianism a compulsory rule is His understanding that the living and karmic conditions of different people are different. For example, it would be downright impossible for all Tibetan Buddhist to have vegetarian diets when Tibet can hardly grow vegetables. However, at least three major Tibetan monasteries have become totally vegetarian today with the aid of imported food.

What happens if you cannot find vegetarian food readily? Does it mean you have no choice but to eat meat? Think again carefully… the path of Compassion is not always easy to tread. It involves making many sacrifices. Being a committed vegetarian might mean having to go the extra mile to get vegetarian food.

Did you know the Buddha is a vegetarian at heart?
The Buddha remarked that the meat He consumed in His entire life was manifested by His great compassion and phychic powers. That is to say, not only does the meat in theory already exist as pure meat, it isn’t even real meat! In other words, the Buddha was a full vegetarian at heart!

It is worth mentioning that the Buddha did not die from eating meat (poisoned or putrid pork), as it is so often mistaken. His last meal consisted of “sukara-maddava” – which is correctly translated to be (1) a pig’s soft food, ie. food eaten by pigs, (2) “pig’s delight,” ie. a favourite food of pigs, (3) “pig-pounded,” ie. food trampled by pigs. It was actually a kind of mushroom called truffles.

Why do some well-known practitioners not vegetarian?
Some of these practitioners are advanced practising Bodhisattva, who eat meat out of skillful means and compassion to benefit more beings indirectly. In fact, they might even be enlightened beings who are able to manifest “fake” meat like the Buddha. If one wishes to follow the practices of these masters, one has to be sure of one’s motivation. If it is not compassion and wisdom, it is greed and ignorance at play – nothing other than selfish rationalisation.

It is also a mistake to think that by eating meat, one will generate a karmic Dharma connection with the deceased being, so as to help it in future. These beings would rather us to connect with them while alive – not when they are on your dinner plate!

On a related note, animal liberation (life-releasing) is easily practised when we are practise vegetarianism – which is simply liberating animals from our dinner table. If one thinks carefully, it is actually spiritually hypocritical to liberate animals from captivity when we eat them. This is especially so when animal liberation is at times done in an ignorant random manner, endangering environmental balance, the animals themselves and other animals.

Hmmm… I’m still unsure whether to be a vegetarian…
Well… the Buddha left it to you to choose!

Remember – Buddhism is a free religion. Thought there are always kinder and wiser choices you can make, you also free to choose otherwise.

“A vegetarian diet is not obligatory for Buddhists. Still, for those of us who follow the teachings of the Great Vehicle, it is important. But the teachings of the Buddha were open and flexible on this subject, and each practitioner has the choice to be vegetarian or not.”
-His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Reflect carefully – why are you putting off vegetarianism when it so obviously has all the plus points? Is it due to plain greed for the taste of meat? If you want to be sure you are not vegetarian  because of greed, the best solution is to be vegetarian and prove it to yourself. This is not my challenge for you – this is your personal spiritual challenge. We have to be totally honest with ourselves. Remember this – your decision to be vegetarian or not will affect thousands of sentient lives in your lifetime.

May all beings be free from fear, harm and danger.

May all beings be well and happy.

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Copyright (c)2003 by Shen Shian

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