Vegetarianism in Buddhism

By Brunhild Hekate

Buddhism has three main schools of thought – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana – and a superficial examination of these three schools (or vehicles) reveals what appears to be conflicting views on the practice of vegetarianism. However, before one jumps to any conclusion, remember that Lord Buddha, the omniscient and most skillful Teacher, taught in accordance to the capacity and mental dispositions of different individuals, thus creating the illusion of different and conflicting views – that is, if one has not conducted full investigations and research into the Buddhist view on vegetarianism.

The Buddha and his followers did consume meat that was offered to them by their hosts or alms-givers if they had no reason to suspect that the animal had been slaughtered specifically for their consumption. In fact, they accepted and ate anything that was offered, as they practiced non-attachment to food.

The Buddha did not institute vegetarianism in the Sangha for He knew that many who had a craving for meat would not be able to embrace Buddhism. However, once they entered the path, their minds could be transformed to accept becoming vegetarians. Certainly, many Shravakas who had taken Pratimoksha vows became Bodhisattvas, along the way developing compassion and generating Bodhicitta. They then abstained from meat eating. Hence it is not right to categorize Shravakas as non-vegetarians.

In the Mahayana context, meat-eating is strictly prohibited. The Lankavatara Sutra, written in the fourth or fifth century AD, strongly advocates this. In several other Mahayana scriptures, e.g. the Mahayana Jatakas, the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.

The development of Bodhicitta is the very essence of Mahayana practice. Upon becoming Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Buddha and the very first precept is to abstain from killing. Aspiring Bodhisattvas train to develop the determination not to eat meat from the very conviction that the flesh of these animals were once our mothers who had loved us unconditionally, being as kind as our own mothers have been in this present life.

The Buddha himself has emphasized this point time and again. Animals, insects, and even shellfish are sentient beings and every single one of them, at one point of time, have been our mothers; all of them cherish life and have feelings; thus they deserve to be respected just as human beings do. Would we eat the flesh of our own mothers?

The consumption of meat, regarded as an ordinary food and eaten un-reflectively on a regular basis, implies an unawareness and an indifference to the suffering of beings that are incompatible with the mind training for an aspiring Bodhisattva.

Developing heartfelt compassion and a genuine sensitivity to the suffering of other beings is our aim and in such realization, the desire to exploit and feed on them will automatically melt away. Training in the way of the Bodhisattvas, one must expect to be transformed; and given the depth and extent of that transformation, adapting to a plant-based diet is just a minor adjustment for good morality to arise.

The animal realm, one of the six realms of existence into which we are all reborn

Moreover, eating meat encourages an industry that causes extreme cruelty towards and suffering of millions of animals and a truly compassionate person would wish to end all this suffering. In refusing to eat meat, one can do just that. The Kalachakra tantra and its supreme commentary explains that:

If there is no meat eater, there will be no animal slayer.

In Tibet, where the high altitude and climate does not permit cultivation of crops, Tibetan Buddhists who practise the Vajrayana path commonly partake of meat for sustenance. However, this does not necessarily mean that meat-eating is encouraged in Vajrayana.

Lama Tsongkapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, has repeatedly mentioned in his collected writings and provided logical reasoning and quotations from the scriptures that, if one understands the line of demarcation between what is permitted and what is proscribed, one will understand that the Sutras and Tantras all speak with a single voice. Hence what is outlined in scriptures like the famous Lankavatara Sutra also applies to Tantric practitioners in the Vajrayana tradition. However, Lama Tsongkapa made an exception to what is proscribed for those who are feeble, elderly and when there is scarcity of food, so they could survive and in turn benefit others.

Dorje Shugden, the protector of Lama Tsongkapa’s teachings would certainly be very pleased if Dorje Shugden practitioners abide by the teachings of non-violence and non-killing such as abstaining from meat, becoming vegetarian and living in harmony with Mother Earth.

World Peace Protector Dorje Shugden’s function is to assist and create conducive situations for aspiring Bodhisattvas to be trained in pure ethics and develop the supreme mind of enlightenment, so that Lord Tsongkapa’s doctrine will flourish and be upheld. By practicing such virtuous actions such as the precept of non-killing, tremendous merit will be accumulated, thus enabling Dorje Shugden to keep you in his fold, under his care and protection, life after life until enlightenment.

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  1. Why should one eat vegetable food? Out of compassion and because of equality. During the lifetime of Lord Buddha, the Venerable Ananda once asked, “Revered Bhante, why did you allow us formerly to partake of three kinds of “pure flesh”? This is when a monk has not seen the creature being killed or heard its cries while it was being killed and has nothing to suspect regarding specially arranged slaughter on his account. But now you do not like for your disciples to eat meat or fish?” Lord Buddha replied, “O Ananda, in the beginning your standard of knowledge was of a low level. You had no capacity to receive the high Doctrine. So, when I preached the primary tenets, I allowed all of you to partake of three kinds of “pure flesh.” But now your knowledge is mature enough to understand the highest Doctrine. Therefore, I do not like for you to eat meat and fish. To do so means to kill living beings; if we do not do so directly, we do so indirectly. Thus we lose the “seed of compassion and equality,” and it is difficult to attain Arhatship in such a state (Maha Simhanada Sutra).

    Buddhism is a religion of kindness, humanity, and equality; Lord Buddha said, “All beings can become Buddhas, for all have the Buddha-nature and all will finally become enlightened.” This is the Doctrine of developed Mahayana as opposed to the limited salvation of Hinayana and of undeveloped Mahayana. Thus, Buddhists do not look at men and animals differently. The same Buddha-nature, as a matter of fact, is present in different forms of existence.

  2. Thanks Tenzin K, I have learn much from your comments.

    From an environmental point of view it is not beneficial to have so many livestock animals fighting with other animals and humans for land, water and etc etc.

  3. Animal produce a lot of waste, and ruminant animals like cows produce methane and methane is a worst green house gas than CO2. Saving animals is saving our planet.

  4. I come to know that human is not required to consume meat in order to survive. We have a lot of supplement food rather meat to keep us healthy. We consume meat is because habitual and wrong view that is a need in living. I think for reason of health or compassion, we also should not consume meat. Let us be a compassion and humanity being, we should become vegetarian.

  5. A lot of the suffering, physical and emotional, that we experience in this modern period stem from the food we eat. Meat is no longer like in the days of Lord Buddha where animals breed, grow and are slaughtered naturally.

    Today, the meat production industry is a mad house where animals are treated in the most inhuman manner from the moment they are born to the time they are killed. To prevent deformation of the meat from pecking in the case of poultry and nibbling in the case of pigs, the young animals are de-beaked or have some of their teeth removed.

    To enhance growth, various unnatural substances are used. These substances do not only mutate the animals’ cell and tissue, it pollutes the environment when they enter the water system and the grounds.

    One may think, what has the wellbeing of the animals have anything to do with me. The suffering will be ultimately transferred to those who consume the meat of these physically and mentally sick animals. Why is cancer, heart disease, cholesterol, blood pressure etc getting more rampant as societies get to “eat well” with meals that boast of generous serving of fatty meat and decadent dishes like foei gras (stuffed goose liver).

    It makes logical, medical sense that what you put into your body will manifest itself in your body. At the same time, from a Buddhist view, this is karma at play for this lifetime. Causing bodily suffering for others will affect in your own bodily pains.

    Vegetarianism is kind, responsible and sustainable eating which we should also consider adopting. Start with tiny steps like scheduling 1 green day a week to be a vegetarian, then slowly, increase the number of days.

    The benefit of a green and kind diet is vast. From health to environmental to spiritual.

  6. To me, eating meat is a choice and that every human being can make that conscious choice if they want to. We do not have to look at the monks whether they eat meat or not cos it is their choice. It is written very clearly that meat consumption is not necessary but if one wants to gain enlightenment, then giving meat would be one step closer to that.

    In cultures that do not consume meat, the people grow up with only vegetation diet. They do not have any association with meat eating and has no attachment to it. Of course there are cultures where eating meat is glorified and that has made them attach to meat more than others. Giving up may be harder but not impossible.

    The bottom line is that whether we are meat eaters or not, we should eventually give up meat as we further in our practice. As we learn more, we understand more of the suffering incurred by animals and that as beings of the same nature, we should not hurt one another. Also, we would not want to eat our mothers from our previous lives.

    So, for health, for compassion, for kindness and for the benefit of all living beings, we should not eat meat.

  7. Vegetarianism is for everyone and I think it is a healthy choice as well. A lot of nutrients and be found in most vegetables and we don’t need to source for it in any meat. If there is no demand of meat or seafood then the killing will stop as well.
    Animals do have feelings which we tend to ignore. Hence if the demand stop, the killing stop.
    Buddhism teaches us to be compassionate and by not killing is also being kind and compassionate. All sentient beings have been our mothers before and they do not like even the slightest of suffering too.

  8. I think being a vegetarian is a very wise choice because one will collect merits and also vegetarian diet is good for our health, what more if we are DS practitioner even more so we need to be vegetarian because at this current era we have a lot of choice when it come to food is not difficult to obtain all the nutrients we need, by not killing we will reduce a lot of suffering on animals.

  9. Being vegetarian is a great thing. First benefit is that it teaches us to forgo the attachment that we have towards meat. Secondly, it benefits our health as well as being vegetarian is healthier. Thirdly, it allows us to collect the merits from not eating meat, hence not having to kill for the meat.

    Being vegetarian is a form of compassion as well as it helps us to better relate to animals. When we say that it is alright to be eating some animals, yet not alright to be eating other animals, it does not make any sense at all. How can we differentiate what is alright to be eaten, and what is not right to be eaten? By the end of the day, both are still animals, and meat that we would be putting into our mouths.

  10. Once the craving and consumption of meat is stopped, we will feel a sense of “lightness”. Our mood swings will reduce and we gradually attain a more calm and peaceful state of the mind. Especially if we practice the Dharma diligently and become a vegetarian.The results are very comforting and propels us to be able to progress more in our Dharma practice !

  11. To become vegetarian is very easy nowadays. There are vegetarian restaurants, and also normal restaurants which is supplying vegetarian food most of time. As a vegetarian, because we don’t eat meat, some animals might have been “safe” cos lesser demand.

    Some people observe the 1st and 15th of Lunar calendar month, they only take vegetarian meals on both of this day.
    The sangha and people in Tibet back then, they are eating meat to survive. the weather was too cold, its not possible to have vegetable grow in Tibet. However there are a lot of renowned attained practitioners came from Tibet. Definately these sangha was having a very good motivation, eating meat is just merely for survivors.

  12. “the animal had been slaughtered specifically for their consumption. In fact, they accepted and ate anything that was offered, as they practiced non-attachment to food.”

    This was one of the first thing I learnt about vegetarianism from the Theravadians. We were also taught that we should try not offer meat to the Sangha as that shows mindfulness and compassion on our side. There is also the part about not killing or taking of a live for our palate.

    Nowadays, people are more conscious and there are a lot of vegetarian restaurants around and there are even vegan restaurants. Besides that, even the regular restaurants are very accommodating and will happily serve vegetarian dishes on request. So, making that choice of going vegetarian is quite easy nowadays.

    Besides, looking at how some of these animals are slaughtered will really turn your stomach and make you think twice about consuming meat.

    This article has given many reasons why one should practice vegetarianism both from a spiritual point of view and also from a secular point of view.

    At the end of the day, if one were to practice kindness and awareness, the choice to go meatless will be relatively easy.

  13. Most of the people believe that meat is healthier and make us strong. But in reality, it brings many sicknesses such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart and liver disease, cancer and etc.

    However, in Buddhism, we believe in causes and effects. When we buy and eat meat, this will cause the animals killing and suffering everyday. Buddha teachings taught us loving-kindness, compassion, tolerance, acceptance and many other qualities. As such, by stop eating meat, many animals’ lives will be saved. We should think deeper and practice compassion towards the animals.

  14. It seems like in the past vegetarianism is always associated with Buddhism or religions. People have the perception that if you are a vegetarian, it is because of the religious belief. But recently, this has changed.

    We see more and more people have taken on a vegetarian diet for health reason and also they are aware of how animals are sufferings. It is scientifically proven that eating meat will increase the risk of getting heart disease and cancer. Apart from that, people are also acknowledging that animals are like human beings, they have emotions and feelings too. Therefore, more people nowadays choose to take on a vegetarian diet.

    It may be true that Buddha did not say vegetarianism is mandatory in the Buddhist faith. But if we want to develop compassion, how can we continue to eat meat knowing that a life has suffered so much before ending up on our table? We can always start with one vegetarian meal a day until we can give up eating meat. It will be good for our spiritual practice and also our general wellbeings.

  15. All Buddhists are vegetarians, right? Well, no. Some Buddhists are vegetarians, but some are not. Attitudes about vegetarianism vary from sect to sect as well as from individual to individual. If you are wondering whether you must commit to being a vegetarian to become a Buddhist, the answer is, maybe, but possibly not.

    It is unlikely the historical Buddha was a vegetarian. In the earliest recording of his teachings, the Tripitaka, the Buddha did not categorically forbid his disciples to eat meat. In fact, if meat were put into a monk’s alms bowl, the monk was supposed to eat it. Monks were to gratefully receive and consume all food they were given, including meat.

    There was an exception to the meat for alms rule, however. If monks knew or suspected that an animal had been slaughtered specifically to feed monks, they were to refuse to take the meat.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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