Should a Buddhist be vegetarian?




Translation: May veneration be presented to the exalted one who is a Buddha and who has achieved enlightenment by himself righteously.





A conversation worth having.



In the M.N. Sutta #55 the Venerable Gotama instructs his disciples not to eat the animal that the monk has either seen with the eye or heard with the ear or has suspected with the mind that the animal has been killed specifically for them. He could have reasoned that to accept food that was from an animal would be a bad moral example not worthy of somone following his teaching, whether being offered or in the case of the laity, otherwise depending on the circumstances . He is never known to have said such a thing, instead moderation in such judgement was the example.


Are Buddhists vegetarian? 
 Some are, some aren’t. From the Theravada perspective, the choice of whether or not to eat meat is purely a matter of personal preference. Many Buddhists (and, of course, non-Buddhists) do eventually lose their appetite for meat out of compassion for the welfare of other living creatures. But vegetarianism is not required in order to follow the Buddha’s path.
 We are all guilty of complicity, in one way or another and to varying degrees, in the harming and death of other creatures. Whether we are carnivore, vegan, or something in between, no matter how carefully we choose our food, somewhere back along the long chain of food production and preparation, killing took place. No matter how carefully we trod, with every step countless insects, mites, and other creatures inadvertently perish under our feet. This is just the nature of our world. It is only when we escape altogether from the round of birth and death, when we enter into the final liberation of nibbana — the Deathless — can we wash our hearts clean, once and for all, of killing and death. To steer us towards that lofty goal, the Buddha gave us very realistic advice: he didn’t ask us to become vegetarian; he asked us to observe the precepts. For many of us, this is challenge enough. This is where we begin.1.

For many though, this is simply not good enough, they insist on dictating just what a responsible Buddhist should eat or not. They may talk of “putting the facts out there and letting others decide” or something similar while actually they seem to simply enjoy the controversy of self righteous posturing. For me if I were to eat meat whether it was donated to my alms bowl or not I would have no problem with it, as long as the animal was not killed specifically for me, and I don’t see any reason why I should. What if I were to travel somewhere and they didn’t even know what an alms bowl was? Should I starve before I might perhaps explain and hope for some sort of kind donation?


Although the first of the five precepts, the basic code of ethical conduct for all practicing Buddhists, calls upon followers to refrain from intentional acts of killing, it does not address the consumption of flesh from animals that are already dead. Theravada monks, however, are clearly forbidden to eat meat from a few specific kinds of animals, but for reasons not directly related to the ethics of killing.2. Monks are free to pursue vegetarianism by leaving uneaten any meat that may have been placed in the alms bowl, but because they depend on the open-handed generosity of lay supporters3. (who may or may not themselves be vegetarian) it is considered unseemly for them to make special food requests. In those parts of the world (including wide areas of south Asia) where vegetarianism is uncommon and many dishes are prepared in a meat or fish broth, vegetarian monks would soon face a simple choice: eat meat or starve.4.Taking part in killing for food is definitely incompatible with the first precept, and should be avoided. This includes hunting, fishing, trapping, butchering, steaming live clams, eating live raw oysters, etc.


And what about asking someone else to catch and kill the animal for me? On this point the teachings are also unambiguous: we should never intentionally ask someone to kill on our behalf. We should not, for example, order a fresh steamed lobster from the restaurant menu. The Dhammapada expresses this sentiment succinctly:


All tremble at the rod, all hold their life dear. Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill. – Dhp 130


And what about purchasing meat of an animal that someone else killed? Is this consistent with the Buddhist principles of compassion and non-harming, a cornerstone of right resolve? This is where things get tricky, and where the suttas offer only spotty guidance. In the Buddha’s definition of right livelihood for a lay person, one of the five prohibited occupations is “business in meat” [AN 5.177]. Although he does not explicitly state whether this prohibition also extends to us, the butcher’s clients and customers, it does place us uncomfortably close to a field of unskillful action.

Well! Aren’t some of the Mahayana Buddhists vegetarian?

The Lankavatara Sutra does take a strong position against the eating of meat but…

The Lankavatara Sutra, is essentially a product of later Mahayana development. 5 There are several versions of this sutra, one fairly different in content from the other. Most scholars concluded that this sutra was likely compiled in 350-400 CE. In addition the chapter dealing with meat eating was indeed added much later in subsequent versions. This sutra was not the authentic words by the Buddha, but was compiled much later by unknown authors following Mahayana’s philosophy.6

I must wonder, if someone should have a cigarette would that be showing a good moral example given the fact that cigarettes kill thousands and cause untold misery every year? Is it the proper example, to support such an industry? Should you be responsible for someone else’s cancer because you bought that cigarette? Would not buying that cigarette have prevented someone else’s cancer?


How about a drink? Have you been “morally irresponsible” by having that cocktail lately?

For those willing to point this out, yes I understand that for some there are issues regarding the five precepts here…. I am simply drawing a none the less example or two of this angle of thinking.

Let’s take a look at the story of Devadatta shall we?


In the Vinaya Cullavagga Ch.7 the would be assassin of the Buddha that was his cousin Devadatta , encouraged the buddha to adhere to more strict practices for the sangha, one of them being to eat only vegetarian food for alms. Even though I’m sure he must have known that the laity would come to understand that him and his disciples were only accepting vegetarian food, he wisely refused. He knew that the issue of whether or not to be a vegetarian was not the key issue of suffering in samsara. If you have ever drunk a glass of beer, would that be a tarnished example for all of humanity, especially those who might have had a loved one killed by a drunk driver, or how about the many homes and lives in other ways ruined by the industry that produces this product? Are you supporting such misery? The Buddha knew that we are most responsible for that which we most directly affect. He knew that there was a more encompassing issue at hand…….


That would include the key issue of suffering….that being the first spoke on the wheel of dependent origination, ignorance.

Ignorance of our unlimited spiritual potential would be a good way to put it. Not ignorance of the vegetarian way, or of how baby seals are being killed, or of the needless suffering and death of the whales being needlessly killed for the whaling industry, nor ignorance of how alcohol causes so much suffering or of how cigarettes cause so much suffering and misery …….. do you think that I’m comparing apples and oranges as they say and calling them both fruit?


If someone were to find themselves reborn in some sort of hellish realm would it be more prudent to figure a way not to make it back to a place that was made for suffering or instead organize a grassroots boycott against the local coal miners union because they produce some of the method for the burning of the flames?


If we look at the root cause of ignorance and work on that, then fewer and fewer people will be reborn engaged in the process of samsara as an animal that will be slaughtered or someone willing to complain about it. Not ignorance of the best diet to eat as a vegetarian or not or ignorance of how baby seals are being needlessly murdered, or ignorance of the suffering of the whales at the hands of the whaling industry or ignorance of just how many people die and the tremendous suffering caused by drunk driving each and every year but … the ignorance of our true spiritual ability as human beings to transcend all of such suffering.


DN 1

Brahmajāla Sutta: The All-embracing Net of Views (excerpt)

translated from the Pali by

Bhikkhu Bodhi

 ll. The analysis of virtue

1. The Short Section on Virtue (Cūḷasīla)

7. “It is, bhikkhus, only to trifling and insignificant matters, to the minor details of mere moral virtue, that a worldling would refer when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata. And what are those trifling and insignificant matters, those minor details of mere moral virtue, to which he would refer? 

8. “‘Having abandoned the destruction of life, the recluse Gotama abstains from the destruction of life. He has laid aside the rod and the sword, and dwells conscientious, full of kindness, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.’ It is in this way, bhikkhus, that the worldling would speak when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata. (emphasis mine)

This of course is not to say that there is no virtue in such actions, quite to the contrary! The Venerable Gotama was drawing a comparison between a worldling perspective of what was important spiritually for praise and what would otherwise be considered more of an important matter for those who had attained something more than the mundane worldly perspective. Would there be those who would venture to say that the purpose of the Buddha dhamma is to have the spiritual experience and maturity of a “worlding”?

 So what are we now dealing with?

 The eradication of spiritual ignorance. What worth would that be without it effecting our practical understanding and practice of our spiritual potential to cease the process of samsara? To cease the process that has the worldling type in it’s many different varieties of suffering associated and bound with it? This would include as alluded to earlier the suffering of being birthed as an animal soon to be readied for the slaughter.

 So the question is then, where are your priorities? Would you rather focus or even obsess with one of the many issues entailing suffering in a world ready made for suffering, or can you realize a spiritual potential and a worthy goal beyond that?

 After going through different types of this sort of worldling perspective he then brings about a different conversation…..

lll.Speculations about the past 

28. “There are, bhikkhus, other dhammas, deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful and sublime, beyond the sphere of reasoning, subtle, comprehensible only to the wise, which the Tathāgata, having realized for himself with direct knowledge, proponds to others; and it is concerning these that those who would rightly praise the Tathāgata in accordance with reality would speak”.

Why beyond the sphere of reasoning?

Because some things need a subjective experiential exposure before they can be understood, this is why the Buddha dhamma gives a method for discovering a subjective understanding of spiritual truth and not just a moral conjecturing by way of the practice of the eight fold noble path.

This is another indication of the Buddha dhamma celebrating the critical thinking ability of humanity, that is, that there are perimeters, but that nothing is beyond the scope of analysis.  


Including of course, whether or not a Buddhist should eat any meat.


Bhikkhu Aggacitto a.k.a. Brother Mark:)





 References / Notes:

1.Frequently Asked Questions About Buddhism edited by John T. Bullitt © 2007–2011
2.Theravada monks are forbidden to eat raw meat or fish, as well as the flesh of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, and panthers. See the description of “staple foods” in chapter 8 of The Buddhist Monastic Code. A monk who eats any of those kinds of meat commits an offense that he must confess to his fellow monks. Much of this may well be not only for reasons of health as with the first three, but because there was the protection of the monk in mind, some animals will attack humans if they smell their own flesh.
3.See “The Economy of Gifts” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
4.Monastics within some schools of Mahayana Buddhism do practice vegetarianism. See Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction (fifth edition) by R.H. Robinson, W.L. Johnson, & Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Belmont, California: Wadsworth,2005),p.213. .

5. H. Nakamura (Indian Buddhism, 1987 according the the popular Zen master D.T. Suzuki

6.The Lankavatara Sutra – A Mahayana Text, 1931




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: