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Questions: Are Buddhists Vegetarians?

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A Reader recently wrote:

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The Buddha did not advocate vegetarianism and was not a vegetarian.

I’m a vegetarian myself but eating meat is not breaking the first precept.

The Buddhist scriptures say “Being rough, pitiless, back-biting, harming ones friends, ‚Ä®being heartless, arrogant and greedy – ‚Ä®this makes one impure, not the eating of meat. ‚Ä®Being of immoral conduct, refusing to repay debts, ‚Ä®cheating in business, causing divisions amongst people – ‚Ä®This makes one impure, not the eating meat.” ‚Ä®Sn. 246-7

Some of the people that were not pleased with Buddhism’s middle way ‚Ä®desired that it be more strict with it’s monks, demanding that the ‚Ä®Buddha make vegetarianism required for monks and followers, but the ‚Ä®Buddha refused. The fact that you are eating meat or vegetables both ‚Ä®mean that you are responsible for the suffering of life which ties in ‚Ä®with the First Noble Truth. Suffering is unavoidable.

Therefore you 
can eat meat as long as you do not kill the animal itself. This is 
what I have learned from my studies in Buddhism.

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My Response

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You are absolutely correct in that Buddha did not require vegetarianism. According to at least some of the legends, he died from eating spoiled pork, so that’s pretty much the final word on that! However, many groups do feel that harming animals breaks the first precept.

In modern days, meat animals are raised under terrible living conditions. No one who does any research on the subject can possibly say that animals raised for meat don’t suffer their entire lives. Now I have never killed a cow or a chicken in my life, but to say I am not responsible for many animal deaths is just avoiding the truth. Every cheeseburger that I eat causes suffering somewhere. The belief in reincarnation only adds to the problem.

I will be honest; I love steak, chicken, turkey and all that. I realize it causes suffering, but I don’t stop. Does this hurt my karma? I cannot see how it couldn’t. This is something I know I need to work on.

12 comments to Questions: Are Buddhists Vegetarians?

  • Uh, actually, that’s not the final word: it really depends on which scriptures you favor. I did a bit of reading about this: the curious karma of the Dalai Lama, part 2. Yes, I didn’t go past a couple of Wikipedia articles, but scriptures are cited if folks are skeptical. The argument that Buddha was a vegetarian is fairly strong; I think it’s more likely that his position was weakened by more worldly followers.

  • This has ALWAYS been a controversial subject, because as you point out, there are scriptural contradictions and logic itself would seem to disprove the scriptures.

    MOST of the accounts of his death mention the spoiled pork dish, so that’s the position I go with as “official.” As I posted above, I personally believe that strictly speaking, BUddhists SHOULD be vegetarian.

    Generally speaking, I think it’s important to understand the basic teachings, but to use your own judgement in your daily practice. Unlike Christianity, the Buddhist scriptures are not the ultimate truth in Buddhism. They are simply guides to help you find your own own. The scriptures are important, but only YOU can attain enlightenment.

  • This is more on the subject from “Michael,” this one came through email, so I am posting it for him.
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    All –

    Forgive me if I not supposed to respond in this forum. I am new.

    99% of the below is quite interesting. However, I see, “Therefore you can
    eat meat as long as you do not kill the animal itself.” I’m not arguing for
    a vegetarian path (I couldn’t do it), but this conclusion seems
    unreasonable. Eating it (supposing it isn’t carrion) is no lack of
    responsibility for its death. The very demand that you create as a consumer
    is a cause that ends in an effect. this is akin to saying that as long as I
    don’t own a slave in my house I can live in a house built by slaves. So
    long as we are meat eaters, we have to accept that externalities (I guess
    the term is karma here) of that choice.

    Eating meat is part of our natural existence on this planet as it has
    evolved. Our most ancient forms of what we are killed animals for many
    reasons and many uses. A tiger kills a deer. This is just its way. This
    is what it is. I would never call myself more than a tiger, but I can opt
    to think about my choice to kill (even indirectly) where it cannot. Still,
    I see us as a predator in our basic nature, and I see it such as a bear eats
    berries and salmon. Just because I think deeply does not make me less of an
    animal myself or have less of a place in the ecosystem.

    We think and we can choose. I don’t know if a cow is more sacred than an
    apple. I don’t know why I love my dog and can eat a plate of chicken. This
    may not be idealistically Buddhist, but I don’t know that we gain anything
    by failing to see the predatory function of nature in an honest way. The
    treatment of animals raised in huge farms for slaughter is egregious. This
    is a reason to give up meat eating, not a reason to rely on an industry that
    lacks compassion for other sentient beings to absolve one of his or her
    guilt. Honestly, if I order a man to murder another man around the corner
    for $100, is his blood not on my hands equally? Let’s not delude ourselves.

    Thanks for the page, Brian. I truly enjoy all that you do for us.

  • I must confess until recently I assumed Buddha did not consume meat. Michael Wood’s documentary mentioned the ‘pork’ story.

    Strange perspective on the tradition. Brahmins usually tend to be vegertarian. In the part of the Sub-continent the Buddha lived Jain influences possibly prevailed strongly. Perhaps a little creativity has crept into his biography? That the Dala Lama eats meat, I’m not suprised.

    Clearly, we do not need meat. And the slant on not killing the animal itself sounds hypocritical. Hitler did not eat meat; and he observed few meat eaters would do the killing themselves, prefering to call others ‘butchers’.

    How, then, would Buddhist’s view the Muslim holiday eid al adhar? On that day, thousands of sheep are slaughtered and their flesh distributed to the needy and poor?

  • April

    Buddhism encourages thinking for yourself, and not blindly following what anyone (even the Buddha) thought was best, so I fail to see why it matters if the Buddha was vegetarian or not. That said, if you truly believe in non-harm, and avoiding causing suffering to the greatest degree possible, I can’t see how you wouldn’t be a vegetarian (if not vegan, giving the troubles with modern factory farming).

    As for the argument that plants suffer too, I would agree that harming plants unnecessarily is not good, but I object vehemently to any argument that the “suffering” of a non-sentient life can compare to the suffering of a sentient life; when the latter feels pain, fear, and a very obvious desire to live. Secondly, I’m troubled with a strange assumption that people seem to have that you must either kill plants or animals. In reality, animals raised for meat are obviously living their entire lives eating other plants. Eating vegetarian foods will actually result in fewer plants dying (in addition to fewer animals dying, of course), because animals won’t be unnaturally brought to breed excessively so that people can appease their taste buds.

    At any rate, vegan and vegetarian foods are extremely tasty (not to mention, generally healthier), and as time passes the foods available to vegans are becoming increasingly more similar to non-vegan/non-vegetarian foods in terms of taste.

  • April

    I want to comment on the post that suggests that because we are still animals, that we shouldn’t have to make moral choices about meat eating-

    I am perplexed whenever I hear this argument, because it’s so contradictory in some very fundamental ways. The first is that there’s an assumption that other animals do it, so it must be ok. Of course, though, in reality, only SOME other animals do it. Many animals don’t eat other animals at all, so it’s not the case that you’re simply siding with all other animals, you are only siding with those other animals who do eat animals. Secondly, some other animals do a plethora of other things that humans would never do, and which humans would find obnoxious. We don’t say “I will eat that animal because some other animals eat other animals, and I will pee on myself to attract a mate, because some moose do it.” No- we have the ability to think, and to derive from logic and thought what would be the best way to live. Let’s not pretend now that humans can just do as other animals do and let that be. A bird doesn’t think it’s superior because it can fly, and a lion can’t- the bird is just realizing its potential. Similarly, a human who uses their ability to think and employ logic in a unique capacity is not necessarily exerting it’s superiority over other animals; that person is also just realizing their potential. Indeed, I would argue that being vegetarian is recognizing that you are NOT superior to other animals. Might does not make right, and anyone who has ever seen video footage from inside a modern factory farm, cannot with a pure and honest heart say that there is anything “natural” and inherent in supporting such actions. I must also add that it is quite objectionable that one would argue that, because humans have been doing it for so long, that it must not be stopped. In almost every single other way, most humans accept and embrace change and “progress in life. We use modern technology, we develop laws in accordance with emerging global norms and evolving senses of morality, etc. Why, then, should such a crucial moral issue be forced into an ideological realm of immutability and unchanging centrality? It makes no sense. And, at leastfrom a health view point, almost all real medical practitioners would agree that a well-planned vegetarian/vegan diet will allow one to live at least as long as an animal-eating person (and, in fact, I believe it is said that vegetarians live an average of 7 years longer than animal-eaters), so it certainly can’t be argued in terms of health. Plus, honestly, most people have been selfish since the beginning of time. Does this not mean that selfishness is not positive, and that people shouldn’t try to be the best, most aware person they can be?

  • Mark

    If my neighbour was a farmer and his organically raised pig died of natural causes – as a Buddhist, could I eat it if it were offerd to me? It wold have led a happy life and died by natural means, its only suffering being ill health or old age.

  • Mark;

    Most Buddhists would say yes. The original prohibitions against meat stated that you could not eat meat if it was prepared (I take that to mean killed) specifically for you. That would indirectly be causing the death of the animal. In the case you bring up, there would be no harm in it. There’s nothing wrong with meat itself per se, just the killing that goes along with it.

    Meat in the grocery store would have been killed for you. The killing would have been indirect of course, but as the final customer, it’d be your “fault” the grocery store pig died.

  • Sarah

    Hi!
    So, the debate goes on n on n on!!
    Few basic qustions for you all:
    1. Where is it written that Buddha dies of eating pork? Please dig out the original sanskrit texts from india which say that he consumd ‘pig food’ (is dog food made of dogs? i don’t think so) which in those times was mushrooms. Surprised? Don’t be! Just get the facts right!
    2. Compassion and Killing NEVER go hand in hand. If you have compassion for even an ant, you can not kill it.
    3. We need to mature ourselves to the degree of Buddha to develop a compassionate heart, profound wisdom, firm courage and convinction, and only then can we think of ‘freeing other beings from suffering’. But the point is, by developing wisdom and compassion, you would have already become a vegeterian and would never kill for the taste of the tongue.
    4. If we believe in all forms of life to be spiritual, and understand that we may have been an animal in our past existences as well, then would we have liked to be butchered then? Would you like your kid to be hammered to death or his/her throat to be slashed to fulfill your greed of taste? Then how can you allow the same to happen to a calf or a lamb?
    Think about it!

  • Nash

    Answer to the commonly asked question which non-vegetarians often ask to vegetarians “HEY, YOU KILL PLANTS FOR FOOD, WE KILL ANIMALS FOR FOOD, WHATS THE DIFFERENCE? BOTH ARE LIVING THINGS ”

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    Lord Buddha explains the difference:
    Killing means the intentional destruction of any living being. The wanton destruction of this life force, without allowing it to run its due course, is Panatipata(killing). Pana means which breathes. Hence all animal beings, including animals, are regarded as Pana. But not plants as they possess no mind.
    Commentary: In plants , there is no transmission of stimuli by nerves. Nerves are unknown to them as nerve-centres.
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    So thats the difference between plants and animals. Indeed killing both of them is a bad deed, but killing animals is a deed worse then killing plants.

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    Buddha on another occasion says:
    There is no rule that one is to be preyed upon by another. However, the strong do merilessly kill the weak and feast on their flesh. This is animal instinct. Such actions by animals are excusable because they know not what they do, but when those who are gifted with reason and understanding (i.e human beings), perpetrate such crimes, there is no excuse. Whether to satisfy ones palate or as passtime, it is not justifiable to kill or to cause another living being to be killed. If the killing of animals is wrong, how much more henious is it to kill human beings- individually or collectivley, emplying brutal or so-called civilized methods- for the sake of peace, religion, or any other seemingly good purpose?
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    Lord Buddha on several occasions has stressed on being vegetarian.

    The above excerpts are from:
    The Buddha and his teachings
    by Narada
    ISBN: 967-9920-44-5
    Publication of the Buddhist Missionary Society, Malaysia

  • vdopower

    I am a very inexperienced Buddhist. But I feel that one cannot be truly against suffering and also be ok with eating meat all the time. When you stop consuming animals for living you feel better.

  • Sharon

    I have been vegetarian for five years. It has changed everything. I believe it was the moment my life turned from random to purposeful spirituality. Look into a cow’s eyes. Connect with the animal. You will not want to eat it if you are connected. Connection is what keeps the craving for meat away…if you want to live as a vegetarian…connect…connect…connect

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