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To Meat or Not to Meat?

To Meat or Not to Meat?

Question:

I was recently reading “The Accidental Buddhist” and read that the Dalai Lama eats meat. That bleew me away. Can you cover eating meat? Thanks for your great podcast.

Answer:

We’ve discussed this topic several times in the past, but it just keeps coming back. This question seems be especially confusing to newcomers to Buddhism. It’s good that it keeps coming up, because it’s one of the most common misconceptions about Buddhists. Many beginners and outsiders see Buddhists as super-pacifists who would rather suffer greatly than step on a bug; I think the media has a lot to do with this.

It’s really a complex situation, and there is plenty of debate on the topic, and has been for thousands of years.

Yes to Vegetarianism:

The first precept states that you cannot kill or take life. This is the primary argument FOR vegetarianism. That being said, everything you eat was alive at some point, even plants. Where do you draw the line between living things you can eat and those that you cannot? Most people, would say it depends on whether the animal was sentient or not. How do you define sentient? That’s a major can of philosophical worms, and whole libraries have been written on the subject, Buddhist and otherwise. Is a dog or cow self-aware? Do they have “souls” in the Buddhist sense? The ideas of samsara (the cycle of rebirth) would seem to say they do. Is it right to eat a being that could be the reborn version of a family member?

No to Vegetarianism:

Everything dies, death is a part of the cycle of life. One animal dies in order that others may live. Animals kill other animals all the time, does that make them evil or damage their karma? No, that’s just the order of nature. You cannot keep from killing in life; you could kill hundreds of insects just by driving a car down the street. Killing is unavoidable, the only thing you can do is be aware of this and mindful of your killing, and try not to kill where it can be reasonably avoided. Many stories say that Buddha himself ate meat, and encouraged monks to eat what they were given.

Confusion and Debate:

Many people say that prohibitions against eating meat was added long after the Buddha by monasteries who wanted to make life more stringent and ascetic for their monks. Others say the prohibition was there all along and removed by monks who liked to eat meat. I don’t know of any definitive answer to this, it’s just something that has been continually debated.

Bottom Line: The majority of Buddhists are NOT vegetarians. Whether this is right or wrong is up to you to decide, and there is no absolute official answer on the subject.

Related links:
Are Buddhists Vegetarians?
http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/59
The First Precept
: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/37
Buddhist Dog Food
: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/141

15 comments to To Meat or Not to Meat?

  • Jason

    I consider myself Buddhist. I also eat meat. Granted my practice is imperfect and incomplete, yet I strive to remain mindful of the effort and sacrifice of both the animal and the workers who provide my food – they are not doing it for fun so I appreciate them for providing sustenence for myself and others.

  • Micah

    Thanks Brian for the article.

    My understanding is that the Buddha taught to gratefully take what is offered. So, if a person put a slice of meat in the alms bowl then it should be eaten. However, the monk was not to ask that meat be given to him or that an animal be slaughtered for him.
    For most people in our society, we dont walk around begging and caring alms bowls. Therefore, when I am standing at McDonalds I have a choice. I can either order the Big Mac or the salad. Ordering the Big Mac is, obviously, asking for meat.
    If someone is eating with their wife or with their parents who are not vegitarians and they make a chicken casserole, I think that it would be wrong for the person to tell them “no” to not partake of what they have been offered but instead to tell them to go back into the kitchen and to whip up a vegitarian meal. That causes needless suffering :)

    Having said all of that, I think I should be honest and say that I am not vegitarian. I currently do eat meat. However, I have wrestled with these thoughts and may take my own advice into practice :)

  • Mike

    Thank you for this clarification, as its something that is argued alot and also an obvious misperception of what valuing life and being awake to all points of view really means! Not eating meat is a personal decision, and doesn’t necessarily equate to right vs. wrong (similar to the abortion issue, etc.)
    Thank you again.

  • Zack

    There is not a clear cut answer as to whether or not meat eating is allowed, as explained above. That is one of the joys of Buddhism, is that it depends on your interpretation. According to my interpretation, meat eating is allowed but only on a restricted basis. I’m not eating steak and chicken every night anymore, rather once a week. But there are different types of meat. If you go to your local supermarket and pick up a 8oz steak for dinner, chances are that cow you are buying did not lead a wonderful life. There is a guilty burden you should bear for continuing this cycle of cruelty and death. Factory farming of animals requires that animals live in highly dense confinements, resulting in reduced pleasures and increased suffering. It is not fair to support this type of cruelty without accepting the consequences to your karma.

    There are ways of obtaining meat that have received ethical treatment, thereby limiting your negative karmic effect. Do a little research in your region to find a farm who believes in the same values as you do. The website http://www.localharvest.org is how I found my meat producer in the Wisconsin area. This farm, Ruegsegger Farm, believes the animals should be “Raised on family farms by farmers who care about the animals and the environment in which they live” and “Closely monitored with our strict animal welfare and food safety quality standards.” So while you are still obtaining meat, you can be assured that this animal was relieved of some suffering that would have come if they lived on an alternative farm.

    Lastly, as a Buddhist, you should be concerned about the lives of others. With regards to meat consumption, a restricted diet of meat sounds like the best option, as it will bring satisfaction to you without allowing the unnecessary killing in excess. Let’s crunch some numbers: According to the USDA the average American eats approximately 270 pounds of meat (beef, chicken, and pork) annually, with 97lbs coming from beef. That equates to 4.25oz of beef eaten every day! To sustain that, assuming you get 300lbs of meat per cow, you need one cow for every 3 people to eat meat every day for a year. According to the 2008 CIA World Factbook, 180,694,619 people in the US are within the ages of 20 and 64 (we’ll use that number because 0-18 and 65+ have varying diets). If you continue eating as average, the US requires 60,231,540 cows to lose their lives to support about 181 million American appetites. Considering eating just one of those cows contributes to an increase in their suffering, while we as Buddhists strive to alleviate other’s suffering, cutting back on meat consumption does not seem so bad now, does it?

  • In the “The Bhikkhus’ Rules – A Guide for Laypeople” there’s a section on meat-eating in regards to monk’s alms round. http://tinyurl.com/6ou35b Interestingly, there’s also a section on plant life. http://tinyurl.com/576mgn

    The monks at our temple do not cook or pick food for themselves. Whatever is brought to them is what they eat. They also eat only once a day. This allows them to spend less energy in decision making on what to eat, and more time focused on mindfulness. In doing so also lessens the chance of certain desires burning out of control.

  • Gus

    It is not about the meat is about the treatment the animal got before it came to your table. Most of the factories that produce meat do not have any consideration for the animal being killed. You can see some graphic examples at http://www.peta.org

    Just as no pleasures can bring delight
    To someone whose body is ablaze with fire,
    Nor can the great compassionate ones be pleased
    When harm is done to sentient beings.
    – Shantideva

  • Human life is blessed with rationality that allows us to choose to slaughter or not to slaughter. When driving down the road it is not our intention to kill, but it is in humanity’s intention to kill animals in slaughterhouses for in most cases unneeded food.

  • For me, I believe it boils down to the teaching of ‘skillful means’ as well as ‘intention’.

    Intention:
    If you kill an animal just to eat it, or, if it is killed specifically for your meal, I feel it to go somewhat against the 1st Precept of No Killing. I have vowed to try and live by the 5 Precepts.

    Skillful means:
    This is where it would be permissible, according to my view of the Dharma. But, it is also where one must ask themselves what their own life dictates. Example: A monastic that sustains their life from alms, would likely do so by using what is offered. Sometimes meat would be offered. Also, monastics that live in certain areas of the world would have a harder time sustaining a vegetarian lifestyle. Just a reality of this world.

    I happen to live in Southern California – it is quite simple and accessible to live a vegetarian lifestyle. Therefore, my skillful means allow me to be a vegetarian. However, when I travel, I do find it difficult in some areas. (When I traveled to New Orleans again years ago after becoming a vegetarian, we’ll just say I ate a lot of bread, salad, and cheese pizza. hahaha)

    I have also taken Bodhisattva vows for this lifetime. In doing so, I find it important for my path to work as hard as possible to keep a compassionate mind. I cannot do so by sustaining my own life from the suffering and killing of other sentient beings. This keeps me being a vegetarian.

    Now, having said all that, both my wife and my son do eat meat. This is something I cannot and will not change. It is a decision each individual must make on their own. The path of Buddhism does not prosper by forcing others into one’s own way of thinking, but rather through living a life of compassion and helping others either through actions or examples.

    ….joining palms.

  • […] The following is a comment I left on DailyBuddhism.com in response to his question: To Meat or Not to Meat? […]

  • seacat

    When I first became a vegetarian, it was because of a basic sense that something was wrong with the Meat Industry. That Industry is a far cry from much of the discussion of meat-eating above and is cruel, inhumane, unhealthy and polluting.

    Over the years, however, and as my practice has grown, I now view myself even more a part of the animal world and I do not eat creatures–that’s the way it’s phrased in my head. I believe our disconnect from the creatures around us enables us to perpetrate other mass actions that involve mass violence and ill-treatment of others. Maybe that’s extreme, but it’s a suspicion I have. The ancients used to believe that the blood of slaughtered sacrificial animals gave the consumer strength and power over their enemies. Maybe they were right, and maybe some of humanity’s blood-thirsty behavior is somehow related to the practice of killing and consuming other creatures.

    I have to add that I keep all of these things in check with my friends who are meat-eaters–and sometimes it’s not easy, but I am and want to be respectful. I’m not a zealot, I simply have strong feelings for my own path.

  • It is said that one of Chinese cardinal vitues is ‘pity’ while two of the Buddhist cardinal vices is ‘sloth’ and ‘avarice’.

    Coupled, it should mean-perhaps in orignal Chan Buddhism- an adversion to meat should be the most practical state for Buddhist to follow.

    Man is, or can be, at bottom a dreadful wild animal. The reasons here for eating meat appear ‘slothful’. We don’t require meat in the West; but, strangely, we are liberal and ethical enough to allow others to do so. The enivromental arguement does, howvever, sound compelling- Tibetan Buddhist love of meat is, so argued, based the cold and killing Himalayan environment.

    Apparently, the Dalai Lama eats quails and ducks. He is no longer in the ‘Cold’, and the ‘how-can- you-refuse a guest argument’ is used justify the consumption.

    Frankly, it seems a devastating weakness in the Buddhist ethical scheme. Certain Catholic Monastic Orders allow meat consumption under exceptional conditions (such as if a Monk is ill, for example). Many Rasafarians do not eat any flesh on a simple and sound basis: it is wrong.

    It does not take much creativity realise that eating a slaughtered animal is more unethical than refusing the offering of a host. I suppose a step in the right direction is the Dalai Lama’s eating flesh only on ‘alternative days’.

  • Jerry

    I’ve wondered about the trade-offs. Seems to me that if people did nor eat meat then cows would not be raised at all even though their lives are shortened for the slaughterhouse. So I’m not at all certain which is better from the cow’s or the universe’s point of view.

  • From:

    Sherri

    As a Hatha yoga student & teacher, as well as having a Zen practice, I find that the first precept/the first of the Yamas, ahimsa(http://yogasthakurukarmani.blogspot.com/2008/09/ahimsa.html), is very clear to me. Don’t eat meat.

    I have been a vegetarian for over seven years now. When I began teaching yoga in October 2005 I felt I should be practicing with the Yamas. The following spring I deepened my Zen practice and looked really long and hard at the idea of ahimsa. At the end of that looking I became a vegan.

    More than anything I wanted to make very mindful, conscious decisions about what I was eating for the sake of my health. I also wanted to remove myself from the arguments about what is better or worse: “ovo-lacto is just fine, it isn’t like they are killed”, “Meat is fine so long as it is humanely raised”, “milk is OK, eggs aren’t”, “Fish don’t have eyelids”, etc.

    I felt an act of affirming life was just not arguing about who was right or wrong. I also knew it was most important that I do what was right for me. Becoming vegan has improved my health tremendously, including lowering my cholesterol 100 points (I was at a level where a lifetime of medication was being discussed).

    I also see the first precept as an opportunity to be mindful about fair trade practices. A way to look deeply at the many hands that have touched a product I use or what I nourish my body with.

  • From Robin:

    As a Buddhist for many years I have always believed the 5 precepts ask us to try to be the best Buddhist we can be.

    If we can avoid killing people, great. If we can also avoid killing animals and insects, even better. If we can avoid eating meat, even better still.

    Realizing that Buddhism is a personal path, the precepts are almost a challenge to see how well we can do with each of them.

    I find amusement how some people over-complicate and over-analyze simple things to justify doing what they want to do. This is not the Buddha’s way.

    Always do good, never do harm, have a clear mind.

  • lokin

    There is a common theme among the Native American Indians. Researching Joseph Campbell’s works will shed their beautiful thoughts and view of meat and the great spirit. They would only use the meat to feed the tribe and keep the tribe warm. They also showed great thanks to the buffalo and would perform dances afterwards as prayer and praise to the buffalo for their gift. They saw it as part of the circle of life’s natural order and a balanced relationship.

    But if I may myself say, if a tree drops a shell that is the seed for another tree to grow from it. Then does the dear not also partake of death and life by eating the nut? Is the nut in a shell any different than a chicken’s egg? Is the act of consuming life the act of consuming life regardless? Inst the concept of an egg from a tree compared to the egg of a bird only different because of our ego’s interpretation of energy manifestation?

    Further still, to eat vegetables from a farm, do we know about how that food was grown? Was manure part of the fertilizer? if it was, did it come from a slaughter farm? Are we not promoting the killing of animals still in that regard? What about the birds, crows, rabbits that sought to eat those vegetables as well on that farm? Does the farmer kill the rabbits? flood their holes? Do they spray the vegetable with harmful products to kill any insects and other small creatures? By eating those vegetables from that farm, are you not also guilty of the suffering of those animals?

    What about the animals that suffer from the crude oil used in the machines for those farms and their equipment? What about the oil spills that have happened harming the oceans? If you believe in global warming, what about the melting polar caps as a result of the earths continued use of those crude fossil fuels? The fuels not only used by the farm, but the trucks that drive it to your grocery store? What about the animals that lost their homes and trees to create the roads those trucks used to get you those vegetables?

    We are not as innocent as we like to believe we are.

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