Vegetarianism in Buddhism

Friday 18 June 2010, by Buddhachannel Eng.

Langues :

Vegetarianism in Buddhism

Fasting - Buddhaby Quyen Ngo

A Vegetarianism is a difficult, but yet an important issue for Buddhists, especially for lay people, whom, unlike the monks, do have a choice on what they eat. As far as I am aware, the Buddha did not leave any advice for lay people on this subject, only to the community of monks, and even this has been contended between Buddhist traditions.
Much of the debate so far has been focussed on what the Buddha did or did not say on the ethics of eating meat. In this article, I hope to provide useful considerations for a lay person with regards to eating meat, by considering the Buddhist ethical principles.


The Pali Canon of the Theravāda tradition, which scholars believe is the oldest surviving record of the Buddhist teaching , holds that monks can eat fish and meat if they are ‘blameless’ in three ways: if they are not seen, heard or suspected that it was killed especially for them . However, they are forbidden to eat certain kinds of meat . Apart from these exceptions, Theravādin monks may eat whatever food is given in their alms bowl. There are passages in the Pali Canon which suggest the Buddha also ate meat , and he out-rightly rejected Devadatta’s (his wicked cousin) suggestion to make vegetarianism compulsory for the monks.


Important Mahᾱyᾱnist sūtras, such as the Mahᾱparinirvāna Sūtra and the Lankᾱvatᾱra Sūtra, condemn eating meat. In the Mahᾱparinirvāna Sūtra the Buddha declares that eating meat, ‘cuts off the seed of Great Kindness’ .
The Lankᾱvatᾱra Sūtra lists a number of reasons why one should not eat meat, including:
- It is rare to find a being that has not been one’s close relative in one of our previous lives
- Eating meat causes animals to fear
- Hinders one’s spiritual progress
- And, ‘if no one chose to eat animal flesh, then there would be no reason to kill animals’.

The Mahᾱparinirvāna Sūtra explains that the three types of ‘blameless ways’ [mentioned above] was a provisional teaching only, and that the Buddha’s final definitive teaching is that a disciple should not eat meat . Should a monk or nun be given food that contains meat, the food (the non-meat stuff) should be washed out before eating, and if the food contains a lot of meat it should be rejected (Ibid). Thus, in general, Mahᾱyᾱnist monks do not eat meat. In China and Vietnam it would be considered rather unusual for a monk to eat meat. Many lay people in these regions also avoid eating meat. However, Tibetan monks on the whole are not vegetarians because it is difficult to grow sufficient vegetable and crops there due to the climate and soil conditions, and also the form of Buddhist practice there, Vajrayāna, makes it unnecessary for monks to practice vegetarianism. Tantric methods, aimed at overcoming conventions and limits, sometimes recommend eating meat and drinking alcohol[8] .

Key Buddhist principles

In Buddhism and Bioethics (1995), Keown formulates a set of Buddhist principles which covers the most important Buddhist values, which he calls the ‘three basic human goods’, and that it is always wrong to choose against a ‘basic good’ (p. 54). The first basic good is karmic life - life with a potential to realize the highest spiritual goal or telos. The second basic good is ‘knowledge’, by which Keown means wisdomin Buddhism. And the third basic good is ‘friendship’, which includes qualities such as compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In other words, friendship reflects an ‘attitude of benevolence and goodwill to our fellows’ (p. 52). Keown argues that the three basic goods are irreducible and cannot be traded off against one another.

We can see that the first Buddhist precept – avoid killing – is designed to protect the first basic good. There can be no justification for killing. The third basic good, compassion, reflects the recognition that, like ourselves, all beings love life and fear death.

Is it then wrong for Theravāda monks to eat meat?
In Buddhism, it is intention that is the key. It is also intention that generates karma. The three ‘blameless ways’ ensure that the meat that they eat do not in any way relate to the intention they have for animals to die. Also, it is believed that giving to monks accrues merits for the donor. Thus, declining alms food from the donor deprives the donor of this potential merit, as well as the possibility of offending the donor. This leaves monks with little choice. Even though they may prefer a vegetarian diet; however, they have to be grateful for whatever food they receive. They need to reflect that food is for sustenance only, not for pleasure or beautification.

However, the majority of lay people do have a choice on what they eat.
In most cases, I doubt one can say one eats meat for sustenance only, as there are plenty of non-meat food sources available. Usually, the meat comes from direct killing or from a supplier, such as a butcher. So does purchasing meat from a supplier amount to proxy killing? There has been much debate about this. To sum up, there are two schools of thought. Some people argue that buying meat from a butcher is no more proxy killing than say buying vegetables from the groceries, as in the process of growing the vegetables the farmer would inevitably kill many animals (insects, worms, pests, etc . Others say if there were no people buying meat, then there would be no place for a butcher, and animals would not have to be killed. As far as killing by proxy is concerned, I find it difficult to equate buying vegetables with buying meat. It is true that in both cases animals have to die in the process, but killing in the former case is incidental and not intentional. One does not intendfor animals to die when one buys vegetables. However, it would be naïve to say that one does not acknowledge getting meat from a butcher entails animals have to die. Another line of reasoning is that eating meat may actually result in less animals being killed. For example, a single cow may feed many people but a single vegetarian meal may have meant that many more small animals may have died in the process of getting those vegetables.
There are two considerations relevant to this:
first of all, there are not many people who eat only meat.
Most people who eat meat also eat vegetables.
Secondly, from a Buddhist perspective, it is karmically worse to take the life of a larger animal.
According to Buddhaghosa.

Taking life in the case of [beings such as] animals and so forth which are without virtue (gunavirahita) is a minor sin if they are small and great sin if they are large. Why? Because greater effort required. In cases where the effort is identical, the offence may be worse due to greater size. Among (beings such as) humans and so forth who have virtue (gunavant), it is a minor sin to kill a being of small virtue but a great sin to kill a being of great virtue. Where both bodily size and virtue are the same, it is a minor sin if the wickedness (kilesa) involved and the assault itself are moderate, and a great sin if they are extreme .

According to this principle,
it would be worse to kill larger animals for meat than incidentally killing small animals during farming. Greater effort and intention are required in slaughtering animals for meat. One might wonder whether it is worse to intentionally kill a larger animal or incidentally kill many more small ones? Again, the focus is on intention and knowing. We do not intend to kill animals in the process of growing vegetables. Also, pest control is an option, not obligatory. We also do not know for sure, though we may suspect, what animals might be incidentally killed during the stages of farming. On incidental killing, the Milindapañha says that worms killed while crushing sugarcane for juice is not blameabl . However, this refers to the case where we do not know or suspect that sugarcane may contain worms. In the case of farming, where we may suspect animals might be killed during ploughing, for example, this would constitute an offence of ‘wrong doing’ for a monk, but it would not constitute the offence of killing.

Another way of assessing the ethics of our action is to look at the root of our intention. The action is unwholesome if the intention behind it is rooted in greed, aversion or delusion. A wholesome action is rooted in non-greed (generosity or renunciation), non-hatred (compassion) or non-delusion (wisdom). We can perhaps apply this to our desire for food. Is our desire for food based on greed, renunciation, compassion, or wisdom? In my recent meditation retreat, our teacher taught us to reflect on the ‘three bites’ when we eat. She taught us to think of our teachers as we take the first bite, the second bite we remember the people who produce the food, such as the farmers and those who brought us food, and the third bite we think of those who are not fortunate enough to have adequate food. I found reflecting in this way helps to develop mindfulness, compassion and restraint. It also evokes a sense of inter-connectiveness between us, our fellow human beings - those who supply the food, and the environment.


For the Theravādin monks, there is no difference between various kinds of food, whether they are meat or non-meat. Food is viewed as sustenance only and not for enjoyment, addiction or beautification. In this spirit, together with the three ‘blameless’ criteria for obtaining food, means that meat eating in itself presents no contraction with the concept ahiṃsā (non-harming). It is intention and the state of mind that matter, not the food. Thus, the Buddha Kassapa expounded:
Neither the flesh of fish, nor fasting, nor nakedness, nor tonsure, nor matted hair, nor dirt, nor rough skins, nor the worshipping of the fire, nor the many immortal penances in the world, nor hymns, nor oblations, nor sacrifice, nor observance of the season, purify a mortal who has not conquered his doubt.

Mahᾱyᾱna’s strong stance against eating meat is due to its emphasis on compassion. It is perhaps a more appropriate perspective for a lay person to follow, as we have more choices regarding food, unlike alms-dependent monks, and that our decisions have far reaching consequences with regards to causes and effects on our communities and environment. It might be argued that vegetarianism is largely the concerns of the lay people, whom are bounded by different criteria to those of the monks’. Incidentally, some think Mahᾱyᾱna started as a lay movement. Attitude on vegetarianism might be one of the good reasons to support this theory.

As Buddhists we strive our best to practice ahiṃsā. This means not just avoid killing but being compassionate to our fellow sentient beings as well as our environment, making it sustainable for future generations. Rather than acting as masters over other less intelligent animals, it is through acts of intelligence, consideration and compassion that we truly deserve to be at the top of the animal kingdom. Even though living in Saṃsāra involve direct or indirect killing, this does not mean we cannot endeavour to tread as lightly as possible, without so much exploitation of other creatures and the environment. When we consider tracking food from the feed trough to consumption, the inefficacy of meat, milk and egg production ranges from 4:1 up to 54:1 energy input to protein output ratio . In other words, it is much less efficient to produce meat-based food than to harvest grains, vegetables, and fruits. Animal agriculture supposedly constitutes about 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission (Ibid). The main greenhouse gases produced by livestock are methane and nitrogen emitted from manure. Furthermore, with much evidence that animals have been cruelly bred, transported and slaughtered for the meat industry, the case for vegetarianism seems appealing.

- Source : Buddhistdoor

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