John Bullitt — Are Buddhists vegetarian?

Monday 16 August 2010, by Buddhachannel Eng.

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Are Buddhists vegetarian?
From John Bullitt

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Some are, some aren’t. As far as I know, there is no evidence in the Pali Canon to suggest that the Buddha prohibited his lay followers from eating meat. The first of the five precepts concerns the intentional act of depriving a living being of life, but has nothing to do with consuming the flesh of an animal that is already dead. From the Theravada Buddhist perspective, the choice of whether or not to eat meat is thus purely a matter of personal preference.

Although Theravada monks are indeed forbidden to eat certain kinds of meat, [1] they are not expected to practice vegetarianism, since their food is provided by the generosity of lay supporters, [2] who may or may not themselves be vegetarian. [3] Theravada monks are not required to eat everything that is placed in their alms-bowl, so a monk intent on pursuing vegetarianism may simply ignore the meat in his bowl. In parts of Asia where vegetarianism is unheard of, however, vegetarian monks would soon face a choice: eat meat or starve.

Taking part in killing for food (hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.) is definitely incompatible with the first precept, and should be avoided.

But what if I eat — or just purchase — meat: aren’t I simply encouraging someone else to do the killing for me? How can this possibly be consistent with the Buddhist principle of non-harming, that cornerstone of Right Resolve? [4] This is tricky. I personally believe it would be wrong to order someone, "Please kill that chicken for me!", since it incites that person to break the first precept. [5] Surely this is unskillful kamma. (Keep this in mind whenever you’re tempted to order fresh shellfish at a restaurant.)

But purchasing a piece of dead animal meat is another matter. Although my purchase may indeed help keep the butcher in business, I am not asking him to kill on my behalf. Whether he kills another cow tomorrow is his choice, not mine. This is a difficult but important point, one that reveals the fundamental distinction between personal choices (choices aimed at altering my own behavior) and political ones (those aimed at altering others’ behavior). Each one of us must discover for ourselves where lies the boundary between the two. It is crucial to remember, however, that the Buddha’s teachings are, first and foremost, tools to help us learn to make good personal choices (kamma); they are not prescriptions for political action.

We could not survive long in this world without bringing harm of one sort or another to other creatures. No matter how carefully we trod, countless insects, mites, and other creatures inadvertently perish under our feet with every step. Where, then, do we even begin to draw the line between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" harm? The Buddha’s answer was very clear and very practical: the five precepts. He didn’t ask his followers to become vegetarian (although many do gradually lose an appetite for meat); he simply asked us to observe the precepts. For many of us, this is challenge enough. This is where we begin.

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