Buddhism, vegetarianism, and the ethics of intention


One of the most attractive things about Buddhism is that it considers ethics to be based on the intentions behind our actions. This perspective is radical in its simplicity, clarity, and practicality.

When our actions are based on greed, hatred, or delusion, they’re said to be “unskillful” (akusala), which is the term Buddhism prefers over the more judgmental terms “bad” or “evil” — although those terms are used too, albeit mostly in the context of poetry. By contrast, when our intentions are based on mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re said to be skillful (kusala).

For many people accustomed to systems of morality based on commandments, rewards and punishments, the Buddhist ethical perspective is liberating and refreshing.

But sometimes the idea that Buddhist ethics is about intention is seen in too narrow a way. The problem is that a deluded mind is trying to become aware of itself! We’re not always aware of our intentions, or may choose to fool ourselves about what our motivations really are. We develop ethical blind spots and adopt evasive strategies to justify our actions and to avoid change. Delusion keeps us tied to our current way of being and stops us from making spiritual progress.

One tool that the Buddha encouraged as a way of breaking out of ethical confusion is paying attention to the consequences of our actions:

Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.

If we notice that we’re harming others, or that we’re causing pain to ourselves — for example through inducing guilt — then we need to look more closely at our motivations, being open to the possibility that we’re not clear enough about our intentions. We need to look for and admit to hidden ethical agendas. I wrote about this recently in terms of the way some men harass women on the street, without being willing to look at the fact that their attentions are unwanted and cause suffering.

Another example is the way most people who eat meat say that they like animals. They don’t think of themselves as cruel. Most of them are shocked by actual cruelty and want animal abusers to go to jail. And at the same time, they pay people to abuse animals on their behalf. They don’t think of themselves as doing this, but when they buy meat they’re financially rewarding people who raise animals in stressful and unnatural conditions, transport them, terrified, long distances in trucks, herd them into a slaughterhouse, shoot them in the head, hoist them into the air by their back legs, cut their throats, and then disembowel and dismember them in preparation for being shrink-wrapped and sold.

Although there’s no overt ill intent when you pick up a steak at the supermarket, you’re paying for this whole process to happen — a process that causes affliction to others. And we don’t want to think about all this. We’re shocked by animal cruelty, so for example we don’t want to see videos of animals in slaughterhouses because we’d rather avoid being shocked. That way we can avoid the discomfort that comes from change.

If we’re going to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously as a guide for living, then we need to examine the harmful consequences of our actions, and then look for the hidden intentions and assumptions that drive those actions.

Implicit in buying meat are attitudes like, “You are more useful to me dead than alive,” and “I kind of like you, but I’m hungry, and so I don’t mind you being killed.”

The attitudes are rarely if ever experienced as overtly as that (and I’ve expressed them rather baldly here) but something like that is going on. I know. I used to eat meat.

Meat-eating is just an example. I’ve picked it because so many people who want to follow the Buddhist path fall into the trap of thinking that if their actions are not directly harming others, then there’s no ethical issue at stake. And I picked it because I really hope we can reduce the amount of suffering in our world.

The problem with discussing an issue like this, though, is that it’s emotive, and so the larger point — we should examine the consequences of our actions in order to clarify our hidden intentions — can get lost in our emotional reactions.

Setting aside any such reactions for the moment, the principle of examining the consequences of our actions extends into almost every aspect of our lives. One example is our interaction with the environment. I know that taking my car to work unnecessarily contributes to climate disruption. And I know that climate change causes suffering to people on the other side of the planet. And yet I still take the lazy route. This suggests that I care less about people if they live far away or if I don’t personally know them, and that I value my comfort over others’ wellbeing. My “forgetting” to do my share of the housework suggests that I have a sense of entitlement, and that I think other people’s job is to clean up after me.

The applications are endless; Buddhism is calling upon us to be radically compassionate, radically mindful of our actions.

The principle that reflecting on the consequences of our actions illuminates our unacknowledged motivations is rarely recognized, but it’s one of the most powerful teachings that the Buddha offered us.

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15 Comments. Leave new

  • thank you for addressing this issue. If you are not familiar with Dharma Voices for Animals, please visit our website

  • I gave up meat earlier this year, the welfare of animals being the main reason. However, as a sports enthusiast I convinced myself that I wasn’t getting enough energy from a meat free diet and started again. I see now this was me being a bit selfish and lazy for not putting the extra effort in to buy the correct nutritious ingredients I needed. It didn’t take long after that realisation to give up meat for good. PS great site.

    • It’s good to hear of your integrity and self-honesty about this issue, Pete. There are many top athletes, including those who compete at Olympic level, who are vegetarians, so there’s no cause for thinking that eating meat is essential if we do sports.

  • The Buddha died from eating bad pork, how are does that fit in with this article? I’m always confused by people thinking Buddhism demands vegetarianism, as obviously the Buddha ate meat and allowed his followers too as well – as long as it wasn’t killed specifically for them.

    • It’s true, the Buddha wasn’t a vegetarian. He got his food by begging, and at that time in India vegetarianism doesn’t seem to have been common. If you were begging door-to-door at that time it was virtually impossible to avoid eating meat.

      The compromise that the Buddha settled on was that monks should refuse meat if they saw, heard, or even suspected that an animal had been killed for them. This would have been because some householders had the notion that they would earn extra “merit” by sacrificing an animal for the sangha, and the Buddha didn’t want a wave of slaughtering to take place when monks arrived in town.

      However, this is only applicable to people who beg. The more general ethical principle is that we shouldn’t kill, cause to kill, or reward others for killing. It’s hard to see how one could buy meat without breaching that principle. Similarly, the Buddha specifically named the act of slaughtering animals as wrong livelihood. If it’s unethical to kill animals, then by buying meat we’re encouraging the spread of unethical behavior.

      What’s usually behind the question you ask is the assumption that if the Buddha did something, then it must be OK for us to do it. Generally people will of course pick the easy bits of what the Buddha did (eating meat) and ignore the more challenging things (begging, being celibate). Anyway, whether someone else does something is irrelevant to whether something is ethical or not. We’re all responsible for our own actions. We’re not monks. We spend money. How we spend our money affects the kind of world we live in. It behooves us to spend our money wisely, and in ways that reduces the amount of harm we cause.

  • I have an internal conflict on this very topic. I want to be vegetarian for all the ethical reasons you have mentioned, yet at the same time, I live in a country where vegetarianism is very uncommon and I do not want to be the cause of extra work and stress for my extended family and friends by refusing to eat any meat-based meals. (They wouldn’t know how to cook a vegetarian meal – it isn’t in the culture). I eat vegetarian at home and meat when it is served to me. What do you think?

  • All my life, whenever I met a vegetarian I would laugh and say to them that their stopping to eat meat wont stop animals from being killed. I would go as far as to share with them a joke I once heard. “What were vegetarians called 1000 years ago? Bad hunters.”

    Only recently a thought occurred to me. Perspective is a very important thing. Without it you wouldn’t be able to decipher what is going on in your life from the outside in.

    And so, let’s take a quick look at the difference between us and animals. There is only one thing that separates us and that is the ability to reflect on things and to actually step out from a situation and come up with reasons why we should/shouldn’t do certain things.

    In my opinion, when one actually thinks about it, animals which we eat, like cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys etc.. These animals, if they too had the ability to step out of a situation and look at it from the outside in (had a higher level of intelligence) – if they had consciousness – like we do, I believe that they would choose to not kill and eat us.

    Only recently did a certain image pop into my head. This image is of a farm somewhere with filthy, overly fed, naked and freezing people were bunched together in a pen, whilst a pig with a Levi’s jacket, a cowboy hat and a shotgun was standing outside of it, looking on.

    Given this context, as ridiculous as it might seem, I simply could not continue to eat meat, even if my lack of contribution to the act does nothing to end the murder of these animals. Same way I would have wanted nothing to do with the holocaust, even fought against it because of how wrong it was, I see no difference here.

    Now when I walk around and see people eating meat and smiling and going on like it’s ok, I can’t help but think how in the future when perspective is more a common thing that this will be looked at as barbaric, brutal and vulgar.

    The reason I would not become a vegan is because I think that if an animal knew that it can suckle on a humans breast and get milk from it, that it would do it. And so, I see nothing wrong with doing it to them.

    Anyway, to conclude I can say that since I stopped eating meat I feel much lighter and healthier. I am a lot calmer and more serene. I truly hope that in the future I am in a position to make real change regarding this issue.

  • Emily you have to be strong and cooking you own vegetarian food, when I m became be vegetarian no body was cooking for me , so I was eat salads and potatoes , and pasta and other staff because my all family was eat meat! I pass hungry , I have to said the first months , was so hard!! But I never give up , and whit information about the diet I incorporate the right protein , so was in my 27 when I stop eat cow meat and in my 34 Years old I definitive stop eat animals , also eggs , I’m 43 , I’m happy , and healthy , I’m proud of me. No worry , just be strong .

  • […] and they are the guidelines to help Buddhists to do good things and stop the suffering life. Harming other also means to harm themselves. Buddhists consider that consuming meat is cruel to animals, and it is not the way to show the […]

  • I find myself judging others for eating meat. This has been very difficult for me and is impacting my relationships. Am I being complicit if I associate with others who eat meat, and patronize places that serve meat? The hypocrisy demonstrated by others is so hard for me to endure. I want to chastise them for their “murderous” actions and set them straight. I know that this is not helpful. Is there a more balanced way for me to approach my relationship with meat eaters? I want to be compassionate, but I find it morally reprehensible that they kill animals.

    • I find it helpful to remember that I once ate meat, and that people judging me about it didn’t do anything to change my mind. And since you’re suffering when you’re with people who eat meat (anger is suffering) then I’d recommend taking up the practice of self-compassion. You’re reacting to other people in anger because you’re finding your own feelings painful, and haven’t yet learned to accept them in a loving way. When we learn to relate to ourselves more compassionately, we can begin to engage with others more compassionately as well, and when we treat others in this way they’re more receptive to what we have to say.

  • I struggle with the idea that though I do not eat meat, when I eat vegetables they must have some type of awareness and the insects that inhabited them are killed by pesticides. Therefor I feel I am taking 2 Karmic steps forward and 2 Karmic Steps back. I feel unfortunately that unless we find a way to metabolize sunlight like the plants ( not likely) we will always be participating in a wheel of suffering.

    • It’s impossible to avoid unintentional killing. If food if being cultivated in the soil then insects are going to be killed. We have to eat, and so this is something we just have to accept. It is, however, possible to avoid intentional killing. Only if we decide we are going to eat the corpses of other sentient animals do we have to raise and slaughter them. That’s something we do not need to accept.

      Also, most of the crops grown in the west are fed to animals, so that the animals can be killed and eaten. So the amount of insects killed rises exponentially if we eat animals, and decreases exponentially if we don’t.

      We can’t avoid causing harm; all we can do is try to reduce the impact we have on the world. It’s best not to overthink it!

    • To use your analogy, becoming a vegetarian (preferably a vegan) is more like ten steps forward and one step back. Eating meat is simply ten steps back.


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