Why Buddhists should be vegetarian

The Buddha ate meat. This is a fairly well attested fact. The issue of vegetarianism is addressed a few times in the Suttas, notably the Jivaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. The Buddha consistently affirmed that monastics were permitted to eat meat, as long as it was not killed intentionally for them. There are numerous passages in the Vinaya that refer to the Buddha or the monastics eating meat, and meat is regularly mentioned as one of the standard foods.

For these reasons, the standard position in Theravada Buddhism is that there is no ethical problem with eating meat. If you want to be vegetarian, that is a purely optional choice. Most Theravadins, whether lay or monastic, eat meat, and claim to be acting within the ethical guidelines of the Buddha’s teachings.

This position sits squarely within a straightforward application of the law of kamma, understood as intention. Eating meat involves no intention to do harm. As there is no intention, there is no kamma. As there is no kamma, there is no ethical problem.

The situation in Mahayana is more complicated. Mahayanists, especially in East Asia, embrace vegetarianism, often as a temporary measure for religious events, although the monastics are typically vegetarian all the time. The motivation is, at least in part, an expression of the greater emphasis on compassion in Mahayana. In practice, however, Mahayanists often adopt vegetarianism (as do Hindus) as a rite of purification. This is despite such texts as the Amagandha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha insists that eating meat is not a source of spiritual impurity. Tibetan monastics, on the other hand, usually eat meat.

Despite the apparently straightforward situation in Theravada, the problem does not go away. For obvious reasons: eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.

Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.

Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.

The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.

One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.

So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.

Sometimes in Theravada vegetarianism is slighted, as it is traditionally associated with the ‘5 points’ of Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to prove he was better than the Buddha, so he asked the Buddha to enforce five ascetic practices, such as only accepting alms food, live all their lives in the forest, and so on. These practices are regarded as praiseworthy, and Devadatta’s fault was not in promoting these as such, but in seeking to make them compulsory. Stories of the Buddha’s childhood emphasize how compassionate he was compared to Devadatta’s cruelty to animals, perhaps because of Devadatta’s asscoiation with vegetarianism. So rather than deprecating the vegetarians as ‘followers of Devadatta’, one could infer from this passage that vegetarianism, like the other practices, was praiseworthy, but the Buddha did not wish to make it compulsory.

To argue in such a way, however, is clutching at straws. There is a wider problem, and I think the discussions of the issue among Buddhists generally avoid this. And the wider issue is this: meat eating is clearly harmful. That harm is a direct but unintended consequence of eating meat. Since there is no intention to cause harm, eating meat is not bad kamma. There are therefore two logical possibilities: eating meat is ethical; or kamma is not a complete account of ethics.

Let us look more closely at this second possibility. The notion that actions should not be done, even when they involve no harmful intention, is found constantly in the Vinaya. For example, a monk is criticised for baking bricks that have small creatures in them, even though he was unaware of them and did not intend any harm. The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding this.

In another case, the Buddha laid down a rule that a monastic must inquire about the source of meat before accepting it. The context of this rule was that someone had offered human flesh (their own – it’s a long story!) and this rule is usually said to only apply if one has doubts as to whether the food is human flesh. But that is not what the rule states – it simply says that one should inquire as the the source of the meat, and that it is an offence to eat meat without doing so. Needless to say, this rule is ignored throughout Theravada.

These are a couple of examples in the context of causing harm to beings. There are many others. Indeed, there are several Vinaya rules that were laid down in response to the actions of arahants. An arahant cannot act in an intentionally harmful manner, so these rules cannot be taken to imply that the motivation behind the acts was wrong. The acts have unintended harmful consequences, and this is why they are prohibited.

In this sense, if the Vinaya pertains to sila, or ethics, then the scope of sila is broader than the scope of kamma. This is, when you think about it, common sense. Kamma deals only with intention and the consequences of intentional action. This is critical because of its place in the path to liberation. We can change our intentions, and thereby purify our minds and eventually find release from rebirth. That is the significance of kamma to us as individuals.

But ethics is not just a matter of individual personal development. It is also a social question, or even wider, an environmental question in the broad sense. How do we relate to our human and natural context in the most positive and constructive way?

I am suggesting that, while kamma deals with the personal, ethics includes both the personal and the environmental.

As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?

When we recite the first precept, we say, ‘I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings’. This is a challenge, and in itself is a powerful ethics. Yet it is merely a short summary of a principle. It was never meant to fully describe the virtue of harmlessness. When the Buddha spoke of this precept in more detail, this is what he had to say:

Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, one dwells without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.

This is not just an ethic of allowability. It doesn’t merely set a minimum standard. It calls us out, asking us to aspire to a higher sense of compassion, an ethic that deeply feels for the welfare of all beings. More than just asking, ‘Does this act come from an intention to harm’, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this act the best I can possibly do to promote the welfare of all?’ Rather than simply escaping bad kamma, we create good kamma.

One obvious criticism of this approach is that being vegetarian does not mean you don’t cause harm. We hurt beings in many unintentional way, driving cars, buying products, almost everything we do. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with Jainism, and will have to walk everywhere with a cloth over our mouth to keep the flies from dying, and a soft broom to brush the creatures away. (Note, though, that even the Jains have a complex relationship with vegetarianism.) It is simply arbitrary to identify meat eating as the cause of harm. This is, after all, the point of the well-known (though apocryphal) story of Siddhattha as a young boy, seeing the plough turning up the soil, killing some worms, and leaving the others to be picked off by the crows. Even eating rice involves the unintentional destruction of life. The only solution is to get off the wheel.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. Sure, being vegetarian or vegan we will still cause harm. And sure, there are boundary issues as to what is really vegetarian (Honey? Bees are killed. Sugar? Animal bones are used for the purification process… )

But the fact that we can’t do everything does not imply that we shouldn’t do this thing. The simple fact is that eating meat cause massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves.

To return to the basic problem. As Buddhists, we expect that the Buddha kept the highest possible ethical conduct. And for the most part, he did. So if the Buddha allowed something, we feel there can’t be anything wrong with it. There is nothing dogmatic or unreasonable about such an expectation. When we read the Suttas and the Vinaya, we find again and again that the Buddha’s conduct was, indeed, of the highest order.

How then, if meat eating is an inferior ethical standard, can it be that the Buddha did it? This is the crux of the matter. And I don’t have an easy answer.

Part of it is to do with the nature of the mendicant life. The Buddha and his disciples wandered from house to house, simply accepting whatever was offered. It’s hard to refuse offerings given in such a spirit. Yet this answer is incomplete, as there are many foods, including several types of meat, that are prohibited in the Vinaya. Clearly the monastics were expected to have some say over what went into their bowls.

There are other considerations I could raise. But I don’t want to press the textual argument too far. In the end, we have a partial, and partially understood record of the Buddha’s life and teachings. For those of us who have been blessed enough to have encountered the Dhamma, we have found it to be an uplifting and wise guide to life.

And yet: we cannot let our ethical choices be dictated by ancient texts. Right and wrong are too important. The scriptures do not contain everything, and do not answer every question. As Buddhists, we take the texts seriously, and do not lightly discard their lessons. Yet there is a difference between learning from scripture and submitting to it.

There are some things that the scriptures simply get wrong. The Suttas make no critique of slavery, for example, and yet for us this is one of the most heinous of all crimes.

Why are these things as they are? I don’t know. I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to studying and understanding the Buddhist scriptures, and in almost all things of importance I find them to be impeccable. But my study has also shown me the limits of study. We cannot access the truth through scripture. We can only access certain ideas. Our understanding and application of those ideas is of necessity imperfect. There is always something left over.

This being so, it is unethical to cite scripture as a justification for doing harm. If eating meat is harmful and unnecessary, it remains so whatever the texts say. Our sacred texts are sacred, not because they determine what is right and wrong, but because they inform our choices and help us to do better.

The principle of harmlessness underlies the very fabric of the Dhamma, and if its application in this context is problematic, the principle itself is not in question. It simply means our scriptures are imperfect, and the practice of ethics is complex and messy. But we knew that already. It is not out of disrespect that we make our choice, but out of respect for the deeper principles of compassion and harmlessness.

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25 Comments. Leave new

  • […] here to see the original: Why Buddhists should be vegetarian | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation Category: Vegetarianism | Tags: animals, buddha, buddhists, environment, life, morality, […]

  • I am not vegetarian and will never become one. Does this mean I don’t deserve to be called Buddhist? Should I be depreciated by other Buddhists?

    • Lots of Buddhists are not vegetarian, and I think it would be ridiculous to say that someone was not a Buddhist because they were vegetarian. Should you be disparaged for this? I don’t think you should be disparaged, but our actions are always open to criticism. And we should always be open to that criticism, as best we can.

  • I see your point. I just see no reason criticizing someone’s habits. Why in the world a small group of people, who can’t consume meat for personal reasons, feels it should change the rest of the world to meet their expectations? Why can’t they just get along?

    • Phil, I’d like to add my 2 cents here. I think what’s more important to consider is WHY one chooses to be vegetarian or not. I for one, am not. It’s because I have many food sensitivities, including to almost all vegetarian protein sources (i.e. dairy, soy, wheat, mushrooms, nuts). So my choice is to either be vegetarian and be in poor health, or eat small amounts of poultry and fish to stay healthy and able to make a meaningful contribution to the world. I aim to keep a bigger picture perspective, and try to keep my overall impact on the world as positive and non-harming as I can, on balance.

  • […] here to read the rest:  Why Buddhists should be vegetarian | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation Category: Vegetarian Events | Tags: animals, buddha, education, environment, life, […]

  • Hi, Phil.

    I find the way you’re framing this to be rather odd. Buddhists who are choosing to be vegetarian are not people “who can’t consume meat for personal reasons.” They are people who have decided that they don’t want to increase the amount of suffering in the world by having animals raised and slaughtered as food.

    This is a moral position, based on an understanding of the Buddha’s teaching that we should not kill, cause to kill, or approve of others’ killing. It’s a position that goes right to the heart of the Buddhist ethical standpoint.

    As Buddhists, any of our actions should be open for critical moral examination by ourselves and others. We can’t declare some part of our lives “off limits” for discussion.

  • I think Sunada makes a very good point here about the reasons WHY one chooses to be a vegetarian or not. For many people (including members of my family and myself) vegetarianism is not appropriate for health reasons. However, this does not mean that we do not consider the harm done in our dietary choices. I was disappointed that Bikkhu Sujato chose to highlight factory farming as though that were the *only* source of meat. Many people take great care to be “compassionate carnivores” and only eat sustainably reared, ethically sourced meat.
    This is a complex issue, and a blanket “Buddhists should be vegetarian” does not seem, to me, to be the right approach.

  • dhammafriend
    July 24, 2012 5:24 am

    this is issue not as black and white as it seems. I have deep respect for bhante sujato but we need to look at a range of issues like the economic situation of the majority on this planet.
    currently a diet that includes meat products offer the most accessible forms of nutrition. as an african buddhist myself a vegetarian lifestyle can be quite tricky to sustain here. the buddha forbade making vegetarianism a rule for buddhists with good reason. This could lead to increasing wrong view : sila-bata-paramasa; believing that certain ritual behavior, diets etc are necessary for liberation. we could end up like muslims and jews who still abstain from pork because of what happened thousands of years ago. (note: the brahman priests also considered pork impure is some magical way) It all boils down to motivation and intention. we destroy millions of living beings by just existing, where do we draw the line? By keeping the 5 precepts as sincerely as we can. If we feel that abstaining from meat is keeping the first one, good for you.

  • Great article! I completely agree with what you wrote. A Buddhist eating meat is in complete contrast to what being a Buddhist is all about. People can try to justify it anyway they like, but eating meat lacks compassion.

  • i have tried to go completely vegetarian, but i find my body cannot handle it. there has been no amount of tofu, beans grains and greens that have been able to do what eating meat does for my body. my system actually feels weaker when i do not have some meat from time to time. i try not to eat a lot, because personally i wish i did not have to eat meat at all. for me it is an ethical consideration. i do not even kill bugs etc. it pains me to think of any animal being used for food. but when i stretch my mind open i know very deeply there is not one way for every one. tell the folks in the arctic etc they are wrong for eating meet. they have reverence for the food they harvest. i have always wondered too is it wrong then to kill a virus or bacteria in our bodies…when there they are quite a live, and taking antibiotics or any remedy is only in direction with irradiating and killing the intruder off.

  • Metta Bhavana
    July 25, 2012 4:24 am

    All beings treasure their existence, and also fear for their lives. We, as humans, not tigers, or dogs, have, as our nature, the ability to decide if we will take what is never given freely, or not.

    My own ethical decision rested at the level of the second precept, to do with theft of the greatest treasure, and the fourth precept, to do with telling lies to myself or others – in this case that there would be no consequence in eating meat. Killing, as you have pointed out, is fraught with moral hazard.

    However, no one wants to be seen as a thief or a liar. That made the difference for me.

    This approach has been helpful in developing some added skill in avoiding harm, quelling ill-will and overcoming greed and selfishness.

    All this discussion about eating meat is stuck at the level of social action. What it is really about for a Buddhist, I would claim, is if doing so increases or decreases one’s chances of being able to reach a point of getting out of the world round of suffering.

    My own experience is that not killing increases the arising of concentration and equanimity. Not taking what is not freely given calms restlessness. Not telling lies quells doubt and ignorance. Following precepts in this way increases happiness generally.

    Other beings I may come across – flies, ants, sheep, or whatever – are also happier and safer as a consequence. So much the better.

  • No matter how “ethically” or “compassionately” the meat was raised, there is no “humane” way of slaughtering someone in order to eat them.

  • I have now been a vegetarian for many years and as a direct result of doing vipassana meditation. The edict ‘May all beings be happy’ meant to me that all beings have a right to be happy and not slaughtered for my benefit. It has been so easy not to eat meat, fish or fowl and now when we see the horrors of factory farming and the fate of animals in Indonesian slaughterhouses I am just so grateful I am. It makes no sense to say I can eat meat because it wasn’t killed for me. If we all stopped eating meat there would be no need to kill any more. Every time I eat meat I, a consumer, become part of the problem.
    My granddaughter thinks I am a hypocrite because she says the lettuce I eat hurts just as much. I am prepared to consider the pain I may be causing the lettuce but at this stage I cannot believe that its death will be as painful as the killing of an animal with a fully developed nervous system – one that cares for its young and which feels terror before death.
    I thank Buddhism for my vegetarianism and endeavour to do as little harm as possible to all living things including the lettuce!

  • I do understand the point. But what I struggle with is the basic notion that a buddhist should be, well, anything. Moreover, is “buddhist” what we really are, something we can really be? Such definite identities (buddhist, vegetarian) and normative ethics at play here. A counterargument is easily made: interdependently being with animals we accept our continuity with them by eating them, as they eat each other. Now I am not saying that buddhists should be meat-eaters or or that they should not be. But I am questioning the notion that Buddhism would unilaterally and linearly lead to a clear-cut moral and practical position. It really all depends.

    • One could say, “Interdependently living with other other races we accept our continuity with them by killing and enslaving them as they do with each other.” In terms of adding to a discussion of ethics, I think it would contribute as little as your own statement, Murat.

      The Buddha encouraged those who followed his teachings not to kill, cause to kill, or to approve of others killing. It’s hard to see how taking that teaching seriously would not lead one in the direction of vegetarianism.

  • Well, “The Buddha ate meat,” the first line of the post reads. For your information, I am a vegetarian. But both is not my point. My point is to question whether Buddhism, despite the -ISM, is actually a defined doctrine that can lead to clear either/or normative imperatives. Are there any “shoulds” in Buddhism? Should there be? Up to whom is it what Buddhists should or should not do? Who decides what is and what is not Buddhist? Is it you? Me? By what right? On what ground?

    • The Buddha did eat meat, but that’s because he begged his food. It would have been highly problematic to have been vegetarian in a culture where (at that time) most people ate meat.

      Are there “shoulds” in Buddhism? One just has to read the Buddhist scriptures to find out that Buddhism is full of shoulds.

  • Case in point: whether or not to eat meat is a complex choice that depends on a wide array of factors and circumstances, which cannot and should not be reduced to a simple either/or. Health, availability, affordability, culture, the different ways in which cattle have been reared (organic or not) all factor in ultimately individual choices.
    And my impression is that the shoulds in Buddhist writing are generally different than the ones in other religious doctrines; that’s why Buddhism is so excitingly different from those other religions. They pertain to practice and attitude, not to propositional content. They’re more about the way in which one does things than the things themselves. As far as I know, there is no Buddhist commandment ordaining, Thou Shall Not Eat Meat. So why would you want to invent one?
    Given widespread and atrociously damaging factory farming, I tend to vegetarianism. But I’m sure there are vegetarians who are vegetarian for all the wrong reasons: moral superiority, puritanism, ideological absolutism. (I’ve met a few of those, not a pretty sight at all.) And I am also pretty sure there are quite a few very thoughtful, careful, and respectful eaters of small amounts of eco-friendly meat, poultry and fish. Who of those is acting more or less in the spirit of the Buddha? You tell me.

  • Yes, there are many factors affecting whether or not one is able to be vegetarian. The most basic factor, however, is whether or not one is prepared to set aside one’s craving for sense experience through the eating of meat in the light of the suffering that fulfilling that sense desire causes, through the mistreatment and killing of animals. All the other conditions are secondary.

    “Shoulds” in Buddhism are certainly different from those in theistic religions, and I agree that this is exciting. In theism one “should” do something because God wants it so. In Buddhism one “should” do something because it leads to a reduction in suffering for oneself and others.

    There are, of course, no commandments at all in Buddhism, let alone one saying “Thou shalt not eat meat.” And I’m not inventing one. I simply argue that one appropriate response to the Buddha’s encouragement to live a life of non-harm is to abstain from eating meat. Whether it’s possible for an individual person actually to do that, given the questions of health, availability, etc. that you mentioned, is another question entirely. There are circumstances in which I would eat meat. There are circumstances in which I would eat you! Fortunately neither of us in in those circumstances :)

    I’ve met puritan vegetarians as well. I’ve also met thoughtful meat-eaters. But to ask us to choose between them is the classic logical fallacy of false dichotomy.

  • Which was my point all along: not to make the binary choice between “good” vegetarianism and “bad” meat-eating.

    • I’m glad we’re in agreement on that, then, although I think Buddhists, or people who call themselves Buddhist, who are unwilling to make genuine ethical choices — that is any choice where they act for the benefit of others even if it means inconvenience for themselves — are very common.

  • Metta Bhavana
    August 3, 2012 1:58 am

    We must perform an analysis of qualities in order to become less troubled by this question. Does eating meat produce more or less stress in the world or in ourselves (dukkha) than not? Eating itself is loaded with stress. Among women, I am yet to meet (pun not intended) even one without some small or large food issue. These issues have often dominated and shaped their lives and relationships. Men too, sometimes unbeknown to themselves, often struggle with issues of masculine identity around food.

    To explore more widely, consider that anthropologist Levi-Strauss made his career exploring the extensive and ancient roots and cultural implications of cooked/not cooked in shaping the survival of our species and in creating its social forms.

    From a social theoretical viewpoint it must be clear to anyone, that our entire capitalist, consumer market-driven world is based on the spectacular and inventive control and production, transportation, displaying, merchandising, and advertising of foodstuffs.

    Home design, family structure, all forms of transportation, shopping centres, supermarkets, restaurants, television celebrity chefs, advertising, the weight-loss industry, garbage collection, sewers and water supply – in fact the entire human economy based on the control of supply and demand, is focused on management of food intake and the outflow of its leftovers.

    If we are Buddhists – pursuers of Dhamma – then, as the suttas say, we seek to train ourselves to “put aside greed and distress in relation to the world,” and to go on training until we arrive at a point where the six sensory spheres are remaining, including the needs of the gut, but without craving; certainly “dependent on this very body, with life as its condition,” but not stressed by what’s for lunch, instead merely “seeing stress arising and passing away.”

    At that point, the decision on what to consume becomes a matter of individual discernment, not what view seems attractive in a worthy, yet entirely abstract and artificial debate.

    (Quoted Anapana Sutta, Lesser Emptiness Sutta.) Happiness to all.

  • The Gautama Buddha appear to the Vedas for teaching compassion to every entities in this wold because the Vedas extra limit the sacrifices whit animals , is part of the history , I’m not eat cow meat since I’m 24 years old , and complete vegetarian now for 12 years more , I proud of take this spiritual way who reduce my karma and I proud of take my evolution in the moment of dead whit me to my next life .
    Compassion and love to all entities …be a proud soul. , be vegetarian

  • Thank you for this article – it has helped me clarify my own perspective by being an excellent exploration of this topic.

    I do believe it is down to how you feel. Still exploring this topic myself.


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