March 30, 2011

Not All Buddhists Are Vegetarians. ~ Matthew King

Photo: Hartwig HKD

Vegetarianism in Buddhism: Competing Views on the Ethics of Consuming Animal Foods.

It is 5:45 in the morning, and in a Zen temple in Kyoto 10 monks sit in two rows on a thatched rice floor facing each other, with the abbot of the temple at their head.

They chant a sutra which they recite before every meal, acknowledging the vast chain of cause and effect that has made food available to them, vowing to use the food offered as a medicine to sustain them in the quest for enlightenment. The monks untie the cloth surrounding their oryoki, the three bowls from which all their meals are taken, and lay them down on the low table, waiting for each bowl to be filled with rice gruel, pickled plums, and ground sesame seeds. This is the first of three meals for the day, none of which will contain meat. In the Zen tradition, a specific type of vegetarian cuisine has been developed and refined since the 13th century.

Across the city in a Pure Land temple a large group of ministers (as they prefer to be called) sits down in a cafeteria in Western style chairs at tables, and after their own pre-meal chant begin to eat a meal which includes fish, eggs, rice, and seaweed.

Further west, in Burma, Thailand, and Laos, monks clad in orange and maroon robes travel through the streets in a single file line, walking with their alms bowls in hand past rows of lay devotees who fill the receptacles with sticky rice, fruit, meat, and fish, which will be the sole meal of the day for the monks. Within the world of Buddhism various sects hold constrain beliefs about eating, as well as differing practices and degrees of ritual in the process of taking sustenance. There are as many unique sets of beliefs about food in Buddhism as there are nations and indigenous cultures where the religion has taken root, and one of the main issues of complication in the western conception of Buddhist eating habits is the indefinite status of meat as acceptable fare. The heart of the fragmented beliefs about meat eating arises mainly from the split between the two textual traditions of the Theravada and Mahayana and the contradicting teachings about meat eating contained within them.

Buddhist monks recieving alms. Photo: Chadica

In terms of core doctrines, both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions emphasize similar principles, and only with respect to a few issues are clear-cut divisions really made. Both traditions use five fundamental precepts as the guiding principles for living a life in accord with the Buddha’s teachings, which are: to refrain from taking life, to refrain from theft, to refrain from harmful sexual relationships, to refrain from lying, and to refrain from intoxicants. These precepts are all applications of the greater principle of ahimsa, or refraining from causing harm, which lies at the core of a Buddhist lifestyle. This principle is elaborated in the Dhammapada when the Buddha proclaims that “All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill. All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill” (Bodhipaksa, Vegetarianism). This very basic reasoning for the cultivation of empathy is the key to understanding Buddhist ethics. In his work Vegetarianism, Bodhipaksa asserts that “Once we understand that another being’s suffering is as real as ours, then something shifts in our feeling and actions. With the arising of empathy we become more ethical in our actions, and without empathy true ethics are not possible” (Vegetarianism, 43). The working of empathy is indeed the crux of ethics as the Buddhist worldview holds that all forms of life are forever interconnected by chains of cause and effect. This is how karma functions in that causing harm to another will eventually return to another emanation of the being which initially caused the harm. It is from this fear of sowing the seeds of one’s own suffering that Buddhism aims to prevent individuals from harming any sentient being.

This principle, however, represents an ideal that is extraordinarily difficult to employ in everyday life due to the myriad activities we partake in which necessarily result in death and destruction on some level. Nevertheless the ideal of remaining completely free from the stain of harming others is maintained, and it is in the hopes of better fulfilling this goal that some forms of Buddhism have developed restrictions against eating meat. There are a number of sutras in both textual traditions of Buddhism that pertain to meat eating. It is uncertain exactly who wrote these sutras, and indeed they were written down no earlier than five-hundred years after the death of the Buddha who sowed the seeds of the teachings . While memorization and oral repetition of the sutras were primary practices of early devotees, it is only logical to assume that over 500 years certain central tenets and concepts were changed, erased, and even made up, as per changes in the social order in regions where the religion expanded, as well as the changing beliefs of practitioners (Compassion, 59-60). Nevertheless, these changes exist in both sets of scripture which were largely composed concurrently. Therefore both must be taken for what they are: attempted approximations of the Buddha’s teachings that, despite changes by authors, represent the only available insight into the man’s actual words. With this disclaimer it is possible to begin a thorough textual analysis of the Buddha’s varying attitudes toward the consumption of meat, beginning with the Mahayana sutras.

The longest exposition of reasons against eating meat is presented in the Lankavatara Sutra in which the Buddha responds to a request from his disciple Mahamati to explain why meat should not be eaten. Upon this request the Buddha replies:

Mahamati, a loving and compassionate bodhisattva should not eat meat. It is not easy…to come upon a being who, in the endless ages of samsara, has not been once your father or your mother, your brother or your sister, your son or your daughter, kinsman, friend, or close companion. Your kith and kin in one existence, they have donned a different shape in later lives…Since Bodhisattvas look upon all beings…as their dearest children, they must shy away from every type of meat. (qtd. in Shabkar,Food, 48-49)

This passage highlights the interconnectedness of all beings as a primary reason for abstinence from meat. However, the notion that a being that is an animal in this life was a close friend or relative of yours in a past life seems to go against the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or the refutation of an essential or eternally existing self. It is implied in the above passage that some aspect of consciousness of the past being is present in the current life form, yet to make this conform with the doctrine of anatman it is necessary to view this not as the reproduction of a consciousness in a different body. Rather it should be interpreted that in the unlimited time of suffering and rebirth all beings at some point have an intimate connection with another, and due to this the view that beings are separate entities with no relation or obligation to each other is false. Therefore the practice of seeing your child in the face of animals is a tool for awakening compassion toward beings that one would not otherwise feel a particular connection to. Through this basic level of empathy, the Buddha argues, one becomes so averse to the notion of consuming meat as to finds repulsive.

Vegetarian meal from Sanchon Temple, Insadong. Photo: Julie Facine

Having bidden the audience to abstain from meat the Buddha then elaborated upon what could be eaten by his disciples to show the vast array of food that was still available for consumption. In laying out what can be consumed he brings up the problem of future interpretation of the monastic code he dictates, stating:

For my disciples, I prescribe a fitting nourishment: rice and barley, wheat and peas, every kind of bean and lentil, butter, oil, honey, treacle, fruits, and sugar cane. I do this, Mahamati, because the time will come when fools whose minds are busy with speculation will chatter about the Vinaya. And strong in their desire for meat due to habit, the will say that flesh is wholesome fare. (Shabkar,Food )

The acknowledgement that future disputes will arise out of interpretation of the vinaya, or the monastic regulations, is telling of the Buddha’s great foresight (as such disputes still occur today), but raises the question of why he left the regulations unclear before his death. While this passage attempts to clarify his policy on animal foods, which it does with regard to meat eating, it also poses a problem by advancing a teaching conflicting with another on the acceptability of a variety of animal foods. In this sutra he stipulates some animal foods as acceptable fare, whereas in the Surangama Sutra he declares:

How can a bhikkshu, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings? Pure and earnest bhikksus, if they are earnest and sincere, will never wear clothing made of silk, nor wear boots of leather, because it involves the taking of life. Neither will they indulge on cheese, because thereby they are depriving the young animals of that which rightly belongs to them. (Phelps, Compassion)

Here the Buddha takes the principle of ahimsa to the ideological extreme that vegans today promote, in admonishing the consumption or use any products that rob animals of life, liberty, or nourishment. While in the Lankavatara Sutra he expressly names honey and butter are noted as wholesome foods, the Surangama Sutra directly contradicts it by implying that no substance obtained from an animal may be consumed or worn by his disciples. Both honey and milk are foods meant for the nourishment of their own kind and therefore the theft of these substances by humans results in either the malnourishment or deaths of animals, and thus ahimsa is violated. This far-reaching declaration that all attire and food in any way derived from animals is prohibited would certainly complicate life for many lay and monastic practitioners, and this tension will be reexamined below.

In the Theravada tradition there is only one primary text in which the Buddha tolerates his disciples eating meat, and in it he condones it so long as the meat has been placed in the alms bowl of a monk and three conditions are met. In the Jivaka Sutta the Buddha says of meat: “And in three cases I allow it – if there is no evidence either of your eyes or of your ears and if there be no grounds of suspicion that the living being was killed for oneself” (Kapleau, Cherish). Here the Buddha’s logic is that if a monk partakes in meat it is not necessarily his fault that the animal was killed because supposedly it would have been killed anyways; the monk receives the meat by chance, and whether the meat was given to him or eaten by the lay person offering it the animal would have been killed anyways. This reasoning is quite similar to the argument that lay people use to justify purchasing meat from a market, claiming that they had no role in the animal’s death, they just happened to purchase it.

Photo: Mark Crossfield

Both of these attempts to shift the blame to the butcher are wrong because they do not take into account the root cause of the animal’s slaughter. It is the intent to feed human beings flesh that leads to the death of the animal, and that intent is usually agnostic to the end-consumer. Therefore both monks who receive meat as alms as well as lay people who purchase meat from the market sanction and contribute to the death of the animal they eat by the very act of accepting that meat as wholesome food. Despite the flaw in this logic it still stands today as the justification used by Theravada monks for their acceptance of meat on their alms rounds.

The issue of meat placed in an alms bowl, which meets the criterion of not having been slaughtered specifically for a monk, is brought up in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a Mahayana teaching in which the Buddha is asked by Kashyapa if he allows the consumption of meat. The Buddha replies that meat eating “destroys the attitude of great compassion,” to which Kashyapa responds by asking if the Buddha had allowed meat that was not slaughtered specifically for oneself. The Buddha replies that:

I…established rules of discipline in relation to specific individuals. Consequently, with a certain purpose in mind, I did give permission to eat meat regarded as suitable for consumption after it has been subjected to the threefold examination. In other contexts I have proscribed ten kinds of meat. And yet again, with someone else in mind, I have declared that it is improper to consume meat of any kind, even of animals that have died of natural causes. But I have affirmed, O Kashyapa, that henceforth, all those who are close to me should abstain from meat. (Shabkar, Food)

Here the Buddha admits to having a shifting scale of ethics that he prescribes to various individuals, saying that the cases in which he allows certain kinds of meat to be eaten were tailored in order to aid an individual in overcoming their addiction to meat. Yet his final sentence in this passage affirms that from that point on he denounces all meat eating. The contrast between this attitude and that of hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil expressed in the Jivaka Sutta shows that the Buddha most likely had changed his mind on this rule, as he often did regarding monastic codes (Phelps, Compassion). In light of these opposing viewpoints, however, it is only reasonable to err on the side of non-harm as this would certainly be most in line with the majority of the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

It is now necessary to return to the Buddha’s sentiment toward abstinence from all animal byproducts expressed in the Surangama Sutra. As was mentioned earlier the encouragement to refrain from the consumption of all products derived from animals would indeed be the practice that is closest to the ideal of ahimsa, but this stipulation brings with it great difficulties for practitioners in all geographical regions, especially so in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, India, and Nepal. As most crops cannot be cultivated at elevations higher than 12,000 feet, animals and their byproducts are absolutely necessary in order to sustain life there (Shabkar, Food). Even if these practitioners believe strongly enough in the Mahayana Buddhist teachings that are the pillars of their societies, to abstain from the consumption of an animal’s flesh and their milk would result in serious issues of malnutrition. In the composition Food of the Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, translated and published by the Padmakara Translation Group, it is affirmed that there are indeed vegetarian lamas in Tibet who eat only the “three white foods” which are yak milk, yak butter, and tsampa, a bread made from barley flour (Shabkar, Food). In this context the consumption of yak butter and yak milk by humans clearly robs the yak’s offspring of these foods, and therefore goes against the principle elaborated in the Surangama Sutra. Yet these are the only alternatives to animal flesh and without them severe health problems would develop in more austere devotees. This issue hints at the existence of a hierarchical structure of foods in Buddhism in which some animal foods are worse to eat than others.

Prayer flags in Tibet. Photo: Desmond Kavanagh

The view that some types of animal foods are more laden with negative karma than others appears in a number of regions. In Tibetan texts it is mentioned in the tantra of The Compassionate One, Churning the Depths of Samsara, from a tantric form of Buddhism practiced only in parts of the Himalayas. The text says:

Actions motivated by stupidity are performed if one drinks blood…A greater defilement comes from eating even a small fragment of meat than from drinking alcohol. It is a greater evil to drink one drop of the blood of an animal killed by oneself than to eat meat for a hundred years the flesh of animals killed by others. (Shabkar, Food)

This passage begins the highly technical and entirely subjective process of detailing exactly what the negative consequences of eating certain foods are, and reveals the opacity of Buddhist ethics as applied to food. Yet this process performs a necessary role for Buddhist practitioners by allowing them to make excuses as to why some forms or life are less harmful to eat than others, however arbitrary or obtuse the reasoning behind these justifications may be.

Out of this psychological need to classify beings according to the value of their lives large and elaborate hierarchies of foods that are shunned have been created that vary according to region. Yudru Tsomu, a doctoral candidate of Tibetan Studies at Harvard, is originally from Tibet and is lay Buddhist practitioner. When asked about meat eating in Tibet, she remembers of her time there that:

My grandmother would never eat fish, shrimp, insects, or chickens when they were available. Only rarely would she eat the meat of larger animals like a cow or yak, claiming that this was not so bad because these animals could feed with its one life many more people than could hundreds of fish or hundreds of thousands of insects. Even so, after eating the meat she would pray for the animal to obtain a better birth in the future.

Whether this view was inculcated by the Buddhist teachers whom Yudru’s grandmother received instruction from, or whether it was a creation of her own logic is unclear. In either case it is clear that the sentiment is motivated by the principle of ahimsa, and in this example the logic on which the hierarchy of shunned foods is based seems quite clear – large animals are better to eat because they can feed many more people, and therefore net destruction of life is reduced. Beyond Tibet the hierarchical demarcation of animal foods appears in Sri Lanka, albeit in a more obtuse form, where:

…Animals [have] different degrees of value. For example, beef was the worst to eat, meat itself was worse than fish, and eggs were also worse than fish but not as bad as meat. There was also a general hierarchy based on the size, value and apparent closeness to humans of the animal in question. (Kembel, Restrictions)

The stigma of different foods in this instance has little to no correlation with the amount of lives being expended which the Tibetan example displayed. While this example claims that the hierarchy is affected by a number of factors these factors seem unwieldy in their application to the relationships in this example. For instance how could an egg (which does not necessarily result in the death of an animal) be considered worse to eat than a fish? This demonstrates the unique criteria and logic that each culture brings to its food discriminations which transcend any rigid set of rules as no authoritative textual elaboration seems to exist.

Thus far it has been shown that the main tradition of Buddhism which seems to be indifferent to meat eating is the Theravada tradition, yet in Japan there is a regional sect from that Mahayana tradition that practically embraces meat. When in Kyoto I stayed at the headquarters of the Nishi-Hongwanji Ha, one of the two main temples of the Japanese Pure Land Sect, for a five day retreat. I had assumed, wrongly, that all traditions of Japanese Buddhism adhered to a vegetarian diet, but at the first meal I attended at the temple it was clear that this was not the case. However, after informing the cooking staff that I was vegetarian they were more than happy to provide me with meatless dishes, although on a few occasions I was served a pounded fishcake indicating that they were unaware that I considered fish to be a meat. The reason that the sect rejects a vegetarian diet is based on the main philosophy of the school. Its tenets are characterized by the sect’s founder Shinran is his work True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way, in which he declares that:

Thoughts of greed and desire incessantly defile any goodness of the heart; thoughts of anger and hatred constantly consume the Dharma-Treasure. Even if one urgently acts and urgently practices as though sweeping fire from one’s head, all these acts must be called “poisoned and sundry good,” and “false and deceitful practice.” They cannot be called “true and real action.” (Shinran)

Wat in Mae Hong Son, Thailand Photo: onourownpath.com

This interpretation posits that human beings are inherently evil and are products of karma from past lives. As wretched beings it is therefore impossible to commit any form of good deed in this existence, and due to this the Pure Land sect rejects any precepts or attempts to guide the morality of its adherents. Therefore the principle of ahimsa could not be less important to them, and as such they reject that any good could come of abstaining from meat. While in this instance there is a textual and doctrinal justification ignoring the principle of ahimsa, there are other anecdotes about Japanese Buddhism that suggests that meat eating is tacitly condoned.

When visiting Eiheiji, the head temple of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, my professor told me a story about his time at the temple. He had trained as a monk at Eiheiji for two years, and one day he was asked to deliver a message to one of his teachers who was in a nearby town. His teacher was at a meeting of all the heads of temples from the area, and when he entered the building where the meeting took place he was astonished to see thirty abbots of Zen temples, each dining on a large beef steak. The abbots were stunned to see a foreigner walk in and were quite embarrassed that they had been caught in the act of eating meat. Also, feeling bad for the new arrival who had missed lunch to deliver the message, they each cut a portion off of their steak and passed them to him, asking him politely to refrain from mentioning the incident to his peers. On another occasion in a Zen monastery I was presented with a meal of soup and in addition to the soup a fish based sauce was passed around with it, with a warning given to vegetarians in the room that it was derived from fish. These incidents demonstrate that even within sects that follow Mahayana traditions of abstaining from meat there is a lax attitude toward actually dedicating oneself to the principle of ahimsa. Meat eating is such a culturally ingrained phenomenon that many either do not consider the effects that their consumption has on animals, or they simply do not care.

It is evident that in many parts of the Buddhist world vegetarianism is the ideal means of sustaining oneself. However, both lay and monastic Buddhist devotees seem to be largely unable to maintain such a diet, in some cases due to lack of adequate vegetarian foods, and in others due to a strong preference for meat foods. As time goes on and new debates about Buddhist ethics continue this attitude may or may not be changed, but an interesting phenomenon is the rise of Buddhism in the western world where vegetarianism as a part of ahimsa seems to be slightly more accepted and encouraged. Indeed in many Zen temples in the United States strict vegetarian diets seem to be the norm, and vegan options are often provided for those who desire to take ahimsa to its logical conclusion (Schneider). As a dialogue grows between Buddhist communities in the east and west an interesting exchange if ideas on ethics is sure to occur, and through this there remains some hope that at the very least a universal understanding of the application of ahimsa through a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle will be reached. Nevertheless it remains unlikely that the extensive changes needed to make abstinence from animal foods the norm will occur.


After graduating from school in January of 2009 from Harvard University with an AB in the Comparative Study of Religion I moved back home to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked in a variety of trades from college test preparation to coaching a high school rowing team. I later co-founded and spent a year working as the Director of Logistics and Operations for Quetsol S.A., a micro-scale solar company in Guatemala aiming to provide 500,000 families without electricity with access to LED illumination and cell phone charging systems. I also served as a consultant for Core Foods which produces an organic, whole food meal replacement bar called the Core Meal, now available in Whole Foods and Costco in the Bay Area. The path of spirituality kept calling me and so I earned RYT – 200 Yoga Teacher certification at the end of February 2010, which I did through Laura Camp’s Camp Yoga at the Monkey Yoga Shala in Oakland. After moving to Guatemala I continued to pursue the path of sharing yoga with others and earned RYT-500 hour certification in July 2010 with Vedantin Ping Luo of School Yoga Institute in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala. I was blessed to live and teach/facilitate two yoga teacher trainings in Guatemala on Lago de Atitlán from July-December of 2010 where I began studying ayurveda, herbalism, Sanksrit language, Mayan cosmology, and shamanic energy healing with Vedantin and Mayan Elder Tata Pedro Cruz as well as through personal study. I have now returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and my mission is to share my experience in entrepreneurship, business, yoga, meditation, ayurveda, shamanic energy healing, and Buddhist studies with businesses, start-ups, NGOs, and yoga studios around the Bay.

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