Do you have to be vegetarian to be Buddhist?

“All are frightened of the rod.
Of death all are afraid.
Having made oneself the example,
One should neither slay nor cause to be slay.”
The Dhammapada, Chapter 10
1

This is a common question, particularly those new to Buddhism that always seems to spark some lively debate on social media.

In a recent article published in Lion’s Roar Magazine, Dharma Voices for Animals President Bob Isaacson framed up the response like this:

“The public perception, at least in the West, is that since Buddhism is based on reverence for life, followers of the path don’t eat animals. And while it is true that Mahayana schools often recommend a vegetarian diet, the fact is that the majority of Buddhists do eat meat.”

Bob Isaacson, “Friends, Not Food.” https://www.lionsroar.com/friends-not-food/ Accessed 6 March 2020.

My opinion, after a few years of research, is that Buddhists should be vegetarians (actually, I’ll go as far as vegan), but as to whether they have to be or whether the Buddha himself was, well, it depends….

This may seem like a surprising answer (particularly from a vegan Buddhist), but after reviewing every text I can find that specifically addresses the topic of eating meat, it’s clear that there is not universal agreement between what is recorded in the Pali canon of the Theravada and what is included in the Mahayana canon.

In the interest of keeping it simple here, I’ll point out some of the most significant passages from the various traditions that speak to this subject.

What the Buddha Taught: The Pali Canon

Beginning with the quote above, taken from the Dhammapada of the Pali canon, there is a clear prohibition against killing in Buddhism. This is supported by the first precept of Buddhism, a vow to be taken by ordained and lay practitioners alike:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures

“Right Livelihood: samma ajivo“, Edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-ajivo/index.html. Accessed 3 March 2020.

The Buddha also prohibited his lay followers from engaging in “business in meat” (e.g. being a butcher) and his ordained followers from “offering blood-sacrifices” such as those animal sacrifices offered by Brahmin priests (ref above link on Right Livelihood).

So with regard to outright killing, the answer is clear: it’s prohibited for all followers of the Buddha.

So if it’s wrong for Buddhists to kill, how can it there be any ambiguity over Buddhism and vegetarianism? The basic logic would be something like this:

If killing is wrong, and being a butcher is wrong, and eating meat requires killing and causing to be killed, and so also requires someone to be a butcher, where is the ambiguity?

It start with the rules that the Buddha provided govern the daily lives of monks and nuns. These are documented in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali canon. Among these rules is an entire chapter on food (Chapter 4). See the following excerpt from this chapter where eating meat is addressed:

“One should not knowingly consume meat killed on purpose (for a bhikkhu). Whoever should consume it: an offense of wrong doing. I allow fish and meat that is pure in three respects: One has not seen, heard, or suspected (that it was killed on purpose for a bhikkhu).” Mv.VI.31.14

Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Monastic Code II: The Khandaka Rules Translated and Explained. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc2.pdf. Accessed 4 March 2020.

Chapter 4 also specifically states that “the flesh of any animal living in the water” and “the flesh of any animal living on land, except for that which is unallowable” are included in the approved list of “staple” food for monks and nuns.2

This rule is reinforced by another passage in the Vinaya where an incident is recorded of the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta attempt to create a schism within the monastic community. Devadatta demanded that the Buddha make five “austere practices” required for all monks, including that “For as long as life lasts let them [the bhikkhus] not eat fish and flesh; whoever should eat fish and flesh, sin would besmirch him.”3

The Buddha rejected Devadatta’s request, which not only was made with an ulterior motive, but also stood in direct conflict with the permissions already laid down in the monastic code.

So case closed, right? The Buddha said it was ok to eat meat and he rejected the request to make it mandatory.

Maybe. On the one hand, the Buddha is addressing monastics here, not lay followers. On the other, there is no place in the Pali canon where he explicitly states that his lay followers must or even should be vegetarians.

So maybe the best we can say here is that it is permissible.

(For further reading on this point, see Ajahn Sujato’s blog post “Why Buddhists Should be Vegetarian” where he recommends that we not just go for the “minimum standard” of what is allowed, but rather aspire to “a higher sense of compassion”.)

What the Buddha Taught: The Mahayana Canon

After reviewing a handful of key sources from the Pali Canon we can be fairly certain that vegetarianism is not a requirement within the Theravada tradition. But all of that gets overturned in the Mahayana Canon as there are several Mahayana sutras that clearly state that vegetarianism is a requirement.

Perhaps the most well-known of these texts is the Lankavatara Sutra, which has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of eating meat (Chapter 8). In this chapter, the Buddha addresses the questions of the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Mahamati regarding whether a follower of the Buddha can eat meat. The Buddha begins by saying, “For innumerable reasons, Mahamati, the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, is not to eat any meat”.4

So here we have the Buddha apparently reversing himself on the position he established in the Pali canon. How is this even possible? Didn’t the Buddha say eating meat was at least allowed for the community of monks and nuns as long as the animal was not specifically killed for them. Maybe not, as the Buddha continues in this chapter,

“It is not true, Mahamati, that meat is proper food and permissible for the Sravaka when [the victim was not killed by himself, when he did not order others to kill it, when it was not specifically meant for him.”

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated by Kosho Yamamoto. (Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000), p. 44.

And if this weren’t clear enough, there are no fewer than 37 statements in this chapter to the effect that eating meat is prohibited, generally stated as “refrain from eating meat.”

There are several other texts within the Mahayana canon that are equally straightforward in their prohibition of meat eating. Another well known example would be the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (not to be confused with the Mahaparinibbana Sutta where the Buddha famously falls ill and dies from eating pork… maybe). In this sutra, the Buddha explains how monks and nuns should handle receiving dishes containing meat while on their alms rounds.

“Use water, wash away the meat, and then eat it [the rest of the food].”

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated by Kosho Yamamoto. (Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000), p. 44.

and

“If one sees that there is a lot of meat, one should not accept such a meal. One must never eat the meat. One who eats it infringes the rule.”

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra , p. 44.

To wrap this section up, as if all of this wasn’t clear enough, the Buddha states in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra that, “One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion”.5 So it’s evident that at least within the set of texts dealing with the subject of meat eating vegetarianism is made an explicit requirement superseding all previous to the contrary in the Pali canon.

What to Make of the answer “it depends”

And this is what I mean by “it depends.” If you take the Pali canon as authoritative, as the Theravada tradition does, eating meat is permissible. However, if you take the Mahayana canon – or at least the sutras referenced above – as authoritative, then eating meat is prohibited.

Some may take the position that the Pali canon has been edited over the years to include permissions for eating meat and that the Buddha and his followers were vegetarian. If this is true, then why do the Mahayana sutras actually refer to the permissions in the Pali canon?

If we take the prohibitions against eating meat in the Mahayana canon as authoritative, how do we reconcile them with the permissions given in the Pali canon?

The Buddha answers in the Lankavatara that “in the canonical texts here and there the process of discipline is developed in an orderly sequence like a ladder going up step by step.”5 This can be taken to mean that eating meat was only allowed originally in order to bring people to the Dhamma without scaring them off with the requirement of vegetarianism.

Beyond the question of what the textual evidence does or does not say, there may be questions over how, as lay practitioners, we interpret these doctrinal matters, how applicable they are to the realities of the world today (perhaps in light of the realities of factory farming or the impact of the meat industry on the environment), and how all of this aligns not only with the position of the tradition we follow (Theravada, one of the various Mahayana schools, Secular Buddhism, etc.), not to mention our own personal ethics.

Perhaps the best advice has already been offered in the Kalama Sutta where the Buddha enjoined the Kalamas not to take on beliefs and practices simply because they are tradition, but that they should examine the results of such beliefs and actions to evaluate whether they are skillful (kusuala) – that is leading to pleasant results – or unskillful (akusala) – and leading to unpleasant results.

But one additional point that the Buddha makes in this discourse that many miss is that you should then check your findings against the opinions of the wise.

In a sentence:

“…when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

 “Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry”, translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html. Accessed 7 March 2020.
1The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha. Translated by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana. (New York, 1987), p. 25.
2Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Monastic Code I: The Patimokkha Rules Translated and Explained. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc1.pdf. Accessed 4 March 2020.
3 The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text. Translated by Daisetz Suzuki. (Molital Banarsidass Publishers, 2009.), p. 135.
4 Ibid, p. 132.
5The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Translated by Kosho Yamamoto. (Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000), p. 42.
5The Lankavatara Sutra, p. 135.

Published by Greg Schmidt

I hold a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Buddhist studies, but work full time in telecom. I teach Tai Chi at a handful of VA centers across the USA as part of the Government's "Whole Health" initiative. I'm an avid photographer, a serious amateur genealogist, and late-in-life devotee of Brazilian jiu jitsu. At some point, I may have the time (and interest) do delve into more of these areas in the blogoshpere, but for now I'm a taking a first step in exploring issues around Buddhism with monthly installments on my "Buddhism Basics" blog, including addressing common questions (and misconceptions) that come up frequently in the various Facebook groups I participate in, or in the online course(s) that I mentor.

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