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Must All Buddhists Be Vegetarians?

“If a person does not harm any living being…
and does not kill or cause others to kill-
that person is a true spiritual practitioner.”

-The Dhammapada

Must all Buddhists be vegetarians?


Why the fuss then?

Though the Buddha never made it a compulsory rule that all His followers have to be vegetarians, He strongly encouraged us to be. In the Bodhisattva practice of minimising harm to all beings and benefiting them as much as possible, the practice of vegetarianism as far as possible plays an essential role.

“The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great Compassion.”

-The Mahaparinirvana Sutra

"...All monks who live purely and all Bodhisattvas always refrain even from walking on grass; how can they agree to uproot it? How then can those who practise great Compassion feed on the flesh and blood of living beings?..."

-The Surangama Sutra

”How can a monk, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of sentient beings?”

-The Surangama Sutra

”The Bodhisattva, whose nature is Compassion, is not to eat any meat… For fear of causing terror to living beings…let the Bodhisattva who is disciplining himself to attain Compassion, refrain from eating flesh.”

-The Lankavatara Sutra

All true practitioners of the Bodhisattva path eventually relinquish meat-eating. In His previous lives, the Buddha as a Bodhisattva would rather cut His own flesh to feed an eagle than let it eat a smaller bird. All advanced practising Bodhisattvas are thus necessarily vegetarians, since they cannot bear the pain of sentient beings.

While nothing we eat makes us impure, our choice of diet is an action with implications. If our choice of diet arises from greed, sustaining the greed obviously makes us impure.

If being vegetarian is so important on the Bodhisattva path,
why was the Buddha not one?

The Buddha and the Sangha in His time were not total vegetarians as they consumed alms food offered by lay followers, whom they encountered “randomly” from place to place. Though the Buddha never requested specific food to be offered, He spoke against the intentional acquiring of meat for Him and the Sangha. In this way, the Buddha neither directly nor indirectly cause the death of any being for His food. On the other hand, we have the freedom of the choice of our diet, since we do not eat alms food. Why not make the kinder and wiser decision?

Can’t I be a good Buddhist who is not vegetarian?

Of course we can. One who eats meat can cultivate a pure heart just as one who is vegetarian might have an impure heart. But why not cultivate a pure heart while making the extra effort to further the practice of Compassion by being vegetarian?

But didn’t the Buddha say there is pure meat?

The Buddha advised that meat should only be accepted if one did not see, hear or suspect that the animal had been killed for oneself. Only when all these three conditions are fulfilled is it considered pure meat. Proper alms food fit these conditions.

Isn’t meat from the markets and restaurants considered pure meat?

No, because demand creates supply.

Once, a disciple of the Buddha asked a man why he kept buying meat. The man replied that he did so since the meat-seller kept selling meat. When the meat-seller was asked why he kept selling meat, he replied that he did so since the man kept buying from him. When the Buddha was consulted as to who was the unskillful (in Compassion and Wisdom) one, He replied that both were unskillful.

Supply and demand is an obvious vicious cycle. The whole universe of meat eating and animal slaughtering is an intricate web of interdependence, of related cause and effect. When we buy meat, we play a part in the circle of life and death of other beings.

What is real pure meat then?

Here are some forms of meat that can be considered pure meat.

1. Meat ordered or received by mistake.
2. Leftover or discarded meat.
3. Meat from animals that have died naturally or by
    accident for at least 16 hours (The number of hours is to
    ensure the consciousness has left the body).
4. Meat from alms rounds as practised in the
    Buddhist tradition.

Isn’t killing vegetables taking life too?

Yes. However, plant life is not sentient life- they are not beings with reason and emotion.

Doesn’t growing vegetables kill many insects too?

This is not true if we choose organic food, which are grown without the use of pesticides (which can be harmful to humans too). In comparison to eating non-organic vegetables, pesticides are used fifty times more when we eat meat- to kill pests to produce animal feed. It takes ten kilos of vegetable protein to produce only one kilo of animal protein!

Much of our daily products also involve animals- such as leather shoes, milk from cows, honey from bees, soap from animal fat, drugs with animal serum (that might be tested on animals)… However, there are many new products today that are free from animal derivatives. Given more choice, we are at liberty to make wiser decisions on how to live life in a more harmless way. Consider becoming a vegan!

Despite all we can do, merely to live is to deprive other beings of their food, habitat and/ or life to a certain extent. Therefore, Buddhists practising the Bodhisattva path should do all they can in their ability to avoid killing, and to protect life instead.

Can you further convince me to be a vegetarian?

Here are some good reasons to be a vegetarian.

1. Personal well-being- No disease can come from a balanced vegetarian diet. Medical proof states that all kinds of diseases can spring from meat-eating, while having a vegetarian diet can not only prevent, but help cure many diseases. Our body constitution is also not designed for meat digestion. For example, our teeth and intestine structure are virtually identical to that of herbivorous, not carnivorous animals. Eating animals which die in great fear and hatred, we devour along their toxins of fear and hatred, which affects both our spiritual and physical health.

2. Well-being of animals- Animals live imprisoned and tortured lives before the final horror of being slaughtered. While alive, they suffer from overcrowding, castration and countless other cruelties.

3. Well-being of the environment- Animal-rearing depletes the Earth’s resources of energy, land, crops and water. It also creates large amounts of harmful animal sewage and greenhouse gases..

4. Well-being of fellow humans- More than two-thirds of the Earth’s cropland is used for cultivating animal feed for animals to be slaughtered as meat. No human starvation would exist if animal rearing for the rich meat-consumers was lessened, converting the crops as food for citizens of the Third World Countries.

5. Peace on Earth- Wars, racial riots and other forms of related human unrest are collective karmic results of generated hatred when group-slaughtered animals, which die in great fear and hatred, are reborn as humans.

“For hundreds of thousands of years the stew in the pot has brewed hatred and resentment that is difficult to stop. If you wish to know why there are disasters of armies and weapons in the world, listen to the piteous cries from the slaughterhouse at midnight.”

-Ancient Chinese Verse translated by Gold Mountain Monastery Staff

6. All beings have at one point or another been reborn as our kin. The practice of vegetarianism is thus the practice of filial piety. It is the practice of the Loving-kindness, Compassion and Equanimity to all beings, recognising that they have Buddha Nature (the potential to become Buddhas) like us.

What if vegetarian food is hard to find?

Another reason why the Buddha never made vegetarianism a compulsory rule is His understanding that the living and karmic conditions of different people are different. For example, it would be downright impossible for all Tibetan Buddhists to have vegetarian diets when Tibet can hardly grow vegetables. However, major Tibetan monasteries are going vegetarian today with the aid of imported food.

What happens if you cannot find vegetarian food readily? Does it mean you have no choice but to eat meat? Think again carefully... the path of Compassion is not always easy to tread. It involves making many sacrifices. Being a committed vegetarian might mean having to go the extra mile to get vegetarian food.

Did you know the Buddha is a vegetarian at heart?

The Buddha remarked that the meat He consumed in His entire life was manifested by His great compassion and psychic powers. That is to say, not only does the meat in theory already exist as pure meat, it isn’t even real meat! In other words, the Buddha was a full vegetarian at heart!

It is worth mentioning that the Buddha did not die from eating meat (poisoned or putrid pork), as it is so often mistaken. His last meal consisted of "sukara-maddava"- which is correctly translated to be :-
(1) a pig's soft food, ie. food eaten by pigs,
(2) "pig's delight," ie. a favourite food of pigs,
(3) "pig-pounded," ie., food trampled by pigs.
It was actually a kind of mushroom called truffles.

Hmmm… I’m still unsure whether to be a vegetarian…

Well… the Buddha left it to you to choose!

Remember- Buddhism is a free religion. Though there are always kinder and wiser choices you can make, you are also free to choose otherwise.

Reflect carefully- why are you putting off vegetarianism when it so obviously has all the plus points? Is it due to plain greed for the taste of meat? If you want to be sure you are not vegetarian not because of greed, the best solution is to be vegetarian and prove it to yourself. This is not my challenge for you- this is your personal spiritual challenge. We have to be totally honest with ourselves. Remember this- your decision to be vegetarian or not will affect thousands of sentient lives in your lifetime.

May all beings be free from fear, harm and danger.
May all beings be well and happy.

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