The Urban Dharma Newsletter - September 19, 2006
In This Issue: Buddhism and Vegetarianism
1. Must Buddhists Be Vegetarian? - Article Expanded 27/05/03
2. On Vegetarianism - Compiled by Binh Anson Ph.D.
3. A Buddhist Perspective on Vegetarianism - by Lin Ching Shywan,
4. Life as a Vegetarian Tibetan Buddhist Practitioner - By Eileen Weintraub
5. Buddhism and Vegetarianism - Ajahn Jagaro
1. Must Buddhists Be Vegetarian? - Article Expanded 27/05/03
“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.”
-Dhammapada (The Buddha)
"In order to satisfy one human stomach, so many lives are taken away.
We must promote vegetarianism. It is extremely important."
-Live in a Better Way: Reflections on Truth, Love and Happiness (pg 68)
(His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)
Click here for 12 Quotes by HHDL on Vegetarianism
Must Buddhists be vegetarian?
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. We can see this in many of the Buddha's recorded teachings.
“The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great Compassion.”
-Mahaparinirvana Sutra (The Buddha)
"...Ananda, I permit the bhiksus (monks) to eat only the five kinds of pure flesh* which are the product of my transcendental power of transformation and not of animal slaughter. You, Brahman, live in a country where vegetables do not grow because it is too damp and hot and because of all the gravel and rock. I use my spiritual power of compassion to provide you with illusory meat to satisfy your appetite. How then, after my nirvana, can you eat the flesh of living beings and so pretend to be my disciple?..."
"...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?..."
”...How can a monk, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of sentient beings?...”
”...If a man can (control) his body and mind and thereby refrains from eating animal products, I say he will really be liberated. This teaching of mine is that of the Buddha whereas any others that of evil demons..."
-Surangama Sutra (The Buddha)
”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.”
-Lankavatara Sutra (The Buddha)
"If a bhikkhu sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it."
-Mahavagga of Vinaya Pitaka (The Buddha)
"Let him not destroy, or cause to be destroyed, any life at all, nor sanction the acts of those who do so. Let him refrain from even hurting any creature, both those that are strong and those that tremble in the world."
-Sutta-Nipata (The Buddha)
"I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings."
-King Asoka's Edicts
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 monks that meat should only be accepted when certain conditions are met. Meat may be eaten by one who does (1) not see, (2) hear of, (3) or doubt about the animal having been killed purposely for him to eat, (4) but is certain that it either died naturally, (5) or that its flesh had been abandoned by birds of prey.
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 random 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, at least three major Tibetan monasteries have become totally 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.
Why are some well-known practitioners not vegetarian?
Some of these practitoners are advanced practising Bodhisattva, who eat meat out of skillful means and compassion to benefit more beings indirectly. In fact, they might even be enlightened beings who are able to manifest "fake" meat like the Buddha. If one wishes to follow the practices of these masters, one has to be sure of one's motivation. If it is not compassion and wisdom, it is greed and ignorance at play- nothing other than selfish rationalisation.
It is also a mistake to think that by eating meat, one will generate a karmic Dharma connection with the deceased being, so as to help it in future. These beings would rather us to connect with them while alive- not when they are on your dinner plate!
On a related note, animal liberation (life-releasing) is easily practised when we practise vegetarianism- which is simply liberating animals from our dinner table. If one thinks carefully, it is actually spiritually hypocritical to liberate animals from captivity when we eat them. This is especially so when animal liberation is at times done in an ignorant random manner, endangering environmental balance, the animals themselves and other animals.
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.
"A vegetarian diet is not obligatory for Buddhists. Still, for those of us who follow the teachings of the Great Vehicle, it is important. But the teachings of the Buddha were open and flexible on this subject, and each practitioner has the choice to be vegetarian or not."
-His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
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.
Quotes on Vegetarianism by the World's Most Famous Buddhist - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (1989 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate):
In the mid 1960s, the Dalai Lama was impressed by ethically vegetarian Indian monks and adopted a vegetarian diet for about a year and a half. Apparently he consumed primarily nuts and milk. Unfortunately, he contracted Hepatitis B and his liver was seriously damaged. For health reasons, he was advised by his personal physicians to consume meat. While he has eaten meat in moderation ever since, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly acknowledged that a vegetarian diet is a worthy expression of compassion and contributes to the cessation of the suffering of all living beings. However, he eats meat only on alternate days (six months a year). He is a semi-vegetarian, though he wishes to be a full one. By making an example of cutting his meat consumption in half, he is trying to gently influence his followers.
"While many of the great Tibetan teachers did and do eat animals, the Dalai Lama has broken new ground by publicly stating his case for vegetarianism. If we seriously consider the compassion inherent in His Holiness’ advice and actions, Buddhist meat-eaters could similarly try to eat vegetarian at least every other day to start out with. Since Buddhists have taken vows not to kill, they should not support a livelihood that makes others kill. Even if one does not have great compassion for animals this would meritoriously save humans from performing heinous deeds. The power of each human being becoming vegetarian releases the most intense suffering of the animal realm—the agony of factory-farmed animals. This profound action can help slow the grinding wheels of samsara, bringing to a halt the cycles of suffering of the entire animal realm and influencing their eventual liberation. When animals are not just looked upon as creatures to fill our stomachs, they can be seen as they really are—beings who have the same Buddha nature as we all do."
"This Thanksgiving, staff of the Fund for Animals are thanking the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, for recent statements in support of animal rights. In an audience with representatives of The Fund for Animals earlier this month, the Dalai Lama commended the animal rights movement for working to end the suffering of animals, and urged everyone who can to adopt a vegetarian diet. Speaking with The Fund for Animals' national director, Heidi Prescott, and program coordinator, Norm Phelps, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize recipient said, "People think of animals as if they were vegetables, and that isn't right. We have to change the way people think about animals. I encourage the Tibetan people and all people to move toward a vegetarian diet that doesn't cause suffering." His Holiness also condemned the abuse and killing of animals for entertainment purposes, such as the practice of hunting wild animals for sport. The Dalai Lama invited the Fund for Animals to work with his government in exile in India to help encourage people to become vegetarian and to protect animals from suffering."
-AmeriScan: November 25, 1998
"According to Buddhist teaching, there is a very close interdependence between the natural environment and the sentient beings living in it. Some of my friends have told me that basic human nature is somewhat violent, but I have told them I disagree. If we examine different animals, such as tigers or lions, we learn that their basic nature provides them with sharp fangs and claws. Peaceful animals, such as deer, which are completely vegetarian, are more gentle and have smaller teeth and no claws. From that viewpoint we human beings have a nonviolent nature."
-Ecology and the Human Heart
"Whenever I visit a market and see the chickens crowded together in tiny cages that give them no room to move around and spread their wings and the fish slowly drowning in the air, my heart goes out to them. People have to learn to think about animals in a different way, as sentient beings who love life and fear death. I urge everyone who can to adopt a compassionate vegetarian diet."
-In an audience granted to Norm Phelps and Heidi Prescott
of The Fund for Animals, Washington, D.C., November 10, 1998
"One day I went to visit a small lake to offer food to the fish that we had previously freed there. On my way back someone said, "By the way, did you see the poultry farm?" All of a sudden I had a vision where I saw large groups of chickens marching along carrying banners on which it was written, "The Dalai Lama not only saves fish, but even feeds them. What does he do for us poor chickens?" I felt terribly sad and sorry for the chickens . . . We no longer raise poultry in our settlements."
-The Dalai Lama, in Imagine All the People: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama on Money, Politics, and Life as It Could Be (pg. 30)
I do not see any reason why animals should be slaughtered to serve as human diet when there are so many substitutes. After all, man can live without meat. It is only some carnivorous animals that have to subsist on flesh. Killing animals for sport, for pleasure, for adventures, and for hides and furs is a phenomenon which is at once disgusting and distressing. There is no justification in indulging in such acts of brutality.
In our approach to life, be it pragmatic or otherwise, the ultimate truth that confronts us squarely and unmistakably is the desire for peace, security and happiness. Different forms of life in different aspects of existence make up the teeming denizens of this earth of ours. And, no matter whether they belong to the higher group as human beings or to the lower group, the animals, all beings primarily seek peace, comfort and security. Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to a man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not to die, so do other creatures.
- The Vegetarian Way, 19th World Vegetarian Congress 1967
"For those people who can practice strict vegetarianism, that is best. I was deeply impressed the other day when I heard on the BBC radio that the number of vegetarians in this country (Great Britain) is growing. This is good news."
-The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective (pg 72-73)
"Vegetarianism is very admirable. In the case of those living in Tibet in the past, because of the climatic conditions and the scarcity of green vegetables, it is perhaps understandable that people generally adopted a non-vegetarian diet. Now, however, particularly in countries where there is an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits, it is far better to reduce our consumption of non-vegetarian food as much as possible."
-The World of Tibetan Buddhism (pg 111)
"I think that from a Buddhist point of view it is very important to be vegetarian. I always say that even if on an individual level one does not always manage to stick to a vegetarian diet, when large numbers meet for a party, a conference, or any other gathering, it is indispensable that the group avoids eating meat. As for myself, I have tried my best to introduce vegetarianism to Tibetan society...
According to Buddhism the life of all beings--human, animal or otherwise--is precious, and all have the same right to happiness. For this reason, I find it disgraceful that animals are used without being shown the slightest compassion, and that they are used for scientific experiments.
...I have also noticed that those who lack any compassion for animals and who do not hesitate to kill them are also those who, sooner or later, show a lack of compassion toward human beings. Inversely, the more compassion we have toward animals, the more we regard their lives as precious, then the more respect we have for human life."
-Beyond Dogma (pg 28)
"The suffering of animals is immediately apparent, for example, in goats and lambs slaughtered by the butcher, unable to save their own lives. Animals are harmless, they are totally powerless, possessing nothing but the bit of water and food we give them. They are so simple, so stupid, ignorant, and defenseless, that men really have no right to hunt and kill them for food. Cows, horses, mules and other animals have a dismal life and a dismal fate."
-Essential Teachings (pg 43)
"If you adopt questionable methods to become richer, such as selling arms or building poultry farms, then your livelihood becomes a source of negative energy and karma. By investing your money in the poultry industry, for example, you may become richer but at the expense of other beings' lives...
Although from a spiritual point of view, we can say that human beings are the most precious of all living beings, seen from other angles we are the most destructive species our planet has known. Not only do we create pain for other species-- the millions of fish, chickens, cows and others we consider to be our righful food -- but we use our intelligence even to plan the total destruction of the planet on which we live!"
-The Dalai Lama on Money, Politics, and Life As It Could Be (pg 15, 29-30)
If you are paying particular attention to observing practices of the three lower tantras it is important to maintain a vegetarian diet. Although it was reasonable for Tibetans to eat meat in Tibet, because of the climatic conditions and the scarcity of vegetables, in countries where there are vegetables in abundance, it is far better to avoid or reduce your consumption of meat. Particularly when you invite many people to a party, it is good if you can provide vegetarian food.
-A Survey of the Paths of Tibetan Buddhism
HE Kyabje Lati Pinpoche is one of HH the Dalai Lama's spiritual advisers and the Root Guru of Trijang Rinpoche Yangsi- Trijang Rinpoche is the present Dalai Lama's junior tutor. This interview was conducted by Kunga Nyima on 26 December 2000 at Sakyamuni Dharma Centre, Singapore.
Q: In recent years, we heard that there are plans to convert the diet of the three great Gelugpa monasteries into full vegetarianism. What is Rinpoche's view of this plan and for that matter, for Buddhist monasteries in general, to become full vegetarian?
A: I am happy the monastic authorities want to make this huge change. That is really appreciable. I really support this type of change coming up.
Q:Why does Rinpoche feel that it is better to be vegetarian?
A:If the number of people who consume meat is reduced, it then automatically reduces the number of people who kill the animals to meet the demand. In this way, by becoming vegetarian, we contribute, to some extend, the reduction in the number of animals killed.
Q:Why is it then in old Tibet that the monasteries are rarely fully vegetarian?
A:In Tibet, there are many people who are strict vegetarian. Even in the big monasteries where there are huge gatherings of monks, they never eat non-vegetarian food. In the monk's individual quarters, though, there might be some monks who eat meat as food.
Vegetarianism is something not very new in Tibetan society. Generally, in the old Tibetan society, most of the people try to avoid taking meat specifically killed to feed individual person. This is evident in very level of Tibetan society. Even in the scriptures of the Buddha, we have to avoid taking such meat which is killed specially just to feed ourselves. The texts prohibit us from taking this type of meat. That is the common way of practice and instructions in the Buddha's teachings. Especially in the Mahayana teachings when a person does intensive practice of Bodhicitta, they are advised or prescribed to avoid taking meat.
May all beings be free from fear, harm and danger.
May all beings be well and happy.
Send your Comments & Queries to shian@ TheDailyEnlightenment.com
Visit the Vegetarian Society of Singapore: www.vegetarian-society.org
Copyright © 2003 by Shen Shian
2. On Vegetarianism - Compiled by Binh Anson Ph.D.
1. From John Kahila (talk.religion.buddhism newsgroup):
Are all Buddhists vegetarians?
No. The First Precept admonishes us to refrain from killing, but meat eating is not regarded as an instance of killing, and it is not forbidden in the scriptures. (We are speaking here mainly of the Pali scriptures. Some of the Mahayana scriptures, notably the Lankavatara Sutra, take a strong position in favor of vegetarianism. Also see Note below)
As recorded in the Pali scriptures, the Buddha did not prohibit consumption of meat, even by monks. In fact, he explicitly rejected a suggestion from Devadatta to do so. In modern Theravada societies, a bhikkhu who adheres to vegetarianism to impress others with his superior spirituality may be committing an infringement of the monastic rules.
On the other hand, the Buddha categorically prohibited consumption of the flesh of any animal that was "seen, heard or suspected" to have been killed specifically for the benefit of monks (Jivaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 55). This rule technically applies only to monastics, but it can be used as a reasonable guide by devout lay people.
To understand this "middle path" approach to meat-eating, we have to remember that there were no "Buddhists" in Shakyamuni's time. There were only mendicants of various kinds (including the Buddha's disciples), plus lay people who gave them alms out of respect without necessarily worrying about the brand name of the teachings.
If meat was what a householder chose to offer, it was to be accepted without discrimination or aversion. To reject such an offering would be an offense against hospitality and would deprive the householder of an opportunity to gain merit -- and it could not benefit the animal, because it was already dead. Even the Jains may have had a similar outlook during the same period of history, despite the strict doctrine of ahimsa.
Vegetarianism could not become a source of serious controversy in the bhikkhu sangha until the rise of fixed-abode monastic communities in which the monks did not practice daily alms-round. Any meat provided to such a community by lay people would almost certainly have been killed specifically for the monks. That may be one reason for the difference in Mahayana and Theravada views on meat eating -- the development of monastic communities of this type occurred principally within Mahayana.
The issue of meat eating raises difficult ethical questions. Isn't the meat in a supermarket or restaurant killed "for" us? Doesn't meat eating entail killing by proxy?
Few of us are in a position to judge meat eaters or anyone else for "killing by proxy." Being part of the world economy entails "killing by proxy" in every act of consumption. The electricity that runs our computers comes from facilities that harm the environment. Books of Buddhist scriptures are printed on paper produced by an industry that destroys wildlife habitat. Worms, insects, rodents and other animals are routinely killed en masse in the course of producing the staples of a vegetarian diet. Welcome to samsara. It is impossible for most of us to free ourselves from this web; we can only strive to be mindful of entanglement in it. One way to do so is to reflect on how the suffering and death of sentient beings contributes to our comfort. This may help us to be less inclined to consume out of mere greed.
All of that having been said, it cannot be denied that the economic machine which produces meat also creates fear and suffering for a large number of animals. It is useful to bear this in mind even if one consumes meat, to resist developing a habit of callousness. Many Buddhists (especially Mahayanists) practice vegetarianism as a means of cultivating compassion. The Jivaka Sutta hints that one could also make a good case for vegetarianism starting from any of the other brahmaviharas (loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity). Interestingly, it is loving-kindness rather than compassion that is mentioned first in the Jivaka Sutta.
If you are considering trying out vegetarianism for the first time, we suggest discussing it with someone who has experience. There are a few issues that ought to be considered regarding balanced diet, etc.
Note (by Binh Anson): The Lankavatara Sutra, although recorded the Buddha's teaching in Lanka (Sri Lanka), is essentially a product of later Mahayana development. According to H. Nakamura (Indian Buddhism, 1987), there are several versions of this sutra, one fairly different in content from the other. Most scholars concluded that this sutra was likely compiled in 350-400 CE. In addition, according the the popular Zen master D.T. Suzuki (The Lankavatara Sutra - A Mahayana Text, 1931), the chapter dealing with meat eating was indeed added much later in subsequent versions. He also agreed that this sutra was not the authentic words by the Buddha, but was compiled much later by unknown authors following Mahayana's philosophy.
2. From Ven. S. Dhammika (Australian BuddhaNet):
There are differences of opinion between Buddhists on this issue so we will attempt to present the arguments of those who believe that vegetarianism is necessary for Buddhists and those who do not. Vegetarianism was not a part of the early Buddhist tradition and the Buddha himself was not a vegetarian. The Buddha got his food either by going on alms rounds or by being invited to the houses of his supporters and in both cases he ate what he was given. Before his enlightenment he had experimented with various diets including a meatless diet, but he eventually abandoned them believing that they did not contribute to spiritual development.
The Nipata Sutta underlines this point when it says that it is immorality that makes one impure (morally and spiritually), not the eating of meat. The Buddha is often described as eating meat, he recommended meat broth as a cure for certain types of illness and advised monks for practical reasons, to avoid certain types of meat, implying that other types were quite acceptable.
However, Buddhists gradually came to feel uncomfortable about meat eating. In 257 BC King Asoka said that in contrast to before, only two peacocks and a deer were killed to provide food in the royal kitchens and that in time even this would be stopped. By the beginning of the Christian era meat eating had become unacceptable, particularly amongst the followers of the Mahayana although the polemics against it in works like the Lankavatara Sutra indicates that it was still widespread or a least a point of controversy (see footnote in the previous section). Tantric text dating from the 7th and 8th centuries onward, frequently recommend both drinking alcohol and eating meat and both are considered fit to offer to gods. This was probably as much an expression of the freedom from convention which Tantra taught as it was a protest against Mahayanists to whom practices like abstaining from drink and meat had become a substitute for genuine spiritual change.
Today it is often said that Mahayanists are vegetarian and Theravadins are not. However the situation is a little more complex than that. Generally Theravadins have no dietary restrictions although it is not uncommon to find monks and lay people in Sri Lanka who are strict vegetarians. Others abstain from meat while eating fish. Chinese and Vietnamese monks and nuns are strictly vegetarian and the lay community try to follow their example although many do not. Amongst Tibetans and Japanese Buddhists, vegetarianism is rare.
Buddhists who insist on vegetarianism have a simple and compelling argument to support their case. Eating meat encourages an industry that causes cruelty and death to millions of animals and a truly compassionate person would wish to mitigate all this suffering. By refusing to eat meat one can do just that.
Those who believe that vegetarianism is not necessary for Buddhists have equally compelling although more complex arguments to support their view: (1) If the Buddha had felt that a meatless diet was in accordance with the Precepts he would have said so and in the Pali Tipitaka at least, he did not. (2) Unless one actually kills an animal oneself (which seldom happens today) by eating meat one is not directly responsible for the animal's death and in this sense the non- vegetarian is no different from the vegetarian. The latter can only eat his vegetables because the farmer has ploughed his fields (thus killing many creatures) and sprayed the crop (again killing many creatures). (3) While the vegetarian will not eat meat he does use numerous other products that lead to animals being killed (soap, leather, serum, silk etc.) Why abstain from one while using the others? (4) Good qualities like understanding, patience, generosity and honesty and bad qualities like ignorance, pride, hypocrisy, jealousy and indifference do not depend on what one eats and therefore diet is not a significant factor in spiritual development.
Some will accept one point of view and some another. Each person has to make up his or her own mind.
(1) Ruegg, D.S. "Ahimsa and Vegetarianism in the History of Buddhism" in Buddhist Studies in Honour of Walpola Rahula. S. Balasooriya,(et.al) London, 1980;
(2) P. Kapleau, To Cherish All Life, London, 1982.
3. From Samanera Kumara Liew ( email@example.com, 06 June 1999)
Is there something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian?
I'm aware there are some people whom are vegetarians here. Being somewhat health conscious myself, I'm almost one too. However, I can see that there are some seem to hold a view that I think they might like to reconsider -- i.e. the view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian.
To all those who hold such a view, please read this:
As the suttas (discourses) clearly shows, the Buddha himself -- with his great wisdom -- did not ask his disciples, renunciate or lay, to be vegetarians. And so, you might like to reconsider that view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian.
The Buddha himself was not a vegetarian. And so, you might like to reconsider that view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian.
Some may argue that somewhere along the line someone might have modified the suttas. It would seem quite unlikely, as the Suttas (of the Theravada tradition at least) are brought to the present by a very large group of monks, not individuals. As such they can check each other for deviations. One person can't change anything without the agreement from others. For about 500 years the purity of the suttas was maintained by the oral tradition by large groups of chanting monks. When it eventually had to be put into writing in the first century due to wars, the monks who have such faith and respect for the Buddha would certainly have made much effort to ensure accuracy.
Assuming that despite all that, some people did attempt to modify the suttas, it wound have been quite impossible as there's *not* even a *single* trace in the voluminous Tipitika (the Vinaya, Sutta, and Abhidhamma Pitakas) which even suggests that the Buddha advised on being vegetarians. And so, you might like to reconsider that view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian.
Even if the above cannot convince you, try asking yourself this: "Why do I consider being a vegetarian to be spiritually wholesome?" You may say that "If I eat meat, I would be indirectly encouraging killing of animals"; or that, "If I eat meat, I would be indirectly a killer"; or that "If I'm a vegetarian, it would mean that less animals will be killed."
Noble considerations, I must admit. But let's examine this further to gain a better perspective. Try asking yourself this: "Where do my vegetables come from?" "From farms," you might say. To prepare the soil for cultivation, wouldn't it have to be tilled? And when the plants are grown, wouldn't pesticides have to be sprayed? Wouldn't all that kill lots of animals, though they may be smaller and seem insignificant to humans? Don't they suffer too?
Some may still continue to argue that one should get one's vegetables from hydroponic farms. A good argument, I must admit. But let's examine this further to gain a better perspective. Such farms use much water -- for the sake of the plants, for the sake of washing things, for the sake of keeping the place clean, and others. Wouldn't such use of water kill lots of animals too, though they may be smaller and seem insignificant to humans? Don't they suffer too?
And let's consider the boxes and pipes in which such farming is so dependent upon, and also the materials to built the green houses. They need to be manufactured. And so indirectly factories are needed; and so lands need to be cleared. Wouldn't all that kill lots of animals too, though they may be smaller and seem insignificant to humans? Don't they suffer too?
The machines and equipment needed by the factories too needs to be manufactured. And so indirectly more factories are needed; and so more lands need to be cleared. Wouldn't all that kill lots of animals too, though they may be smaller and seem insignificant to humans? Don't they suffer too?
Let's also further consider the supply of electricity, water, telecommunication services, and other infrastructures. Just consider all that needs to be done to supply those things. Wouldn't all that kill lots of animals too, though they may be smaller and seem insignificant to humans? Don't they suffer too?
And consider all those transporting this and that here and there that goes about to set up the factories and the factories for the factories, the infrastructures for all those factories, so that materials can be supplied to them, so that the boxes and pipes and the material to build the green houses can be made for the hydroponic farms, and that they may be sent to the farms, so that hydroponic vegetables can be cultivated, so that you may buy and eat them. Wouldn't all that kill even lots more animals, though they may be smaller and seem insignificant to humans? Don't they suffer too?
Wouldn't it then be proper to consider that "If I eat only vegetables I too would be indirectly encouraging killing of animals;" or that, "If I don't eat meat, I would be indirectly a killer too;" or that "If don't eat meat, it wouldn't mean that less animals will be killed. And in fact perhaps more are killed."
I could go on and on, but I should assume that you should get the message by now. And so, you might like to reconsider that view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian. We must understand: We live in 'samsara'; and it's not called 'samsara' for no reason. In this world, there IS suffering. That the Buddha has declared. Its cause too has been declared. So has its end. And so has the way to the end of sufferings.
Having drawn such reasonable arguments, some may *still* insist on arguing further that eating meat may reduce our craving (tanha), and so there must be something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian. I'd ask: "Who says meat tastes better than vegetables?" Have you tasted meat without any additives before? A raw carrot would taste much better. I myself can easily have more craving for chocolates than meat. I'd say durian (a local fruit) tastes much better. So it would not be proper to say that eating meat may reduce our craving. Besides, having aversion over a neutral thing such as meat seems quite unnecessary and even obstructive to one's spiritual progress. And so, you might like to reconsider that view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian.
Consider what the Buddha said: "Action (kamma) is intention (cetana)." When we eat meat we do not think: "Oh, may they kill more animals so that I may have more meat to eat. Never mind if being have to suffer and die." When we eat vegetables, fruits and other non-meat food, we do not think: "Oh, may they plant more of such food. Never mind if beings have to suffer and die." When we eat, our intention is to eat.
However, we may try practicing a few things:
- We may be moderate with our intake. Not indulge more than what we really need. That's what the Buddha advised, and there is something spiritually wholesome about this; and not simply not eat meat.
- We may choose to eat only "at the right time" (dawn to noon). This is encouraged even for lay people on certain days. That's what the Buddha advised, and there is something spiritually wholesome about this; and not simply not eat meat.
- When we eat we may eat mindfully, chew mindfully, taste mindfully and swallow mindfully. This would then help us eat without craving and strengthen our mindfulness. That's what the Buddha advised, and there is something spiritually wholesome about this; and not simply not eat meat.
If you choose to be a vegetarian, well go ahead. Do check with other knowledgeable vegetarians about having a balanced vegetarian diet. You need to make sure that you have adequate protein, B12, and zinc.
But for your own sake, do not hold to that view that there is something spiritually wholesome about being a vegetarian. Also, it would certainly not be wise to think oneself superior due to one's choice of food. Check yourself whenever you see others eat meat. Furthermore, it would be definitely improper to impose such wrong view upon others.
This message has been written to inform, and not criticize or offend. Hope it has been regarded in proper light.
Samanera Kumara Liew - 06 June 1999
4. From John Bullitt (Access-to-Insight, http://www.accesstoinsight.org )
Are Buddhists vegetarian?
Some are, some aren't. As far as I know, there is no evidence in the Pali Canon to suggest that the Buddha prohibited his lay followers from eating meat. The first of the five precepts concerns the intentional act of depriving a living being of life, but has nothing to do with consuming the flesh of an animal that is already dead. From the Theravada Buddhist perspective, the choice of whether or not to eat meat is thus purely a matter of personal preference.
Although Theravada monks are indeed forbidden to eat certain kinds of meat, they are not expected to practice vegetarianism, since their food is provided by the generosity of lay supporters, who may or may not themselves be vegetarian. Theravada monks are not required to eat everything that is placed in their alms-bowl, so a monk intent on pursuing vegetarianism may simply ignore the meat in his bowl. In parts of Asia where vegetarianism is unheard of, however, vegetarian monks would soon face a choice: eat meat or starve.
Taking part in killing for food (hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.) is definitely incompatible with the first precept, and should be avoided.
But what if I eat -- or just purchase -- meat: aren't I simply encouraging someone else to do the killing for me? How can this possibly be consistent with the Buddhist principle of non-harming, that cornerstone of Right Resolve?  This is tricky. I personally believe it would be wrong to order someone, "Please kill that chicken for me!", since it incites that person to break the first precept. Surely this is unskillful kamma. (Keep this in mind whenever you're tempted to order fresh shellfish at a restaurant.) But purchasing a piece of dead animal meat is another matter. Although my purchase may indeed help keep the butcher in business, I am not asking him to kill on my behalf. Whether he kills another cow tomorrow is his choice, not mine. This is a difficult but important point, one that reveals the fundamental distinction between personal choices (choices aimed at altering my own behavior) and political ones (those aimed at altering others' behavior). Each one of us must discover for ourselves where lies the boundary between the two. It is crucial to remember, however, that the Buddha's teachings are, first and foremost, tools to help us learn to make good personal choices (kamma); they are not prescriptions for political action.
We could not survive long in this world without bringing harm of one sort or another to other creatures. No matter how carefully we trod, countless insects, mites, and other creatures inadvertently perish under our feet with every step. Where, then, do we even begin to draw the line between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" harm? The Buddha's answer was very clear and very practical: the five precepts. He didn't ask his followers to become vegetarian (although many do gradually lose an appetite for meat); he simply asked us to observe the precepts. For many of us, this is challenge enough. This is where we begin.
. Theravada monks are forbidden to eat the flesh of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas, and panthers. A monk is also forbidden to eat raw fish or meat, or any fish or meat that he sees, hears, or suspects was killed specifically for him (see the description of "staple foods" in The Buddhist Monastic Code, by Bhikkhu Thanisaro). A monk who eats any of those kinds of meat commits an offense that he must then confess to his fellow monks. These rules do not imply that a monk must not eat meat -- only that a monk must be careful as to which kinds of meat he does eat.
. See "The Economy of Gifts" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
. Monastics within some schools of Mahayana Buddhism do practice vegetarianism. See The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997), pp. 213-14.
. "And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve." -- SN XLV.8
. This is in line with the monks' rule about not eating meat that he sees, hears, or suspects was killed specifically for him. See The Buddhist Monastic Code.
3. A Buddhist Perspective on Vegetarianism - by Lin Ching Shywan, from Vegetarian Cooking -- Chinese Style, 1995
I have been a strict vegetarian for more than four years now. When I first gave up meat, quite a few of my friends and relatives expressed concern; most people seem to have the idea that vegetarian food lacks adequate nutrients. And being vegetarian can be a more than minor inconvenience with the amounts of meat and fish that people now eat. Chinese have a traditional notion that foods that are "warming" in nature, like meat, are important for building up physical strength; so in the minds of some of the older generation, one could not possibly get all the nutrition one needed form the "cool" bean greens, white radishes, and so forth that vegetarians favor. In their book, the only things that strengthen the body are foods like tiger phallus, snake blood, stewed chicken and crab in wine.
Before taking the big step, I didn't give nutrition, convenience, or building up physical strength a second thought, since my reason for becoming vegetarian had nothing to do with any of these. I became vegetarian because of my belief in Buddhism.
Why do Buddhists advocate vegetarianism? The main reason is "mercy", and because we "cannot bear to eat the flesh of living creatures." And our belief in karma tells us that we must eventually suffer the consequences of our evil actions. A Buddhist sutra says: "The bodhisattva fears the original action; the myriad of living creatures fear the consequences." This means that the bodhisattva knows the seriousness of the consequences and does not do evil things; neither does he think about the causes of bad consequences. Finally, I also believe that a vegetarian diet better enables one to keep a pure body and mind and this purity is an important foundation of self-cultivation. My conversion to vegetarianism was based on these three considerations.
"Mercy" is an important way of learning to be a better person. Being without mercy is simply incompatible with being a Buddhist. Having a merciful and compassionate heart will show up in all aspects of one's life; but the simplest and most direct way is to follow a vegetarian diet. Think of the intense pain of accidentally stepping on a nail is. So how can one have the heart to eat the flesh of creatures who have suffered the pain of being slaughtered, skinned, dismembered, and cooked? Being unable to bring ourselves to eat the flesh of these poor creatures is an expression of mercy.
The pain of creatures on the road to our table is not some fanciful concoction; it is excruciatingly real. Let us cite the cooked live shrimp and crab that are so popular today as an example. Meeting their end by being cooked in water is like being sent to a boiling hell. Their desperate but doomed efforts to crawl or jump out betray the unbearable pain they experience. Finally they give their life in sorrow as they turn bright red. What a painful end!
Frogs are put through even more suffering than shrimp and crabs. From the first made in their bodies to the time they are swallowed they go through the equivalent of eight different hells: 1. decapitation; 2. skinning; 3. removing the legs; 4. slitting of the belly; 5. frying or boiling; 6. salt, sugar and seasoning; 7. chewing; and 8. digestion and excretion. Anyone who put himself in take place of a frog would be unable to ever stomach another one.
Among the different kinds of suffering the human race can experience, the most intense is certainly that of war. Documentaries of the Nanking massacre and the Nazi holocaust leave few people unmoved and dry-eyed-and most indignant. But humans can go for years or decades without war; animals face suffering and death every day. For meat eaters, every banquet means the death of hundreds and thousands of animals. Is this any different from human war?
Preventing the suffering of living creatures by not using their flesh to satisfy our tastebuds and hunger is the minimal expression of compassion we can offer. We choose not to kill out of kindness, and not to eat out of compassion.
I felt deeply moved upon reading two stories on the theme of mercy; they will be etched forever in my memory. One is recorded in the book "Record of Protecting Life":
When a scholar named Chou Yu was cooking some eel to eat, he noticed the one of the eels bending in its body such that its head and tail were still in the boiling point liquid, but its body arched upward above the soup. It did not fall completely in until finally dying. Chou Yu found the occurrence a strange one, pulled out the eel, and cut it open. He found thousands of eggs inside. The eel had arched its belly out of the hot soup to protect its offspring. He cried at the sight, sighed with emotion, and swore never to eat eel.
This story tells us that the myriad living creatures are not without feeling and intelligence.
Another story in recorded in Buddhist sutra.
A king of heaven was stalemated in a war with a demon, and neither side emerged as winner. As the king of heaven was leading his soldiers back, he saw the nest of a golden-winged bird in a tree by the roadside. "If the soldiers and chariots pass by here, the eggs in the nest will certainly fall to the ground and be scattered," he thought to himself. So he led his thousand chariots back the same road by which they came. When the demon saw the king of heaven returning, he fled in terror.
The sutra's conclusion was that "if you use mercy to seek salvation, the lord of heaven will see it." This story tells us that mercy may not seem like much at first glance, but it is in fact extremely powerful. The Buddhist sutras frequently mention "the power of mercy," from this we know that mercy is indeed a potent force. If a Buddhist wants to learn to use this strength of mercy, he must be like the king of heaven in this story, and be ready to change the route of a thousand chariots rather than let a nest full of bird eggs fall to the ground.
The Surangama Sutra tells us that "if we eat the flesh of living creatures, we are destroying the seeds of compassion." That is, if we do not eat the flesh of living creatures, we are cultivating and irrigating the seeds of compassion," and to "cultivate a compassionate heart," I chose to become a vegetarian; and this is my main reason for doing so.
In Buddhist teaching, volume upon volume has been written regarding cause and consequence, but the basic concept is a simple one. "Good is rewarded with good; evil is rewarded with evil; and the rewarding of good and evil is only a matter of time." Viewed from this concept, we will have to pay for every piece of flesh we eat with a piece of flesh, and with a life for every creature's life that we take. Viewed over the long term, eating meat is an extremely frightening prospect. Before their death, living creatures experience not joy, and not fear, but anger; not complaint, but hatred and resentment. And who receives the "reward" for taking these lives?
It would be difficult to try to prove the existence of this concept of cause and consequence, and it may even sound a bit farfetched. However, in terms of this life, the negative consequences of eating meat include arterial sclerosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, encephalemia, stroke, gall stones, cirrhosis of the liver and cancer. In all these diseases, a link has been established to animal fat and cholesterol. So the consequences of eating meat are in fact immediate and in clear view. But even if you could still make it from day to day eating meat, the other advantages of being vegetarian-promotion of good health and being free from worry about future negative consequences-to me fully justify the decision to be vegetarian, and constitute my second main reason for doing so.
My third reason is to "purify body and mind." This one might seem to escape logical explanation. An American vegetarian physician summed it up well when he said that "It's good not having to worry about he conditions under which your food died." This statement points out that animals are not always healthy themselves, and before death, they secrete toxic substances. When we eat the flesh of animals, we also ingest disease-carrying microorganisms and toxins.
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, our bodies contain uric acid and other toxic waste products which turn up in our blood and body tissues. Compared to the 65% impure moisture content of beef, protein obtained from nuts, beans and legumes is markedly purer. Vegetarian food is indeed much cleaner than meat, and it also retains its freshness better than meat. Vegetarian food is in every case cleaner and purer than meat with comparable nutritious value. We know that meat spoils easily, and fish and shrimp begin to become putrid after being left out for just half an hour. Meat and meat products begin to decay after one hour. Vegetables, on the other hand, can usually e kept for three to five days. Although beans become rancid relatively quickly, the deterioration is very easy to detect and recognize.
One problem with vegetable foods today is contamination by pesticides; but even so, they are still much cleaner than meat. A person who habitually eats pure food keeps his body and mind in a pure state; this follows of course, and is beyond argument.
Another question that vegetarians are frequently asked is, "Why can't you eat scallions, chives, onions, and garlic?" This again relates back to purity. The Surangama Sutra says: "All living creatures seek the 'three kinds of wisdom,' and should refrain from eating the 'five pungent.' These five pungent foods create lust when eaten cooked, and rage when eaten raw." It goes on to say that "Even if someone can recite twelve sutras from memory, the gods of the ten heavens will all disdain him if he eats pungent foods in this world, because of his strong odor and uncleanliness, and will give distance themselves far from him." This means that pungent foods arouse lust, and give one an explosive temper and one's body a bad odor. These foods are unclean, and if a person's body and mind are not clean, how can he succeed at purifying himself through Buddhism? This is why yet another sutra says: "That which has blood and flesh will be rejected by the gods and not eaten by the saints; all in heaven distance themselves far from one who eats meat; his breath is always foul...meat is not a good thing, meat is not pure, it is born in evil and spoils in merit and virtue; it is rejected by all the gods and saints!"
In recent years, I have spent much time thinking about what I eat; in fact I don't have many great insights on vegetarianism. However, the three reasons I just stated are sufficient to make me feel confident about my choice. Issues like whether a vegetarian diet is more nutritious, whether there is great merit in following a vegetarian diet, whether it can promote world peace, and so forth, are all secondary.
What I strongly believe is that if a person wants to take joy in the Buddhist way and enter into the mercy and knowledge of the Buddha, he must begin at the dining table. There is a British promoter of vegetarianism named Dr. Walsh who once said that "To prevent human bloodshed one must start at the dinner table." Turning back to Taiwan today, one banquet takes a thousand lives; clothing oneself requires minks and silk spun by worms; shoes are made from alligator skin and leather; and lust and luxury are carried to extremes. To begin one's enlightenment of mercy and cause of consequence at the dinner table in this kind of an environment is perhaps more than a little difficult. The prospects for long-term peace and prosperity here are indeed cause for concern.
4. Life as a Vegetarian Tibetan Buddhist Practitioner - A Personal View - By Eileen Weintraub
Compassion is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana, the “great vehicle,” is the prevalent form of Buddhism practiced in China, Japan and Tibet. The central theme of this vehicle is the aspiration to attain enlightenment not for oneself alone but the sake of all sentient beings. Protecting beings is second nature to many Buddhists. All would hesitate to kill anything and many would go out of their way to save even an insect’s life.
Why then do many Buddhists eat the flesh of other beings? In Tibet, killing and hunting were traditionally discouraged by the clergy, but climatic conditions made successful year-round agriculture impossible. The solution was to rely upon a class of individuals to slaughter animals. The interpretation of Buddha’s teaching was that it was OK to buy and eat meat if the being wasn’t killed directly for you. Tsampa (ground barley), meat, yogurt and tea were the basic diet for those living on the “Roof of the World.” Tibetans generally ate sheep and yak—which were cultivated by the nomad culture and kept individually by families. One yak was enough to feed a family for perhaps a whole season. In the U.S., it is ironic that some people think that by consuming chicken and fish they are further on the path towards vegetarianism than by eating “red” meat. Consuming meat from a larger animal means that fewer animals are killed for food.
After fleeing Tibet, many lamas went into exile in India. There they did not change their diet from the one they had eaten in Tibet—in spite of the predominantly vegetarian Indian culture that served as their new home.
Sticking to Meat
It was not until the mid-1970s that mainstream Tibetan lamas started visiting America. Often their first contacts were with people from other Eastern spiritual traditions. American disciples were attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and migrated over from the mostly vegetarian Hindu traditions, including yoga and Transcendental Meditation practitioners. Did the Tibetans try to change their own meat-based diets? Did they try to embrace a new healthy, ethically conscious diet that was now available to them? More commonly the reverse happened—many Westerners graciously embraced the Tibetan diet. Students who were used to eating salads, brown rice and tofu learned to cook and eat lamb, beef and other Tibetan-style dishes to please their teachers.
Except for some purification days, meat was served at many Tibetan Buddhist centers at most meals (however, recently this has changed and retreat centers now offer vegetarian options.) Disciples became adept at fielding questions from surprised newcomers as to why Tibetan lamas, who would never kill an animal, ate meat. Why did meat have to be offered at the tsok pujas (group prayers with food offerings on special lunar days)? For some outsiders this was seen as nothing less than hypocritical. Those of us who were offended eventually stopped making it an issue. As the incongruities of this diet were pointed out we shrugged and parroted the party line. After all, the important part was that we prayed for the liberation of all beings.
In certain Tibetan Buddhist circles that developed in this country, meat-eating—and some other more controversial habits—were promoted as part of the Tantric lifestyle. “Tantric” in this case meant not getting hung up on conventional morals or concepts of purity. In other words, to embrace life fully was to consume it literally. Other lamas acknowledged that it was meritorious to stop eating meat, if one could manage it. Yet there was more important work to be done, like taming the mind and praying for the benefit of all sentient beings. Besides, once you became enlightened you had set up a link with all those beings you had eaten (or perhaps a heavy karmic trail). If one was enlightened like the 10th century Tibetan saint Tilopa, one could send the consciousness of the being to the pure land before eating the flesh.
Both lay and ordained Tibetans are known for their extraordinary compassion for animals. One Tibetan lama performs powa (liberation after death) for street dogs in Nepal that are poisoned by the government. He whispers mantras in the dying dogs’ ears. Powa is commonly done for animals whenever possible. The Abbott of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, NY confessed in his life story that the most painful part of his escape from Tibet was when his party was forced to shoot a wild boar to keep from starvation. In Heinrich Herrer’s account of his time spent in Lhasa, Seven Years in Tibet, he told how building projects would halt to protect even the lives of insects. When possible, killing is avoided at all costs.
Trying to follow ahimsa (non-violent) principles, I have been a vegetarian for 25 years. But it has been a challenge to be both a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and a vegetarian. My own teacher had a good laugh when I insisted on staying vegetarian during visits to him in Tibet. And in Tibet my meat-eating travel mates joined me once at a vegetarian noodle stand—only when it became apparent that the tukpa (soup) they were going to have was going to be prepared from the chickens that were still running around outside the restaurant!
There are Tibetan injunctions, however, to refrain from eating meat. For example, an 18th century Tibetan saint named Shabkar was a spokesperson for the virtues of not eating meat. In The Life of Shabkar, the Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, he wrote: “Eating meat, at the cost of great suffering for animals, is unacceptable. If, bereft of compassion and wisdom, you eat meat, you have turned your back on liberation. The Buddha said, ‘the eating of meat annihilates the seed of compassion.’” Shabkar articulates the most sweeping indictments against meat-eating found in Tibetan literature. This was particularly relevant at a time when the prediction the Buddha made in the Lankavatara Sutra had already become a reality: “In the future, meat-eaters, speaking out of ignorance, will say that the Buddha permitted the eating of meat, and that he taught there was no sin in doing so.” And also from this Sutra: “Those who practice loving-kindness should consider all sentient beings as their own children; therefore, they must give up eating meat.”
Another 18th century Tibetan saint was lama Jigme Lingpa. A commentary on his autobiography (Apparitions of the Self, the Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary by Janet Gyatso) recounts: “Of all his merit-making, Jigme Lingpa was most proud of his feelings of compassion for animals; he says that this is the best part of his entire life story. He writes of his sorrow when he witnessed the butchering of animals by humans. He often bought and set free animals about to be slaughtered (a common Buddhist act). He ‘changed the perception’ of others, when he once caused his followers to save a female yak from being butchered, and he continually urged his disciples to forswear the killing of animals.”
Respecting Buddha Nature
According to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, humans and animals are the only visible realms of the six classes of beings. Plants are non-sentient and do not inherently contain Buddha nature (the seed of enlightenment within all sentient beings). Although it has been said there may be nature spirits, which protect the plants, their lives are not taken when we harvest vegetables. Buddhists are admonished constantly to work to save all sentient beings yet little thought may be given to sitting down to consume even a whole being for lunch!
The harvesting of beings for their flesh could be seen as the supreme form of exploitation. I see vegetarianism and veganism as a boycott of all that abuse. Even making a partial effort is commendable. If not eaten solely as a necessity to sustain life, I believe that flesh eating as a culinary preference will be considered barbaric in the future. If concerns arise regarding the karmic consequences of eating flesh, to whom should we give the benefit of the doubt? The living beings who were raised in obscene conditions and who died in terror in slaughterhouses, or our own habitual patterns and taste addictions? Even if health benefits are thought to be obtained by eating meat, this should be considered very carefully. With our abundant food markets in the U.S., satisfying alternatives can always be found.
In his 1995 Seattle public talk, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, said he tried being a vegetarian all the time but found it too difficult. At the time of the talk he said he eats meat every other day. This makes him a vegetarian six months of the year. By making an example of cutting his meat consumption in half, he is trying to gently influence his followers. It should be noted that this recommendation received little applause from the audience.
While many of the great Tibetan teachers did and do eat animals, the Dalai Lama has broken new ground by publicly stating his case for vegetarianism. If we seriously consider the compassion inherent in His Holiness’ advice and actions, Buddhist meat-eaters could similarly try to eat vegetarian at least every other day to start out with. Since Buddhists have taken vows not to kill, they should not support a livelihood that makes others kill. Even if one does not have great compassion for animals this would meritoriously save humans from performing heinous deeds. The power of each human being becoming vegetarian releases the most intense suffering of the animal realm—the agony of factory-farmed animals. This profound action can help slow the grinding wheels of samsara, bringing to a halt the cycles of suffering of the entire animal realm and influencing their eventual liberation. When animals are not just looked upon as creatures to fill our stomachs, they can be seen as they really are—beings who have the same Buddha nature as we all do.
Eileen Weintraub has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism since 1976. She made three extended trips to China and Tibet to visit her Buddhist teacher who returned to re-establish his monastery in Tibet after exile in India and America. She lives in Seattle, with her husband and rescued companion animals.
5. Buddhism and Vegetarianism - Ajahn Jagaro
About the Author
Ajahn Jagaro was born John Cianciosi in 1948, in Italy, and migrated with his parents to Australia at the age of ten. After completing a Diploma in Applied Chemistry and working for a short time, he took leave of his home to travel in Asia. With no clear aim in mind, his travels eventually took him to a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, where a casual interest in meditation developed into a decision to take ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1972.
After a year spent in Bangkok and Southern Thailand, he travelled to the north-east, where he met his teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, the well-known forest meditation teacher, and spent the next ten years in and around Ajahn Chah's monastery, Wat Pah Pong, and its many branches.
In 1979, Ajahn Chah invited Venerable Jagaro to become the senior monk, or Abbot, at Wat Pah Nanachat, a monastery not far from Wat Pah Pong. Wat Pah Nanachat had some years previously been established by Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho (his senior Western disciple, who now lives in England, Abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Centre) as a centre for Westerners interested in training in the monastic lifestyle of the forest tradition. During his time at Wat Nanachat, Ajahn Jagaro gained invaluable experience in dealing with monastic administrative duties, in addition to developing a reputation in Thailand as a gifted teacher.
In February, 1982, he was invited to Perth, Western Australia, as resident monk for the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. Interest there was sufficient to see the establishment of Bodhinyana Forest Monastery in Serpentine, 60 kms south of Perth, where he led a small community of Buddhist monks and nuns of varying nationalities and acted as mentor for the Buddhist Society of Western Australia up until 1995.
In 1995, Ajahn Jagaro made the difficult decision to disrobe, expressing his gratitude for his contact with Ajahn Chah and all his Dhamma friends within the Buddhist Community.
Buddhism and Vegetarianism
On a previous occasion when I gave a talk on Buddhism and vegetarianism there were some very strong reactions from some members of the audience. People who have strong reactions to talks are people who have very strong feelings about the topic, which means they have very strong views about the topic. This is a great danger, because as soon as we develop very strong, fixed views about anything, it tends to make us rather rigid. We develop a closed mind, which makes us over-react to anything that is said. If it's not in agreement with us it must be against us. That's all we see - black and white - and that is a great shame. The Buddha warned against attachment to views and opinions as one of the fundamental causes of suffering.
We see this over and over again in every aspect of life. Most of the conflicts that we are involved in during our lives arise out of disagreement with regard to certain views about things. These conflicts and due to attachment to our views and our perceptions.
Of course, we need views, we cannot live without them. A view is the way we see something, the way we understand something, our preference with regard to the variety of choices available in regard to things. This is quite natural. As long as we think, perceive, or have been conditioned in a certain way, we will have views, and on some topics these may be very strong and fixed.
Vegetarianism is one such topic. This evening I will talk about the topic as a contemplation. It is not my intention to sit here and tell you what the final word on Buddhism and vegetarianism is. That is neither my intention nor the Buddhist way. My understanding comes from my experience, from my perspective, from my contemplation. You may agree or you may not; it doesn't matter as long as you reflect clearly on the matter and come to your own conclusions. I take a neutral position because I do not feel that this particular topic can be seen simply in terms of black and white. I take the Buddhist position as I understand it.
Let's begin with a fundamental question: Is it a prerequisite for a Buddhist to be a vegetarian according to the teachings of the Buddha, as far as we can assess? I would have to say, No, according to the Buddhist scriptures it is not a prerequisite for a person to be a vegetarian in order to be a Buddhist.
People say, "Well how do you know what the Buddha taught, anyway?" It's true. I don't know from personal experience; if I was there, I don't remember it. So what do we have to rely on? We have to rely on these scriptures that have been handed down through the centuries. As to whether we can trust these scriptures depends on whether we accept them as accurate recordings of the Buddha's teaching or not. In the Theravada tradition we have what we call the Pali Canon, the Buddhist scriptures. There are many volumes, the Vinaya Pitaka, the discipline for monks and nuns, the Suttanta Pitaka, which contains the discourses or teachings given by the Buddha, and finally the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which is the system of philosophy and psychology developed from the basic texts. Most scholars agree that the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the 'higher teaching', was developed by teachers of later periods from the basic texts of the Suttas as a system of analysis for easier explanation and for use in debate.
So there are three collections of scriptures. My research is limited to the Vinaya and the Suttas, the books of discipline and the books of discourses. From my studies I have great confidence that what is presented in these scriptures accurately represents what the Buddha taught. However, I do not claim that every word in these scriptures is exactly the word of the Buddha. There have been some changes, some additions and some alterations through the ages, but the essence is there. In essence the texts are a very true and accurate record of what the Buddha taught.
My basis for this reasoning is simply the fact that the people who passed on these teachings and checked them were disciples, monks and nuns who had tremendous respect for the Buddha, just as monks today have, and I don't think that many monks would dare to intentionally change the teachings of the Buddha. Very few monks would be prepared to do that. Any alterations that have taken place were simply an expedient means for making recitation more convenient. There may have been accidental alterations, but I do not think that the texts were corrupted intentionally, certainly not in any serious or major way.
This is verified in particular with regard to the Books of Discipline, which deal with the monastic discipline. Through the ages Buddhism slowly spread from the Ganges Valley throughout India, moving south to Sri Lanka, across to Burma and Thailand, then north towards Tibet and eventually China. Over the centuries it began to fragment into various schools. Some of these schools flourished in different parts of India and more distant locations, and so had very little or no contact with each other. When we compare the Books of Discipline, however, there's remarkable similarity between these different schools. They are so similar that they must have originally come from the same source.
So there is good reason for confidence in what we call the Pali Canon and to accept that it does represent the teachings of the Buddha. In any case, this is the evidence we have to deal with, because there is no one here who can say, "I heard the Buddha say differently." These scriptures are the most authoritative or the most definitive representation of the Buddha's teachings.
If we study these scriptures very carefully we will find that nowhere is there any injunction to either lay people or to monks with regard to vegetarianism. There is not a single mention of it as a Buddhist injunction on either the monks and nuns or lay people. If the Buddha had made vegetarianism a prerequisite it would have to be somewhere in the scriptures. Quite to the contrary, one does find a number of instances where the Buddha speaks about food, especially on the rules pertaining to the monks, indicating that, during the time of the Buddha, the monks did sometimes eat meat.
If you'll bear with me I would first like to present to you some of this historical evidence. In these scriptures, particularly in the Books of Discipline, there are many references to what monks are and are not allowed to do. A lot of these rules have to do with food; there are rules about all sorts of things pertaining to food, some of them very unusual. If the monks had to be vegetarian then these rules would seem to be completely useless or irrelevant.
For instance there is one rule which forbids monks from eating the meat of certain types of animals, such as horse, elephant, dog, snake, tiger, leopard and bear. There are about a dozen different types of meat specified by the Buddha which are not allowed for monks. That he made a rule that certain types of meat were not to be eaten by monks would indicate that other types of meat were allowable.
There is another rule: a monk was ill, and as he was quite sick a devout female disciple asked him if he had ever had this illness before and what did he take to cure it? It was some sort of stomach problem, and he said that he'd had it before and last time he had some meat broth which helped to relieve the symptoms. So this woman went off looking for meat to prepare a meat broth for the sick monk. However it was an uposatha (observance) day, so there was no meat available anywhere. It was a tradition in India not to slaughter animals on such days. Out of great devotion this lady decided that the monk could not be left to suffer, so she cut a piece of her own flesh and made a meat broth. She took it to the monk, offered it to him, and apparently he drank it and recovered. When the Buddha heard about this, he made a rule that monks are not allowed to eat human flesh. Thank goodness for that!
So here is another strange rule that would be completely pointless if there had been a stipulation that the monks never eat meat. There are many similar instances both in the Rules of Discipline and in the Discourses. When the Buddha heard a charge that Buddhist monks caused the killing of animals by eating meat, he stated that this was not so. He then declared three conditions under which monks were not to eat meat: if they have seen, heard or they suspect that the animal was killed specifically to feed them, then the monks should refuse to accept that food. At other times, when the monks go on almsround, they are supposed to look into their bowls and accept whatever is given with gratitude, without showing pleasure or displeasure. However, if a monk knows, has heard or suspects that the animal has been killed specifically to feed the monks, he should refuse to receive it.
There are many more examples than I have given here, scattered throughout the scriptures, indicating that it was not a requirement that either the monks or the lay people be vegetarian.
Furthermore, we can see that throughout the history of Buddhism there has not been one Buddhist country were vegetarianism was the common practice of the Buddhist people. This would indicate that it hasn't been the practice right from the very beginning. Although some Mahayana monks, in particular the Chinese, Vietnamese and some of the Japanese, are vegetarian, the majority of lay people are not. Historically, right up to the present day, Buddhist people in general haven't been strictly vegetarian. This would seem to support the conclusion drawn from an examination of the scriptures, that it has never been a prerequisite for people who want to be Buddhists to be vegetarian.
Of course it can be argued, and it often is argued, by vegetarian monks in particular, but also by lay people, that the scriptures were altered. They argue that the Buddha did teach vegetarianism, but those monks who wanted to eat meat went and changed every reference to it in all the texts. They didn't have a computer to just punch in 'reference to meat' and get a whole list. The scriptures were initially handed down by word of mouth and many monks were involved. No one had it on a disk so that it could be changed in half an hour. It would have been very difficult to change as there are many references to it throughout the scriptures. You could change it in one place but then it would be inconsistent with other references. It is highly unlikely that the monks could have achieved consistency in changing so many references throughout the scriptures, so I think the claim of corruption of the scriptures by meat-loving monks is a bit far-fetched. I think the scriptures are accurate. I think that the Buddha did not make it a prerequisite for people, nor do I think that it was laid down as a rule of training for monks.
Another point of contention arises over the Buddha teaching, as one of the training rules for everybody who wanted to be his disciple, that they are not to kill any living creature. The very first precept for a lay Buddhist is: 'Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.' (I undertake the training rule of not killing any living creature.) This is a training for every Buddhist monk, nun, novice, postulant, layman and laywoman, which is absolutely fundamental to the training in harmlessness.
There appears to be an inconsistency, it doesn't seem to add up, but this is simply due to not thinking clearly about the topic. Obviously the Buddha saw a great difference in these two trainings - the training of not killing and the training regarding diet. They operate at different levels.
The Buddha was very pragmatic. When he laid down training rules, he laid down rules that people could keep, that they had a good likelihood of keeping. For instance, he did not lay down a training rule saying that you must not over-eat. The monks are supposed to be alms mendicants and he laid down a lot of rules about eating for monks - they are allowed to eat only in the morning, when they eat they are not supposed to make chomping or slurping sounds, they are not supposed to drop grains of rice, they are not supposed to scrape the bowl, they are not supposed to look around - yet he didn't make one rule about over-eating. You can really stuff yourself and not break a rule. You would think that the Lord Buddha would have made a rule about that. Why not, when he made all these other rules? It's up to the individual to train oneself to eat in moderation. It is something you take responsibility for and train yourself toward gradually, but it is not a rule to start with.
There is a big difference between eating meat and killing animals, although it can be argued that when we eat meat we indirectly support the killing of animals. There's something to that, and I'll go into it in greater detail later on. There is a big difference between the two, however, because the killing of animals refers to intentionally depriving an animal of life or intentionally causing or directly telling somebody else to kill an animal. That is what the first precept is about - the intention to kill an animal. That is the purpose behind the action. There is intention, there is purpose and there is the actualisation of that purpose in killing.
If you drove your car here this evening I'm sure that you killed something - on your windscreen there would have been a few smashed insects. When we drive from the monastery where I live in Serpentine to Perth, which is approximately 60 kilometres, the windscreen gets covered with dead insects, especially in the mornings and evenings. I know when I get into the car and ask someone to drive me somewhere that some insects are going to die. I know that, but that is not my intention for getting into a car and being driven somewhere. I don't say, "Let's go for a spin to see how many insects we can squash." If that was my intention then I would be killing, intentionally killing. But we don't do that. We get into a car to go from A to B for a purpose. Perhaps some beings get killed, but it's not our intention to kill them.
That is not killing - there is death but you are not creating the kamma of killing animals. This rule is the foundation of the Buddhist training in harmlessness: you refrain from intentionally killing living creatures.
When people eat meat what is their intention? How many people eat meat with the intention to kill cows, pigs and sheep? If their intention in eating is to kill more cows, that would be very close to killing. If you consider why people really eat meat you will see that it is for very different reasons. Why did people in more basic, rural societies, such as in northern Thailand where I lived, where most of the people were Buddhist, eat meat? They ate frogs, grasshoppers, red ants, ant larvae .... all sorts of things. Why? For protein, they had to survive, they had to have food and it's very hard to get food. What did a caveman eat? He ate whatever he could get. Due to the fundamental drive to survive he would eat whatever he could get. That has a lot to do with what we eat - the primary instinct of survival. It depends on what is available.
Then there is the cultural influence, the way your tastes are conditioned by your upbringing. If you are accustomed to certain types of food, you find those kinds of food agreeable. That is why you buy them. That is the sort of food that you know how to cook. Why are most Australians non-vegetarian? They eat meat because that is what they are conditioned to eat. That is part of the conditioning of the Australian culture.
So when most people who are not vegetarians eat meat, it is not because they want to kill animals. It's just that that is what they have been conditioned to eat since childhood. It is part of their culture, that is what they know how to cook and that is what they know how to eat. It agrees with them, that is why they eat it.
You might say it's ignorance. Well, most people are ignorant; most people have limited scope in their overall understanding of options and possibilities; most people live according to their conditioning. It doesn't have to be that way, but that is how it is for most people.
It is important to make this distinction. Eating meat is not the same as killing animals, because the intention is different. The Buddha laid down this rule, to refrain from intentionally killing any living creature, as the first step towards respecting life, both human and animal. It's just a start, not the end. And most people can't even do that. How many people in the world can truly refrain from killing living beings? We could get into an idealistic battle as to why everybody should be vegetarian, but you have to admit that the great majority of people on this planet cannot even keep to the level of not intentionally killing. If they could keep to that level, things would be a lot better. The Buddha had a pragmatic approach to things, so he said to at least start at this level.
Thus far I have given you reasons why Buddhism doesn't make vegetarianism compulsory. Does Buddhism then encourage the eating of meat? Nowhere in the scriptures do we read that the Buddha said, "Eat more meat, it is good for you." Nowhere does it say to "give the man meat." There is not a single reference to giving the monks more meat. The scriptures certainly do not encourage the eating of meat; there are no references to it, no suggestion of encouragement for it. What are we to make of this? Simply that each individual must consider this matter carefully, come to his or her own conclusions and take responsibility for them.
Now we must consider whether vegetarianism is compatible with the teachings of the Buddha. I would say wholeheartedly that it is compatible. Vegetarianism is a very beneficial practice for one who is developing two conditions which every Buddhist should be trying to develop: compassion and wisdom. That is what we endeavour to cultivate through the spiritual path. Compassion means feeling with, feeling for, being sensitive to the pain of others. The natural outcome of developing such compassion is that we do not want to kill, we do not want to hurt others.
Through wisdom we begin to realise that not only do our actions have direct results, but also indirect results. This is the arising of understanding. I've often referred to one of the fundamental laws of nature, called Dependent Origination or Conditioned Arising - "When this is, that comes to be." In other words, certain conditions bring about certain results. As we develop greater clarity of mind and greater awareness, we begin to see the relationship. Whatever we do has its consequences. The way we live gives rise to causes and results. We begin to see that this is a fundamental law of nature and we become a lot more aware of how we are living and the consequences of our actions. As we become more compassionate and wise we will start to direct our lives so that we become more harmless, or contribute less to the suffering and destruction in life.
Now let's consider this on a broader scale than just vegetarianism, because this topic of 'Buddhism and Vegetarianism' is far too narrow. We cannot discuss vegetarianism as if it was an isolated thing all by itself. There's much more to it; it involves the ecology, it involves every aspect of life. Perhaps 'Buddhism and Ecology' or 'Buddhism and Life' would be more fitting titles.
Once we realise that how we live has its consequences, what effect will this have on how we live and how we regard what we are doing? Everything we do and say has its consequences, because we are part of a system. Every person sitting here is part of the system, the whole universe. There is one system and you are part of it. Everything you do has an effect on the universe.
You may think, "What can I do to affect the movement of the planets and the galaxies?" Perhaps very little, but according to the relationship of interdependence, everything you do affects everything else. If you can't see it as a whole you can certainly see it in this room. What you do here this evening will affect everybody else. What I do is affecting you. What we do affects the outside. Everything we do has its long range effect on everything else.
So when we eat meat, that has its consequences. What are the consequences? We are directly supporting an industry that is based on rearing animals, quite often under terrible conditions, for the sole purpose of slaughter. The meat can then be available in neatly wrapped little packages so that we can buy it can eat it. Our intention when we cook and eat meat is not to kill animals - I don't think anyone has that intention - however the fact remains that by the acts of buying, cooking and eating, we indirectly support the killing of the animal. It's not killing, but it is supporting.
Now, with that understanding, certain individuals may decide not to support killing. They won't want to be part of it; they will want to remove themselves from it. If there is one reason why a Buddhist should decide to be a vegetarian, it should be based on this perspective. There is only one good, valid reason, and that is compassion - not wanting to contribute to the suffering any more than one has to.
Vegetarianism is a matter of individual choice and responsibility, not something that can be forced, but it is certainly praise-worthy and compatible with the Buddha's teaching. But does it stop there? Are you now pure? You've become vegetarian, but are you blameless? Are your hands clean?
Let me tell you that as long as you are alive on this planet, as long as you are a member of this system, your hands will never be clean. It doesn't matter what you eat, you are always contributing to death and destruction, regardless of what you do. You can be a vegetarian, but you still contribute to destruction just because you are part of this system. You can't escape it. You are sitting on chairs, where do they come from? The chairs are on the carpet: where does the carpet come from? The electricity? Air-conditioning? The building, the motor car, the trains, the buses, where does all that come from? It's all interrelated. Everything is interrelated. We're always involved in the whole system, and as long as we live in this system we are always contributing. We make use of the air-conditioning, we make use of the electricity, which means that we are in a way supporting the building of dams, which entails the destruction of forests. There can be no doubt about it. You are wearing clothes, you are wearing shoes. If you don't wear leather shoes, you wear plastic shoes. Who makes the plastic shoes? The chemical companies, the ones that make napalm and poisons. You are supporting them.
As I said, the training for a monk is to accept what one is given and not to ask for anything special. Most of the food we get is vegetarian, but not all. So I can be accused of contributing. I confess, my hands are not clean. Even if I am vegetarian, as I can be most of the time, my hands are still not clean. Where do you think the fruit and vegetables come from? How do those vegetable gardens get to be so free of trees and bushes? What happened to all the trees and bushes? Those huge fields of wheat and corn and the orchards - what happened to all the forests? - gone with the ploughing and spraying. We have nice vegetables, but for them to be nice vegetables you've got to do something about the insects.
On an individual basis, if you really are compassionate, if you really are wise, you can do as much as you can to minimise the damage. But when you consider that there are some six billion people on this planet, that's a lot of people to feed and clothe, so there has got to be a lot of destruction, either directly or indirectly. Life is like that.
What I am saying is not fatalistic. It is simply making us aware of reality. Within this reality we all can and should consider carefully what we are doing, how we are living and what we are consuming. How much are we contributing to death and destruction? It's not just a matter of vegetarianism. That is praise-worthy if done properly, and, as I said, compatible with the teachings of the Buddha, but there's more to it than that - much more.
Even if one isn't vegetarian there's a lot to do. Nowadays we are beginning to understand this. We cannot continue to consume more and more, demand more and more, want more and more of everything and expect that this limited planet with its limited resources can supply it for us. One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is to be contented with little. It doesn't mean starving yourself, it's just a matter of being contented, of not being continually caught in the obsession to get more, which is basically the present-day consumer society syndrome, isn't it? Nearly all of us in Western society are suffering from it.
I have an American student who complains because there is such a limited range of food here in Australia. We've only got three kinds of this type of chocolate, she says, whereas in America they have twenty kinds. Twenty kinds of chocolate, one hundred and twenty kinds of ice-cream to choose from - a marvellous achievement for the human race, the apex of human civilisation. This is consumerism, where the word is 'more, more, more'. It's always more, with little or no emphasis on contentment.
You can see where this is going to lead, this hungry ghost syndrome of forever wanting more, of never being satisfied. It's going to destroy the whole planet. The planet is limited and the consequences are very far reaching. One hungry ghost is not so bad, but when you start getting millions of them, this wanting more and more is going to consume the whole world. It already is consuming the world at an alarming rate.
The Buddha was pointing to a very fundamental principle: craving is the source of the problem and it can never be satisfied by feeding it. Contentment, being satisfied with few needs, is so important. Of course this had to be a personal judgement. The Buddha can't sit down and say, "I allot twenty grams of cheese per person per day." That's ridiculous! The Buddha was an enlightened being and he wanted people to become enlightened, to become responsible. The Buddha doesn't take responsibility away from you, it is up to each individual. He offers guidelines which each one of us must use in considering our lives, reflecting on what we are doing, the consequences thereof, and taking responsibility. How much are we willing to give up? Each person must find his or her own limit. For some people that may be one car, for others two cars; some people may only want a bicycle - that is their assessment of their need.
The more we stress compassion and understanding of the consequences of actions, the more people will be able to make the right choices, to simplify, to develop more contentment and know moderation. This is much more important than just vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is just one factor, just one aspect of the whole picture. The whole is much greater because it deals with how much we consume, even of fruit and vegetables, clothing, shoes, power, air, fuel, everything - because all consumption brings about destruction.
This is the Buddhist way of life: beginning to cultivate compassion and understanding, and from there beginning to redirect our lives by making the right choices. It's up to each individual to decide how far he can go, but the direction is toward trying to tread as lightly as possible on the planet, so that our lives won't be the cause of so much destruction.
It is a personal thing. It does no good going around pointing fingers at people and demanding that they stop: "You'd better stop using bleached toilet paper otherwise we'll imprison you." If society reaches that point, then banning such a product may be a good thing, but you can't do so until sufficient people appreciate and understand the need for it. The main thrust of Buddhism is always to encourage compassion and understanding. From there, everything else will come about in accordance with the individual's response and sense of personal responsibility.
You can see why I feel quite confident that the Buddha would not have made vegetarianism compulsory, because that is not the way he would approach it. His main concern would be to set a fundamental standard, but even that would be voluntary. It is then up to you whether you follow it or not. It is up to the individual, through the teaching, to become more compassionate and wise, to take responsibility for one's life. Whether you make a rule or not, what matters is whether people are going to keep it. The Buddha's approach, the main thrust of his teaching, was to try to encourage more understanding and compassion, so that the individual would make the appropriate choices - not only vegetarianism, but about many other things.
Vegetarianism is a very noble choice, but that choice should be made from the right stand point - out of compassion and understanding. Having made such a choice, don't pollute it with aversion for those who are not vegetarian. The goodness generated by such a choice then becomes corrupted, and in some ways you will be worse than non-vegetarians. We make our choice out of compassion. If we are in a position to explain, we explain it to others according to reason and logic, not by being critical of them for not being vegetarian.
I respect people who are vegetarian. They are acting very nobly; it is a gesture of renunciation. It is a small thing but noble, and very much in keeping with the Buddha's teaching of compassion and understanding. But don't stop there. Even if you are not vegetarian don't think there is nothing else you can do. There's a lot to be done in every area of life, in the way we speak, in the way we act, in everything. Be one who treads lightly, be one who doesn't add unnecessarily to the suffering of humanity and all other sentient beings on this planet. Once we have the intention to at least try, to move in the right direction, we are good disciples of the Buddha. Each person has to walk at his or her own pace.
Ajahn Jagaro (1994)
** Prepared at BuddhaNet for free distribution, April 2000
** Transcribed by Antony Woods, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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