Vegetarianism and Buddhism

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One of the biggest controversies in Buddhism is if the Buddha required or recommended a vegetarian diet or not or if it was up to each Buddhist to make up their own mind or if there were any other recommendations regarding diets. A look at the followers finds that nearly half of all Buddhists follow a vegetarian or near vegetarian diet and about half do not. Contrary to some popular beliefs, the Mahayana does not have any significantly higher numbers of vegetarians than the Theravada. Theravadins in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, Sri Lanka, and others have been adopting vegetarianism in increasing numbers in recent years.

Diet of Buddha

Main article: Diet of Buddha

The Buddha may have ate some meat, following the 3 fold rule. But his diet was more like a vegetarian diet who ate meat "out of pity" (Anguttara Nikaya III.49) on rare occasions.

Threefold rule

Main article: 3 fold rule

The main premise behind the three-fold rule is to graciously accept what one receives in your bowl when going for alms round. This rule was meant and spoken to monks and nuns, not to lay people. “Beggars can’t be choosers” in modern terms. So for the vast majority of Buddhists who are lay people, a conscious decision must be made.

Biological evolution

Some people argue that we as humans should be eating at the top of the food chain, like other large animals or because of our “superiority.” However, if we are truly superior to other animals we do not need to show it by being the greatest inflictors of violence.

Rather, it is better to show moral superiority by being the most compassionate. Not all large or intelligent animals eat at the top of the food chain. For example, elephants, rhinos, some whales, and gorillas are all very large, very strong, and very intelligent animals which eat at the bottom of the food chain. Some whales have a sort of filter at their mouths which catch tiny plankton for their meals. You need a microscope to view plankton.

Because of our close connection to animals biologically (evolution) and spiritually in the re-birth process, the Buddha was opposed to violence towards animals. An understanding and acceptance of the theory of evolution is important because without that acceptance there is a perception of a great separation between humans and animals which simply is not true.

As time goes on, people will realize that it is not even just a biological connection. If we are animals as evolution shows us, then animals must also have a soul if humans do (or Buddha-nature or capacity for enlightenment or any other spiritual terminology). There is no way around it since we all evolved from the same source.

Devadatta's vegetarianism

Main article: Devadatta

The Buddha rejected Devadatta's list of ascetic practices. But the Buddha did not reject the entire list and in fact praised different parts of it at different times.

The Pali Canon and vegetarianism

Main article: Anguttara Nikaya 3.16

Monks, one possessed of three qualities is put into Purgatory according to his actions. What three? One is himself a taker of life, encourages another to do the same and approves thereof. Monks, one possessed of three qualities is put into heaven according to his actions. What three? He himself abstains from taking life, encourages another to so abstain, and approves of such abstention.” Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Threes

Nutrition and environment

There are a number of nutritional and environmental reasons for abstaining from meat. Bad cholesterol can only be found in meat and animal products. The vegetarian diet, contrary to some myths, does provide all of the nutrients needed for the human body.

Vegetarianism and the Middle Way

Middle way does not necessarily mean “a little of this and a little of that.” For example, we know that abstaining from drugs and alcohol is a good precept to follow because if we abuse drugs and alcohol, we can become addicts. We become prisoner to the next fix or dose. Under the influence we can do all kinds of other bad things which we may not even be aware of. An extreme or fanatical view of middle way would seem to suggest that Buddhists would be able to take some drugs and alcohol, since it is a “middle” position between addiction and abstention. But when you start the craving process, addiction can surely follow. How about a little bit of poison? Who wants to ingest some poison that can kill almost instantly, such as rat poison? This is why we need to let go of all views, including Buddhist ones. If we take an extreme view of Buddhist middle way, we might think that “a little of this and a little of that” is okay, regardless of the content.

If you feel that you can handle such things as alcohol in moderation and wish to do so you can continue with that experiment and see if your judgment is not impaired, so long as no being is harmed or killed. In regard to meat eating, even in moderation, we can not honestly say that no living being will be killed (to replace the meat).

Middle way or moderation is for wholesome and nonviolent activities and not for obvious actions which harms yourself or others. Perhaps a better way to describe the middle way is, “everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Vegetarianism can actually be a “middle way” position when you look at the Buddha’s first description and definition of the middle way. The Buddha first described the middle way as not being the extreme of an ascetic where you deprive yourself and torture the body (such as some yogis trying to reach enlightenment through self mortification) and the other extreme of self indulgence.

Self mortification, as practiced by some yogis included long fasts. The Buddha broke the rule of the ascetics when he ate and bathed. Vegetarianism does not require long fasts or even short fasts. The one extreme is fasting and torturing your body and the other extreme is doing whatever you want. Vegetarianism does not require malnutrition or sacrificing your body or your health.

Self indulgence refers to chasing after pleasures of the senses without regard for consequences. It is an attachment to the senses. If we know that meat eating is not needed for survival and we choose to eat it because we are attached to the taste, that is a form of self indulgence.

If you consider the different levels of vegetarianism, the minimum amount to be called a vegetarian of “Lacto-Ovo” (no meat, but will eat animal products, such as eggs and dairy) does not look so extreme. For example, there are vegetarians who do not eat eggs (lacto-vegetarians), vegetarians who do not eat dairy products (ovo-vegetarians), vegetarians who do not eat any animal products (vegans), and some vegetarians who only eat macrobiotic, organic, raw vegan foods. And then there are those who take even that a step further, like the Jain food diet where, foods are eaten only from plants where the source plant did not die. For example, in this diet you only eat greens that are trimmed from the top of the plant so that the plant is not killed.

In India there are millions of Jains who only eat greens from plants that are trimmed. They check their seats before sitting down to make sure they are not sitting on any insects. The Jains also put a cover on their mouths, thinking that it will prevent the death to microorganisms in the air. The Buddha said that it is the intention that matters so that if we accidentally sit or walk on an insect, it is okay. To be a vegetarian Buddhist, one only needs to eat at the lacto-ovo level or higher. Seen in this way, with all the levels of vegetarian diets, the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet does not look so extreme.

Some feel that Buddhist vegetarians are attached to their view of vegetarianism. They say that vegetarians get angry when they see Buddhists and others eating meat. This is creating defilements and anger in their minds. Vegetarianism is a view as noted by the “ism” at the end of the term. Some Buddhists have tried vegetarianism and later gave it up, because they felt it was an attachment to a view or “ism.” When they saw people eating meat they became angry. Rather than trying to change their attitudes, they changed their diet and gave up on vegetarianism.

A meat eater could be equally as angry when they see or hear Buddhists for example, expounding the ideals of vegetarianism when they believe that meat eating is acceptable to Buddhism. Anger and attachment can come with any view, those who are vegetarian and to those who are not.

Although vegetarianism is a view as it is a philosophy of non-violence through the non-eating of meat at meals, it is also an action. In fact it can be more action and very little view. When we eat a meal we are not practicing a view, we are performing an action. Right Action is a part of the Eightfold Middle Path and includes the precept of no killing or causing to kill. When you eat a vegetarian meal you are not causing the death of an animal. When you eat meat, you are causing the death of an animal.

If we take the view that we do not want to be angry at seeing other people eat meat, so we join them, we are taking an extreme view of the principle of “letting go.” If we continue with this logic then we should also kill humans, because we do not want to be angry when we see murderers on the news, so we join them. Taking the extreme view of letting go actually backfires as the person becomes attached to letting go and ignores all precepts.

We must be careful not to be too attached to concepts and views, including Buddhist ones. Another example is the concept of being in the “present.” Buddhist meditation is aimed at being in the here and now, in the mindfulness of the moment. There was this Buddhist middle class person who had a master’s degree and a high paying job. He met a guru who used Buddhist and new age principles in an attempt to start a cult or new religion or branch of Buddhism. This person gave up his high paying job and sold all his possessions. He followed the guru in search of enlightenment. When asked how he would pay for his housing and meals, this person responded, “I do not think about those matters of the future. I am only in the present moment.” This is an example of attachment to a principle, even a Buddhist one can be wrong, if taken to this extreme.

A common theme among the success and longevity of elderly people is that they do everything in moderation, including moderation. It is the same with the middle way. If we become too attached to the concept of middle way, we lose sight of the teachings.

We can avoid feeling angry by taking a middle way position with our attitudes. For example, as vegetarians we should not call meat eaters “murderers.” We should not get upset at the sight of people eating meat. Most people were raised in cultures where meat eating is seen as completely normal.

About half of all Buddhists eat meat and another small percentage drink alcohol. This does not make them “bad” Buddhists, as there is no sin in Buddhism. There is simply attachment, aversion, and ignorance that are not realized yet.

We should lead by example and explain to anyone who wants to learn about the reasons we are vegetarian from the standpoint of how much better we feel in the body and mind with a vegetarian diet. Since upbringing, culture, and tradition are so powerful, we can not expect meat eaters to just give up meat with a few valid points thrown at them. Forcing morality on people has never worked. There are numerous examples of this, including the alcohol prohibition in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. The best course of action is to balance the principles of non-killing and letting go by being a good example and not forcing our views on others. If you are a vegetarian, explain and show people how much better you feel without forceful or degrading words. I personally do not advocate the legal prohibition of alcohol, meat eating, or even drugs. I would like to see people voluntarily choose not to take these substances, but I am realistic and realize that it will take at least another two hundred years or maybe even a thousand years of education, learning, and insight.

Some others complain that vegetarians do violence to plants and the environment in the construction of their homes and all the insects they kill in the production of their foods. The displacement of animals is a far less form of violence to killing animals for food. The development of homes and buildings does cause death to insects, but this is unavoidable as is accidentally stepping on an ant walking down the street. The difference is the intent. The Buddha said that there is no “crime” when there is no intent. A vegetarian builder does not intend to kill insects just as the person walking down the street does not purposely step on the ant. The consumption of meat, however, is a voluntary choice matter.

The bottom line from an ahimsa view which all Dharmic religions aspire to, is that any diet choice is going to have some 'collateral' damage, even if you are vegan (the harvest damage to insects or small animals). So judging any diet as being particularly violent or unwholesome is not very helpful since all diets are somewhat violent. However, we could try to choose the least amount of violence, if we are able to. We should also realize that some people don't always have that luxury due to family, culture, or if they are a monastic.

It is true that vegetarians do need to kill plants to eat their vegetarian diet, but the point is to inflict the least amount of violence. Another important point is that there is a huge difference between killing a plant and killing an animal. Vegetables and fruits are life forms, but they are not animals, like humans, cows, and chickens. A vegetable does not have a face or a central nervous system and does not scream in pain.

Many fruits and vegetables can be eaten without harming the plant, including legumes, berries, nuts, seeds, pumpkins, melons, squash, okra, and others. Another very important point is that most fruits and vegetables are eaten at the end of their natural life. In fact, fruit trees actually produce their fruit so that they may survive and produce another tree. If the tree could talk, it would beg us to eat its fruit. Seriously, when a human or animal eats a fruit, the food travels down the intestinal tract, along with some seeds. Later, when the human or animal defecates, the seeds end up back on the ground at a different location. The seeds then produce another tree. The tree remains alive and by eating the fruit, we are assisting in the production of another tree.

Now when a person eats an animal, do you think the animal had the same wish to be killed and eaten? Videos of slaughterhouse procedures have graphically shown how the animals feel about being killed. They are prodded, often with electric shock devices into the slaughterhouse. Once their throats are cut, they can be seen crying in pain and kicking with all their might to be free. Gallons and gallons of blood pour out from the cuts. It is quite graphic and would probably need an “X” rating for violence if it were shown in theaters.

According to the Buddhist cosmology, rebirth occurs into the six realms of purgatory, asuras, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, and angelic higher beings (impermanent gods). There is no rebirth into the plant kingdom. Plants do not have a developed central nervous system, a brain, or a developed consciousness.

Some have stated that what matters is the state of your mind, not your diet. A vegetarian could have an impure mind and a meat eater could potentially have a pure mind, which is paramount in Buddhism. An argument that some meat eating Buddhist teachers make is that what really matters is the state of your mind. They say that a mind that is pure while eating meat is better than a mind that is impure, but vegetarian. This argument takes aim at the importance of mind purification in the Buddha’s teachings. But this argument fails for two big reasons. If we take the view that we can do whatever we want as long as our mind is pure, then we could never convict sociopathic killers. Sociopaths commit crimes such as rape and murder and feel no remorse. They have a clear mind about their actions. They know they are violating societies laws and just do not care. They are care-free and go about their daily routines with no remorse. The Buddha specifically stated that a clear mind does not get you off the hook. One monk performed immoral acts and stated that "I feel neither ease nor discomfort, thus there will be no offense for me." The Buddha responded, "whether this foolish man felt or did not feel, there is an offense." (Vinaya, Suttavibhanga 3.36)

This argument that meat eating is okay with a clear mind also fails, because it does not take into account the spiritual and biological effect of the food we eat. When you eat meat you are eating the craving, fear, and poisons which the animal feels or secretes as it is being slaughtered. Since a meditator is trying to alleviate craving and suffering it is best to avoid such poisons which harm others and yourself. The Buddha and modern medical doctors have demonstrated the inter-connection of the mind-body with the famous saying “you are what you eat.” Many people are vegetarians for the ethical and nutritional reasons and / or the benefits to the environment. But in vipassana we realize that there is an advantage for the purification of the mind too. Albert Einstein was a vegetarian and realized this connection with his statement, “It is my view that the vegetarian way of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”

The Buddhist commentaries on the sutras tell a story of two yogis who were very close to full enlightenment. Then they ate some meat. This created an obstacle to the complete awakening, which therefore, did not manifest. (Shabkar)

Since it is apparent that meat eating does effect the mind and continue the craving process and the slaughterhouse process, it is important for Dharma/Dhamma teachers to advise their students of the risks to health and mind purification with the consumption of meat. Many teachers have avoided this issue to stay away from controversy or to sell more books or get more followers. It would be good if teachers would change as we have the evidence of the damage meat can do to health and the mind. This does not need to be done in a forceful way, but in a way that recommends as a helpful teacher leading by example, with compassion.

Many famous Buddhist leaders have adopted a vegetarian diet and have advocated a vegetarian diet for their followers. This includes:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of the socially engaged Buddhist “Order of Interbeing.” He has written at least one hundred books and has centers and monasteries around the world.
  • Ayya Khema, very famous German born nun who has written several Dhamma books and opened many centers and monasteries in Europe and Sri Lanka. She was one of the first western women to receive full ordination.
  • Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, author of the best selling book, Mindfulness in Plain English, and founder and abbot of Bhavana Society in West Virginia is a vegetarian and the monks and nuns at his retreat center are also vegetarian.
  • S. N. Goenka, perhaps the most famous lay Buddhist, who led a successful business and family life along with the teaching of Dhamma. He has opened several Dhamma centers and is famous for his ten day retreats using the body sensations, vipassana technique.
  • Bhante Shravasti Dhammika, author of several Dhamma books, inluding the famous Good Question, Good Answer. In the first edition, written nearly 25 years ago he came out very strongly with the opinion that one does not need to be a vegetarian at all and vegetarian views are basically wrong. Since that time he has become a vegetarian and now he has come out with a fourth edition which states:

Many people find that as they develop in the Dhamma that they have a natural tendency to move toward vegetarianism.”

(Good Question, Good Answer, 4th edition)

  • Bhante Sujato has written several articles and books and is a former abbot and has argued for vegetarianism in articles and on his blog. Bhante Sujato make the following very sharp conclusion in one of his articles: "Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?"
  • "To practice nonviolence, first of all we have to practice it within ourselves. In each of us, there is a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence. Depending on our state of being, our response to things will be more or less nonviolent. Even if we take pride in being vegetarian, for example, we have to acknowledge that the water in which we boil our vegetables contains many tiny microorganisms. We cannot be completely nonviolent, but by being vegetarian, we are going in the direction of nonviolence. If we want to head north, we can use the North Star to guide us, but it is impossible to arrive at the North Star. Our effort is only to proceed in that direction." Thich Nhat Hanh

In this wonderful quote from TNH, he admits that we cannot be completely nonviolent, but by being vegetarian, we are in the right direction. The violence to micro-organisms, plants, and minerals, or even the displacement of animals for construction is in no way comparable to the screaming and pain of the slaughterhouse to highly sentient beings.

The analogy to the North Star is very good as it says that it is true that vegetarianism is not the goal of practice, liberation is the goal; but it does provide a light and direction for reaching that goal.

Can you be a Buddhist and still eat meat? Yes, of course, everyone is at different places on the path. Can you reach full liberation without following the North Star (vegetarianism), well according to the Buddha's teachings one cannot intentionally violate any of the five precepts (first precept is to not kill, cause to kill, or incite another to kill) and be a stream entrant or higher. A stream entrant is just the first stage of enlightenment (followed by once-returner, non-returner, and fully liberated Arahant). To be just the first stage of stream entrant one cannot purposely violate any of the five precepts. Does buying meat encourage or cause someone else to kill another living sentient being? That is for each of us to study and contemplate with our practice of meditation and Sutta study and come to our conclusions.

See also