Vegetarianism and Diet in Pāli Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

The Question of Vegetarianism and Diet in Pāli Buddhism

James J. Stewart
University of Tasmania

This article is concerned with the question of whether Pāli Buddhism endorses vegetarianism and therefore whether a good Buddhist ought to abstain from eating meat. A prima facie case for vegetarianism will be presented that relies upon textual citation in which the Buddha stipulates that a good Buddhist must encourage others not to kill. The claim that the Buddha endorses vegetarianism, however, is challenged both by the fact that meat-eating is permissible in the Vinaya and that the Buddha himself seems to have eaten meat. The article will suggest that this conflict emerges as a distinct ethical and legal tension in the canonical texts but that the tension may have arisen as a consequence of difficult prudential decisions the Buddha may have had to make during his ministry.

Read article

24 thoughts on “Vegetarianism and Diet in Pāli Buddhism”

  1. On the whole this is a very well argued and thoughtful piece. The weakest argument is that the Buddha did not insist on vegetarianism as this would have made his monastics too like the Jains. But his monastics had various other things in common with Jains or other groups.

    That said, you quote and refute points I raised in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics in explanation of why the Buddha did not require vegetarianism. In many of these points, I was simply describing the arguments one finds in the Theravada tradition. For myself, I’m a Theravada Buddhist and have been a vegetarian since the early 1970s. My personal view is that while a monastic should accept whatever food he or she is given, so long as it is ‘pure in three respects’, considerations of lovingkindness and compassion (but not the first precept, as such) indicate that it is appropriate for a lay Buddhist to be a vegetarian. The only exception is that food containing meat is given to a lay Buddhist by persons who did not know they were vegetarian (nowadays, people often ask, though), it would be inappropriate to refuse. If the animal is already dead, and one’s actions did not elicit its killing, nothing is gained by not eating the food containing its flesh. This is unlike the case of one purchasing flesh food, which helps support the market in dead animals, and hence their killing.

    Of course if more lay Buddhists were vegetarian, then more of the food offered to monastics would be vegetarian.

  2. (in reply to Peter Harvey): Thank you for your feedback!

    I take it that you mean that if the animal were already dead (e.g. if the animal carcass were, for example, found after having died of natural causes or by accident) then it would be permissible to eat the meat taken from that animal. I am told that this is not an uncommon practice in Tibet. If that were the case then I would agree that such meat eating would be permissible. In fact, I think this would be permissible also for non-Buddhist vegetarians (though for psychological reasons they might opt out of it).

    Alternatively, you may mean that the monks may eat meat provided by laypeople (who have in turn procured the meat by killing the animal themselves or from a butcher who killed the animal). According to my argument, however, the monks ought not do this on account that they are supporting the meat industry indirectly, i.e. by supporting the lay practice of buying meat killed in morally dubious ways.

  3. I agree that there would be no ethical problem with eating e.g. ‘road kill’ flesh, but my position is that of your second paragraph: it is acceptable for monks to accept dinated food containing meat if it is ‘pure in three respects’- but that it is ethically inappropriate for lay people to kill to eat, ask someone else to kill an animal to provide flesh to eat – or to buy flesh from the market to feed themselves or monks. Of course if monks are supported only by lay people following this line, then there would be no flesh food in the food that is offered to them. But if they are given non-vegetarian food that is ‘pure in three respects’, they should not refuse it.

  4. Thank you, I understand your view much better now. I also agree that it would be ideal if more lay people followed a vegetarian diet.

  5. The main problem with eating meat in these modern times is our industrialized abattoirs. These places are the stuff of nightmares. Every animal that is “processed” in our slaughterhouses dies in abject terror. I don’t think Buddha foresaw such places or the massive scale of meat processing. Perhaps if he had he would have been more adamant about vegetarianism. If the average consumer had to actually see how animal flesh gets to the grocery store shelf I think there would be many more vegetarians in the USA and other countries.

  6. In western culture, animals are simply property which can be sold, given away, mishandled or even tortured. Fortunately, this view is changing, especially among young people. Movies, like Food Inc. and pleas like “Please sign to tell the Japanese government to stop the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan” (132064 signatures on petition), turn us into active consumers preferring to explore the produce aisles instead of dead flesh in the freezer.

  7. Would contemplation on food (pratyaveksha), reflecting on why one has to eat, make any difference in the effects of meat eating? Surely for a monk or even a lay person having to make a particular choice in their food involves making karma?

  8. I wonder if Lord Buddha was motivated by compassion in his not advocating vegetarianism? One can, after all, feed several persons with meat via the killing of only one being, whereas the serving of four people with a simple salad can only be facilitated via the death of many. Its an old argument but logically sound and would conform to general underlying principles of the greater good.

  9. Prof Harvey’s assertion that “considerations of lovingkindness and compassion indicate that it is appropriate for a lay Buddhist to be a vegetarian” is open to debate. From the above perspective, such considerations indicate it is appropriate for a lay Buddhist (and indeed ordained Sangha) to eat MORE meat and fewer vegetables.

  10. I have always been a little dubious about the mathematical logic that determines that the impact of the death of a snail is precisely equal to the death of a cow. If such a flattening of evaluative categories was truly one’s modus operandi, would not human corpses be the most compassionate culinary option, given their ready availability? After all, no sentient being needs to be killed directly for the purpose of human consumption in this case. It is just simply a bi-product of the life and death cycle. In contrast, in the case of large animals, a world-wide industrial system “propagates” these sentient beings for no other purpose than human consumption.

    Personally, I avoid killing insects whenever possible. However it is important to realise that if nature did not have inbuilt systems for limiting their numbers, they would devour every other form of life on this planet, including humans. Such is not the case in regards to cows, pigs, chickens and fish. If Buddhism is to equate itself with science, it can’t ignore the significant ecological insights uncovered over the last century.

  11. (in reply to Sunil Kariyakarawana): Your point regarding the contemplation of the origins of one’s food is a very fine remark. It strikes me that such contemplation would precisely reinforce the psychological force of the Argument for Vegetarianism as outlined in my paper.

  12. (in reply to Gary Beesley): The idea that meat eating might be of instrumental value for sustaining a large number of people is an interesting point. However, I think it is clear that vegetarianism can equally well sustain large numbers of people. Moreover, I think the Buddha would have been aware of this fact because of the Jains; the Jains thrived on a strict vegetarian diet.

  13. My point is that the karmic consequence of killing one being, a cow, to feed 150 people with steaks, is a lesser evil than feeding 150 people with vegetarian food that required the killing of literally thousands of beings for its production. If Buddhism values life, which act is the more harmful: killing one or five thousand? If ones motive is to ensure as little suffering in the world as possible, then vegetarianism may not be “the Buddhist way.”

  14. (in response to Gary Beesley): In my opinion, feeding 150 people with meat would mean killing thousand of beings to feed the animals that will be eventually slaughtered, plus the animals themselves. By the way, I think that if someone cuts the throat of a calf, bound in a small cage for all its short life, it causes much more harm and suffering than if he accidentally steps on ant in order to grow some tomatoes.

  15. (in reply to Gary Beesley): Thanks Gary, I now understand what you are saying much better. You seem to be saying that much karmic harm is produced by harvesting and, on balance, it is better to eat larger animals instead because the net suffering is less. This argument reminds me of Steven Davis’ argument so I thought I would, in answer to you, consider his view. I don’t think Davis addresses all your concerns so I have prepared some further thoughts in reply too.

    A) Small Animals
    An argument has been advanced by Steven Davis to the effect that: (1) The cultivation of vegetables involves, in sum, greater suffering than just consuming bovines. (2) This is because, he argues, there is empirical evidence which suggests that large numbers of mice, rats, and similar small creatures die during the process of harvesting vegetables. So (3) Davis argues that the morally proper thing to do is just eat bovines because the net suffering is less. I believe this argument is very similar to the one you are advancing above.

    I should say that the truth of the empirical claim cited by Davis (a claim upon which Davis’ argument wholly rests) is very much cast into doubt by Andy Lamey’s research which shows that the results of the empirical research Davis cites has been misinterpreted. It turns out, on further analysis of the research, that few animals actually die as a result of the harvesting process, but rather die for unrelated reasons (mainly to do with predation by owls, weasels, etc). Lamey concludes that, on a closer examination of the data available, Davis’ argument falls apart because it seems that fewer animals than first expected actually die as a result of vegetable and grain harvesting. Given this, Lamey concludes that the net number of animals killed because of harvesting is rather insignificant. So I think the Buddhists do not have to worry an inordinate amount about small animal deaths during harvesting.

    B) Insects
    However, none of this responds to the possibility that even smaller animals–such as insects–are killed during the harvesting process. I am not aware of any research that predicts how many insects are killed during vegetable and grain harvesting, but it is plausible to say that at least some are killed (perhaps many). There are a number of ambiguities concerning insects however: (1) We don’t really know how many are killed to begin with, and (2) it is not clear to what degree insects actually suffer. These questions would need to be answered before we could determine whether eating meat, on balance, would be better. However, the Buddhists, as you know, assume that insects do suffer and are therefore morally relevant–so we should assume that (2) is answered for the Buddhists. Let us also suppose that a significant number of insects are killed.

    I think that if it turns out that many morally-relevant insects are killed during harvesting (something that is not even settled anyway) then this can perhaps be answered in this way: (a) It is already very difficult for any Buddhist to avoid killing insects as we do so all the time accidentally. It is not entirely clear whether the accidental killing of insects is morally wrong in Buddhism. It seems to me that it probably is not because such an action lacks the necessary wrong intention which is an important factor is determining moral blame in Buddhism. The accidental killing of insects during harvesting is just another example of that and is not morally objectionable. (b) We just have to be much more careful in our methods of harvesting. The problem is not a logical difficulty, but rather a practical difficulty. We just need to find ways of harvesting vegetables that do not require us to kill insects–and, in following my arguments in the article, a Buddhist would be required not to support industries that do not care for the welfare of insects.

    One objection to this latter solution might be this: This requires the Buddhist to support a harvesting industry that has in place practices that minimizes the harm caused to insects. Isn’t that an impossible requirement? The answer is: Not impossible, just difficult. And it turns out doing the right thing is difficult sometimes: but when we consider the fact that enlightenment is rather difficult too this is really no big surprise. Buddhists have a long history of high standards!

  16. What makes a being a moral subject (one who ought to be taken into consideration in our moral deliberations) in Buddhism is mainly whether it is sentient. It is not clear that all sentient beings can suffer, because it is not clear that all beings that can sense anything at all can also feel pain. As Richard DeGrazia points out in his book, Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP), some beings that have rudimentary nervous systems have senses but seem to have the neurological equivalent of the plumbing for pain without the hydraulics for it. Some species of insects seem to fall in this category. If one defines sentience not merely as the ability to sense anything at all, which is its intuitive meaning, but more narrowly as the ability to experience pleasant and unpleasant sensations, then this stipulative restriction seems arbitrary and fallacious.

    So, Buddhism’s central moral criterion, sentience, seems to be too broad, because it is vulnerable to counterexamples of the sort DeGrazia’s zoological claims support. If this is correct, and if Buddhism wishes to remain consistent with the best knowledge science delivers, then the proper category for moral status in Buddhism would not be sentience, but something not all sentient beings share, namely, having the ability to feel pleasure and pain. Let’s call that ability hedonic. On this science-revised view of Buddhism, it is only hedonic beings that have moral status.

    The semantic connotations of “hedonic beings” seems straightforwardly to connect with the bulk of the sort of arguments and considerations that have been raised in this thread of comments, to suggest what Jeremy Bentham called the “hedonic calculus,” Bentham’s utilitarian equation: an act is “good” if it produces the greater overall sum of positive hedonic values over negative ones (in terms of quantity, duration, magnitude, intensity, propinquity, etc.) for the greater number of hedonic beings affected by the act. While utilitarian thinking is essential when it comes to large-scale policies affecting large populations, it is notoriously limited by countless bizarre counterexamples in which the pros technically outweigh the cons, but good moral sense rejects the utilitarian’s required conclusion that the act in question is therefore “good,” such as, say, killing one healthy person in order to save five who each need one of that person’s healthy organs to survive.

    Despite the fact that Buddhism seems committed to the moral primacy of hedonic beings, I would resist saddling Buddhism with utilitarianism, although I do not have an argument on hand to block that implication. One wedge between Buddhism and utilitarianism might come from the claim that Buddhism is soteriological, and the moral wisdom components of Buddhism are secondary, and perhaps soteriologically-oriented. That is, the moral teachings are geared toward what promotes versus what hinders enlightenment. Also, as one advances along the Buddhist path, one’s moral wisdom increases, and increasingly one spontaneously acts in increasingly morally-sensitive ways. The focus is therefore not on rules and equations but on the cultivation of what turn out to be simultaneously enlightenment-oriented and ethical dispositions.

    So, for instance, the more one meditates, the more sensitive one naturally becomes to what one eats, where it came from, how it was produced, and so forth. Nonetheless, before one evolves, one may benefit from behaving in an ethical manner, which is believed to help one evolve. Thus, it would benefit folks to have good guidelines about food.

    When it comes to what we should eat, however, I confess a degree of uncertainty. Michael Pollan’s research, as reflected in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and other works, reveals that the sort of worries vetted in the above comment stream are not just philosophical (in the perjorative sense). The agricultural lobby behind the corn industry, for instance, has massively destructive and far-reaching ecological consequences that affect just about every other facet of food production in this country, for instance, and those of us who do eat meat, for instance, but who wish to minimize suffering, and who are willing to pay twice the usual cost for a “free range” chicken are often being duped (because the FDA permits that descriptor so long as there is a grassed area of a few cubic yards adjacent to a coop, whether chickens ever discover that it is beyond an apparently never-opened but unlocked “doggy” door).

    It behooves the sensitive Buddhist to be conscientious when buying food in a supermarket, but so little is known about what may be dubbed the “negative hedonic ecological value” (in the larger sense Pollan describes) attached to this or that product as to make it near impossible to be sure one is making an ideal choice. Given this epistemic opacity, we wind up not being as culpable as we would be if we had full knowledge, but our innocence is technically no different from that of the average person who eats veal, not knowing whatsoever about the life of a veal calf.

    Down the road, hopefully, just as there are calorie and ingredient indices attached to foods, there will be carbon footprint, ecological cost, and hedonic indices attached to every product. Then we can make more informed chocies, and we will not be able to excuse our choices on the grounds of epistemic opacity or a complexity that stymies sensitivity. Until then, I would think that Buddhists who want to err on the side of caution should continue to embrace a general policy of vegetarianism, making exceptions only when it is clear that they satisfy what Harvey mentions (the considerations of purity), but also hedonic considerations, and all the others mentioned above.

    I must confess that my own uncertainty about these issues, over the course of four decades in which I have gone back and forth between vegetarianism and meat-eating (I first became a vegetarian as a teenager), has supported my desire to eat meat in a way that appears to be, on reflection, possibly a mere rationalization. There are times when I am a strict vegetarian, for years on end. Then there are times when I will accept meat offered to me by the clueless. Then, when I am at a party or a meeting and the food is just being offered, reasoning that I am not responsible for the killing, nor even supporting the industry that produced it, because I am not purchasing it). Then, because I am in the habit of accepting meat under all these circumstances (the set of which seems to grow the more I eat meat), I get used to eating it, and eventually just start ordering it myself. I have refused to eat veal under all circumstances, but once a waiter misunderstood my order, and brought me veal, and I felt bad about the idea that the food would might be wasted, so I ate it, prompted by what felt like genuine compassion.

    According to the Jataka tales, in a previous life of the Buddha, the then-Bodhisattva offered his body to a lioness so she could feed her cubs. Was he encouraging her bad karma? I doubt it. (This is but one of many such exceptional acts.) In the Titan realm, beings battle incessantly. On earth, beings eat each other incessantly. In the heaven realms, things are so pleasant that they technically have such an excess henonic vlaue that the springs of enlightenment are not available: the sort of blend of positive and negative hedonic values that prompt reflection on the Dharma.

    To eat meat or not to eat meat, that is the question. I think the Buddha mostly got it right when he said generally to avoid it, but not fanatically. As with everything else, there is a middle way, however complex it may be to discern in an ever-changing set of circumstances. But increasing cultivation of virtue through meditative practice and meditative living increasingly helps one to develop, and to be able to apply, that natural discernment.

  17. The third way to deem a meat offering pure seems to imply that most of the meat offered by lay followers is impure. The monk going for alms in a frequently solicited Buddhist village should always find plausible (“suspect”) that the animal was killed for him (“him” being “a monk of the community frequently resorting to the village”). Indeed, frequently solicited villagers must plan their gathering of food while considering the upcoming almsround. They will kill more than they would if they were not solicited, i.e., they will kill for monks. This is the reason why I think eating alms-collected meat as a monk is only pure in the three ways if one resorts to a village infrequently solicited for alms.

  18. In James Stewart’s second comment, he mentions that he has heard of Tibetans relying on animals dying of natural causes. I’m writing my dissertation on vegetarianism in Tibet, and i would be quite interested in hearing more details about this should they be available. The closest thing I have come across is a practice occasionally undertaken, I am told (I do not have any direct evidence for this) by some Tibetan herdsmen who drive their animals close to cliffs, with the hope that one or two fall off. The meat is then harvested and the herdsman has a clean conscience, as it was the animal’s own poor footing that killed it. Obviously, this practice (should it exist, and I would love to find direct evidence for it) is no more than an ethical workaround. It does, however, give a good example of the slippery slope that allowing “road-kill” meat entails. I would argue that it is better to simply refuse all meat, rather than encouraging people to find ways around the rules.

  19. (in reply to Rick Repetti)
    “What makes a being a moral subject (one who ought to be taken into consideration in our moral deliberations) in Buddhism is mainly whether it is sentient. It is not clear that all sentient beings can suffer, because it is not clear that all beings that can sense anything at all can also feel pain.”

    With all due respect (and I don’t use that as a precursor to being disrespectful as is often the case), we can analyse that issue academically until the cows come home but, from the Buddhist perspective, it is the case that, as long as sentient beings are imprisoned in samsara, they are subject to suffering of varying degrees. Even, if insects and the like didn’t experience gross suffering as suggested, they would still be subject to the sufferings of the death, intermediate state and rebirth that followed that life. Killing them, therefore, results in suffering.

  20. (in reply to Gary Beesley)
    Gary said “it is the case that, as long as sentient beings are imprisoned in samsara, they are subject to suffering of varying degrees. Even, if insects and the like didn’t experience gross suffering as suggested, they would still be subject to the sufferings of the death, intermediate state and rebirth that followed that life. Killing them, therefore, results in suffering.” This appears initially to constitute a good objection against my claim that not all sentient beings (but rather only those that are also hedonic beings) may suffer, and thus that not all sentient beings may matter morally in Buddhism. I would like to further the debate on this issue, not until the cows come home (which might be possible, in my case, as I truly enjoy this sort of inquiry and analysis), but for the sake of trying to clarify my (or our) understanding of what truly constitutes moral status, or at least until I (or we) reach a clear perspective. So, let me run this by the readers.

    If any being is “imprisoned in samsara”, it makes sense to think they suffer by virtue thereof, but it doesn’t follow that every sentient being is – by definition – imprisoned in samsara. To the contrary, the question at issue is whether every sentient being is also a hedonic being. Since a plausible (zoological) argument was given to think that not every sentient being is a hedonic being, it would beg the question at issue, technically, to define sentient beings as automatically “imprisoned in samsara”, since samsara entails suffering, and suffering entails (negative) hedonic states.

    Conceivably, there could be sentient beings that lack hedonic states altogether, who therefore have perceptions without negative hedonic states of any kind (suffering) even as they undego changes of any sort (such as birth, death, etc.). Although it is a sci-fi or what I prefer to call a “phi-fi” (philosophical fiction) idea, there may well (soon enough) be artificially intelligent sentient beings (beings that have perceptual states)that are designed very carefully to lack hedonic states. If we can conceivably create such beings, why assume a priori that nature never generated any? If we are in error in what I like to call our “neurocentrism” (the view that that only beings with neurons are sentient), then there may well be numerous sentient beings in the other two kingdoms of life forms (vegetable and fungi). Conceivably, many such beings could lack hedonic states.

    In rethinking this issue (in response to this objection), it dawns on me just now (in thinking about nonhedonic versus possibly hedonic fungi) that perhaps not only is sentience too broad a category for Buddhist moral status (in light of biological science), but even the category of hedonic beings (beings with hedonic states) may be too broad, for enlightened beings have hedonic states (they can experience physical pleasure and physical pain, even if they lack attachment and thus do not suffer), but are free from delusion, greed, and hatred (the major forms of suffering). What makes the difference between beings who can and do suffer and beings who can but do not suffer is the right relationship with volitional states. It is not that the Buddha lacks volitional states, as compassion entails a concern for the welfare and nonsuffering of all beings who can and do suffer, and that is right volition, not non-volition.

    Thus, on further analysis, one could argue that the category of volitional beings is the one that identifies beings that can experience dukkha (suffering), and thus who have Buddhist moral status, technically. For, conceivably, we can add hedonic states to those hard-wired phi-fi beings, but in such a way that they lack volitional states altogether.

    All of this is exploratory and tentative. It doesn’t seem obvious what Buddhism would or could say about such phi-fi beings. If we could create a synthetic being as described above, would Buddhism have to hold that it embodied some pre-existing karmic stream (that is, that a pre-existing being reincarnated in the phi-fi being)?

  21. Dear James,

    Thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking article. I’ll be recommending it to anyone interested in an overview of the arguments for and against vegetarianism in Indian/Pali Buddhism. I’ve often thought that the common injunction “neither kill nor cause to kill” applies to this situation, as you so cogently argue. There might be a similarity here, for example, with someone who purchases mind-altering substances in order to give to someone else to consume–they are neither selling the substances (wrong livelihood) nor consuming them, but they are encouraging these things.

    There were a few other issues I thought might also be brought into a discussion of this kind:

    It seems to me that your argument for vegetarianism is logically an argument for veganism as ideal, given that the practice of dairy, egg and honey production also involves a great deal of suffering and implication in killing processes. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    There were a few sutta references which I thought could be usefully brought into the discussion on the Buddha’s perspective, particularly the Amagandha Sutta (“Stench”) and also (I forget which sutta this is in, and I’m not having much luck finding the reference) I seem to recall a passage in which the Buddha is specifically invited to a laywoman’s home for the daily meal, where he partakes of meat.

    A definition of the “good Buddhist” would be interesting to see and discuss, and this might relate also to a distinction in ideal behaviour between monastics and laypeople (I don’t think we can assume that what is ideal for monastics is also ideal for laypeople). I think there might be an argument to be made that we might say there is no such thing as a “good” Buddhist in the sense that there’s a “good” Christian or Muslim; rather, the Buddha simply laid out the consequences of specific actions and saw those who followed his teachings as wise, inasmuch as they were pursuing their own wellbeing (bound up with pursuing the wellbeing of others), and conversely those who did not–in particular, when given the opportunity to do so–as foolish and/or misguided.

    I think, in terms of pragmatism, there might also be a question about the survival of the Sangha in the conditions of Indian society at the time of the Buddha. On the one hand, it was obvious that the Jains were able to live as a vegetarian order; but on the other, if we accept that Buddhist monks mainly gained sustenance by food offered to them by laypeople which in many cases–particularly in villages, among the poor, etc.–could only be the same meal that the laypeople were eating themselves, then it might be that if they refused to accept non-vegetarian food, they would in fact not be fed.

    Of course, one might argue, as Jerome Courtemanche does above, that in any circumstance except the case where the monks were offered food which had already been prepared for householders’ meals, they should suspect that the meat had been killed specifically!

    Obviously, the situation is far different today for many if not most monastics, living in a settled way in monasteries rather than wandering, and in the context of mass-market industrial capitalism.

    In the well-known Devadatta episode, I would also suggest (even if we take the Devadatta episode at historical face value rather than seeing it as a later polemic, as Ray convincingly suggests) that there’s a connection here with vegetarianism not as a compassionate but as an ascetic practice inasmuch as the other practices Devadatta suggests be made mandatory are ascetic. So effectively to say that the Buddha rejected this practice is to say that he rejected mandatory asceticism (which of course we know already) rather than that he rejected an argument for mandatory vegetarianism on moral grounds.

    Of course, many of the Vinaya rules formulated by the Buddha were made not because they were intrinsically ethically good, but because they meant the avoidance of behavior which would be criticized by laypeople and hence discourage support of the Sangha, while not causing immoral behaviour. So we may have a similar case here. There may be an argument here related to the question of “preferences,” not as they are, but as they are perceived. E.g., laypeople may be more understanding of a monk’s avoidance of alcohol than of meat, for example. On this note we might consider that some meat is indeed specifically forbidden to monks– human, elephants, horses, dogs, and dangerous jungle animals.

  22. Thanks to each commentator for their views and exchanges. It has been very helpful to me.

    In my practice I am increasingly inclined not only to eat less meat, but to consume less in general. There are other ethical considerations such as the pollution from burning fuel, extraction of minerals, and waste produced in all commercial food supply chains, as well as the sustainability of entire segments of the global economy which depend upon meat production and commercialization.

    To subsist on one grain of rice a day is extreme and causes suffering, and to indulge in mindless gluttonly is extreme and causes suffering. Thus I am inclined toward moderation of my consumption, including eating less meat when this is an option, attempting not to waste food, being judicious in my food purchases when options are available for humanely produced and/or fair trade products, and also preferring fish to poultry and poultry to red meat, again when there is an option.

    Even eating refined sugar constitutes an ethical problem because the runoff from sugar cane fields is destructive to reefs. Again, for non meat products, one can opt for moderation, preference for organic foods, and those which (in ideal circumstances) are produced by onself so no labor is exploited and no diesel is burned, etc. The mass production of corn, soy, and other monocrops has a negative impact on the global environment, so even if we eat these products to avoid harm, we cause harm in doing so.

    What can we do?

    At times I engage in periodic fasts, and I am more and more inclined to give thanks and reverence on a more regular basis for that which I consume, and to practice metta meditation for all beings harmed by the very narrow confines which most people in modern industrialized societies must abide by (i.e., the pollution from vehicles, the crushing of insects, the ownership of property when others are deprived, and so on.)

    It is an uncomfortable reality that in our plane of existence here on earth, beings devour other beings in order to survive. What we eat or do not eat is in my view less important than the growing awareness of how our actions impact the world in which we live.

    Many thanks to all for their comments and may we each in our way contribute to a more peaceful, sane, and compassionate world for all sentient beings.

  23. The Buddha clearly expressed a precept against taking of life. I agree with other commentators that the Vinaya, which is directed at the life of monks, permitted that monks eat whatever is offered at the almsround. The Buddha proscribed meat that was killed for the monks, or was ordered on behalf of the monks, thereby creating an ethical distinction over the eating of meat.

    It lay also be true that with limited food choices in 500 BCE India, it was not practical to exclude food options. Today, we have enormous diversity in our food supply, such that the option to avoid killing to avoid being part of an unethical and cruel food chain is clearly available to us, and seems to me the most ethical option.

  24. “The Buddha proscribed meat that was killed for the monks, or was ordered on behalf of the monks, thereby creating an ethical distinction over the eating of meat.”

    I agree that the historical Buddha permitted the eating of meat, but he was also very lenient in allowing his followers to adapt Buddhism to changing circumstances. In the Parinibbana Sutta (4.11 Walshe p. 256) he permits the teachings of “…one elder who is learned…found to conform to the suttas and the discipline, then the conclusion must be; ‘Assuredly this is the word of the Buddha, it has been rightly understood by this monk.'” While I am neither an elder nor learned, it seems to me that in the light of this teaching of the Buddha, the arguments advanced above against the eating of meat on ethical grounds under contemporary circumstances could legitimately be regarded as authentically Buddhist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *