Are Buddhists Vegetarians?

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All Buddhists are not vegetarians, and Buddhist texts do not unanimously condemn the consumption of meat. Certain sutras of the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, however, do so unequivocally. An example is the Lankavatara Sutra, which states: “So as not to become a source of terror, bodhisattvas established in benevolence should not eat food containing meat. . . . Meat is food for wild beasts; it is unfitting to eat it. . . . People kill animals for profit and exchange goods for the meat. One person kills, another person buys—both are at fault.”

Similarly, in the Great Parinirvana Sutra, the Buddha says, “Eating meat destroys great compassion” and advises his disciples to avoid the consumption of meat “just as they would avoid the flesh of their own children.” Numerous Tibetan masters also condemn consumption of the flesh of animals.

Fifty years after the death of the Buddha, Emperor Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism and vegetarianism at the same time, promulgated several edicts calling for animals to be treated kindly. Most notably, he had precepts engraved on a stone pillar enjoining his subjects to treat animals with kindness and forbidding animal sacrifices throughout his territory.

Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists are strictly vegetarian. Many Tibetans live on high plateaus, vast plains that are unsuitable for anything but raising herds of yaks, goats, or sheep. Until recently, renouncing eating meat in such conditions would have meant living purely on butter, yogurt (in the summer), and tsampa, the traditional Tibetan dish made from roasted barley flour. These conditions have led the inhabitants of these plains, nomads for the most part, to live off their herds. Moreover, most Tibetans are very fond of meat.

In spite of this, they are quite aware of the immoral aspect of their behavior and attempt to compensate for it by killing only the number of animals strictly necessary for their survival. Exiled in India and Nepal, more and more Tibetan monasteries have stopped authorizing the use of meat in the meals prepared in their kitchens.

For the Buddhist in general, to be vegetarian or vegan (especially in industrialized countries) is a means of manifesting his or her compassion toward animals. In contrast to the view of Hindu vegetarians, for Buddhists meat is not impure in itself. In principle, Buddhists would find nothing wrong with eating the flesh of an animal that had died from natural causes.

Going beyond merely being vegetarian, many Buddhist practitioners have regularly followed the practice of buying animals marked for the slaughter and then freeing them in their natural habitat or handing them over to shelters where they were well treated. For example, we read in the autobiography of the Tibetan hermit Shabkar (1781–1851) that over the course of his life he saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals. In Tibet animals that are “redeemed” in this fashion end their days in peace with the rest of their herd. This practice is still current among the Buddhist faithful. In Bhutan, where Buddhism is the predominant religion, hunting and fishing are prohibited throughout the country.

Excerpted from Matthieu’s book A Plea for the Animals, to mark the launch of the new paperback edition.

By Matthieu Ricard

Shambhala Publications