Vegetarianism - An Objective Review

Jeffrey Po

A novice into the Buddhist Path is liable to be confused concerning what can or cannot be eaten. Followers of the Theravada traditions do not place upon themselves any sort of food restrictions - though there are some restraints. On the other hand, most Mahayanists refrain from partaking any sort of meat, be they animal meat or fish. The Vajrayanist are liberals but the restraints are imposed depending upon the type of Vajrayanism one is associated with.


The earliest hint of the attempted imposition of vegetarianism diet into the habit of the community of monks (Sangha) occurred when Devadatta, the cousin of the Lord Buddha Gotama, tried to create a schism in the community of monks by requesting for compulsory vegetarianism. The Lord Buddha Gotama however refused proclaiming such a rule and maintained that since Buddhism had been regarded as a movement that propagated flexibility in selections and choices, the decision for such practices was therefore left to the individual bhikkhu or bhikkhuni.


Historically, there is no Buddhist precept in the original teachings of the Lord Buddha Gotama that required all Buddhists to be vegetarian. The closest comment concerning this appears in the Jivaka Sutta:


"Jivaka, to those who say, 'Animals are slaughtered on purpose for the recluse Gotama, and the recluse Gotama knowingly eats the meat killed on purpose for him',(they) do not say according to what I have declared, and they falsely accused me."


"Jivaka, I have declared that one should not make use of meat if it is seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk. I allow the monks meat that is quite pure in three respects: It if is not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk"


The above clearly demarcates the actually killing of animals as against eating what has been killed.


The act of being vegetarian has been associated to the development of high moral and ethical values. To this the Lord Buddha Gotama remarks :


"Neither meat, nor fasting, nor nakedness
Nor shaven heads, nor matted hair, nor dirt,
Nor rough skin, nor fire-worshipping,
Nor all penances here in this world,
Nor hymns, nor oblations, nor sacrifice,
Nor feast of the season,
Will purify a man overcome with doubt"


(Amagandha Sutta)


In the Jivaka Sutta, The Lord Buddha Gotama touches upon this subject:


"Taking life, beating, cutting, binding, stealing, lying, fraud, deceit, pretence at knowledge, adultery;
This is uncleanliness and not the eating of flesh."


"When men are rough and harsh, backbiting, Treacherous, without compassion, haughty, ungenerous and do not give anything to anybody;
This is uncleanliness and not the eating of flesh."


"When men are of bad moods, refuse to pay their debts, slanderers, deceitful in their teachings, pretenders, when the vilest of men commit foul deeds;
This is uncleanliness and not the eating of flesh."


"When men attach living beings either because of greed or hostility, and are always bent upon evil, they go to darkness after death and fall headlong into hell;
This is uncleanliness and not the eating of flesh."


These statements clearly illustrate that partaking meat will not make a person impure. Rather, it is the mindset, the attitudes and mental makeup and eventual behavior of a person that eventually determine the moral and ethical status of the person.


Alms-round is a dying Buddhist practice today. In certain countries, like Thailand and Myanmar, however, the practice still prevails. It was not unusual to see the Lord Buddha Gotama and His bhikkhus going about their alms-round daily. They had to live on the charity of others. In there, the bhikkhus were supposed to accept all and any types of food offered to them. They were not permitted to reject or refuse any types or quantities offered. There was thus no strict ruling that they should not accept fish and meat. The only advice given by the Lord Buddha Gotama was that they ought not to be involved in the actual killing process. Neither should they instruct others to kill any living beings on their behalf for consumption as food.


The Parinibbana Sutta mentions the last meal of the Lord Buddha Gotama. It was said that Cunda, the smith, prepared and served the Lord a special dish called "Sukaramaddava". According to the commentary it was some sort of a flesh of a boar that was neither too young nor too old. It had not been killed for the sake of the meal. Others, however, maintained that it was some kind of mushroom. Whatever it was, the very fact that mention was made that the dish might have been prepared from meat indicated that the Lord Buddha Gotama Himself could have been a meat-eater.


Though the Lord Buddha Gotama did not introduce strict rulings concerning vegetarianism. He did, however, advise His monks against partaking ten kinds of meat. They included humans, elephants, horses, dogs' snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas. He also specifically mentioned that killing of animals for sport was unwholesome and therefore to be discouraged.


The first widespread practice of non-killing of animals came about during the period of King Ashoka the Great. It was he who proclaimed the sanctity of animal life and that they should be respected and preserved. He therefore induced his people to abstain from killing of animals wastefully. However, he did not state that all his subjects had to live on vegetables only. He knew that such a proclamation would not be possible as there were geographical areas whereby vegetables could not be found or only in scarce quantities.


After the death of King Ashoka, some reformed Hindus and Jains might have taken the cause of vegetarianism further. Three to four centuries later, King Harsa Vardhana issued a royal decree that no one in his kingdom was to eat any sort of flesh. That inferred strict vegetarianism.


Later Mahayana Sutras, especially the Lankavatara and the Surangama Sutra, were vocal in their condemnation of meat eating. They reasoned that since ascending and descending kammic evolution into the various realms of existence are possible, then, there exists the remote possibilities that some departed love ones might have been reborn in the animal state. In killing animals one might just by sheer coincidence "murder" one's beloved ones. Furthermore, arguments that animals have just as much right to life on earth as humans were raised. Hence, the habit of strict vegetarianism started. Vegetarian acts were related to moral and ethical values again.


Today, Buddhists hold a variety of attitudes concerning this subject. With such diverse views, Buddhists are adopting a more tolerant attitude towards strict vegetarianism. Prevailing mindset seems to indicate that if Buddhists need to eat meat to sustain life and for health reasons, then, by all means do so with awareness, gratitude and compassion. If not, then, why cause unnecessary sufferings? Others feel that being comfortable in the Buddhist Path is more meaningful that strice discipline as, after all, the latter leads to some sort of attachment also.