Do Buddhists Eat Meat?

Do Buddhists Eat Meat?

There are certain rules and norms that one follows within the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists must know what behaviors are encouraged, as well as things which must be taken in moderation or completely avoided. In Buddhism, there are certain rules and norms that may vary across different traditions. This is the case with Buddhist vegetarianism.

In this guide, we will discuss the history of Buddhist practices generally. We touch on how eating meat is viewed in the different schools of Buddhist thought. We will take a brief look at the different customs with regard to meat eating across the belief system.

Buddhist Ethics

Ethics is a field of thought and action that seeks to find the best and most moral way to act in any circumstance. Buddhism has its own specific set of ethics that help inform the teachings and practices carried out within the tradition. Buddhist ethics is of a set of views that are agreed upon and lived by those of us taking the path towards Enlightenment.

For the Buddhist, ethics and morality play a huge role in the very foundation of the belief system. These guidelines for how to live a right and just life are key tenets across all forms of Buddhism. In some ways, Buddhist ethics should be considered a code of conduct that followers subscribe to when they accept the teachings.

Harmony, compassion, restraint, and avoiding doing harm are huge parts of the ethical system of Buddhism. This extends beyond just actions with other people. When the Buddha taught to do no harm, he did not just mean harm to fellow humans. He meant to do no harm generally, to any life. This extends the ethical system to non-human living beings. For the Buddhist, do no harm applies to plants and animals as well as people.

Main Principles of Buddhist Ethical Systems

Nonviolence is at the very core of the Buddhist ethical system. This is true across all types of Buddhism. To the Buddhist, living a just, ethical, and moral life is a conscious commitment that we make. This means that it takes a conscious effort to live in accordance with the tenants set forth by the Buddha and other important teachers.

Not only does the Buddhist see living by the axiom of “do no harm” to be just, but they also feel that this is the way to enlightenment. A Buddhist who wishes to achieve enlightenment must internalize not only the teachings, but the spirit behind the ethical system. This is what they rely on when it comes to make the right or moral choice in a given situation.

How Ethical Systems Relate to Daily Choices

The ethical tenets that Buddhist commit themselves to extend beyond their thought and relations. These tenets help inform what one should or should not do to make one’s living. They will inform how one interacts with others in the commercial realm. And it also affects how followers feel about certain customs like whether to eat meat or not.

There are many people who assume that to be Buddhist means to abstain from all meat. It is easy to understand why this is so as it is hard to see how eating meat can “do no harm” to the animal involved. The Buddha himself was a vegetarian. He did not partake in the consumption of any animal flesh. For this reason, many followers adopt a strict vegetarian diet.

Vegetarianism in Buddhism

As noted above, in some of his sutras, the Buddha explicitly says that his followers are not to eat the flesh of a being with sentience. This is interpreted to mean that you do not eat the flesh or meat of any animal, including fish. The Mahayana school still follows the Buddhist teachings strictly and prohibit the eating of any animal flesh. This applies to followers as well as monks. If I refrain from taking life means that all flesh is something I should avoid.

You are not entirely forbidden to eat meat across all Buddhist tradition. The popular Theravada tradition allows for the eating of pork, chicken, and fish, but there are caveats. Meat can be eaten so long as the monk knows the animal is not killed for his consumption; he will eat certain types of meat if the food is not specifically prepared for him but rather just offered.

Mahayana Buddhism

This is a more strict form of Buddhism that more closely allies their practices with the direct teachings of the Buddha. In this view, one of the original Buddha’s final teachings related to the eating of sentient beings. These teachings prescribe a very strict vegetarianism in conjunction with the maxim “do no harm.” It goes even further in that followers of this school do not even believe they should eat food that has come into contact with meat.

The Mahayana Buddhist can’t simply pick around the meat in a dish. The whole meal must be vegetarian in its entirety, including preparation. This tradition points to Buddhist teachings and the bodhisattva for their stance on avoiding meat. Spreading compassion, avoiding harm, and so on are not conducive to meat eating.

Monks may not accept gleaned meat (meat that was scavenged). And while many monks rely on donations from followers, they are not to eat meat provided as an offering.

Theravada Buddhism

This is one of the most popular forms of Buddhist practice and this school allows for the consumption of some meat. According to tradition, the Buddha accepted any food offerings that were provided to him. This included meat which he ate when offered. Monks given food donations will take and eat what is given, regardless of whether it is vegetarian or not.

Theravada Buddhists point to his discussing his early privilege as it relates to vegetarianism. In one of the Sutras, he describes his family as being wealthy enough to feed both the family and servants a vegetarian diet. He understood that this is not an option for some and that living this way was a privilege.

Vajrayana Buddhism

This is a less common form of Buddhism, but some adherents to this school can not only eat meat, but also drink alcohol. You must abstain from alcohol in most Buddhist traditions. Many of the practices are only relevant for monks at the temple. For the most part, even monks in this tradition abstain from meat and alcohol.

Lay Buddhism

Many of the rules and traditions described above only apply to monks in Buddhist temples. The strict food requirements don’t necessarily extend to lay followers. Many practicing Buddhists are not vegetarian at all. Some are mostly vegetarian. There are some sects that allow for the eating of poultry or fish, but no red meat. There are many Buddhists who observe a vegetarian diet at least during certain parts of the year.

Other Food Exclusions

Something that may seem odd to an outsider is that for the Buddhist, pure vegetarianism also means the avoidance of certain herbs and vegetables. You must also avoid pungent or fetid vegetables – things like onions, garlic, shallots, and coriander. Some sects call for abstention of all meat, as well as eggs and dairy.