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Buddhism and Vegetarianism

The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. In one of the Pali sutras belonging to the Theravada lineage of Buddhism, Buddha says that vegetarianism is preferable, but as monks in ancient India were expected to receive all of their food by begging they had little or no control over their diet. Furthermore, Buddha did not wish to lay an extra burden on his lay followers by demanding that the food should be vegetarian. During the Buddha's time, there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. In fact, at one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions. There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard or elephant meat. Monks are also prohibited from consuming meat if the monk witnessed the animal's death or knows that it was killed specifically for him. This rule was not applied to commercial purchase of meat in the case of a general who sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. Therefore, eating commercially purchased meat is not prohibited.

On the other hand, the Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras strongly denounces the eating of meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion which a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.

A solution to this problem was given when monks from the Indian sphere of influence migrated to China, as of the year 65 AD. There they met followers who provided them with money instead of food. From those days onwards Chinese monastics, and others who came to inhabit northern countries, cultivated their own vegetable plots and bought in the market what else they needed in terms of food.

In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat, while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat. In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetable nutrition was historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvastivada, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama and other esteemed Lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monks.

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