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.
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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