If you meditate with the Headspace app, you hear the calming British voice of its co-founder, Andy Puddicombe. In one dialogue focused on mindful living, Puddicombe shares about his experience as a Buddhist monk. When asked about his monastic diet, he acknowledges that Asian monasteries are predominantly vegetarian, except for those in which food is donated by the local communities. He recalls being offered fish, which he initially refused to eat since he was vegan. Puddicombe was admonished that since the food was given out of generosity, he should therefore be grateful. His takeaway from that incident is that “we all have different ways that we would like to live our lives… but it was really humbling to have to have some flexibility around those values and ideals and be open to other ways, especially when it involved the generosity of others.”
Puddicombe’s experience raises questions about the roles of vegetarianism and veganism in Buddhist practice. Why do some Buddhists adhere to a plant-based diet while others do not? Is “generosity of others” more important than violence and deaths inflicted upon non-human animals? Exploring the values, belief systems, and scriptures followed by Buddhists worldwide sheds meaningful insight on the religion’s varying views of animals and the morality of consuming them.
Buddhism Teaches Respect for Animals
Buddhists practitioners seek to understand and overcome the suffering endured by humanity through proper moral conduct, meditation, and pursuit of wisdom. Founded over 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama — known as the Buddha — in India, the ancient religion of Buddhism is today practiced by 535 million people worldwide. While there are distinctions between the two main branches — Mahayana and Theravada — Buddhists are united by key concepts such as samsara (which describes the cycle of rebirth) and karma (the belief in nonlinear consequences of both moral and immoral actions). Today, Mahayana Buddhism is primarily practiced in China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan, while Theravada Buddhism is the leading tradition in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma.
Buddhism teaches that every living creature is sentient and deserves to live, a doctrine that is reflected in many aspects of Buddhist practice. The belief in rebirth means that a human could be reborn as an animal, and vice versa. The first of the Five Moral Precepts, a code of ethics for all Buddhist lay people, states: “I undertake to observe the rule to abstain from taking life.” This principle applies to the lives of both humans and non-humans alike, compelling Buddhists to strive to perform the least possible amount of harm to others. Right livelihood, a prescribed form of conduct connected to the Five Moral Precepts, dictates that Buddhists should abstain from making their livings through professions that inflict harm upon others. In the Vanijja Sutta, the meat trade is among the professions specifically referenced.
Scriptures in both of the main Buddhist traditions encourage kind treatment toward animals. In the Dhammapada, a widely known Theravada scripture, the Buddha says, “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Seeing others as being like yourself, do not kill or cause others to kill.” Since living beings universally feel pain and fear death, the rule against killing applies to those performing the act as well as those who enable killing. The Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra goes further by encouraging practitioners to save captive animals: “When you see someone in society killing animals, you should try to come up with a way to protect [the animals], and to release them from their predicament.” In a religion that embraces non-violence to all beings, treating animals with respect and kindness is a moral action for Buddhists.
Animal Consumption Varies Among Buddhist Traditions
While Buddhism’s benevolent views of all creatures seem to indicate an ethical necessity to not harm animals, Mahayana and Theravada scriptures differ in their references to and stances on animal consumption. Several Mahayana sutras explicitly condemn animal-meat consumption. In the prominent Lankavatara Sutra, eating meat is unambiguously prohibited about 37 times. The Buddha says, in conversing with a practitioner named Mahamati, “Thus, Mahamati, meat-eating I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit.” One scripture explains that “if we slaughter [sentient beings] and eat them it is the same [as] slaughtering and eating our own parents” since “all males are our fathers, and all females are our mothers.” The Mahayana tradition is clear-cut in its condemnation of eating animal flesh.
The consumption and use of animals, according to the Mahayana tradition, inhibits compassion. As such. a vegan lifestyle is expressly encouraged in the Surangama Sutra: “How then can those who practise great compassion feed on the flesh and blood of living beings? If bhiksus [monks] do not wear garments made of (Chinese) silk, boots of local leather and furs, and refrain from consuming milk, cream and butter, they will really be liberated from the worldly.” Mahayana scripture, read as a whole, is overwhelmingly clear in its stance: eating animals ultimately affects practitioners’ abilities to show compassion to one another and achieve enlightenment.
Theravada Buddhists, unlike the Mahayana, often reject calls to vegetarianism or veganism by citing a lack of specific scriptural evidence. The Pali Canon, a collection of Theravada scriptures, does not specifically prohibit an animal-based diet. Theravada monastic guidelines prohibit eating the meat of only ten specific animals—such as human beings, elephants, horses, dogs, lions, and tigers—none of which are commonly farmed or consumed. For Theravada monks seeking alms, consuming animals is allowed if the monks do not see, hear, or suspect that the animals to be eaten were killed for the purpose of feeding them. (This philosophy is what underlies Puddicombe’s experience with being offered fish.) Many Theravada Buddhists argue that the Buddha was not vegetarian or vegan and did not mandate such dietary restrictions among monks or lay people, and therefore refraining from eating animal products is not required to achieve enlightenment.
Personal Choice Trumps Scripture
The popular perception is that observant Buddhists are vegetarian, yet actual consumption habits among modern practitioners vary. Rather than adhere to scriptural doctrines to make dietary choices, practitioners tend to be more strongly influenced by individual leaders, monasteries, or schools within branches. Bob Isaacson, president and co-founder of the international Buddhist animal-rights organization Dharma Voices for Animals, notes that Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist monastics tend to be strictly vegetarian and effectively vegan — they do not consume any animal products including eggs and dairy — whereas lay followers are not so strict. The Plum Village tradition, a Buddhist school that draws upon both Mahayana and Theravada teachings and emphasizes mindfulness, is vegan. While Tibetan Buddhists have historically consumed animals due to their nomadic herding lifestyles and belief in the medicinal benefits of eating meat, today’s Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders endorse vegetarianism. The Dalai Lama, who is not vegetarian since being advised by doctors to consume meat following a hepatitis B infection, nonetheless states: “A vegetarian diet is the most healthy one for you. We must respect all forms of life.” With growing awareness of the plight of farmed animals and expanding accessibility of plant-based foods, vegan and vegetarian Buddhists are increasingly found across all Buddhist traditions.
Differences in Buddhist doctrine may seem to be the primary determining factor underlying practitioners’ consumption habits. However, a 2017 study of Buddhist attitudes on diet reveals that practitioners’ dietary choices are much more strongly based on the concept of personal choice — the belief that one’s diet should be entirely self-determined rather than influenced by external factors, including religious doctrine. Fewer than five percent of the survey’s respondents referred to Buddhist scriptures to support their views on vegetarianism or veganism, and half of those who did make a scriptural reference did so indirectly. Buddhist scriptures provide specific, if varying, direction on dietary choices, yet many Buddhists today more greatly value the concept of personal choice.
A Compassionate Diet is the Most Ethically Consistent
If respect for all living beings is central to Buddhism, then the most ethically consistent diet for practitioners is veganism. Foundational teachings in both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions emphasize compassion, loving-kindness (an altruistic attitude that values the welfare and happiness of others), and awareness of the suffering of living beings. Modern-day animal agriculture contributes significantly to sentient beings’ distress — annually, over one trillion animals are killed for food, while 264 million dairy cows and 6.6 billion egg-laying hens are exploited for their products. Humans, Buddhists included, are systematically inflicting widespread harm and violence upon animals in order to consume their flesh or secretions — a clear and unequivocal violation of Buddhist principles.
Being vegetarian is not sufficient, as this diet still causes suffering and premature death. During a public interview, when asked why veganism is more aligned with Buddhism than vegetarianism, Vietnamese teacher and Plum Village founder Thich Nhat Hanh responded, “If you have seen the suffering of chickens [and] cows, you would not like to eat chicken, eat eggs, drink milk, [or] eat cheese anymore.” To produce dairy and eggs, female cows and chickens are artificially inseminated, milk meant for calves is collected for human consumption, and both species are slaughtered once their production declines. Male offspring, unprofitable in these industries, are slaughtered sometimes within weeks of birth. Especially given the brutal nature of modern industrial farming, a vegan lifestyle is the only form of consumption compatible with the tenets of Buddhism.
Despite the separate origins of veganism and Buddhism, there is a burgeoning convergence of these two worldviews, both of which value and respect life. Alan Dale, a long-time vegan Tibetan Buddhist who has achieved the status of lama (an honorific title for advanced practitioners), believes that these lifestyles are inherently complementary. He says, “Vegan Buddhism is an evolution toward something that is more altruistic and more compassionate. In veganism and Buddhism, you want to decrease the suffering footprint that you leave on this planet and it starts with you at the table.”
On the Buddhist path to enlightenment, part of the journey is ceasing to exploit animals, to both minimize suffering and gain a greater sense of compassion for all.
Image credit: Daniel Marchal