Does a Buddhist need to be a Vegetarian?

This is a perennial question that I often hear: “Does a Buddhist need to be vegetarian?” It was raised once more during our Sunday Dhamma class on 7th July 2012, the first day of the new semester of the YMBA course. Like many Buddhist devotees I was entrenched in the same predicament.

Like other religions with many denominations, Buddhism too has different traditions. In the Singapore context, the various Buddhist traditions co-exist harmoniously; each respecting the practice of the others. The main traditions are Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, Zen and Vajrayana. While some may have encouraged a vegetarian diet, others do not and allow the consumption of meat.

As Mahayana Buddhist tradition is widespread and has encouraged vegetarianism, it influenced many Buddhists to subscribe to the practice . It is noted that in the Pali Canon, Lord Buddha did not prohibit meat eating per se.

At Managla Vihara (Buddhist Temple), although it is a Theravada establishment, the founding Bhante, the late Ven Mahaweera Maha Nayaka Thera had adopted strict vegetarianism on its premises.

When the question was raised during the Sunday Dhamma class, I reflected it against a discussion during a Sutta Sharing Workshop orgainsed by MV Dhamma Fellowship, where four Suttas on eating meal were discussed. This helped me to crystalise my views on the subject.

Pre Lord Gotama Buddha’s era

Looking at it from the basic principle, we must accept every living thing has life, including plant and the most primitive form such as an amoeba. To sustain life, one has to eat. Such sustenance comes from plants and meat.

It is stated that Kasapa Buddha, the immediate Buddha preceding Gotama Buddha who had meat in his diet, refuted notions that not eating meat was pure and eating meat was impure. Abstinence from eating meat does not make one pure as expounded in the Ămagandha Sutta1. … on millet, cingula beans and peas, edible leaves and roots, the fruits of any creepers, is pure when combined with other virtues such as obtaining the food justly and do not tell lies out of sensuous delight”.

The Buddha Kassapa said that if one is :

1. Given to all forms of violence and immoralities;

2. Unrestrained in sensual pleasures;

3. Rude, arrogant, treacherous, unkind, excessively egoistic, miserly, and do not give anything to anybody;

4. Full of anger, pride, obstinacy, antagonism, deceit, envy, boasting, excessive egoism;

5. Of bad morals, refuse to pay their debts, slanderous, deceitful in their dealings, pretentious, being the vilest of men, commit such wrong things;

6.  Uncontrolled towards living beings, who are bent on injuring others, having taken their belongings; immoral, cruel, harsh, disrespectful; and

7. Full of greed or of hostility and attack living beings and are always bent upon evil.

Then these beings will go to darkness after death, and fall headlong into woeful states for what they were and had done. Not the eating of meat.

On the other hand, when a person does all the various penances – abstaining from fish and meat, nakedness, shaving of the head, matted hair, smearing with ashes, wearing rough deerskins, attending the sacrificial fire performed for unhealthy ends – neither incantations, oblations, sacrifices nor seasonal observances will purify that person who has not overcome his doubts.”  (Khuddaka Nikayă, Book 5 The Sutta-Nipăta, II Cŭlavagga, ‘Stench’).

Abstaining from all the defilements is the way to purify the mind; and not from abstention in meat eating.  Right views and practice are paramount and not dietary preference.

  Lord Gotama Buddha’s era

Before and during Prince Siddhattha’s lifetime there were no ‘Buddhists’.  After his renunciation, in his six years of searching for the truth, the two teachers he first met, Alăra Kălama, a distinguished ascetic and Uddaka Rămaputta were mendicants and there was no mention of their dietary preference.  Lay people and householders gave alms out of respect without worrying about the type of teachings.  If meat was what a householder chose to offer, it was to be accepted without discrimination or aversion.

It was said that on the eighth day after renunciation Ascetic Gotama went to Rajagaha for his alms round. Having collected enough food he left the city gate and sat down and to partake the meal.  As the food collected was all mixed up, he found both the sight of it and the smell distasteful, and he could not partake of it.

“Having enjoyed the kingly bliss which was as great as that of a Universal Monarch only a matter of days ago, he made an effort to eat a morsel of food which was a mixture of coarse and fine edible things in assorted colours. As he was about to put the morsel into his mouth he felt miserable and almost vomited with the intestines turning upside down, for he had never seen such kind of food in his life and found it particularly disgusting. Then he admonished himself by saying; “You Siddhattha, in spite of the fact that you have been reigning supreme in a palace where food and drinks are available at your pleasure and where you have meals of three-year-old seasoned fragrant rice with different delicacies whenever you like, you, on seeing a recluse in robe of rags contemplated, “When shall I eat the meals obtained by going on alms round from house to house after becoming a recluse like him? When will the time come for me to live on meals thus collected? And have you not renounced the world and become a recluse with such thoughts? Now that your dream has come true, why do you like to change your mind?” Then without the slightest revulsion he took the meal that was so rough.” (The Great Chronicle of Buddhas by Venerable Mingun Sayadaw, Chapter 4).

Buddhist Scriptures

Since the Buddha’s time over 2500 years ago, monks and nuns went on alms round for food. They were prohibited from growing their own food, storing their own provisions or cooking their own meals. They would eat whatever was freely given to them during morning alms round by lay supporters. Be it rich food or coarse food, delicious or awful tasting it was to be accepted with gratitude and eaten regarding it as medicine. The Buddha laid down rules forbidding monks from asking for the food that they liked to receive, but just the sort of meals that ordinary people ate – and that was often meat.

Therefore, meat eating was not prohibited per se even during the Lord Buddha’s time. The Buddha explained the regulations he had laid down concerning eating of meat and defended his disciples against unjust accusations:

“I declare that meat should not be eaten under three circumstances: when it is seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater)”  (Majjhima Nikăya, Sutta 55 – To Jĭvaka).

The rule seemed to apply to the Sangha, but there is no stipulation if the rules apply to lay disciples, implied perhaps.

Where meat is procured from the market place or bazaar, that is slaughtered for the general consumers at large and not purposely for offering to the Buddha or disciples; and knowingly consumed to sustain another life it appeared to be acceptable and this is expounded in the story of ‘Siha the General’:

Siha had invited the Buddha and his retinue to his home for a meal and had instructed someone to bring fresh meat from the marketplace. At the appointed time, the Exalted One, taking bowl and cloak, went to Siha’s house with the Order of the monks.

The Niganthas who had come to hear about the occasion immediately spread words: ‘Today huge beasts has been slain by Siha the general, and a meal has been prepared for the recluse Gotama; and the recluse Gotama is going to eat the meat, knowing that it was meant for him, that deed was done on his account’.

Even before the meal was even served to the Buddha, the words spread by the Niganthas had come to Siha’s ears. Knowing the vileness of the Niganthas to find every opportunities to disparage the Buddha, Dhamma and the Order, Buddha saw through their wickedness, lies and untruthful slanders.  He remarked that “Not for the sake of sustaining life would we intentionally deprive any being of life.”

Siha proceeded to serve with his own hands the Order of monks with the Buddha at their head with plenty of food, both hard and soft; and when the Exalted One had finished eating and withdrawn his hand from the bowl, Siha sat down at one side.  So seated, the Exalted One instructed Siha with Dhamma discourse, simulated him, roused him and gladdened him.  Then the Exalted One arose from his seat and departed”. (Aṅguttara Nikăya, VIII, II, 12 The Great Chapter, §ii. (12) Siha, the general).

Another incident as recorded in Dhammapada Verse 163 Samghabhedaparisakkana Vatthu when the Buddha uttered this stanza: “It is easy to do things that are bad and unbeneficial to oneself, but it is, indeed, most difficult to do things that are beneficial and good” when Devadatta proposed the rule of no eat meat and fish for the bhikkhus for life.  The Buddha did not have any objection to this rule and made no objection to those who were willing to observe them, but for various valid considerations, he was not prepared to impose the rule of discipline on the bhikkhus in general.

On the other hand practitioners of other traditions adhering to a non-meat diet but holding other views is a wrong practice. “Monks, the Wanderers holding other views enjoin these three forms of aloofness. What three? Aloofness from robes, from alms-food, from lodging. Then in the matter of aloofness as regards alms-food:- They feed on vegetables, millet, raw rice, wild rice, water-plants, rice-powder, burnt scum of rice, flour of oil-seeds, on grass and cow-dung.  They keep themselves alive by eating forest roots and fruits, and fruit that has fallen. Such is their practices as regards aloofness from alms-food.” (Ănguttara-Nikăya, III, 10, §92. Aloofness).


Taking part in killing for food is definitely incompatible with the first precept, and should be avoided. This includes hunting, fishing, trapping, butchering, steaming live fish and shellfish, eating live raw oysters, and more.

And what about asking someone else to catch and kill the animal for me? On this point the teachings are also unambiguous: we should never intentionally ask someone to kill on our behalf. We should not, for example, order a fresh steamed lobster from the restaurant menu.

The first of the five precepts calls upon disciples to refrain from intentional acts of killing. It does not, however, address the consumption of flesh from animals that are already dead or slaughtered. Monks may leave uneaten any meat placed in the alms bowl, but because they depend on generosity of the lay supporters (some may not themselves be vegetarian) it is considered unseemly for them to make special food requests.

Bhikkhus are forbidden to eat meat from ten kinds of animals. They are the flesh of elephant, horse, tiger, human being, hyena, dog, snake, bear, lion and leopard.

The choice to eat meat or not is a personal one as it is not explicitly dictated by the teachings expounded in the Pali Canon.  While many Theravada Buddhist disciples do avoid eating meat out of heartfelt compassion for the welfare of their fellow creatures, many equally devout disciples do eat meat. Vegetarianism is, therefore, not explicitly required to follow the Buddha’s path.

The Mahayana school followed a strict vegetarian diet as they practise Bodhisatta path towards enlightenment with full compassion on all living beings.  Taking away of life is greatly incompatible with the practice.

Then, does adhering to vegetarian dietary meals really absolve destruction of lives, when:

Farmers in the process of ploughing the field would have also destroyed creatures living in the soil and spraying of pesticide to exterminate the insects living on the crops with the poison permeated into the ground inflicted further harm.

Using leather products like belt, hand bags, wallets, shoes made from animal hide, mink, soap from blubber, combs from turtle shells, and others where creatures are killed to make them?

Using of cosmetic products for beautification where trial tested on laboratory animals for safe use by humans.

Taking drugs and prescription for treatment of ailments manufactured by pharmaceutical company tested on laboratory animals suffered in misery and agony during the trial period.

What about the customary practice of many devotes of the Mahayana and Tibetan traditions of setting free of captive creatures like birds, fishes, and tortoises purchased from pet shops, on Vesak Day out of compassion, where they will perish in an alien habitat?  (See other posting ‘Doing Abaya dana with wisdom’

Level of Practice

Consuming food to sustain life will inevitably cause the destruction of another life. Newton’s principle: “Every action there is a reaction.”  Intentionally killing is definitely incompatible with the Buddhist practice irrespective of traditions.

Eating plants and vegetables also caused destruction of lives beings, may be to a lesser extent and therefore carry a lighter weightage of kamma.

Eating meat under the three fold principle is not prohibited by the Buddha; and disciples have a choice to abstain from eating meat.

Whether one adopts a vegetarian dietary meal or meat eating, the crucial point is the intention and right understanding that matter.

When the intention is to maintain the body, then one has to be mindful and eat moderately not for or sport, or indulgence. “Herein, sister, a monk takes food with reflection and judgement, not for sport, not for indulgence, not for personal charm, not for beautifying, but just enough for the support, for the upkeep of body, for its resting unharmed, for helping the living of the God life.” [Aṅguttara-Nikăya, IV, XVI, §ix (159)].

A case in point, an often cited example of a monk with a fatal infection, having attained a certain high level of spiritual development, chose to sacrifice his own life and allowed the bacteria to thrive on his wound rather than have his limb amputated, with compassion.

Can one follow suit and be mindful of no killing refrained from taking medicinal drugs to cure an ailment knowingly that many laboratory animals suffered in misery and died in agony during the trial period?

The ritual of setting free of captive living creatures purchased from pet shops on Vesak Day for compassion is a not right understanding of the practice, a mistaken notion as they will perish in an alien habitat.

Being a vegetarian with wrong views is no better than a disciple eating meat with the right understanding and practice.

Concluding View

Adopting the middle path I would adjust my dietary preference and veer towards eating less meat and more vegetables and to attend more Sutta Studies class to reinforce right understanding to enhance my practice.

Dhammapada Verse 19 and 20 aptly sound it out: “Though he recites much the Sacred Texts (Tipikata), but is negligent and does not practise accordingly to the Dhamma, like a cowherd who counts the cattle of others, he has no share in the benefits of the life of a bhikkhu.”  “Though he recites only a little of the Sacred Texts (Tipitaka), he practises accordingly to the Dhamma, eradicating passion, ill will and ignorance, clearly comprehending the Dhamma, his mind is free from moral defilements and no longer clinging to this world or to the next, he shares the benefits of the life of a bhikkhu.”

Right practice with less knowledge is more beneficial than more knowledge with less or no practice. Ideally, it is to practise well and learn well. For right understanding of the suttas, you are encouraged to join the new Sutta Sharing classes with details as follows:

Sutta Sharing class – Dhammasakaccha

Topic: Sutta Discussion on Six Senses

Date: Saturday, July to September 2012

Time: 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm

Venue: 3rd Floor, Room 1

Contact: Bro Chin Kee Thou – Email:

Commencing: 14th July 2012

All are welcome.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

Contributor: Chin Kee Thou




One Comment:

  1. “A sentient being is any being with consciousness or potential to become conscious. Animals and insects are sentient beings, while plants are not” based on a commentary by Master Hsing Yun on the Sutra of the Eight Realisations of Great Beings. Hence, Mahayana Buddhists embrace a vegetarian diet.

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