Vegetarian Buddhist? How unusual.

jungle buddhaDespite having strong personal feelings on the topic and I think a pretty clear head about it culturally, I haven’t written about vegetarianism in modern yoga and Buddhist practice in this forum, though I have in others. I’m inspired to now because of a question that was asked at the end of a training I just finished, and because meat-eating is a debate in the larger culture in ways that I haven’t seen since the 70’s (when I wasn’t debating). I know it’s a charged topic when I feel compelled to write that I still love you whether you read my newsletter over a chia seed smoothie or a bowl of steaming bone broth. No judgment. Ok, a little: you’re all nuts. Herewith, yogis, the Final Answer to a vexing ethical quandary!
My friend Ari Nessel, a bright, committed yoga teacher, vegan activist, dad, and sustainable business wallah asked the question: about the Buddha’s teachings on eating meat. The answer he received, as is the annoying norm in our community, was equivocal. “Everyone has to find out what’s right to do for themselves.” While this is a reasonable interpretation of the core ethic of not taking anything on faith but finding out for oneself (ehipassiko), it also evades the question. We rely on the texts for guidance that can shake us out of the trance of our habits and conditions in so many ways – why not in this one? So…
In the Pali canon, the Buddha discusses meat-eating in two ways: as part of Wise Action and Wise Livelihood, which are relevant for both monastics and lay people, and in the Vinaya, or monastic discipline. As a part of Wise Livelihood, “business in meat” is prohibited, and basic non-harming (ahimsa) includes both not taking life nor encouraging others to do so. Ahimsa is often glossed as “protecting life”, and vegetarian yogis in Asia and the west tend to interpret it this way (as I do, btw). The Vinaya, on the other hand, requires that monastics maintain a close connection with the broader community, and forces them to receive alms food every day. As the primary ethic here is to take whatever is offered, Vinaya monastics eat meat when offered. To not do so out of a preference would disable the system. This seeming clarity is complicated by lineages of monastics who observe the Vinaya to various degrees of specificity, and who adapt to local custom, such as in Tibet. Thus the common question about the Dalai Lama (as if he is representative of all of Buddhism AND a perfect practitioner, neither of which he claims…) eating meat. Regardless, here’s what he says (basically that being veg is best, and he’s encouraging Tibetan monasteries to be vegetarian, but his doctor has told him to eat some meat, so he does).
The Mahayana scriptures are much more vigorous in their denunciation of meat-eating, as in the Lankavatara Sutra, which expressly forbids it. This vigor is not separate from the rise in alternative sangha (community) structures where going for alms was not a primary practice. Some Tantric streams of practice (both Buddhist and Hindu) recognize meat eating in a ritual context, and some practice it as a gesture toward the non-duality of pure/impure, as in the Kularnava Tantra and other “left-hand” traditions, where deliberate flouting of social conventions is a practice device. (I wonder how that practice works in a liberal, hedonistic culture like ours, where being veg flouts social convention more than eating meat, even in my yoga and Buddhist communities.)
Basically, the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist scriptures are clear in condemning meat-eating on non-harming grounds except in the monastic alms practice. However, there are some interesting philosophical issues:
Non-harming in Buddhism hinges on a conception of “sentient beings” who might be harmed. Traditionally this means anything conscious, including animals, insects, and spirits, but in some systems also means plants and even “non-living” objects. And our bodies are 90% microbes and 10% human cells. The dividing line between animals and non-animals is not as clear as we think. How does a complex idea of sentience affect our clarity about who is being harmed in an action?
Of course, the environmental costs of both livestock and vegetables, heck, of breathing, are such that beings are harmed. This recognition leads, for some of my friends, to backyard vegetables and/or livestock, avoiding the pollution of shipping and having to go into Whole Foods so much. (Whew!) The homesteader’s solution is thus one of the most defensible ethical positions for meat-eating, though as a yogi you still have to reckon with taking life. But it’s arguably the least environmentally-harming diet around.
Of course, “harm” includes me, and this is the most common defense of meat-eating I hear: personal health. It is a struggle for many yogis to reckon with their own physical health and the possibility that eating meat could help. It does seem to help some folks find more energy, health, balance. A question for practitioners is: is it worth it? Is my health worth the killing of these beings? For many it is. How does this decision situate my own worth in relation to other beings? It is human-centric, and literally self-centered. Is that a problem?
Lastly, I’ll say that I’ve just been talking about the specifics of Buddhist and yoga texts as they relate to the issue, not taking it on as a universal ethical issue. (I can easily imagine an ethic that says that since I am an animal and part of the food chain, that it is just as natural as anything to kill and eat another animal, especially when done consciously and sustainably. Why not? How special do I think I am?) I’m not arguing for or against vegetarianism as a choice, but want to speak to western yogis looking to classical texts for guidance. We don’t need to idealize these historically-conditioned texts, but if we take many of the challenging teachings they offer as valuable to us and then ignore a specific one, I do think there may be some unexamined preferences at play.
The decision of how to eat is intensely emotional and conditioned for many of us, and many yogis I know either ignore the teaching of ahimsa as it relates to meat-eating, or decide that reasons external to the specific teachings (like personal health) take precedence. And for those of us who think we’re observing ahimsa, ethical complexities persist (like the universal culling of males from dairy herds, which makes even an Indian-style lacto-veg diet complicit in deaths, or the environmental costs in shipping protein-dense tropical foods around the world). The point is not to figure out the absolute best ethical diet and then make everyone observe it. The point is to find where we’re suffering and causing others to suffer, and begin to wake up to the causes of suffering: greed, aversion, ignorance. Letting go of greed – for energy, health, blamelessness, flavors, whatever… – we might find a very different relationship to our food. That inquiry is for each of us to find out, but if we want advice from the texts we source our practice in, it’s there, and it’s not so ambiguous, really.
I hope that your practice with food, body, culture, environment, yoga, ethics, and the great mystery of life and death is a source of joy, inquiry, and wisdom for you on the Path. And may all beings be well.

3 thoughts on “Vegetarian Buddhist? How unusual.”

  1. Pingback: Sila, shunyata, sex, Sasaki | . sean feit . dharma, yoga, art .

  2. Hi Sean! I was just reading your recent blog posting and ran across this previous posting. Indeed, I appreciate how the Buddhist path generally sets general guidelines for ethical behavior rather the laying down the law for the rightness or wrongness of certain actions under all circumstances. However, I don’t believe the Buddha ever envisioned the gulf from which modern man has become so separated from the sources of production of the items/things/beings they consumer. Thus, the Therevada tradition of relying on one’s direct experience and inquiry has great potential to fall short because of one’s ignorance to that process of production (or even the “who” of what was produced, when it comes to flesh foods). I am skeptical that many sincere practitioners would eat an animal (or their baby’s milk or eggs) if they had the opportunity to know that animal as an individual and the conditions in which it lived its life. Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to look deeply to see the interconnection of our choices is a helpful one (E.g. seeing a cloud in a piece of paper), and could well be integrated in the Vipassana practice to help alleviate that ignorance and the limits of direct experience. As for the question of where one draws the line for sentience, I feel a distinct difference in my heart viewing photos/videos of carrots being pulled from the ground or tomatoes being picked, from throats of chickens necks being slit or calves being separated from their mothers. Also,in my way of thinking, begging monks are ignoring the law of cause and effect, of which the laws of supply and demand are an extension. If they accept meat from lay people, it is probable that demand for meat will increase and thus more animals will be slaughtered. I feel confident that the history of Buddhist countries’ patterns of meat consumption demonstrate this fact.
    As the answer I received from Phillip demonstrated, the Therevada community does not yet seem willing to have an open conversation about the subject. Too often, it is cloaked under the ideas of “personal choice” with examples of great teaches who ate/eat flesh. Ending the conversation there dismisses a amazing opportunity for inquiry and application of the dharma in daily life. I bow to you in gratitude for raising the issue again, and then again hopefully many more times to come. The dharma is a living path that must be modernized if it is going to flourish for generations to come. It cannot do so without such investigation and discussion.
    P.S. I am no scholar of Pali, but I would like to believe that this quote of the Buddha and translation of the Lotus Sutra is an accurate one… “To avoid causing terror to living beings, let the disciple refrain from eating meat…the food of the wise is that which is consumed by the sadhus (holy men), it does not consist of meat… There may be some foolish people in the future who will say I permitted meat-eating and that I partook of meat myself, but meat-eating I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit meat-eating in any form in future, in any manner and in any place. It is unconditionally prohibited for all.”
    P.P.S. Have you become a member of Dharma Voices for Animals yet? If not, please consider it and signing their petition to SRMC.

    1. Hi Ari,
      Thanks so much for writing. You raise a couple of issues that I think are valuable in this discussion. The issue of the separation of people from their food sources, and the great distance and complexity in the postmodern food chain makes parsing the harm in a given food choice more difficult than the Buddha envisioned, for sure. How do I weigh the eating of a free range cow from Petaluma against apples flown in from Chile in February, or Mexican agave, or Thai coconut milk? It’s difficult. I think that you’re right that the awareness of the sources, and I would add full environmental cost of production, is one of the most necessary contemplations in ethical food choice.
      As to the monastics’ practices, not being one currently, I can only speak from my experience, not theirs. When I practiced at Wat Metta, Than Geoff’s place in San Diego, the meals were 90% donated by the local Thai & SE Asian community. And it was very meat-centered. I avoided the meat – being a lay retreatant I could choose what to eat from what was offered – but it definitely brought choice and preference into my practice in a way that I am free from at Spirit Rock, for instance. If I was a monk there, I would see no course but to accept the traditional structure.
      An alternative, which I think is practiced at Pa Auk’s monastery in Burma, and others, is to have the monastery be vegetarian, and there I imagine the lay people who are donating alms simply know this and give veg food only. I don’t know how this works in practice, since the people are poor, and veg food is often more expensive in Burma (at U Janaka’s we only had it on special celebration days), as it is here. Monastics could certainly take a stand in favor of veg eating and begin to educate the whole community, like the Chinese Buddhists have done, who are much more commonly veg. But I don’t know of a simple solution to the need for monastics to depend on the laity for sustenance but then establish guidelines for what that sustenance can be.
      And as to the Lotus Sutra, your translation is correct, but like the Lankavatara, it’s a Sanskrit Mahayana text rather than part of the Pali canon. And the Mahayana movement took a much stronger stand against meat-eating than the Buddha himself did. Not coincidentally, they also were in part a householder movement, and moved away from the interlocked monastic-lay relationship the Buddha established.
      I also would like the issue to be more transparent in our Buddhist communities. I would be satisfied with a teaching like this:
      “The Buddha’s teachings clearly indicate that killing animals directly or indirectly goes against the principle of ahimsa, or non-harming. For lay practitioners, a vegetarian diet observes the precepts and cultivates compassion and clear-seeing of suffering in ways that are deeply beneficial for our own path, the lives of others, and the greater environment.
      The monastic Sangha maintains a connection with the larger community by accepting whatever food is offered. It is appropriate for us as lay people to dialogue with them about this practice, and of course to bring vegetarian food to them when we are supporting them. It is not our role to judge their choice to follow the traditional practice of the Sangha, and we recognize the clarity and longevity the Sangha has enjoyed by observing the Vinaya without preference or substantial alteration.
      As with all the precepts, the guideline against meat-eating is not taken to be a commandment, but an invitation toward reflection and mindfulness. For those for whom meat-eating is a medical necessity, for cultures and economic groups in which healthy vegetarian food is unavailable, and for other reasons, a practitioner might choose to eat meat or dairy. Like any other individual practice choice, each practitioner’s inner wisdom, as the Kalama Sutta reminds us, is the appropriate guide to follow.”
      Not perfect, but an attempt to balance the tradition with the needs of modern western practitioners. What do you think?
      Thanks again for your note, Ari. A pleasure to think through and write about this issue with you.
      [I have another writing in the hopper about it – basically I think it will be about global environmental costs and come to an endorsement of a local/homesteader structure as ideal, which could include backyard meat production, over a dispersed food chain. This seems to me to be the more relevant “harm” hinge right now, more than individual animal lives, and so implies that an “if you kill it yourself” meat ethic could cause less global harm than a standard urban vegetarian diet full of tropical and non-local food. This is basically Michael Pollan’s 4th experiment in Omnivore’s Dilemma, if not quite as extreme, and I think is quite en point, though I’m still staying veg myself.]
      Blessings, sean.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top

Connect with the beauty and power of Buddhist training.

Receive articles, guided meditations, and tools for starting or deepening your practice, along with Dr. Oakes’ teaching schedule.

We use cookies as part of website function, and ask your consent for this.