Must Buddhists Be Vegetarian?

Article Expanded 27/05/03

"If a person does not harm any living being…
and does not kill or cause others to kill-
that person is a true spiritual practitioner."

-Dhammapada (The Buddha)

"In order to satisfy one human stomach, so many lives are taken away.
We must promote vegetarianism. It is extremely important."

-Live in a Better Way: Reflections on Truth, Love and Happiness (pg 68)
 (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)

Click here for 12 Quotes by HHDL on Vegetarianism

Must Buddhists be vegetarian?


Why the fuss then?

Though the Buddha never made it a compulsory rule that all His followers have to be vegetarians, He strongly encouraged us to be. In the Bodhisattva practice of minimising harm to all beings and benefiting them as much as possible, the practice of vegetarianism as far as possible plays an essential role. We can see this in many of the Buddha's recorded teachings.

"The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great Compassion."

-Mahaparinirvana Sutra (The Buddha)

"...Ananda, I permit the bhiksus (monks) to eat only the five kinds of pure flesh* which are the product of my transcendental power of transformation and not of animal slaughter. You, Brahman, live in a country where vegetables do not grow because it is too damp and hot and because of all the gravel and rock. I use my spiritual power of compassion to provide you with illusory meat to satisfy your appetite. How then, after my nirvana, can you eat the flesh of living beings and so pretend to be my disciple?..."

"...All monks who live purely and all Bodhisattvas always refrain even from walking on grass; how can they agree to uproot it? How then can those who practise great Compassion feed on the flesh and blood of living beings?..."

"...How can a monk, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of sentient beings?..."

"...If a man can (control) his body and mind and thereby refrains from eating animal products, I say he will really be liberated. This teaching of mine is that of the Buddha whereas any others that of evil demons..."

-Surangama Sutra (The Buddha)

"The Bodhisattva, whose nature is Compassion, is not to eat any meat… For fear of causing terror to living beings…let the Bodhisattva who is disciplining himself to attain Compassion, refrain from eating flesh."

-Lankavatara Sutra (The Buddha)

"If a bhikkhu sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it."

-Mahavagga of Vinaya Pitaka
(The Buddha)

"Let him not destroy, or cause to be destroyed, any life at all, nor sanction the acts of those who do so. Let him refrain from even hurting any creature, both those that are strong and those that tremble in the world."

-Sutta-Nipata (The Buddha)

"I have enforced the law against killing certain animals and many others, but the greatest progress of righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings."

-King Asoka's Edicts

All true practitioners of the Bodhisattva path eventually relinquish meat-eating. In His previous lives, the Buddha as a Bodhisattva would rather cut His own flesh to feed an eagle than let it eat a smaller bird. All advanced practising Bodhisattvas are thus necessarily vegetarians, since they cannot bear the pain of sentient beings.

While nothing we eat makes us impure, our choice of diet is an action with implications. If our choice of diet arises from greed, sustaining the greed obviously makes us impure.

If being vegetarian is so important on the Bodhisattva path,
why was the Buddha not one?

The Buddha and the Sangha in His time were not total vegetarians as they consumed alms food offered by lay followers, whom they encountered "randomly" from place to place. Though the Buddha never requested specific food to be offered, He spoke against the intentional acquiring of meat for Him and the Sangha. In this way, the Buddha neither directly nor indirectly cause the death of any being for His food. On the other hand, we have the freedom of the choice of our diet, since we do not eat alms food. Why not make the kinder and wiser decision?

Can't I be a good Buddhist who is not vegetarian?

Of course we can. One who eats meat can cultivate a pure heart just as one who is vegetarian might have an impure heart. But why not cultivate a pure heart while making the extra effort to further the practice of Compassion by being vegetarian?

*But didn't the Buddha say there is pure meat?

The Buddha advised monks that meat should only be accepted when certain conditions are met. Meat may be eaten by one who does (1) not see, (2) hear of, (3) or doubt about the animal having been killed purposely for him to eat, (4) but is certain that it either died naturally, (5) or that its flesh had been abandoned by birds of prey.

Isn't meat from the markets and restaurants considered pure meat?

No, because demand creates supply.

Once, a disciple of the Buddha asked a man why he kept buying meat. The man replied that he did so since the meat-seller kept selling meat. When the meat-seller was asked why he kept selling meat, he replied that he did so since the man kept buying from him. When the Buddha was consulted as to who was the unskillful (in Compassion and Wisdom) one, He replied that both were unskillful.

Supply and demand is an obvious vicious cycle. The whole universe of meat eating and animal slaughtering is an intricate web of interdependence, of related cause and effect. When we buy meat, we play a part in the circle of life and death of other beings.

What is real pure meat then?

Here are some forms of meat that can be considered pure meat.

1. Meat ordered or received by mistake.
2. Leftover or discarded meat.
3. Meat from animals that have died naturally or by accident for at least 16 hours
    (The number of hours is to ensure the consciousness has left the body).
4. Meat from random alms rounds as practised in the Buddhist tradition.

Isn't killing vegetables taking life too?

Yes. However, plant life is not sentient life- they are not beings with reason and emotion.

Doesn't growing vegetables kill many insects too?

This is not true if we choose organic food, which are grown without the use of pesticides (which can be harmful to humans too). In comparison to eating non-organic vegetables, pesticides are used fifty times more when we eat meat- to kill pests to produce animal feed. It takes ten kilos of vegetable protein to produce only one kilo of animal protein!

Much of our daily products also involve animals- such as leather shoes, milk from cows, honey from bees, soap from animal fat, drugs with animal serum (that might be tested on animals)… However, there are many new products today that are free from animal derivatives. Given more choice, we are at liberty to make wiser decisions on how to live life in a more harmless way. Consider becoming a vegan!

Despite all we can do, merely to live is to deprive other beings of their food, habitat and/ or life to a certain extent. Therefore, Buddhists practising the Bodhisattva path should do all they can in their ability to avoid killing, and to protect life instead.

Can you further convince me to be a vegetarian?

Here are some good reasons to be a vegetarian.

1. Personal well-being- No disease can come from a balanced vegetarian diet. Medical proof states that all kinds of diseases can spring from meat-eating, while having a vegetarian diet can not only prevent, but help cure many diseases. Our body constitution is also not designed for meat digestion. For example, our teeth and intestine structure are virtually identical to that of herbivorous, not carnivorous animals. Eating animals which die in great fear and hatred, we devour along their toxins of fear and hatred, which affects both our spiritual and physical health.

2. Well-being of animals- Animals live imprisoned and tortured lives before the final horror of being slaughtered. While alive, they suffer from overcrowding, castration and countless other cruelties.

3. Well-being of the environment- Animal-rearing depletes the Earth's resources of energy, land, crops and water. It also creates large amounts of harmful animal sewage and greenhouse gases..

4. Well-being of fellow humans- More than two-thirds of the Earth's cropland is used for cultivating animal feed for animals to be slaughtered as meat. No human starvation would exist if animal rearing for the rich meat-consumers was lessened, converting the crops as food for citizens of the Third World Countries.

5. Peace on Earth- Wars, racial riots and other forms of related human unrest are collective karmic results of generated hatred when group-slaughtered animals, which die in great fear and hatred, are reborn as humans.

"For hundreds of thousands of years
the stew in the pot has brewed hatred and resentment
that is difficult to stop.
If you wish to know why there are disasters of armies and weapons in the world,
listen to the piteous cries from the slaughterhouse at midnight."

-Ancient Chinese Verse translated by Gold Mountain Monastery Staff

6. All beings have at one point or another been reborn as our kin. The practice of vegetarianism is thus the practice of filial piety. It is the practice of the Loving-kindness, Compassion and Equanimity to all beings, recognising that they have Buddha Nature (the potential to become Buddhas) like us.

What if vegetarian food is hard to find?

Another reason why the Buddha never made vegetarianism a compulsory rule is His understanding that the living and karmic conditions of different people are different. For example, it would be downright impossible for all Tibetan Buddhists to have vegetarian diets when Tibet can hardly grow vegetables. However, at least three major Tibetan monasteries have become totally vegetarian today with the aid of imported food.

What happens if you cannot find vegetarian food readily? Does it mean you have no choice but to eat meat? Think again carefully... the path of Compassion is not always easy to tread. It involves making many sacrifices. Being a committed vegetarian might mean having to go the extra mile to get vegetarian food.

Did you know the Buddha is a vegetarian at heart?

The Buddha remarked that the meat He consumed in His entire life was manifested by His great compassion and psychic powers. That is to say, not only does the meat in theory already exist as pure meat, it isn't even real meat! In other words, the Buddha was a full vegetarian at heart!

It is worth mentioning that the Buddha did not die from eating meat (poisoned or putrid pork), as it is so often mistaken. His last meal consisted of "sukara-maddava"- which is correctly translated to be (1) a pig's soft food, ie. food eaten by pigs, (2) "pig's delight," ie. a favourite food of pigs, (3) "pig-pounded," ie., food trampled by pigs. It was actually a kind of mushroom called truffles.

Why do some well-known practitioners not vegetarian?

Some of these practitoners are advanced practising Bodhisattva, who eat meat out of skillful means and compassion to benefit more beings indirectly. In fact, they might even be enlightened beings who are able to manifest "fake" meat like the Buddha. If one wishes to follow the practices of these masters, one has to be sure of one's motivation. If it is not compassion and wisdom, it is greed and ignorance at play- nothing other than selfish rationalisation.

It is also a mistake to think that by eating meat, one will generate a karmic Dharma connection with the deceased being, so as to help it in future. These beings would rather us to connect with them while alive- not when they are on your dinner plate!

On a related note, animal liberation (life-releasing) is easily practised when we practise vegetarianism- which is simply liberating animals from our dinner table. If one thinks carefully, it is actually spiritually hypocritical to liberate animals from captivity when we eat them. This is especially so when animal liberation is at times done in an ignorant random manner, endangering environmental balance, the animals themselves and other animals.

Hmmm… I'm still unsure whether to be a vegetarian…

Well… the Buddha left it to you to choose!

Remember- Buddhism is a free religion. Though there are always kinder and wiser choices you can make, you are also free to choose otherwise.

"A vegetarian diet is not obligatory for Buddhists. Still, for those of us who follow the teachings of the Great Vehicle, it is important. But the teachings of the Buddha were open and flexible on this subject, and each practitioner has the choice to be vegetarian or not."

-His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Reflect carefully- why are you putting off vegetarianism when it so obviously has all the plus points? Is it due to plain greed for the taste of meat? If you want to be sure you are not vegetarian not because of greed, the best solution is to be vegetarian and prove it to yourself. This is not my challenge for you- this is your personal spiritual challenge. We have to be totally honest with ourselves. Remember this- your decision to be vegetarian or not will affect thousands of sentient lives in your lifetime.

Quotes on Vegetarianism by the World's Most Famous Buddhist-
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (1989 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate):

In the mid 1960s, the Dalai Lama was impressed by ethically vegetarian Indian monks and adopted a vegetarian diet for about a year and a half. Apparently he consumed primarily nuts and milk. Unfortunately, he contracted Hepatitis B and his liver was seriously damaged. For health reasons, he was advised by his personal physicians to consume meat. While he has eaten meat in moderation ever since, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly acknowledged that a vegetarian diet is a worthy _expression of compassion and contributes to the cessation of the suffering of all living beings. However, he eats meat only on alternate days (six months a year). He is a semi-vegetarian, though he wishes to be a full one. By making an example of cutting his meat consumption in half, he is trying to gently influence his followers.

"While many of the great Tibetan teachers did and do eat animals, the Dalai Lama has broken new ground by publicly stating his case for vegetarianism. If we seriously consider the compassion inherent in His Holiness' advice and actions, Buddhist meat-eaters could similarly try to eat vegetarian at least every other day to start out with. Since Buddhists have taken vows not to kill, they should not support a livelihood that makes others kill. Even if one does not have great compassion for animals this would meritoriously save humans from performing heinous deeds. The power of each human being becoming vegetarian releases the most intense suffering of the animal realm—the agony of factory-farmed animals. This profound action can help slow the grinding wheels of samsara, bringing to a halt the cycles of suffering of the entire animal realm and influencing their eventual liberation. When animals are not just looked upon as creatures to fill our stomachs, they can be seen as they really are—beings who have the same Buddha nature as we all do. "


"This Thanksgiving, staff of the Fund for Animals are thanking the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, for recent statements in support of animal rights. In an audience with representatives of The Fund for Animals earlier this month, the Dalai Lama commended the animal rights movement for working to end the suffering of animals, and urged everyone who can to adopt a vegetarian diet. Speaking with The Fund for Animals' national director, Heidi Prescott, and program coordinator, Norm Phelps, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize recipient said, "People think of animals as if they were vegetables, and that isn't right. We have to change the way people think about animals. I encourage the Tibetan people and all people to move toward a vegetarian diet that doesn't cause suffering." His Holiness also condemned the abuse and killing of animals for entertainment purposes, such as the practice of hunting wild animals for sport. The Dalai Lama invited the Fund for Animals to work with his government in exile in India to help encourage people to become vegetarian and to protect animals from suffering."

-AmeriScan: November 25, 1998

"According to Buddhist teaching, there is a very close interdependence between the natural environment and the sentient beings living in it. Some of my friends have told me that basic human nature is somewhat violent, but I have told them I disagree. If we examine different animals, such as tigers or lions, we learn that their basic nature provides them with sharp fangs and claws. Peaceful animals, such as deer, which are completely vegetarian, are more gentle and have smaller teeth and no claws. From that viewpoint we human beings have a nonviolent nature."

-Ecology and the Human Heart

"Whenever I visit a market and see the chickens crowded together in tiny cages that give them no room to move around and spread their wings and the fish slowly drowning in the air, my heart goes out to them. People have to learn to think about animals in a different way, as sentient beings who love life and fear death. I urge everyone who can to adopt a compassionate vegetarian diet."

-In an audience granted to Norm Phelps and Heidi Prescott
  of The Fund for Animals, Washington, D.C., November 10, 1998

"One day I went to visit a small lake to offer food to the fish that we had previously freed there. On my way back someone said, "By the way, did you see the poultry farm?" All of a sudden I had a vision where I saw large groups of chickens marching along carrying banners on which it was written, "The Dalai Lama not only saves fish, but even feeds them. What does he do for us poor chickens?" I felt terribly sad and sorry for the chickens . . . We no longer raise poultry in our settlements."

-The Dalai Lama, in Imagine All the People: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama on  Money, Politics, and Life as It Could Be (pg. 30)

I do not see any reason why animals should be slaughtered to serve as human diet when there are so many substitutes. After all, man can live without meat. It is only some carnivorous animals that have to subsist on flesh. Killing animals for sport, for pleasure, for adventures, and for hides and furs is a phenomenon which is at once disgusting and distressing. There is no justification in indulging in such acts of brutality.

In our approach to life, be it pragmatic or otherwise, the ultimate truth that confronts us squarely and unmistakably is the desire for peace, security and happiness. Different forms of life in different aspects of existence make up the teeming denizens of this earth of ours. And, no matter whether they belong to the higher group as human beings or to the lower group, the animals, all beings primarily seek peace, comfort and security. Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to a man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not to die, so do other creatures.

- The Vegetarian Way, 19th World Vegetarian Congress 1967

"For those people who can practice strict vegetarianism, that is best. I was deeply impressed the other day when I heard on the BBC radio that the number of vegetarians in this country (Great Britain) is growing. This is good news."

-The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective (pg 72-73)

"Vegetarianism is very admirable. In the case of those living in Tibet in the past, because of the climatic conditions and the scarcity of green vegetables, it is perhaps understandable that people generally adopted a non-vegetarian diet. Now, however, particularly in countries where there is an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits, it is far better to reduce our consumption of non-vegetarian food as much as possible."

-The World of Tibetan Buddhism (pg 111)

"I think that from a Buddhist point of view it is very important to be vegetarian. I always say that even if on an individual level one does not always manage to stick to a vegetarian diet, when large numbers meet for a party, a conference, or any other gathering, it is indispensable that the group avoids eating meat. As for myself, I have tried my best to introduce vegetarianism to Tibetan society...

According to Buddhism the life of all beings--human, animal or otherwise--is precious, and all have the same right to happiness. For this reason, I find it disgraceful that animals are used without being shown the slightest compassion, and that they are used for scientific experiments.

...I have also noticed that those who lack any compassion for animals and who do not hesitate to kill them are also those who, sooner or later, show a lack of compassion toward human beings. Inversely, the more compassion we have toward animals, the more we regard their lives as precious, then the more respect we have for human life. "

-Beyond Dogma (pg 28)

"The suffering of animals is immediately apparent, for example, in goats and lambs slaughtered by the butcher, unable to save their own lives. Animals are harmless, they are totally powerless, possessing nothing but the bit of water and food we give them. They are so simple, so stupid, ignorant, and defenseless, that men really have no right to hunt and kill them for food. Cows, horses, mules and other animals have a dismal life and a dismal fate."

-Essential Teachings (pg 43)

"If you adopt questionable methods to become richer, such as selling arms or building poultry farms, then your livelihood becomes a source of negative energy and karma. By investing your money in the poultry industry, for example, you may become richer but at the expense of other beings' lives. ..

Although from a spiritual point of view, we can say that human beings are the most precious of all living beings, seen from other angles we are the most destructive species our planet has known. Not only do we create pain for other species-- the millions of fish, chickens, cows and others we consider to be our righful food -- but we use our intelligence even to plan the total destruction of the planet on which we live!"

-The Dalai Lama on Money, Politics, and Life As It Could Be (pg 15, 29-30)

If you are paying particular attention to observing practices of the three lower tantras it is important to maintain a vegetarian diet. Although it was reasonable for Tibetans to eat meat in Tibet, because of the climatic conditions and the scarcity of vegetables, in countries where there are vegetables in abundance, it is far better to avoid or reduce your consumption of meat. Particularly when you invite many people to a party, it is good if you can provide vegetarian food.

-A Survey of the Paths of Tibetan Buddhism

HE Kyabje Lati Pinpoche is one of HH the Dalai Lama's spiritual advisers and the Root Guru of Trijang Rinpoche Yangsi- Trijang Rinpoche is the present Dalai Lama's junior tutor. This interview was conducted by Kunga Nyima on 26 December 2000 at Sakyamuni Dharma Centre, Singapore.

Q: In recent years, we heard that there are plans to convert the diet of the three great Gelugpa monasteries into full vegetarianism. What is Rinpoche's view of this plan and for that matter, for Buddhist monasteries in general, to become full vegetarian?
A: I am happy the monastic authorities want to make this huge change. That is really appreciable. I really support this type of change coming up.

Q:Why does Rinpoche feel that it is better to be vegetarian?
A:If the number of people who consume meat is reduced, it then automatically reduces the number of people who kill the animals to meet the demand. In this way, by becoming vegetarian, we contribute, to some extend, the reduction in the number of animals killed.

Q:Why is it then in old Tibet that the monasteries are rarely fully vegetarian?
A:In Tibet, there are many people who are strict vegetarian. Even in the big monasteries where there are huge gatherings of monks, they never eat non-vegetarian food. In the monk's individual quarters, though, there might be some monks who eat meat as food.

Vegetarianism is something not very new in Tibetan society. Generally, in the old Tibetan society, most of the people try to avoid taking meat specifically killed to feed individual person. This is evident in very level of Tibetan society. Even in the scriptures of the Buddha, we have to avoid taking such meat which is killed specially just to feed ourselves. The texts prohibit us from taking this type of meat. That is the common way of practice and instructions in the Buddha's teachings. Especially in the Mahayana teachings when a person does intensive practice of Bodhicitta, they are advised or prescribed to avoid taking meat.

May all beings be free from fear, harm and danger.
May all beings be well and happy.

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