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Vegetarianism, A Buddhist Perspective

Updated on August 25, 2020

Why vegetarianism?

I have written an article on “Why You Should Become A Vegetarian?”. This is an extension of the same subject but explained in a Buddhist context. The Buddhist communities also have different perspective on this subject of vegetarianism. On the Buddhist interpretation of what constitute “killing” the Theravadian Buddhists rightly reasoned that eating meat does not actually constitute killing. This is because they do not kill animals themselves. By the way, Theravadian Buddhists traditionally are those from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Whereas the Mahayanist Buddhists spread to countries notably China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Most Chinese Buddhists in China and Taiwan are Mahayanists. The committed Mahayanists are vegetarians. Although both main traditions agree on the concept of compassion for all sentient beings, it is the interpretation of what constitutes “killing” that they differ.

What constitute the act of killing?

First let me explain what constitute the act of "killing" in the Buddhist perspective. A person has committed the act of killing if 5 conditions occurred:
The terms in parentheses are Pali words
1. (Pana) .. The victim of the killing must be a being and alive.
2. (Panasannita) .. The killer must know the victim is a being and alive.
3. (Sanciccan) .. The killer must have the volition to kill the victim.
4. (Payagam) .. The action of killing must be performed by the killer.
5. (Marana) .. The victim must die as a result of this act.

So, eating meat per se, is not committing the act of killing. You are actually eating "dead" meat. The Theravadians are correct in that they did not commit the act of killing. Someone else did the killing. So, becoming a vegetarian does not mean the person does not commit the act of killing, as technically and rightly so, killing has nothing to do with eating meat or not eating meat.

The Mahayanists reasoned that on the principle of the Buddha’s teaching of the universal compassion for all sentient beings, they should not associate themselves with actions that have any bearing towards cruelty to animals, especially the killing for food. On this interpretation, they are correct.

Moral consideration on vegetarianism

The Buddhists practise the 5 precepts as promulgated by the Buddha. They are:

  1. To refrain from killing.
  2. To refrain from stealing.
  3. To refrain from committing sexual misconduct.
  4. To refrain from lying (and other frivolous speech).
  5. To refrain from consuming intoxicating substances.

Now let us interpret the first precept of not killing. Let us first try to understand the Buddha’s intention of putting forth this first precept. The underlying intention of the Buddha was to encourage his followers not to harm any sentient beings, animals and all lives included. On this premise alone, I would interpret that the intendment of the first precept should embrace the Buddha’s ideal of universal compassion to all. Any association with the process of unwholesome killing should be viewed as compromising the first precept.

On this premise, it is my personal opinion that Theravadian Buddhists should become vegetarians. I am a Theravadian Buddhist and I am a vegetarian. Eating meat means either you or someone else has to kill the animals. So, if you eat meat, you are inevitably in this chain of the slaughtering cycle. You are part of the contributing factors.

My parting comment

The dietitian will tell you that you are what you eat. The fashion designer will tell you that you are what you wear. The Buddha told us that we are what we think, speak, and act. You see the difference? The Buddha never said that eating meat is killing. Then, another question arises. Why are some Buddhists vegetarians? An easy answer is a "question-back" answer. Why are some people in this world vegetarians? Well, as I have written earlier, Buddhists are vegetarians because of they practise the universal concept of great compassion for all sentient beings including all animals and all lives.

The world is surrounded by good and bad things. It is the very nature of this world to be such. That was why the Buddha led us to SEE the real nature of this world. Once we realize this truth, we will gradually come to terms with this contradiction, the dichotomy of good and bad. The "Yinyang" of existence. The Buddha referred this as "Dukkha". Unsatisfactoriness. It is always this Dukkha that we have to live and contend with. If you watch the National Geographic program, you will see this Dukkha overpowering our lives. Every moment, when a life lives, another life has to be sacrificed. This is great Dukkha. But we are blind to this fact. We ignorantly think that we can live without others dying for us. I shall not go further giving examples to convince you of this truth. So, does this justify eating meat?

You decide for yourself.

Why the Buddha was not a vegetarian?

This was to do with practicability of the environment then. The Buddha and his monks depended on alms-food from the common householders in remote villages, who were usually very poor. So, in all practicability they just accepted whatever that were given. However, there were certain meats that the Buddha and his monks would avoid. They were meats from elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, and some other wild animals. The main reason for avoiding wild animal meats was to avoid generating negative scents/vibrations towards similar animals while residing in the jungles, which might cause attacks from these animals. Another special condition that meat was refused if it was known that the animals were specifically killed for the Buddha or his monks.


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