The Art of Buddhist Vegetarian

There is always a misconception among the public that Buddhist is vegetarian. Even among Buddhist, it is very common to believe that monks are vegetarians. This is not entirely wrong if we consider that 360 million (250 million in China) of the 500 million Buddhist in the world are Mahayana who insist on vegetarian diets for its sangha.

The vegetarian requirement is not the norm at the beginning. Buddha himself had refused Devadatta’s suggestion to institute vegetarianism even in the sangha. This is because food is offered to the sangha by devotees and it is not right therefore to be reject a kind gesture. Even today, Theravada Buddhist sangha still seek food alms daily. They are therefore not vegetarians. In some parts of the world, climatic conditions are not favourable to grow crops and therefore sangha in Tibet are not vegetarians.

When Buddhism arrived in China, the act of ‘begging and demanding’ was viewed as an abhorrent behaviour. It did not fit the prevailing socio-economic and cultural conditions of the Chinese. Thus, Emperor Andi of the Eastern Jin Dynasty issued an edict that prohibits sangha from seek alms outside the monastics. He also required Buddhist monastics to cultivate fields for their own crop requirements since agriculture is a respectful Chinese tradition. Thus, the beginning of institutionalising vegetarianism in Buddhism.

Although vegetarianism is not compulsory, vegetarianism is encouraged especially in Mahayana because of:

1) the five moral precepts for Buddhist include refraining from harming living things (i.e. not take life) (Amagandha Sutta)
2) the “Right Livelihood” in the Noble Eightfold Path specifically forbid business in meat (Vanija Sutta)
3) “compassionate” is the cornerstone of Bodhisattva Path practiced by many Mahayana Buddhist and the belief that all beings have parents and siblings who will be saddened by the loss of love ones (Anulimaliya Sutra)
4) prohibition of meat consumption in some Mahayana Sutra e.g. 大正新脩大藏经(第16册No.670) and 楞伽阿跋多罗宝经 (4卷)

Even when meat consumption cannot be avoided, some Mahayana Suttra (大正新脩大藏经第12册No.374; 大般涅槃经第40卷) encourage the followings:

1) taking of only 3-cleansed meat i.e. did not see the slaughtering of the animals, did not hear the slaughtering of the animals and the animals are not slaughter solely for one’s own consumption
2) one should only consume alms food after washing them with water and the meat has been separated
3) utensils stained with meat should be washed to remove the smell of meat

One should however not lose sight of the objectives of vegetarianism in Buddhism i.e. to gain merits from being compassionate and not taking life. Flexibility is therefore needed when a Buddhist practice vegetarianism. For example:

1) It will not be compassionate if you inconvenient your host and require them to specially prepare food for you in a social gathering e.g. requiring your 80 year old host to go out and look for vegetarian food in the midst of winter coldness or scraping all their utensils just to remove the smell of meat
2) Refusing alms food containing meat will deny the offeror a chance to do merit, thus not compassionate in action

The practice of vegetarianism in Buddhism is therefore arguably voluntary even for the sangha. As an ordinary Buddhist lifestyle practitioner, one should therefore be flexible and compassionate when practising vegetarianism in order to gain the full merits.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Pali Canon: Devadatta

Reference this statement:
"Buddha himself had refused Devadatta’s suggestion to institute vegetarianism even in the sangha."

It is worth clarifying that the Buddha refused Devedatta's request to make vegetarianism compulsory for the sangha.