Others like me have wondered if veganism was, in fact, a requirement for practicing Buddhism. As I learned more about Buddhism and the customs that come with it, I began to wonder what would need to change in my diet. Some may assume that in a tradition that abstains from so much in life, you may also need to abstain from consuming animal products. Nowadays, you can find a vegan on just about every street corner. For one reason or another, people have begun to more commonly ascribe to this life of refraining from animal products. Even as it is growing in popularity, it is still not the preferred choice of living for many people. While you may enter a Buddhist temple and find yourself having a conversation with a vegan, is that a given? Would everyone in that temple consider themselves both Buddhist and vegan?
So, are Buddhists Vegan? The Buddhist tradition does not require a vegan diet as a part of the ancient texts. Practicing Buddhists have a choice whether or not to completely abstain from any animal byproduct or simply just abstain from meat. They also have the choice to abstain from neither.
Buddha himself was not a vegan. He did not even live life as a vegetarian. There are slight differences between the two which we will also discuss more in-depth in the following sections. Veganism has many different types, some more strict than others. At the same time, vegetarianism is firm about one thing, do not consume meat.
The consumption of other animal products like dairy is dictated on a personal level. More to the point, practicing Buddhists have a choice whether or not to completely abstain from any animal byproduct or simply just abstain from meat. They also have the choice to abstain from neither.
In the following paragraphs, we will explore the world of the Buddhist tradition as well as its relationship to food. If you have more questions about what constitutes veganism versus vegetarian, or if you have questions regarding the tradition as a whole, I implore you to continue reading; following the links provided to further your knowledge of a fascinating way of life.
What Is Buddhism?
A common misconception is that Buddhism is a religion like Christianity, Catholicism, or Hinduism. The truth is that Buddhism is a tradition. It is an accumulation of traditions, beliefs and a general lifestyle that encompasses a set of teaching from the Buddha. Around 2500 BCE, Siddhartha Guatama was born in present-day Nepal, he would later abandon his life as a royal and embark on the most human journey possible.
Buddha is a title coined which means the “one who is awake.” After many decades of studying under and following closely the teachings of meditation by those who knew the craft better Siddhartha, he took up many ascetic practices. Asceticism is centered around the idea of denying oneself the lowest of desires in order to achieve some sort of spiritual or religious goal. For Siddhartha, this goal was the absolute freedom of the soul. He believed this could be achieved through meditation and denying the desires of the flesh.
It was not until he had devoted nearly half of his life to reaching enlightenment that he actually reached Nirvana. The idea of the true freedom of one’s soul, a transcendence beyond anything ever imagined. For the remainder of his life, he traveled, dedicating his time to teaching what he discovered. He had many disciples who reached enlightenment for themselves and followed his example of then teaching others. Is that not how any movement gets started? It takes one and then there is a brave second, and a third and soon the teachings are adopted and understood.
The three main teachings of Buddhism are first, Constantly be engaging and changing the mind. For freedom of the soul is begins and ends with the mind. Second, meditation. This changing of the mind can only take place by a deeply spiritual connection to what is beyond us. To meditate means to think deeply or focus one’s mind for a specific amount of time for a specific purpose. The third teaching of Buddhism is not so much a teaching but rather a way that the tradition operates. It is not evangelical like other religions.
There is no call or force for anyone to join. However, Buddhist practices are for any and everyone. It is not exclusive to monks or any specific nationality. There is a freedom in that even.
What Is Veganism? Vegetarianism?
There are so many different diets going around in the world; KETO, Whole 30, Paleo. There is such a thing as conscience eating that is literally just thinking about what you eat and eating when you are hungry. Kind of seems like a no brainer, huh? We as people have a natural inclination that our bodies need food. However, there are so many avenues to take in order to get the proper energy we need. Not to mention that eating has some elements of pleasure.
Veganism is more than just a diet. It is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. There are varying degrees of veganism. True vegans ascribe to a life that goes beyond just a plant-based diet. This lifestyle includes refusing the use of clothing and/or accessories involving the use or mistreatment of animals. This includes events with animals like a circus or zoo, products that have undergone animal testing, as well as events that include animals such as horse or dog races. While being vegan is about so much more than just diet, the vast majority of vegans focus primarily on what they eat. Their plant-based diet differs from that of their vegetarian counterparts.
|So, what can vegans eat? |
Fruits and vegetables
Grains and pulses
Nuts and seeds
|What don’t vegans eat? |
Meat and fish
Butter and Eggs
Cheese made from animals’ milk
On the other hand, vegetarianism is the practice of not eating meat or fish, especially for moral, religious or health reasons. It is slightly different in that these individuals choose to eat or drink dairy products as well as eggs and honey. They are seen as less radical in their stance against animal exploitation but often their motives are the same.
It is also valuable to note that while ethics play a big role amongst the vegan/vegetarian community, there are several reasons surrounding health that might cause someone to consider such a lifestyle.
What are the spiritual benefits of veganism?
Everything is spiritual, especially what we put into our bodies. I poked fun of conscientious eating earlier but in reality, it has a huge impact on spirituality. Along with a growing trend around veganism, there has been a lot of buzz around juice cleanses and eating less sugar. These trends are on the right track.
Cleansing the body resets it to its natural state, recalibrating and reaching equilibrium. This has a huge impact on not only the body but the mind as well. Nykki Harden does a phenomenal job describing 10 spiritual benefits to a plant-based diet. They put it best by saying, “the purer we are within, the more gracefully our life unfolds outside ourselves.”
To start, there is a benefit of an enhanced sense of self. A growing awareness of who you are and how you are navigating the world around you. The new equilibrium your body is experiencing effects helps create a sort of clarity. There is no artificiality clogging your attention.
There is a benefit of greater spiritual enrichment. When you allow yourself into the world of whole foods and plant-based living, you are opening yourself up to become an extension of the universe. It’s quite beautiful when you think about it. In the same.
Much like the first benefit we discussed, there is a benefit of experiencing oneness. By eating a plant-based diet, you are able to see your place in the wholeness of everything. In the same vein yet slightly nuanced is the benefit of interconnectedness with all things.
In accordance with having a deeper connection to self, you are able to have a deeper connection with all things. The relationship between yourself and the rest of the universe is vital. Having a plant-based diet allows your body to reconnect to how it was created to be.
There is also a great openness of the heart. Not in the literal sense. There is no open-heart surgery required! Rather a willingness to share love with others. There is something so human about not participating in the industry that exploits animals. The benefit is not an increased desire to have romantic love for others but rather a desire to spread positive energy instead of toxicity.
Another benefit of a plant-based diet is surrendering to the process. Surrender is not a passive act. The benefit does not come from merely not eating meat but rather a willingness to accept that which you cannot control. Rewiring your mind and body so that you can reach a state of equilibrium is not easy. It takes discipline. That is where the benefit lies; in being able to let your body reset, your mind is working as well.
Similarly, there is a kind of self-trust that is built. As you commit to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle and your body starts to learn what it does and does not need, you are able to trust what signals your body is sending out. At the same time, you can begin to trust what you do not know. While embarking on a new dietary journey, you don’t know what will happen. So it is with life. The muscle that trusts the process is growing stronger every day simply by changing your relationship to food.
This may be my favorite spiritual benefit of a plant-based diet. This journey allows you to activate life force energy that you otherwise might not be able to. Passing through foods, herbs, and remedies, you are able to receive all of the positive life energy nature has to offer. There is a release of negative and a welcoming of life-giving energy.
Understanding our limitless potential is another benefit to eating a vegan or vegetarian diet. The Buddha set out on his spiritual journey in an effort to set his soul free. As we have established, a plant-based lifestyle is not necessary to reach enlightenment, creating a balanced body for that soul to dwell in now may help you understand the potential you have and achieve it.
Lastly, there is a deep inner peace that comes when living a plant-based life. A body that was once off-balanced can become balanced in every way; body, mind, and spirit. This is a perfect recipe for inner peace as you navigate through the world.
What are the Different Buddhist Sects?
Much like any walk of faith, the Buddhist tradition varies in type. The main teachings of each sect are relatively the same, however, there are many differences as the tradition has spread and groups have broken off. Even so, there are three main sects of Buddhism. These are the Theravada tradition, the Mahayana tradition, and the Vajrayana traditions. Each of these groups has a different belief in regards to living a vegan lifestyle or not.
As the oldest tradition, the Theravada is most directly in-line with what the Buddha taught. These followers believe that there are only a select few individuals who will reach enlightenment. While there is no form of Buddhism that teaches evangelism, this sect would be considered the most exclusive. Each person’s journey is very much there own. This tradition is most dominant in South and Southeast Asia such as Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, etc.
Due to the fact that the Theravada tradition is so individualized, it is reserved for monks. Anyone is allowed to follow the beliefs or even just believe in the traditions, however, it is only the monks that are said to be able to reach Nirvana. Some of the other beliefs held by these individuals include a devotion to spirituality, self-discipline, and as mentioned, individual enlightenment.
Life as a mink includes living a life of solitude in a temple. This includes living either alone or amongst other monastics. In the Theravada tradition, each day the monks venture out into the nearby towns or villages with what are known as begging bowls. This is where they get their food. Depending on what they receive in their bowls determines what they eat for that day.
There is an element to this practice that allows the individual to engage in an element of compassion and generosity. There is a disciple element as well. Say the monks go out that day and receive nothing in their bowl, for that day, they will not eat. Through meditation and many other practices, they are able to form a greater connection to themselves to overcome the body’s discomforts such as hunger.
At the same time, due to the fact that these monks are at the mercy of what food is given to them, there is little to no room to wonder whether the items contain meat or other animal products. For this reason, this rigid tradition does not oblige to a vegan lifestyle or even a vegetarian lifestyle. What they do eat is dependent on the region they are in.
Standing as the second-largest Buddhist tradition is the Mahayana tradition. A successor to the Theravada tradition, there are several differences within the beliefs and practices. For one, the Mahayana teaches salvation of all, not just for a select few. For this reason, it is one of the largest sects of the Buddhist tradition.
Within this tradition, there have been even further complexities and creations of many subgroups. These groups include Zen Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana which will discuss in a moment. These groups focus on different aspects of the Buddhist tradition mainly based on cultural differences.
One of the most well-known differences is that Mahayana monastics are required to live a vegetarian lifestyle. It is unknown why it is not stretched to veganism, it may be out of convenience or simply because of the culture from which it was born. Nevertheless, practitioners of the Mahayana tradition do not eat meat while monks of the Theravada do. Within the different subgroups, there are also different rules about diet but it not common throughout.
I must note that there is an element to every tradition that honors individualism. A rule can be taught but it is individually enforced. A teacher held in high respect, bodhisattvas, is thought to know more than a layperson or practitioner, however, just like any sort of apprenticeship, there is some element of freedom.
It is within the belief system to abstain from eating meat as a means to achieve greater self-sufficiency, to keep in-line with first of the 5 Precepts, as well as a means to achieve a variety of the benefits we mentioned in the previous section.
As aforementioned, the Vajrayana tradition is a branch of the Mahayana tradition in that it follows many of the same practices while it differs in others. A huge part of this belief system is that Enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime as opposed to the other sects that believe this requires an accumulation of good karma through many lived lives.
The Vajrayana tradition is dominant in Tibet which influences the lifestyle that they live. The climate in Tibet is extremely and harsh and the elevation makes it unlike any other place on earth. For this reason, year-round agriculture is simply just not possible. Over and above that, monks and practitioners are not required to live their lives as vegan or even vegetarian like their Mahayana counterparts. The cuisine native to Tibet is fascinating and thus so is the diet of monks in this region.
What Are the 5 Precepts?
The text that is followed closely by the Theravada tradition is called the Vinaya. It is the first written form of Buddhist scripture. These teachings influence things like views and beliefs on marriage. The Theravada monastics are forbidden to participate in any form of marriage. If violated, these rules elicit some sort of punishment. Closely related yet contrary in action, there are the precepts. While there are a number of these, there are 5 main precepts. These do not elicit punishment if broken but rather act as a training template for anyone want to follow Buddhist tradition. These precepts include:
1. To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings
The first of the precepts is perhaps the most relevant to the vegan discussion so I want to camp out here a little longer. This idea of not taking another’s life, any living creature, seems to go against all beliefs held by the vegan vegetarian community. So how does the Buddhist community navigate this precept in light of what we have discussed about the Buddhist tradition?
This precept, in particular, is quite contentions amongst practitioners. The controversy and confusion lies in the fact that any animal being eaten was once alive and its life was taken from it. On the other hand, when you go to the store and buy chicken or go to a restaurant and order a dish with animal byproducts, you are not responsible for the end of that animal’s life. This sentiment leads back to why vegetarianism is not necessary to some of the Buddhist traditions.
Furthermore, the specifics of this precept are widely admired by many. The idea is that all life is sacred and no one else can or should take that life away. This applies to humans, animals, insects, and creatures all the same. There are different aspects to taking the life of beings. Firstly, the living being itself, then the perception and acknowledgment that it is a living being. From there grows the thought of killing. Followed by the action resulting in the death itself. Once the resulting death has occurred, the “blood is on your hands”. The more virtuous the person whose life you have taken, the greater the offense.
Moreover, the intent is what is most important. It is as if during that moment of thought before action determines how great the offense. In a beautiful reverse, that is also the moment you can change your mind. There does not have to be an action that follows. Instead, taking time to meditate on the root of the thought can help you attain the spiritual well being that is desired. This is why these precepts are tools for training which helps achieve even greater spirituality than what is initially stated in the individual precept.
2. To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given
The second of the 5 precepts is to avoid not taking things not given. This is related to thievery but goes even beyond shoplifting. It is about taking what is not intended for you as well as taking something that is not your property. There is a sense of entitlement that is involved with taking what is not given. There is an idea that whatever you want is meant to be yours. This part of Buddhist training reinforces denying yourself the pleasures of the flesh. Much like taking the life of another being, there are different aspects to taking things not given.
Firstly, the existence of someone else’s property or belonging. Then there is the acknowledgment and awareness of that property or belonging and that it is someone else’s. From there is the thought to take what is not given. Followed by the action which results in the property or belongings being taken.
3. To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct and overindulgence
There is much discussion around this next precept. Does sexual misconduct refer to sex of any kind? Are Buddhists not allowed to participate in sexual relationships? Is there more focus on the word “misconduct” that is going unnoticed? This precept refers not only to having sex but rather the nature in which the relationship comes to be. Within this precept, there are many different types of misconduct; 20 types regarding women.
Within the 20 types, ten of them are under some protection of sort while the other ten types of misconduct include but are not limited to relations with women that have been sold and bought; keeping concubines for enjoyment, girls captured in war, and temporary wives. In regards to the whole of the precept, misconduct occurs when the nature of the relationship is not consensual and/or has a disregard for the other party’s feelings.
While the precept is not in direct relationship to the presence of having sexual relationships, monks are celibate as a part of the beliefs. As aforementioned above, the Theravada monastics are forbidden to participate in any form of marriage while a layperson could be married, one is a practitioner and the other not. These are tools to help train the mind, not rules to be followed.
4. To undertake the training to refrain from false speech
Much like the other precepts, false speech does not simply mean ‘lying’. There are several components that are involved in this statement. Lying is defined as not telling the truth, an offense very much covered in this precept. Additionally, slander, libel, and deceit have a significant role in the nature of the statement, refrain from false speech.
Speaking ill of another is known as slander. Merriam-webster defines it as the “utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.” It’s almost deeper than lying. There is malicious intent behind it, an intense lack of compassion, a trait held in high regard in Buddhism. There is a bias in the way that we speak about others. The training within this precept allows us the strength to take control of that bias in order to speak nothing but the truth.
5. To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness
Lastly is the precept to abstain from substances that cause intoxication. Heedlessness is defined as showing a reckless lack of care or attention. This additional word is important because it comments on the fact that certain substances alter the mind and lead to an inherent lack of discernment. These substances include but are not limited to alcohol and drugs, any substance that clouds the mind.
This precept also has a clear connection to the topic of veganism. Not because these substances interfere with the morality of animal consumption but rather I am referring to the benefits of a plant-based diet. By training yourself to abstain for substances you are both allowing your body the chance to find balance while simultaneously allowing your mind to think clearly. Both of which aids in the liberation of the soul.
My hope in writing this is that you walk away with fewer questions as well as a greater understanding of the Buddhist tradition. There are so many beautiful aspects of this lifestyle. What we have just talked about are only some of the benefits. I implore you to keep searching and keep journeying. There is nothing more beautiful than the freedom of the soul.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.