Buddhism is a very old religion, dating back to the fifth century, BCE. It has its roots in India, although worldwide around 350 million people currently consider themselves practicing Buddhists. It originally spread from India into other countries in Southeast Asia like Tibet and Sri Lanka before making its way to China and Japan. It has given us many important spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness. But did the Buddha also give us advice on the right way to eat?
For example, do Buddhists eat meat? The Buddha never instructed us to become vegetarian. Because most Buddhist monks and nuns begged for their food, they were grateful for the generosity of their people and ate what they were given. The only time they were forbidden to eat meat was when they knew it was killed expressly to feed them. This tradition of begging for food is still followed in some communities today.
While Buddha had no problem with vegetarianism, he didn’t want to place the restriction on his monks and nuns. He feared that such restrictions would make it harder for everyday people to donate food to them. Since doing so helped those same people gain merit and better prospects for a good rebirth after death, it made sense to allow his followers to eat whatever was offered to them. But even though Buddha said people could eat meat, the actual answer isn’t quite so simple.
Vegetarianism and Buddhism
The truth of the matter is, some of us are vegetarian and believe that Buddha wanted us to eat this way. We believe it is an important part of our daily Buddhist practice. Buddhism was developed in India by a real person named Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. After Buddha died, his followers divided into three main groups:
- Theraveda (Teachings of the Elders)
- Mahayana (Great Vehicle or Great Way)
- Vajrayana (Diamond Way)
Theraveda Buddhism stayed in Southeast Asia and became popular in Thailand and Sri Lanka, but Mahayana Buddhism gained popularity in China, Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, and Cambodia. One of the changes that the Mahayanists made was to promote vegetarianism among the monasteries. As a result, many Chinese and Vietnamese people at least tried to follow the lead of the monks and nuns and adopted a vegetarian diet. Even though the Theravedists did not outlaw meat, you can still find many practitioners in places like Sri Lanka who are vegetarian or won’t eat meat but include fish in their diet.
Our main Buddhist argument for vegetarianism is the First Precept. All in all, there are Five Precepts that non-Monks are expected to follow. The first, and the most important one, is “to undertake the training of avoiding taking the life of beings.” This precept applies to taking the life all living things, not just humans. Even though it doesn’t say anything about not eating meat, many of us believe that vegetarianism is an important way to train ourselves to avoid taking lives.
Just to confuse matters, around the same time that Buddhism was being developed, another philosophy was becoming popular called Jainism. There were some similarities, including a belief in karma, reincarnation, and nirvana. However, Jainists believe that everything has a soul, including animals and inanimate objects like stones.
Because of this, Jainists held deep respect and compassion for everything around them. Great care had to be taken to ensure nothing was harmed by their actions, including eating or drinking. As a result, Jainism promotes a strict vegetarian way of life. Because they hold many similar beliefs and were developed around the same time in the same part of the world, people often confuse our Buddhist ideas with Jainist philosophies.
Today in the Western hemisphere, the practice of vegetarianism among Buddhists is split and is often inspired by health or ecological reasons over religious ideas. Research estimates that around 50% of Buddhists in the west consider ourselves to be vegetarian or vegan. And, while 58% of Buddhist retreats in North America offer some kind of vegetarian choice, only 5% are strictly meat-free. Many of us in the west came to Buddhism as vegetarians already.
The Dalai Lama himself even struggles with the dilemma of vegetarianism. As a child, he regularly ate meat and was often offered meat at Tibetan festivals. He decided to go vegetarian when he was 65. The strict vegetarianism lasted for two years, then he got very sick. On the advice of his doctors, he started eating meat again. These days, he eats meat a couple times a week and stays vegetarian the rest of the time. But even he says that it is up to the individual.
Forbidden Foods In Buddhism
Even though Buddha didn’t advocate vegetarianism, he did have recommendations about foods we should avoid. For example, while everyone was allowed to eat meat, certain kinds of meat were off the table:
Horses and elephants were considered “royal” animals and should never be eaten. Dog was considered inedible and disgusting. The main concern with snake, tiger, leopard, and bear meat was that the ancient Buddhists believed eating the meat of those animals would encourage those same animals to seek revenge on the hunter. Most of us in the west would never consider eating many of these meats anyway, so following this guideline today is easy.
There are also the Five Pungent Spices, which are avoided to varying degrees across the traditions. These are common vegetables many people use in daily cooking: onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives. It is believed that when they are cooked, they act as aphrodisiacs. If they are eaten raw, they increase a person’s anger and rage. Monks and nuns seeking enlightenment should avoid them, but many of us lay practitioners often continue eating them.
We are also advised to stay away from intoxicants such as fermented drinks (like wine) or any other consumables that can be considered addictive. But again, how strictly this rule is followed depends on which style of Buddhism we practice. Theravedists adhere to a strict “not allowed” stance, although they make exceptions for alcohol-based medicines, medicinal drugs that have been prescribed for specific illnesses, and foods cooked with a small amount of liquor.
The Mahayanists place less importance on our drinking habits and more on the people who sell alcohol. We consider one person drinking to be hurting only themselves, but selling it hurts many people and becomes a violation of the Five Precepts.
Moreover, we expand the “intoxication” definition to anything that might lead us off the path of Enlightenment, and not just drugs or alcohol. This includes anything that we can become addicted to, like coffee, tea, chewing gum, sex, food, or even power. Of course, abstaining from food is simply not a possibility. But we believe that using any of them as a comfort or distraction is the real problem, and that is why they are considered intoxicants.
While there are five main precepts, there are several more that monks and nuns follow, especially during holy days and celebrations. Although, as lay practitioners, we are welcome to adopt any of the other practices we wish. The Sixth Precept tells us “to abstain from taking food at inappropriate times.” This is an ancient tradition (still followed by Theravedist monks) that requires the one meal of the day to be eaten by noon and for the monks to fast until sunrise the next day.
Our philosophy is a very deep and contemplative and contemplative way of thought. It teaches peace and compassion to every living creature but also recognizes that everyone’s path is different. Buddha left it up to us to decide how best to interpret his teachings. After all, even the Buddha believed that each of us has to experience a teaching ourselves in order to truly know and understand the truth.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.