Food & Drinks

Buddhist Vegetarian

I think many people confuse the first Buddhist precept of non-killing with their dietary requirement. The first precept says “I refrain from killing”. The intention is to refrain from causing harm to other living beings. If we eat a chicken, that chicken must be killed. Therefore, we should avoid eating chicken? That sounds logical, doesn’t it?

What did Buddha say?

According to Theravada Buddhist scripture, an infamous monk (Devadatta) had proposed Buddha to make vegetarian diet compulsory but Buddha rejected that proposal. In short, our diet is a personal choice.

I think the Theravada Buddha’s approach to dietary requirement is wise. This is because, one’s diet maybe greatly influenced or limited by one’s culture and environment. While it is a healthy and commendable diet, it is not an important criteria for enlightenment. Just as a tigress can exhibit compassion while an elephant can be aggressive. What is more important is our mind.

However, there are certain dietary guidelines about meat consumption. Foremost, we cannot request another person to kill an animal on our behalf, so that we can consume its meat. Therefore, ordering a live fish to be cooked in a seafood restaurant becomes inappropriate. What if our fellow dinner ordered a lobster to be shared? If we know that an animal just died because of our meal, then it becomes inappropriate to consume its meat. Likewise, if we see an animal being slaughtered or hear its cry while it is being slaughtered, it becomes inappropriate to consume its meat. A trickier requirement concerns our suspicion. If we suspect that an animal had been specifically slaughtered for our consumption, then it becomes inappropriate to eat it.

I experienced an incident in a Chinese hotpot restaurant where food is served raw. Diners sit around a pot of boiling soup and cook their choice of raw food using their cutlery. When your food is cooked, you remove them from the pot of soup and eat it from your plate or bowl. We ordered fish and was greeted with beautiful plating of fish slices. The chef had painstakingly plated the fish in a way to make it presentable together with its meat neatly laid on ice with flowers and food carving.

We were initially happy to see the beautiful arrangement until we noticed the fish gasping for air, its eyes staring back at us. The fish was still alive! We lost our appetite immediately because we couldn’t stomach the cruelty in front of us.

I think those restrictions help us preserve empathy and compassion in our minds. If meat comes in a frozen pack, then it is food to me. But if the animal is alive, I shouldn’t turn it into food. Along these general guidelines, we are also advised to refrain from eating human meat and meat of wild animals (snakes, dogs, tiger etc). I think this help preserves human decency and also reduce our craving for exotic meat.

For the Theravadin monastic community who seek alms as a way of living, a vegetarian diet may cause inconvenience to the laity. Monks accept whatever food that is being offered to them and Theravada Buddhists believe Buddha was not a vegetarian.

However, I doubt Buddha feasted heavily on meat. His successful prevention of large scale royal animal sacrificial rites would have caused a huge commotion. I doubt anyone would specially slaughter animals to prepare meals for Buddha. Not forgetting, there was no refrigerator back then.

Standard household meals were likely to contain more vegetable than meat. When monks appear at their doorsteps for alms, the food being offered would be likewise.

In olden days Thailand and Myanmar, meat was expensive and limited to special occasion. It is more likely that household meals were prepared with vegetables and fruits. Ingredients such as dried shrimps or fish were used for flavouring in Asia. Therefore, although non-vegetarian, the alms were more cholesterol friendly. In our modern time, meat becomes easily available and cheaper. Thus, alms can become arteries clogging.

While Theravada Buddhism does not promote vegetarianism, Mahayana sutra such as the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, states that Buddha prescribed a strict vegetarian diet. The concept of meat being unclean and unwholesome is also being promoted. Therefore, vegetable cooked with meat becomes contaminated and should be rejected and monks are supposed to reject the entire meal.

According to the Bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism, all sentient beings are related to us. The chicken in the supermarket freezer could have been our mother in another existence. Therefore, how can we eat the flesh of our mother? Accordingly, Mahayana Buddhist who observe the Bodhisattva precepts adopts a vegetarian diet.

Historically, the culture of vegetarian diet was supported by Emperor Wu of Liang dynasty. Being a devoted Buddhist, he decreed that all religious offerings be vegetarian so that no animals would be slaughtered for religious reasons. This naturally resulted in all temples adopting a vegetarian diet during his time. Later on, due to social situations, Buddhist monastery either grew their own food on vegetable farms or purchase them. That also encouraged a vegetarian diet in Chinese monastery.

When Buddhism spread from China to Japan and Korea, the vegetarian diet went along. Gradually, a vegetarian diet is perceived by people as an austere and respectable practice and Buddhist monks or nuns are expected to be vegetarian. Eating meat would invite condemnation from the laypeople.

Even today, unknowing people in the Chinese community would ridicule non-vegetarian monks as impure or inferior.

Should Buddhist be vegetarian?

I think it is a personal choice. If a vegetarian diet is mandatory for Buddhist practice, then we will create dietary hurdles for beginners.

Is a vegetarian diet necessary for enlightenment?

Some of the most reputably enlightened monks of the Theravada traditions are not vegetarian. Likewise for some Vajrayana practitioners.

May all be well and happy.

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