Vegetarianism and Theravada Buddhism
I have been asked to write a little something on vegetarianism and Theravāda Buddhism. I am qualified to be quite objective, and to see both sides of the issue because I was a vegetarian for a total of ten years as a lay person and I had vegetarian eyes. That meant that when I looked at meat, cooked or not, I saw a dead animal in front of me. Now that I am a monk, I am no longer a vegetarian although I have lived at vegetarian monasteries for many years, so I know both sides of the coin.
The short answer to the issue is “Yes,” it is OK for monks to eat meat, but it is not such a good idea for lay people to eat or buy meat. I know it is a double standard, but I will explain.
The Monk’s Rules
There are some rules for monks regarding meat. For the monks to eat meat, it should not be seen, heard or suspected that the animal, fish or bird has been killed for the purpose of serving the monk. There are also ten types of animals that the Buddhist monks are not allowed to eat. They are:
- Human beings
The first three are considered “Too noble to eat.” While the rest are considered either repulsive or dangerous. It is dangerous because the animal or reptile may smell his kinsfolk on the monk’s body and attack for revenge!1 A better way to think of it is a mutual respect for dangerous animals and serpents. There is also a rule that a monk should not ask for meat unless one is ill. (Pac 39). The meat must also be cooked for the monks because a monk should not eat raw meat, nor are monks allowed to cook food themselves, although reheating or “second-cooking” is allowed (Mv.VI.17.6). However, there is one exception that allows serving raw meat to a monk who is possessed (Mv.VI.10.2) !
The background story regarding the allowance of a non vegetarian lifestyle for monks originates with Venerable Devadatta, the nemesis of The Buddha wanting to cause a schism in the Saṅgha by publicly declaring that five ascetic practices be made mandatory for all monks. Among those five and the last of the five was a prohibition of fish-and-flesh. The Buddha responded by saying that:
The Buddha made the 4 prior ascetic practices that Venerable Devadatta requested as optional. However, the last practice, vegetarianism, was mentioned as above as “pure” if it met the three points of purity. From this, we can infer that a vegetarian diet is optional too because there is no rule that a monk should eat everything in his bowl.
In order for the monk to request vegetarian food or meat, he must be invited to choose his food or have a health condition to require such a diet. If he is not invited, does not have a health condition, and the food is “pure” according to the three purifications, then he should not request special food. However, there is only a prohibition for asking for certain types of food when the proper conditions to ask are not present. There is no prohibition against refusing certain types of food one will not be eating. If a donor tries to offer meat into a monk’s bowl, he can legally refuse it. While the monk should not say the reason why unless asked, the donor would likely get the hint over time. Should a monk refuse food, for this or that reason? I don’t want to answer that question.
So with all that said, the monks do have a choice and this document will cover the reasons of why a monk should be a vegetarian or why he might opt to eat meat.
Although there is a health exemption listed in the texts to allow a monk to eat meat. There is no real viable health reason to justify being a meat eater. Most doctors not only believe that a vegetarian diet is sustainable, but they also believe it is very healthy with statistical data to prove it.
By Reason of Saṁsāra
All Buddhists should have Saṁsāra (the endless rounds of rebirth) in mind with all of their actions. Saṁsāra is very long and dangerous. A human who develops a habit of being a vegetarian can continue that habit from one life to another. If one is unfortunate to be born as an animal, one is best off being a vegetarian animal rather than a meat eater. Why?
If one were born as a wild-cat who hunts for food, then this wild-cat is killing living beings in order to eat. Let me be clear that although it is his “wild-cat nature” to hunt and kill, he is not exempt from the kamma of killing other animals. This is the dangerous part of being born in the animal realm. It is also very likely that this or lower realms will be the result. That is why The Buddha said as part of his daily admonition the following: 4
trive with diligence.
Rare is the appearance of the Buddha,
Rare is the human birth,
Rare is it to have the good fortune of time (and place),
Rare is the going forth
Rare is the True-Dhamma.”
There can be a long cycle before one can return to the human realm. That is why the Buddha said that getting to the human realm is like a life-ring 5 being thrown into the ocean, and every 100 years a tortoise would rise up to the surface of the ocean (randomly). The odds of his head to be near the life-ring let alone go through the life-ring are almost zero. That is the chance beings have to get a human birth. Taking into account that one only gets one chance every 100 years, we can see how rare the human birth is.
So once someone is born into the animal realm, it is very difficult for that animal to get back into the human realm. The animal that hunts and kills needs to suffer the results of his kamma just like any other being. He will go to hell realms and ghost realms and back into animal realms. In order to become human again, he will most likely need to have a wish to become human. If he is in the jungle and does not see humans, there will be no knowledge of humans. Without knowing humans exist, there is no way one can wish to become human. Not only that, one must see humans in a desirable way in order to wish to become human. When all that is present, one must have done wholesome actions along with that wish in order to become human. Not only that, but all the kamma and wishes that one has accumulated gets a chance to come into existence as well which will dilute that wholesome-action-with-a-wish kamma. It is rare because only one of those kammas, good or bad can be selected.
It works a little bit like a raffle. For every action one does, one gets to put one raffle ticket into a box. The stronger the kamma, the more tickets for that action gets put into the box. Every second, thousands of tickets are getting put into your kamma box. At the end of your life, one of those kammas comes into maturity and determines your next life. There are two types of kammas that have better odds to get chosen. One is habitual kamma and the other is heavy kamma.
Heavy kamma is a one time action that is very strong and powerful. If you kill a human, that is heavy kamma. Millions upon billions of killing-kamma raffle tickets get put into your kamma raffle box. If you donate a buddhist dhamma hall, billions of dhamma-hall-kamma tickets get put into your kamma raffle box. Habitual kamma is something you do on a habitual level. It is often a small thing, but done repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime. They add up and they are very powerful. Think about the ocean. How does it fill up? By one drop at a time the four great oceans become full. That is why it is important to have right livelihood. If one does the wrong thing as part of his job, then he will accumulate many unwholesome kamma and have to experience its results.
So the animal that hunts everyday is going to get both heavy kamma and habitual kamma raffle tickets put into his box. The animal that does not hunt does not get this killing kamma tickets put into his box. Nevertheless, a vegetarian animal doesn’t necessarily get wholesome kamma either. The vegetarian animal is still stuck in the animal realm and it is difficult for an animal to perform wholesome actions along with a wish to be human to get out. The vegetarian benefits only from the lack of bad kamma that the hunting/killing animals have. What animals have a good chance to see people? Dogs, Cats, Parrots and other domesticated animals. Farm animals, ones that get farmed for food sometimes also have that chance as well. Monkeys often see humans, but not always. House pests also see humans as well. Many monks who have the right way of looking at things, appreciate the opportunity that the monastery dogs and cats have. They can get a chance to become human and they have lots of chances to perform wholesome merit by living in a monastery.
So when one decides to be a meat eater or a vegetarian, one should think about saṁsāra and the unfortunate event if one were to be born as an animal. If you were born as an animal, would you want to be a vegetarian animal or a meat hunting animal? Of course you could be a dog or a cat, that is not allowed out of the house, who has its testicles removed by the owner, and gets his dog food served to him in a dish without the need to hunt and kill. Would you really want that?
Fresh Kill, Old Kill
Is it bad to eat meat that was already killed for another purpose? Some say yes, some say no. It can be tricky. The rule is that the meat should not be killed for the purpose of feeding a monk. Let’s say you catch some fish, and bring it to your family. Then you decided that after it was killed to offer some to a monk. This would be allowable. However, it could get tricky because a devoted fisherman might save his best fish and kill it for the monk. If this were so, then this fish would not be allowable. Monks have to be careful in fishing villages for this reason. If a monk lives in such a village, one must go to random streets without a pattern just to get allowable food that was not be prepared in advance for them. But that may not be enough. Often in poor parts of Asia where refrigeration is not possible, fish are still living when brought to the market. If the new owner cooks and kills the newly bought fish for the monk, then it is not allowable. The same goes for fresh and free-range eggs and shellfish. Please be careful about lobster and going to some fresh seafood restaurants.
Pa-Auk forest monastery has been primarily a vegetarian monastery for a long time. I asked Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi why the monastery is vegetarian in 2001 when there was a mere 400 residents, he said that they would need to order meat to feed the residents and what could be said now that there are 1200 residents? In order to do that, animals would be killed for the purpose of feeding the monks and that would not be allowable. These days, there are individual donors who offer meat independently to a small number of monks who go through the monastery alms line. This is allowable because they buy in the open market.
Chickens, goats and pigs are often killed by those who breed and kill them for their meat. So when a lay person buys “already dead” meat, the kamma of killing has already been done. This killing kamma goes on the meat farmers who killed the animals to sell in the market. This is really bad kamma for those workers. It is different from a hunter who kills once or twice a month on hunting trips which is still bad. Those who do this as a livelihood are killing all day for every day they work. The amount of kamma-raffle tickets they accumulate is uncountable because it is habitually done. Being in the business of trading flesh is one of the five types of wrong livelihood. So now you can understand why right livelihood is part of the Eight-Fold Noble Path. Liberation from the rounds of rebirths is not possible without following right livelihood and the other eight factors of the noble path.
The five types of wrong livelihood are:
- Trade in weapons
- Trade in humans
- Trade in flesh
- Trade in intoxicants
- Trade in poisons. (AN 5.177).
So the question I ask is:
Would a good person have any reason to buy a weapon?
Would a good person have any reason to buy a slave?
Would a good person have any reason to buy intoxicants?
Would a good person have any reason to buy poisons?
The answer is “No” for all forms of wrong livelihood. What about the trade of rearing and selling flesh? It should be noted that this refers to the root level of rearing animals for sale (and then killing them or for someone else to kill). If something is bad once, then doing it many times as a livelihood is wrong livelihood. We can see that the trade of flesh is a wrong livelihood and the product is meat. So can we infer that same logic that a good Buddhist would have no business buying meat as well?
The million dollar question is, “If nobody were to buy meat, then there will not be a livelihood of killing meat and the animals will live free.” In the West, we practice boycotting certain products that do not fit into ethical means. Sometimes it works, but not always. Some cosmetic companies swear that they no longer do animal testing, and many clothing manufacturers try to produce their clothing through ethically run sewing factories, etc. So the issue is, should a good person boycott meat? This question is for you to answer.
Monks who follow the rules do not buy food, and therefore, the big super factory farms which kill millions of animals per day do not have monks in mind when they slaughter the animals. Therefore, it is allowable meat because it was not killed for monks. Not only that, but most of the workers in such slaughter houses are of the lowest forms of human beings. They are usually ex-convicts and/or alcoholics often with psychiatric problems. 6 Monks are probably the last thing on their minds. However, such workers do have the lay people in mind when they kill. If we were to take the Buddha’s rule on meat and apply it to regular consumers, you might be in trouble. A rewritten rule for lay people might be: If you see, hear or suspect the food was killed for yourself, then the meat is not pure for you.
So the monk should not eat food that was killed for the monk and the lay person should not eat food that was killed for lay people. For both the monk and the lay person, if a person killed food for his family and then gave you some leftover food, then you would be free to eat that meat. As you can see, vegetarianism is the best route to go. It is always allowable.
Should You Eat Meat?
A new policy of mine as a result of writing this document is that if I am invited by a donor to ask beforehand for anything I need before they buy something for me to eat, then I will tell that donor that I would prefer to eat vegetarian. If I am not given an invitation to say what type of food I need/prefer, then I would just be silent and eat what was given to me. For the case for going on alms round, I would likely eat whatever was put inside my bowl by any type of donor as long as it was not suspected that the meat was killed for me. When I was asked in the past, I used to say, “It does not matter.” It really does not matter because they are buying the meat at a restaurant or a supermarket. However, now I think I should change my way. The donor may ask why, and then I have a chance to teach them about kamma and saṁsāra. For me, it is not a big deal to eat vegetarian food. I had been a vegetarian for a long time before becoming a monk. I had also coincidentally lived in two vegetarian monasteries for a total of 12 years as a monk.
Should lay people be vegetarians? Yes. Is there bad kamma for buying meat in the store? That depends on many factors. However, if you are one who would boycott products because the manufacturers employed slaves well then you might consider the meat industry and what they do to animals. Not only do they treat animals badly, but they kill them too! There is no such thing as “ethical free range meat” unless you like roadkill or buy from the veterinarian who kills dogs and cats on a daily basis (normally called “putting them to sleep” or “putting them down”). In the end, killing happens in the meat industry, and it is unethical.
So when it comes to monks eating meat, they have a choice if the three purity points are met: it is not seen, heard or suspected that the meat was killed for the monk. It can be a good idea for a monk to suggest vegetarian food when he is asked and it is proper and allowable. He can also simply eat what is put into his bowl and reflect on the repulsive nature of almsfood which is a specific food meditation object mentioned in the Path to Purification. When one considers being a vegetarian, one should reflect on habitual kamma as it relates to saṃsāra because, “Rare is the human birth.” If one were born as an animal, would you like to be a hunter or vegetarian animal? Lay people have more of a choice than monks because it is allowable for them to buy their own food. The lay person is encouraged to be a vegetarian consumer and not to add to the unethical animal farming industry in the same way a responsible consumer would avoid clothes manufactured at a sweatshop. Remember, there is no such thing as ethical meat no matter how free-range and natural the claims are.
Well, as Porky Pig said, “That’s all folks!”
May all beings be happy and free from getting killed!
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Buddhist Monastic Code Vol. 1, p 303
- The exact Cūlavagga Pāḷi in full is here: “alaṁ, devadatta … ṭikoṭiparisuddhaṁ macchamaṁsaṁ — adiṭṭhaṁ, assutaṁ, aparisaṅkitan”ti. It should be mentioned that the Pāḷi language is quite simple and matches the normal language of the rest of the texts. Some have claimed that this has been added. I verified this passage with Venerable Ānandajoti who is a Pāḷi scholar.
- I.B. Horner, The Culavagga, The Book of Discipline Vol(5) Cv, p. 303, Pali Text Society.
- (DN-a 1, 1. brahmajālasuttavaṇṇanā, paribbājakakathāvaṇṇanā, para. 83) “bhikkhave, appamādena sampādetha, dullabho buddhuppādo lokasmiṁ, dullabho manussattapaṭilābho, dullabhā sampatti, dullabhā pabbajjā, dullabhaṁ saddhammassavanan”ti.
- It is really mentioned as a yoke, and his eye must look through the yoke which is at even smaller odds. However, it is difficult to paint this type of picture to modern readers, so I changed it and documented it here.