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All Buddhists are vegetarians, right? Well, no. Some Buddhists are vegetarians, but some are not. Attitudes about vegetarianism vary from sect to sect as well as from individual to individual. If you are wondering whether you must commit to being a vegetarian to become a Buddhist, the answer is, maybe, but possibly not.
It is unlikely the historical Buddha was a vegetarian. In the earliest recording of his teachings, the Tripitaka, the Buddha did not categorically forbid his disciples to eat meat. In fact, if meat were put into a monk's alms bowl, the monk was supposed to eat it. Monks were to gratefully receive and consume all food they were given, including meat.
There was an exception to the meat for alms rule, however. If monks knew or suspected that an animal had been slaughtered specifically to feed monks, they were to refuse to take the meat. On the other hand, leftover meat from an animal slaughtered to feed a lay family was acceptable.
The Buddha also listed certain types of meat that were not to be eaten. This included horse, elephant, dog, snake, tiger, leopard, and bear. Because only some meat was specifically forbidden, we can infer that eating other meat was permissible.
The First Precept of Buddhism is do not kill. The Buddha told his followers not to kill, participate in killing, or cause to have any living thing killed. To eat meat, some argue, is taking part in killing by proxy.
In response, it is argued that if an animal were already dead and not slaughtered specifically to feed oneself, then it is not quite the same thing as killing the animal oneself. This seems to be how the historical Buddha understood eating meat.
However, the historical Buddha and the monks and nuns who followed him were homeless wanderers who lived on the alms they received. Buddhists did not begin to build monasteries and other permanent communities until some time after the Buddha died. Monastic Buddhists do not live on alms alone but also on food grown by, donated to, or purchased by monks. It is hard to argue that meat provided to an entire monastic community did not come from an animal specifically slaughtered on behalf of that community.
Thus, many sects of Mahayana Buddhism, in particular, began to emphasize vegetarianism. Some of the Mahayana Sutras, such as the Lankavatara, provide decidedly vegetarian teachings.
Today, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary from sect to sect and even within sects. On the whole, Theravada Buddhists do not kill animals themselves but consider vegetarianism to be a personal choice. The Vajrayana schools, which include Tibetan and Japanese Shingon Buddhism, encourage vegetarianism but do not consider it to be absolutely necessary to Buddhist practice.
Mahayana schools are more often vegetarian, but even within many Mahayana sects, there is a diversity of practice. In keeping with the original rules, some Buddhists might not purchase meat for themselves, or choose a live lobster out of the tank and have it boiled, but might eat a meat dish offered them at a friend's dinner party.
Buddhism discourages fanatical perfectionism. The Buddha taught his followers to find a middle way between extreme practices and opinions. For this reason, Buddhists who do practice vegetarianism are discouraged from becoming fanatically attached to it.
A Buddhist practices metta, which is loving kindness to all beings without selfish attachment. Buddhist refrain from eating meat out of loving kindness for living animals, not because there is something unwholesome or corrupt about an animal's body. In other words, the meat itself is not the point, and under some circumstances, compassion might cause a Buddhist to break the rules.
For example, let's say you visit your elderly grandmother, whom you have not seen for a long time. You arrive at her home and find that she has cooked what had been your favorite dish when you were a child—stuffed pork chops. She doesn't do much cooking anymore because her elderly body doesn't move around the kitchen so well. But it is the dearest wish of her heart to give you something special and watch you dig into those stuffed pork chops the way you used to. She has been looking forward to this for weeks.
I say that if you hesitate to eat those pork chops for even a second, you are no Buddhist.
When I was a girl growing up in rural Missouri, livestock grazed in open meadows and chickens wandered and scratched outside hen houses. That was a long time ago. You still see free-ranging livestock on small farms, but big "factory farms" can be cruel places for animals.
Breeding sows live most of their lives in cages so small they cannot turn around. Egg-laying hens kept in "battery cages" cannot spread their wings. These practices make the vegetarian question more critical.
As Buddhists, we should consider if products we purchase were made with suffering. This includes human suffering as well as animal suffering. If your "vegan" faux-leather shoes were made by exploited laborers working under inhumane conditions, you might as well have bought leather.
The fact is, to live is to kill. It cannot be avoided. Fruits and vegetables come from living organisms, and farming them requires killing insects, rodents, and other animal life. The electricity and heat for our homes may come from facilities that harm the environment. Don't even think about the cars we drive. We are all entangled in a web of killing and destruction, and as long as we live we cannot be completely free of it. As Buddhists, our role is not to mindlessly follow rules written in books, but to be mindful of the harm we do and do as little of it as possible.
By Barbara O'Brien
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