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Most if not all Buddhists I know are vegetarian or vegan. Thinking about the precepts this is not surprising - one should abstain from killing. However is this universally true in all Buddhist traditions? Are there some Buddhist traditions that emphasize vegetarianism more than others? For instance I believe the Tibetans were originally pastoral farmers which wouldn't lend itself to vegetarianism naturally.

So is Buddhist vegetarianism universal, specific to tradition or culture, or a lot more flexible than that?

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No, they are not. However if you want to read a wonderful book on this very topic, please check out "The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights" by Norm Phelps. –  JD. Jun 24 at 20:05

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Very much not the case, so long as you don't engage in a No true Scotsman fallacy and say that they aren't really Buddhists unless they are also vegetarian.

In some traditions it is common for a begging monk to eat whatever is put in their offering bowl, mixing it together first (see the interview with Achaan Chaa in Living Dharma).

For laypeople the provision is against engaging in the business of meat as it says in Vanijja Sutta, AN 5:177:

"Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

"These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in."

There's little that I am aware of, at least from the Pali Canon, that addresses meat eating for laypeople. Even monks get a pass in some circumstances on this as well, as it says in The Bhikkhus' Rules: A Guide for Laypeople:

The Buddha did allow bhikkhus to eat meat and fish[88] except under the following circumstances:

If a bhikkhu sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it.[89] (M.I,369)

This is clarified with footnote 90 with the following cited quote:

The flesh of animals which have been slaughtered to sell as meat for the people, however, is called 'flesh which exists already.' [It] has been slaughtered for their meat to be used for food by one person or by a group of people, apart from fellow Dhamma friends, or specially for the butcher himself… If people cook such meat and offer it to a bhikkhu, [it] will not be an offence to accept and eat it.

Citing The Entrance to the Vinaya, (Vinayamukha), volume 2, pages 131—133.

It should be emphasized that these are predominantly guidelines for monks, not for lay practitioners.

This gets further modified depending on the specific tradition. His Holiness 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, simply try to lessen the amount of impact or the amount of meat eaten, and I have seen quite a few Vajrayana practitioners eat meat.

Many other sects have de-emphasized the need for vegetarianism depending on the local conditions and the history of that specific sect.

Basically: Even among monks the following of vegetarianism is not absolute and it isn't even clear that restrictions on that order exist for lay followers in a lot of different Buddhist traditions.

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It looks like a Buddhist should not himself kill & prepare the meat nor should he have an animal killed & cooked just for him. If it was killed & cooked for someone else and was offered to him, it is okay to eat. In today's case, every meat we eat in restaurants wasn't exclusively prepared for us. So we can eat it. Seems more like an excuse to eat meat than anything rational. –  RBK Jun 24 at 19:51
    
That is roughly the justification I've seen many Buddhists use, but it depends on tradition the exact nature of it. For example, Ganachakra (Tantric feasts) can involve eating meat and drinking alcohol, though as the expression goes "you drink because of the ritual, you don't do the ritual to drink." –  Hrafn Jun 24 at 20:27
    
While I think there's a lot of interesting substance to this discussion, it would be best if it moved to chat. –  Hrafn Jun 24 at 20:48

Among my own school (Nyingma from Tibetan Buddhism), encouraging vegetarianism is a relatively recent trend, mostly grounded on the teachings of Patrul Rinpoche, who lived in the 19th century and was a vegetarian. Still, the main reason for encouraging his students to become vegetarians was mostly because he was often horrified at how teachers and self-proclaimed 'great practitioners' spent all their time gobbling meat. His descriptions on The Words of My Perfect Teacher are quite vivid and graphical — bordering on 'gore'. He certainly pointed that as one of the worst possible examples to set for others to follow — being more worried about one's next (meat) meal instead of worrying about one's practice. So the focus was set much less on 'vegetarianism' (as a form of ideology as it is popular today) but more in 'don't worry so much with your food; worry instead about your practice'.

Tibetans, in their vast majority, are not vegetarian — because you simply cannot grow many vegetables in the vast frigid plains of Tibet (technically 'deserts'), but the naturally-growing grass there would lend itself to raising goats. Nevertheless, because of the strong influence that many Mahayana schools have world-wide (specially Zen), which are more strict about vegetarianism, many leading Vajrayana teachers are slowly becoming vegetarians and encouraging their students to do the same. Again, the focus is not strictly about 'eating killed animals' (although that is certainly one of the strong arguments in favour as well), but much more about 'worrying about the practice, not about tasty meals'.

HH the Dalai Lama, for example, has a medical condition that disallows him to be a strict vegetarian. Nevertheless, he attempted at least twice to become one — finding more important to abstain from meat than to worry about his own health — with the consequence of almost dying from that. So his doctor currently forces him to continue to eat meat with some regularity, which he grudgingly does, against his wishes — because he also understands that keeping his health in order to teach and help more people during a longer period is more important than following a strict vegetarian diet just because vegetarianism is popular as an ideology and as a precept to refrain from getting more animals killed (I understand that he has been reducing his meat consumption to a bare minimum, at levels that don't interfere with his health).

The issue is really very complex. Among my main five teachers, two are strict vegetarians (one of them since birth, for cultural reasons — he was born in India in a region where vegetarianism is the norm. The other made a decision to become a vegetarian, following Patrul Rinpoche's guidelines). Two others are 'strict carnivores' — they refuse to eat anything with vegetables in it (seriously!), which is always a reason for plenty of laughing when someone tries to offer them some vegetarian dish. And a fifth one, probably my main teacher, is often a vegetarian for several years, then goes back to a more mixed diet for another few years, and back to vegetarianism. Since all of them are most excellent teachers, and explain Dharma in absolutely the same way, obviously this is a clear case where it becomes much more a 'personal' choice than a rigid precept that has to be followed no matter what. I specially like the attitude of my closest, main teacher. I think that his lesson to me is that we shouldn't be attached to ideologies — neither vegetarianism, nor anti-vegetarianism — and that's why he switches from one side to the other, to make his students think about what is really important in their lives. Most of the retreats he organises are strict vegetarian, even if he is not in a 'vegetarian' phase. But sometimes they're not.

Still, not being a teacher myself, I would certainly encourage vegetarianism to anyone who finds the thought of having animals killed for the pleasure of their meals, and who truly understand the importance of being a vegetarian for the right reasons — not to 'preach'; not to feel 'superior' to others (because you can abstain from meat, while others, poor weakly-minded, deluded beings, cannot); not to blindly 'follow orders'; much less to 'please' a teacher or 'impress' a group of practitioners; but because you can turn your vegetarianism option into practice (or because vegetarianism helps you in your practice, by focusing on the thought that billions of animals — from insects to whales — die every day). If you're doing exactly that, and it is really helping your practice, then please, stick to vegetarianism!

I would also claim that — unfortunately — beginners will have a lot of misconceptions about Buddhism, so a new teacher who is not a vegetarian might be thought of being 'fake'. Instead of long-winded discussions about vegetarianism vs. non-vegetarianism, I can imagine that a good teacher would be truly unattached to what he or she eats — and they might simply opt for vegetarianism because, that way, they will earn the respect of more students who happen to think that 'all Buddhists are vegetarians'.

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Devadatta, a relative of the Buddha, at one point attempted to cause a schism in the sangha by asking the Buddha to implement 13 ascetic rules for all monks, one of those rules being vegetarianism. The Buddha in his wisdom decided against forcing these rules on all monks and instead stated that any monk who wished to take on these rules for their practice may do so.

There is also nothing in the precepts that state anything about eating meat or vegetarianism, although I have been told that in the Mahayana they do add that as part of the precepts and the Bodhisattva vow.

In those days, and also in at least the Theravada tradition, the monks had to eat whatever was given to them as they were/are totally dependent on the laity for support. Today if you wanted to feed Venerable Yuttadhammo and gave him noting but Oreo Cookies, he is bound to eat such food. The one exception being explained in the other post about if an animal is killed just for the monks, then a monk can refuse.

These two links should be very helpful in the discussion regarding Buddhism and vegetarianism:

http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma3/meat.html

http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma3/vegi.html

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Regarding Oreo cookies; I believe monks who receive alms food show no partiality to any food but would not be bound to eat something non nutritive or harmful simply because it was given. –  Robin111 Jun 24 at 23:25
    
the Oreos were just an example, but now I'm interested because I've never heard of this non nutritive thing. Any links for that? –  Jayantha Jun 24 at 23:26
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interesting, thank you :) –  Jayantha Jun 25 at 0:11

Entire books have been written on the topic, "The Great Compassion" is a good one to start with-- it is written from the pro-vegetarian standpoint.

Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese Buddhists are all vegetarians. This is in part because the Bodhisattva vows from the Brahma Net Sutra, which are the vows and precepts that replaced the Indian precepts, explicitly forbids eating animals on several grounds-- for example, if reincarnation happens, then after enough time all animals you might eat at one point in the past were your mother or father.

In the Japanese system, during a period of modernization and anti-Buddhism, attempted a reform to try to bring down the monks in prestige a few notches-- explicitly legalizing monks to eat meat and marry. These reforms stuck, even though they were implemented as part of a larger reform that was hostile to Buddhism. So the Japanese forms of Buddhism we got from Japan, we'll see that Zen isn't pro-vegetarianism, unless you read about the life of the founders of the sects, who all were vegetarian. So anyhow, the movement away from vegetarianism is driven by Meiji politicians, not monks. Personally, I'll take my direction from Nichiren or Dogen before I give a lot of weight to the Japanese imperial bureaucracy's opinion on the matter.

ref: Meiji edict of April 1872

American Buddhism is a mix of various traditions. Chinese Buddhism, the most strongly vegetarian form of Buddhism, is in general under represented in the US. It's because of this accident of which sects are most visible that makes Buddhism look less vegetarian that it might otherwise be.

All that said, about half of US Buddhist I know are vegetarian. That is 25 times higher than the national rate.

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I forgot where I heard this, because it has been many years ago:

"One becomes a monk, not just to be vegetarian"

You're not forced not to have meat, but if you decide to devote yourself and stay in a temple, meat isn't what is served daily.

Other words, what if you sneaked out and have meat and get caught?

At certain temple, they don't punish you by expelling you, but most would, if not expel, warn you. Or you would be "punished" and be isolated / assigned to certain task where you carry out the work and at the same time "reflect".

As to why some of the monks still eat meat, smoke, drink alcohol etc:

I can't say all; but what I have seen is when I was backpacking in Thailand: In Thailand, when one graduates from high-school, students are required to either take part in military or in a temple becoming a monk for around 6 months (exact time I have forgotten). Many chose to, as was told to me, to become a monk at a temple.

So, those who send themselves to the temple after high school are not really those who really would like to follow Buddhism. For what I have seen there, some of them smoke, belong to a gang, were involved in unlawful activities, etc etc.

Another reason I was told is: some know what they do are bad, those who take part in gangs, etc etc, so out of this reason, they "hope" to repent and feel "protected". But afterward, they mostly remain where they were before they became a monk after high school.

The above is only what I have seen then and was told to me by the locals.

So, what it is about becoming a vegetarian being a monk / Buddhist?

You do so gradually, through practice and reading (addendum: please don't be affixed on words and their meaning; they are meant to be guides / guidance).

There is a saying:

"refrain the mouth from meals (meat), but fail to do so at heart (you still crave for it; you have to force yourself not to have it)"

That's not what this is about; you don't have to force yourself in / into doing anything in Buddhism.

Through practice and observance and patience, when one has attained eventually understanding, you would stop eating meat or other' being's flesh. It is meant to be a normal transition, if one finally understand "the way" of Buddhism, which involves time, patience, observance, reading / meditating / reflecting.

It comes to you normally and will so eventually, though the practices mentioned above, when one finally understand it.

I was told the following saying many years ago, which I still remember to this day:

"In Buddhism, it is about Destiny, if you so approach it in your lifetime, it is Destiny; you choose to believe it and follow it, it is Destiny; and if you choose to leave it and betray it, no-one would send you out the door, for you are welcome to depart, because no-one has held you in it at the first place - it is also Destiny."

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Vegetarianism is mostly practiced in Mahayana Buddhism I believe. It's probably because of the Hindu and Jain influence. Theravada tradition follows the word of the Buddha. i.e. It's totally up to the food preference of the individual. Ironically, Devadatta is the one who demanded from the Buddha that all monks should be vegetarian. I believe Hitler was vegetarian too. But didn't he kill 1000s of humans? 1st precept is what the lay people have to keep to.

Following conditions have to be met for it to be broken.

i) The being must be alive.

ii) There must be knowledge that it is a living being.

iii) There must be intention to cause its death.

iv) Action must be taken to cause its death

v) Death must result from such action.

If all these conditions are fulfilled, then the precept has been broken. Buying meat products from a shop doesn't break any of these, let alone all.

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Yes, maybe Mahayana Buddhists recommend vegetarianism than Theravada. I've seen Zen Buddhists being Vegetarian & Zen is Mahayana. –  RBK Jun 24 at 21:16
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And you seem to make this question a vegetarian vs non-vegetarian debate. I don't see how pointing out Hitler was a vegetarian adds value to the answer. Hitler was not a Buddhist. –  RBK Jun 24 at 21:18
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Theravada Buddhism doesn't recommend any food preference. It only recommends the monks to be easily maintainable. –  Sankha Kulathantille Jun 24 at 21:18
    
Yes, the precepts don't recommend but what I meant is monks who infer from the Buddhist teachings on non-violence do at times. –  RBK Jun 24 at 21:19
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@Hrafn: Added a link to the title –  Sankha Kulathantille Jun 24 at 21:35

The most famous living Buddhist, Dalai Lama eats non-vegetarian dishes. The reasoning for this is he had said there's not much vegetables grown in Tibet. So to be specific Buddhism does not encourage killing animals, but on specific occasions (Ex: there is no food other than meat) it is permitted as food, though they are not supposed to waste any meat. Buddhist monks have to travel from place to place and have to take up whatever available for their living.

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The current version of that Wikipedia links says that his reason is, his doctors ordered him to eat meat on alternating days. See also This attracted public attention when, during a visit to the White House, he was offered a vegetarian menu but declined by replying, as he is known to do on occasion when dining in the company of non-vegetarians, "I'm a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian".[62] His own home kitchen, however, is completely vegetarian.[63]. –  ChrisW Nov 22 at 22:09

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