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I am Buddhist, but not a strict vegetarian. When new acquaintances discover this they are often shocked and wonder, "How can this be??!!"

I'm going to try and explain my answer and see what others think. I contend that being a vegetarian can often act as a hindrance for some Buddhists. They miss the forest for the trees.

One of my own preceding factors for learning about the Dharma was a decision to look deeply at my own consumption of meat and to explore the ethical and moral implications thereof in an honest and heartfelt way that I had never done before. I made a choice not to eat meat and became a vegetarian for five years more or less in parallel to my discovering and contemplating the Buddha Dharma, but to be clear I became a vegetarian strictly BEFORE I became a Buddhist or began practicing Buddha Dharma in earnest.

Over the ensuing years since then I have abandoned being a strict vegetarian and have continued and strengthened in my practice of the Buddha Dharma.

At first, the two seemed to coincide completely, but over time I found myself dwelling on being a vegetarian and being greatly disturbed to find other Buddhists who were not. Upon hearing that another member of the Sangha ate meat I would tend to distrust them and look at them as hypocrites at worst and misguided or lower than me in their ethical understanding of Buddha Dharma at best. I was a proselytizer for becoming a vegetarian to my buddhist/non-buddhist friends alike and worried about what more I could do to convince others. I grew despondent and anxious over my inability to convince others and suffered thinking about and empathizing with all the animals that were being killed on a daily/hourly/second-by-second basis merely to provide the flesh for the insatiable human demand for meat. When I looked at the scale of the problem, billions of animals dying and billions of people consuming their flesh in this carnivorous world I became hopeless that it would ever stop. I thought all of these thoughts indicated progress on the path as my heart opened up with compassion for all these animals.

But there was this nagging thought that I was actually not at all happy and was actually suffering thinking about all this in a repetitive way day after day. It occurred to me that this seemed inconsistent with what my teachers said that progress on the path - on a coarse level - is seen commensurate with an increase in happiness and a decrease in suffering.

Finally, it got bad enough that I more or less confessed all the above to my teacher and his response shocked me. He laughed with a deep and merry belly laugh and advised that I should get over being a vegetarian and the best way to do this was to eat a little meat. He asked me how many animals I had saved today suffering at being a vegetarian and how many I would save tomorrow. He contended that my choice of being a vegetarian had not helped even one animal to escape from samsara and that I had yet to even begin to reconcile with the scale of the problem of samsara as opposed to the nearly insignificant in comparison problem of the human market for meat. He told me I needed to let go of this attachment to being a vegetarian and congratulating myself on how ethical and moral I was compared to all those who were not and to get busy doing the actual work of becoming enlightened so that I may actually help all those animals.

When I look back I think my teacher was entirely correct. Being a vegetarian had become a hindrance for me. And since that time I think of all the people (including fellow Buddhists) who react with outrage at the idea that I am not a strict vegetarian and wonder if they are not all on a similar path that will require them to put down this hindrance in the future in order to make progress.

So there you have it... a question I've been meaning to ask for awhile and inspired by activity in this related post and some of the excellent answers and discussion within.

Can being a vegetarian actually be a hindrance for some?

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I have been vegetarian since 1/1/2000. It was originally a New Years Resolution, but it became a New Millenia Resolution. I figured that given impermanence it would not be too hard to keep. :D

That resolution arose out of an understanding that the mindless consumption of meat causes harm and death to many animals. Basically the resolution was simply to exercise restraint and not require the killing of sentient beings.

Only much later did I encounter the suttas, so I started reading about and keeping precepts much later. And at that point the following made perfect sense, since I had already decided it was good principle:

AN10.172:12.4: Not killing living creatures is a good principle.

I agree that being vegetarian can be a hindrance. Being "vegetarian" is a bit peculiar in that it has for some become a proclamation of virtue and merit that has somehow evolved into an obnoxious and contentious self-righteousness. And that would certainly be a hindrance.

MN8:12.33: ‘Others will be stubborn, but here we will not be stubborn.’

I have found that gentle restraint suffices in body, mind and speech. A quiet explanation that "I avoid eating meat" is enough. And if asked why, I just reply, "it seems kinder."

As my Zen Roshi used to say, "Road kill is acceptable".

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    Wonderful answer. It does not appear that being vegetarian is any kind of hindrance for you :) – Yeshe Tenley Mar 2 at 18:40
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Upon hearing that another member of the Sangha ate meat I would tend to distrust them and look at them as hypocrites at worst and misguided or lower than me in their ethical understanding of Buddha Dharma at best. I was a proselytizer for becoming a vegetarian to my buddhist/non-buddhist friends alike and worried about what more I could do to convince others.

IMO that's typical, a stereotype, of what you might call "a baby vegetarian": a "recent convert", a militant.

Seeing or describing other people as hypocrites seems like an obvious form of conceit (Māna).

Improving your own practice to behave like a better person is also conceit but of a more useful sort (as described in the Bhikkhuni Sutta).

I thought all of these thoughts indicated progress on the path as my heart opened up with compassion for all these animals.

I think that Theravada teaches that samvega may be the proper reaction.

He laughed with a deep and merry belly laugh and advised that I should get over being a vegetarian and the best way to do this was to eat a little meat.

Serves you right for confessing that. :-)

I assume that's vajrayana-like.

He told me I needed to let go of this attachment to being a vegetarian and congratulating myself on how ethical and moral I was compared to all those who were not and to get busy doing the actual work of becoming enlightened so that I may actually help all those animals.

I guess I see it as an attempt to be harmless -- which is good (i.e. permitted and not necessarily a vice to be abandoned) -- but just normal and not something which makes one better than other people. Given Dandavagga (Dhp X): Violence I like to assume that the sentiment is fairly universal.

If it's a practice which causes no remorse, then why not.

And since that time I think of all the people (including fellow Buddhists) who react with outrage at the idea that I am not a strict vegetarian and wonder if they are not all on a similar path that will require them to put down this hindrance in the future in order to make progress.

The little I remember of preaching vegetarianism is that it "benefits neither self nor others" (I may be a relatively ineffectual preacher, or maybe there's a more proper venue for it, so YMMV) -- it never occurs to me to try now, I see it as "not my business" when I eat with other people -- and I assume that people have heard the arguments already.

Some people as you may know call themselves "flexitarian" now -- e.g. they're vegetarian by choice or personal habit, and/but eat meat when that's convenient e.g. when they're a guest at someone else's house.

One young man I've met, for example, orders vegetarian for himself in a restaurant but might finish uneaten food (meat) off his father's plate if there are remains -- which I think is a bit like the Theravada doctrine.

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  • "I assume that's vajrayana-like." -- I have no idea as I am not now nor have I ever been a student of the Vajrayana... rather, I've only studied Sutrayana in this lifetime anyway :) – Yeshe Tenley Mar 2 at 20:57
  • See e.g. the paragraph of this answer which mentions "breaking taboos", or more in-depth in the last reference of this answer. – ChrisW Mar 2 at 21:01
  • Ah, I can see where you might draw that inference, but the fact is that I have not taken any Vajrayana vows nor entered into such a guru-disciple relationship. The advice my teacher gave me I think was heartfelt and personally proscribed to help me, but I can imagine Theravada teachers giving the same advice. In other words, I don't think there was anything particularly tantric about it. Maybe Andrei will have a different perspective... – Yeshe Tenley Mar 2 at 21:05
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    Well I said "-like", I didn't mean anything formal; it was just the idea of having a little bit as an antidote -- like a "don't beat them, join them" sort of idea. I think Andrei might have said once that a lot of Mahayana is skilful means for overcoming aversion . – ChrisW Mar 2 at 21:20
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It was recently explained to me the the ethical precepts aren't vows so..

A vow - I will never do X again as long as I live

A precept - I am working towards this. I might slip up. I might not be there yet. I might never get all the way. But I'm really trying

So regarding the first precept 'no killing' - You (we all) are working towards it. It might be you are vegetarian and trying to eat less dairy. It might be that you are a vegan and are trying not to harm insects. It might be that you are a meat eater and are trying to eat a bit less red meat. We are all working towards it and doing our best with it and going from where we are. But to rigidly and militantly be a vegetarian/vegan and feel very very fixed that that is who you are - well maybe that is a hindrance in some way. Certainly your sense of self might be quite strong around that.

That said I really don't think you should kill animals for food. However I'm quite happy to bend the 5th precept and have a glass of wine of the sofa some evenings. Go figure.

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  • This question made me wonder about the doctrine around vows and self-views, and I found this -- Which are the Buddhist vows? -- which agrees with your answer. As it happens it is essentially a vow for me, as well as a habit, i.e. my wife asked me to remain vegetarian -- which is something else I often see, i.e. people influenced by their family or girlfriend etc. When she first became vegetarian she told me, "I've decided; but you can keep eating meat if you want to", but I felt she was was right, wasn't wrong. – ChrisW Mar 3 at 10:03
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    @ChrisW. Funnily enough I became a vegetarian because I married a vegetarian. But as soon as I'd made that decision it felt like a real sense of ethical dissonance had been removed. A weight had lifted. So for me as well it's a vow. Right now I'm trying to move towards veganism but that really is a precept. I might not get all the way there but I want to move in that direction – Crab Bucket Mar 3 at 21:29
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The question presupposes that vegetarianism has some property that would be a hindrance to practice. Since it accords with the practice (see OyaMist's references) it would be strange if it was also a hindrance.

More importantly, what is this property? If you look can you find it? The whole point of Buddhism is to change the way you view the world, not change the world so that you may do what pleases you. That's why you are the focus of the practice.

When I first started along the path I would judge myself as superior because I'd found the right way. I told people they should meditate and looked down on those who didn't because they didn't control their minds - does this make meditation a hindrance? Should I then give up meditation? How many people had I led out of Samsara through my meditation? Not even myself!

That seems to be laying responsibility in the wrong place. It would be better if I continued to practice, to watch my thoughts and understand, than stop doing something of merit. In any specific context there may be a hindrance (you are starving and will die if you don't eat the frozen steak you found at the back of the freezer), that is why there is the concept of skilfulness (Buddhism is not a dogma) but in general, no, obviously meritorious actions that are in accord with the spirit and most basic reading of the precepts (don't kill, don't cause others to kill) are not a hindrance. It seems to me you're trying to justify and excuse something that is obviously not the case and I see no reason why you are the exception that proves the rule.

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  • If someone grasps the water-snake in the wrong way -- "They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate. They don't reach the goal for which [people] study the Dhamma." -- then perhaps it might be appropriate for their teacher to tell them to put it down again for a bit, to let go of it. – ChrisW Mar 3 at 10:40
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    For what it is worth, I do think meditation can be a hindrance for some in pretty much the same way. – Yeshe Tenley Mar 3 at 11:42
  • @ChrisW I agree, which is why I made the point about specifics, but as a general rule, no, Buddhist practice is not a hindrance to enlightenment or it wouldn't be part of the practice. – iain Mar 3 at 13:27
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    @YesheTenley If you knew the answer then why ask the question? Because the question isn't "is vegetarianism a hindrance" it's "is it a hindrance for some". You want your justification but you won't get it from me. Stop looking down on others, not eating meat has nothing to do with that. Where's the link? – iain Mar 3 at 13:39
  • I appreciate your perspective, thank you! – Yeshe Tenley Mar 3 at 13:59
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Any behavior/habit is a hindrance based on the degree of upadana. Conversely, developing habits with a light hand (non-attachment) will likely be more kusala.

Also, being mindful about cetana, karma and vipaka one can determine whether a certain behavior is upadana or kusala.

Generally speaking, it is helpful to abstract habits to the principles above, instead of myopic dwelling on the literal behavior/habit.

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Feelings of superiority are always a problem, as are feelings of inferiority, but compassion for the suffering of our fellow sentient beings is always an indication of progress on the path (whichever you are on).

The Buddha taught the path to escape suffering: not desiring what you will not, or cannot have. This a dialectical formula, because even desiring to no longer desire things you cannot or will not have is a subtle desire that may not come to pass. In other words, you may slip up and fail at some time by desiring something you will not or cannot have, and then suffer because of that and more again because you have slipped up.

The compassion for the suffering of our fellow beings is not a desire. To want others to follow you is. Your teacher was correct to tell you to get over being a vegetarian because it was such an obstacle, but I doubt he said killing animals for their skin and flesh was cool all along the path. It was an expedient means to help you along your path.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the Surangama Sutra:

“The next important hindrance and allurement is the tendency of all sentient beings of all the six realms of existence to gratify their pride of egoism. To gain this one is prone to be unkind, to be unjust and cruel, to other sentient beings. This tendency lures them into the bondage of deaths and rebirth, but if this tendency can be controlled they will no longer be lured into this bondage for right control of mind will enable them to keep the Precept of kindness to all animate life. The reason for practicing dhyana and seeking to attain Samadhi is to escape from the suffering of life, but in seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict it upon others? Unless you can so control your minds that even the thought of brutal unkindness and killing is abhorrent, you will never be able to escape from the bondage of the world's life. No matter how keen you may be mentally, no matter how much you may be able to practice dhyana, no matter to how high a degree of Samadhi you may attain, unless you have wholly annihilated all tendency to unkindness toward others, you will ultimately fall into the realms of existence where the evil ghosts dwell.

“There are three ranks of these ghosts: the highest are the mighty ghosts, the next are the Yaksha ghosts who fly in the air, and the lowest are the Raksha ghosts that live under the earth. Each of these ghosts has his double that disguises itself as having attained enlightenment. After my Parinirvana in the last kalpa these different kinds of ghosts will be encountered everywhere deceiving people and teaching them that they can eat meat and still attain enlightenment. But how can any faithful follower of the Lord Tathagata kill sentient life and eat the flesh?

“You of this great assembly ought to appreciate that those human beings who might become enlightened and attain Samadhi, because of eating meat, can only hope to attain the rank of a great Raksha and until the end of their enjoyment of it must sink into the never ceasing round of deaths and rebirths. They are not true disciples of Buddha. If they kill sentient beings and eat the flesh, they will not be able to escape from this triple world. Therefore, Ananda, next to teaching the people of the last kalpa to put away all sexual lust, you must teach them to put an end to all killing and brutal cruelty.

“If one is trying to practice dhyana and is still eating meat, he would be like a man closing his ears and shouting loudly and then asserting that he heard nothing. The more one conceals things, the more apparent they become. Pure and earnest bhikshus and Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas, when walking a narrow path, will never so much as tread on the growing grass beside the path. How can a bhikshu, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings?

“Pure and earnest bhikshus, if they are true and sincere, will never wear clothing made of silk, nor wear boots made of leather because it involves the taking of life. Neither will they indulge in eating milk or cheese because thereby they are depriving the young animals of that which rightly belongs to them. It is only such true and sincere bhikshus who have repaid their karmic debts of previous lives, who will attain true emancipation, and who will no more be bound to wander to this triple world. To wear anything, or partake of anything for self-comfort, deceiving one's self as to the suffering it causes others or other sentient life, is to set up an affinity with that lower life which will draw them toward it. So all bhikshus must be very careful to live in all sincerity, refraining from even the appearance of unkindness to other life. It is such true hearted bhikshus who will attain a true emancipation. Even in one's speech and especially in one's teaching, one must practice kindness for no teaching that is unkind can be the true teaching of Buddha. Unkindness is the murderer of the life of Wisdom. This is the second admonition of the Lord Buddha as to the keeping of the Precepts.”

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Answering this not from a Buddhist but as a cook: You are not bothering me by being a vegetarian. Most cooks I know either love making people happy or don't care at all. If I can help you in a spiritual way that's just bonus points. You would give me a good excuse to try different things or new recipes. If I'm cooking professionally then making sure everyone eats well is part of the reason I'm there. The Muslims will get a pork-free meal, the allergics will get a meal without nuts/gluten/pineapple/whatever. In any group you will get a few vegetarians so catering for them is just par for the course(s).

Now for how you deal with that inside your head, I'll leave that to you and your teacher.

But as a cook: please let me know any dietary preferences, the impact on me is minimal either way.

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Godd householder,

if one thinks that purification if attained by food, such developes huge hindrances.

If one thinks that desiring plants as food doesn't kill, such developes huge hindrances.

If one maintains the wish to do as less as possible harm, feeling such is possible in choosing to abstain from meat, feeling involved in harm, yet not (because not seeing for now) by desire after non-meat, without having developed foolish extreme views, than going after vegetarian meals might be even kusala, but for the most cases, if not "accepting of what is given or near, views on food are signs of not seeing the danger in the world, not speaking of the path for escape.

If one seriously likes to abstain from getting involved in harmful food organisation, the Sublime Buddha gave his reputations so that one could live from alms if joining his Sangha or going near after it.

[Note that this isn't given for stacks, exchange, other world-binding nourishment and trade, but for escape from a wheel of no end]

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