What did the Buddha say about vegetarianism?

(Taken from Ven. Sangye Khadro’s article, Mandala Magazine, June 2007)

There is a lot of debate within Buddhism about this issue. There are some Buddhists who are vegetarian (no meat or fish), and some who are vegans (no animal products at all, including dairy products and eggs). And there are some Buddhists who do eat meat.

What did the Buddha himself say about eating meat? Well, it seems that he said different things at different times. This may sound like he contradicted himself, but the Tibetans say that the Buddha was a very skilful teacher who understood the minds and needs of his listeners and would teach them accordingly. So to some, the Buddha said it was okay to eat meat, provided that they did not kill the animal themselves, or order it to be killed. But to others, the Buddha said that if you are a follower of the bodhisattva path, and truly compassionate, you should not eat meat. To these people he spoke of the harmful consequences of doing so.

In fact, there is an entire chapter in the Lankavatara Sutra (a Mahayana sutra which has been translated into English) in which the Buddha spoke very strongly against meat-eating. So as I understand it, the Buddha did not actually forbid his followers to eat meat, but left it up to each person to decide this issue for him/herself. In a way, that was compassionate of the Buddha, because some people live in places and conditions where it would be extremely difficult to abstain from meat, and if they had to be vegetarian in order to be Buddhist, they probably would not be able to do it.

Also, some people are unable to be strictly vegetarian because of their physical make-up or their health. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is an example of this. He tried to be vegetarian, but his health suffered and his doctors advised him to eat meat. But I am sure he eats as little as possible, because in his teachings he often encourages people (especially the Tibetans, who are quite fond of meat) to either give up or at least cut down on the consumption of meat. His advice seems to be working, because I have noticed in the last few years an increase in the number of Tibetans who have given up meat, as well as Tibetan-run organisations promoting vegetarianism. I even heard that Sera Monastery in South India is a meat-free zone!

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