Being true to the Dhamma in general and the first Precept in particular, would seem to require being vegetarian. Not everyone sees it this way and most Theravadin and nearly all Vajrayanist Buddhists do not interpret it as being so. We will now examine the motives in practising the Precepts and see how this could be relevant to the meat eating-vegetarian issue.
The Buddha gave three reasons why we should take ethical discipline seriously:
(1) The first is to avoid the negative effects of bad actions – usually called ‘bad kamma’ but more correctly ‘bad vipaka’. This is mentioned by the Buddha many times and is the only one of the three that is ever mentioned in traditional Theravada teaching, giving rise, with some justification, to the criticism that Theravada is self-centered.
(2) The second reason is because following the Precepts lays the foundation for positive qualities like restraint, awareness, mental clarity, the happiness of having a clear conscience (anavajja sukha, Digha Nikaya I,70), etc. and which in time lead to the ultimate good, Nirvana.
(3) And the third reason is love and concern for others. I do not harm or kill others because I respect their life. I don’t steal from them because I respect their property. I don’t sexually exploit or misuse them because I respect their dignity and their right to choose. I do not lie to them because I respect their right to receive and know the truth. And I do not intoxicate myself with alcohol because when I encounter others I want meaningful communication to take place between us. In short, fidelity to the Precepts is as much as anything an act of love, not just to the person I am directly relating to but to the wider community as well.
The Buddha highlighted this point when he said that right actions are a type of consideration or thoughtfulness (saraniya) to others that lead to “love, respect, kind regard, harmony and peace”, (piyakarana garukarana sangahaya avivadaya samaggiya…, Anguttara Nikaya III,289). Just so that there can be no uncertainty about what the Buddha said here, piya = love; karana = making, causing; garu = respect, esteem; sangaha, sympathy, togetherness, mutuality; avivada = non-dispute, harmony; samagga = peace, concord.
Those who feel that they can develop good qualities like patience, determination, mindfulness, generosity, kindness and love while eating meat should have no concern about their diet. But, anyone who genuinely feels that they should develop an expansive love and kindness towards others – all others (and the Buddha said we should), would have to feel uneasy about being connected in any way to the animals being killed. The knowledge that they are part of a chain that leads to some very nasty things happening (and I do not want to regale you with the horrors of the abattoirs) must make them feel uneasy. It would have to motivate a thoughtful Buddhist to try to do at least something about this cruelty; and the least one could do is not be a link in the chain, by abstaining from eating meat.