8. Vegetarianism

QUESTION: Buddhists should be vegetarians, shouldn’t they?

ANSWER: Not necessarily. The Buddha was not a vegetarian, he did not teach his disciples to be vegetarian and even today there many good Buddhists who are not vegetarians. In the Buddhist scriptures it says;

Being rough, devoid of kindness, back-biting, careless of friends, heartless, arrogant, mean, sharing with no one, this is impure food, not the eating of meat. To be immoral, refuse to repay one’s debts, betray others, cheat in business and create divisions amongst people, this is impure food, not the eating of meat. To kill living beings, steal, harm others, be immoral, cruel, hard and disrespectful, this is impure food, not the eating of meat.’ Sn.244-6

QUESTION: But if you eat meat you are responsible for animals being killed. Isn’t that breaking the First Precept?

ANSWER: It is true that when you eat meat you are indirectly or partially responsible for killing a creature but the same is true when you eat vegetables. The farmer has to spray his crop with insecticides and poisons so that the vegetables arrive on your dinner plates without holes in them. And once again, animals have been killed to provide the leather for your belt or handbag, the oil for the soap you use and a thousand other products as well. It is impossible to live without, in some way, being indirectly responsible for the death of some other beings. This is yet another example of the First Noble Truth: ordinary existence is suffering and unsatisfactory. When you take the First Precept, you try to avoid being directly responsible for killing beings.

QUESTION: Mahayana Buddhists don’t eat meat.

ANSWER: That is not correct. Mahayana Buddhism in China laid great stress on being vegetarian but both the monks and lay people of the Mahayana tradition in Japan, Mongolia and Tibet usually eat meat.

QUESTION: But I still think that a Buddhist should be vegetarian.

ANSWER: If there were a person who was a very strict vegetarian but who was selfish, dishonest and mean, and another person who was not vegetarian but who was thoughtful to others, honest, generous and kind, which of these two people would be the better Buddhist?

QUESTION: The person who was honest and kind.

ANSWER: Why?

QUESTION: Because such a person obviously has a good heart.

ANSWER: Exactly. One who eats meat can have a pure heart just as one who does not eat meat can have an impure heart. In the Buddha’s teachings, the important thing is the quality of your heart, not the contents of your diet. Many people take great care never to eat meat but they may not be too concerned about being selfish, dishonest, cruel or jealous. They change their diet which is easy to do while neglecting to change their hearts which is a difficult thing to do. So whether you are a vegetarian or not, remember that the purification of the mind is the most important thing in Buddhism.

QUESTION: But from the Buddhist point of view, would the person who had a good heart and was vegetarian be better than the person who had a good heart but was a meat eater?

ANSWER: If a good-hearted vegetarian’s motive in avoiding meat was concern for animals and not wanting to be involved in the cruelty of modern industrial farming, then he or she would definitely have developed their compassion and their concern for others to a higher degree than the meat eater would have. Many people find that as they develop in the Dhamma that they have a natural tendency to move towards vegetarianism.

QUESTION: Someone told me that the Buddha died from eating spoiled pork. Is that true?

ANSWER: No, it is not. The scriptures mention that the Buddha’s last meal consisted of a dish called sukara maddava. The meaning of this term is no longer understood but the word sukara means a pig so it may refer to a preparation of pork although it might just as easily refer to a type of vegetable, a pastry or something else. Whatever it was, the mention of this food has led some people to think that eating it caused the Buddha’s death. The Buddha was 80 at the time he passed away and he has been ailing for some time. The reality is that he died of old age.