BUDDHISM AND VEGETARIANISM
“The spirit of Buddhism is compassion and equality. To embody this spirit, first, we must not kill; second, we must save and protect lives; third, we must practice vegetarianism. If we accomplish all three, our compassionate mind will manifest, and a compassionate mind is the Buddha’s mind.”
To practice Buddhism is to learn from the Buddha, starting from the Buddha’s purity of body, speech, and mind. To learn from the Buddha’s body is to emulate the Buddha’s actions, striving to act like an enlightened being in every way. To learn from the Buddha’s speech is to always speak properly—no bad-mouthing, backbiting, lying, or frivolous speech. To learn from the Buddha’s mind is to constantly examine and reflect on our thoughts and aspire to achieve the ultimate perfection, the highest virtue and truth. With the right understanding and diligent practice, we will be able to gradually attain the Buddha’s compassion, wisdom, samadhi (i.e., deep concentration), and even his inconceivable powers and abilities—because they are inherent in all beings.
Misconceptions About Vegetarianism
There are many expedient means to help us attain purity of body, speech, and mind. Whether in worldly undertakings or in spiritual cultivation, expedient means is essential and can be thought of as a bridge or a pathway that helps us reach our goals. In Buddhist cultivation, practicing vegetarianism is a first expedient. Why? The spirit of Buddhism is compassion and equality. To embody this spirit, first, we should not kill; second, we should save and protect lives; third, we should practice vegetarianism. If we accomplish all these, our compassionate mind will manifest, and a compassionate mind is the Buddha’s mind. Therefore, even though practicing vegetarianism seems ordinary, its significance is profound and far-reaching.
However, many people hold various false views about the Buddhist practice of vegetarianism. Some scholars have publicized misleading views which have influenced some vegetarians to start eating meat. For example, they say that the Buddha did not teach vegetarianism and that being a vegetarian does not help eradicate one’s bad karma or help one attain the Way or liberation. They also give many misguiding examples, saying that animals such as cows, horses, and elephants eat grass but are still butchered and suffer in the three wretched realms; therefore, they claim that being a vegetarian is irrelevant to our spiritual cultivation.
In any practice, if we start from a wrong or distorted view, we will be moving away from our goal; even though we spend much time and effort, we will not see results or benefits forthcoming. This is especially true in the Buddhist practice, which is foremost the cultivation of our mind, in which the slightest error in our view will lead us a thousand miles from the truth. This is because acting against the Way out of the wrong understanding, we will stray further and further from the Way and even put ourselves at danger of falling into the abyss of ignorance.
Being In Accord with the Compassionate Mind
Let us look more closely at the view that “being a vegetarian does not lead to liberation” and “cows are vegetarians but still get slaughtered.” In Buddhist practice, what is the true aim of vegetarianism? For Buddhists, the resolve to practice vegetarianism comes from a mind of compassion and equality. In contrast, cows, sheep, and horses do not eat grass out of their own will. They have to eat grass, or they will die; therefore, being vegetarians for them is a karmic retribution, a form of suffering.
In the same vein, many people become vegetarians not out of compassion but mainly for reasons of self-interest. For example, some fear that animal flesh contains antibiotics, hormones and poisons, which will cause cancer and other illnesses; so, they decide to be vegetarians to protect their own health. Not being in accord with the Buddhist aim of developing compassion and equality towards all beings, these motives for vegetarianism will not yield much merit.
What is being “in accord with the Buddhist aim”? It means to have a mind of compassion and equality, and to have a mind of compassion and equality is to be like a buddha or bodhisattva. As said in the sutras: “When sentient beings are happy, all buddhas are happy”; and “great compassion gives rise to the bodhi mind, and the bodhi mind gives rise to enlightenment”—because a mind of great compassion is the foundation of bodhisattvas and buddhas.
What is a compassionate mind? It is like what the Confucian sage Mencius said in reference to animals, “Having seen them alive, we cannot bear to see them die; having heard their dying cries, we cannot bear to eat their flesh.” When we hear animals howling and wailing in grief before they are slaughtered, we are also grieved by the cruelty. Therefore, out of compassion, we do not eat the flesh of sentient beings.
In addition, Buddhism teaches that just like humans, animals also have buddha nature, which means they have awareness and feelings. Being aware and sentient, all humans and animals desire to live and fear death. Therefore, the foremost reason for being a vegetarian in Buddhism is that all sentient beings have buddha nature and that we should have compassion towards all life.
Second, everyone is subject to the causality of the three periods of time—past, present, and future. If we now eat the flesh of animals, the pain and suffering we inflict upon them will similarly be inflicted upon us in the future. It is said that if we eat eight ounces of a sentient being’s flesh, we will have to return half a pound. The principle of causality is always valid, so we should not eat meat.
Third, Buddhism teaches all sentient beings were and are our relatives. We are together with our parents, teachers, brothers, and fellow cultivators in this life because of our past karmic connections. However, there are good and bad connections. If we formed good affinities with others in the past, we will get along with them and help each other in this life. If we were hostile to others, or robbed or cheated them, then when we meet them in this life, they will cause us trouble or even become our enemies. Nevertheless, all beings are connected to us by karma, so we should save and protect all lives the way we treasure the members of our own family, and we should also be grateful and repay their kindnesses, which means having the compassion not to eat the meat of sentient beings.
The Suffering of Samsara (Cyclical Rebirth) in the Six Realms
Once there were two great Chan masters, Hanshan (“Cold Mountain) and Shide (“Foundling”), who were the manifestations of Manjushri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas. One day, when Hanshan was traveling through a village, he saw a wedding feast with over a hundred banquet tables, accompanied by drums and cymbals. Everyone was having a good time. But Hanshan began to sob. When relatives and friends of the wedding party saw this, they scolded him: “You are crazy; this is a joyous occasion, why are you weeping?” They wanted to chase him away. Hanshan replied, “I am not crazy. You are the crazy ones!” They said, “You are acting like a fool. Why do you say that we are crazy?” Hanshan then sighed and recited the following verse:
Samsara in the six realms is suffering!
The grandchild is marrying his grandmother,
Cows and sheep sit in the honored seats,
Relatives of the married couple are being cooked in the pot.
Most people do not have the wisdom eye or the Dharma eye of the enlightened, or even the heavenly eye of the devas; therefore, they cannot see sentient beings’ endless cycles of birth and death in the six realms. But Hanshan was able to see the previous lives of the married couple and their guests: The groom was once a grandson of the bride. The wedding guests were once cows and sheep reborn into this life as humans, now sitting in the honored seats. The chickens, ducks, fish, and other animals being cooked were once relatives of the wedding families. That was why Hanshan exclaimed that everyone was living in delusion and confusion. As enlightened beings, buddhas and bodhisattvas have the power to see into the past so they can see karmic connections clearly. That is why they teach us to have the compassion not to eat the flesh of sentient beings.
Samsara in the six realms is great suffering. Of the six realms, the highest is the heavenly realm. If we practice the ten virtuous deeds, the four dhyanas and the eight absorptions, we can ascend into the heavenly realm and become devas. The second realm is that of the asuras. Asuras have the blessings of devas but not their heavenly virtues, and they have ugly features. Third is the realm of human beings. We are now in this realm, where there are different types of people with different karma. Fourth is the realm of animals, and fifth is the realm of hungry ghosts. Sixth is hell, the realm of the greatest suffering; it is filled with those with the gravest offenses.
If we do not practice diligently, we will continue to take rebirth within the six realms and endure the endless suffering of birth, aging, illness, and death. For example, after we have used up all our heavenly blessings, we may descend into the human realm, and if we have created bad karma, we may again descend into the wretched realms and become animals, hungry ghosts, or hell beings, cycling endlessly like a carriage wheel. In this way, life is but a sea of sorrow and unending suffering.
Expedient Means for Practicing Vegetarianism
Does Buddhism really promote vegetarianism? In fact, both Mahayana and Theravada sutras advocate compassion and the protection of life. For example, the Mahayana bodhisattva precepts clearly state that we must not eat the flesh of sentient beings, and that we should observe the “six fasting days” each month. In the Theravada scriptures, the Buddha speaks of eating the “three pure meat” and “five pure meat.”
Eating the “three pure meat” is an expedient means taught by the Buddha to help new practitioners ease into vegetarianism. Why? It is because beginners may still have a strong craving for meat and find it difficult to break the habit of eating meat right away; some may even feel that it is not a real meal without meat. Therefore, the Buddha taught them to eat the “three pure meat” to help them gradually become vegetarians.
The “three pure meat” is “pure” because it requires us not to be even slightly involved in the transgression of killing. Specifically, we should not eat the meat of animals that we have witnessed being killed, heard being killed, and that have been killed for us. These criteria are expedient means for us to cultivate compassion.
For example, some people go to the market to buy chickens or ducks that are being slaughtered alive before them because they want fresh meat. This shows a lack of compassion towards the animals, and when they eat their meat, they will create bad karma. Similarly, if they have heard the agonizing cries of the slaughtered animals, yet they ignore their cries and eat their meat, that also reveals a lack of compassion. Therefore, we should not eat the meat of animals we have seen or heard being killed.
The third criterion for “pure meat” is meat from animals not killed specifically for us; for example, the meat on sale on a supermarket satisfies this requirement. However, if we go to a friend’s or relative’s house and the host has killed and prepared a chicken specially to welcome our visit, then knowingly eating this meat will create bad karma. Similarly, if we are afraid to slaughter a chicken or fish ourselves and ask others to do it for us so we can enjoy eating it, then we have not only committed a wrong ourselves, but have also caused others to create bad karma.
If we cannot yet overcome the habits of eating meat but wish to develop a healthy and spiritual life, we should at least practice eating the “three pure meat”; gradually we will uncover our virtuous roots and cultivate a compassionate mind. We can then go a step further and eat the “five pure meat.” That is, we only eat meat that fulfills the above three and two additional conditions. One is that we may eat the meat of animals that died naturally, for example, from old age or an accident. However, since this kind of meat is considered unhealthy, most people do not want to eat it. Another condition is that we may eat animal remnants, such as the remains of animals that were eaten by birds or other animals on mountains. Again, the chance of eating this type of meat is even rarer, so we might as well give up eating meat completely; that is to be truly pure.
Observing the Six Fasting Days
Another expedient means for practicing vegetarianism according to the Buddhist scripture is to observe the “six fasting days” each month. They are the 8th, 14th, 15th, 23rd, and the last two days of the lunar month. In those six days we completely abstain from eating meat, and practice to maintain the purity of body, speech, and mind: the eyes only see what is wholesome; the ears only hear what is proper; the mouth does not gossip or slander others; the mind stays away from deluded thoughts; the body performs only good deeds and no evil deeds— that is truly observing the six fasting days. We may also take the eight prohibitive and fasting precepts during these six days or at another time. All these are expedient means for establishing good habits and purity of our body and mind, which will bring merits and eradicate karmic obstacles.
Good habits are difficult to cultivate but bad habits are quickly learned. Yet the bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, or craving for nightlife, that we have become addicted to are very difficult to break. Therefore, Buddhism teaches that we should gradually get rid of our bad habits by cultivating good habits and good thoughts through expedient means. When these good habits have taken roots, every day will naturally be a day of “fasting,” and our mind will be filled with brightness.
Right Resolve Is the Foundation
No matter what we do, we should do it with the right resolve. With the right resolve, then whether we are chanting buddhas’ names or sutras, or practicing vegetarianism, we will gain infinite merits and blessings. On the other hand, with the wrong motive, even though we do the same things, we will not generate the same effect. Therefore, if we become vegetarians not out of a mind of compassion and equality towards all beings, but solely for the sake of ourselves, then even though we get good health, we are still attached to our false ego and trapped in delusion and ignorance.
A similar example that shows the importance of holding the right resolve is the earlier mentioned view that cows, horses and sheep are vegetarians yet cannot attain liberation. Why aren’t these animals liberated? It is because they eat grass not out of any compassionate motives or resolve, but as the result of their past karma; they are conditioned to eat grass, otherwise they will die. Therefore, those who claim that being vegetarians do not help herbivores attain liberation only see the surface, and their view is totally misleading.
Because having the right understanding and right view is paramount in Buddhist cultivation, whether as laity or monastics, we should seek guidance from good and knowledgeable teachers who have genuine realizations, so we do not follow other’s distorted views down the wrong path. For example, nowadays a false view about vegetarianism is gaining some influence. That is, some people claim that since the esoteric sect allows practitioners to eat meat and drink wine, it means that one can attain liberation and buddhahood while indulging on bad habits and desires! Actually, it was because vegetations were lacking in Tibet due to its natural environment that esoteric practitioners did not practice vegetarianism. If we want to cut corners and use distorted views as excuses in our practice and give rein to our karmic habits, then we will only create more bad karma.
Good Tasting or Bad Tasting Lies in Our Mind
Many people feel that vegetarian food is lacking in taste and nutrients. Actually, the problem lies in our discriminating mind and not the food.
For example, some people like to eat lightly seasoned foods. Cantonese people like foods that are sweet, sour, and salty. People from Hunan, Sichuan, and Hubei like foods that are spicy and salty. Zejiang people like foods with strong odors, the stronger the better, just as some people like to eat fermented tofu, yet its smell gives others a headache. People from southern China like to eat rice; Northerners like to eat noodles, and if they have a garlic clove in spicy sauce to accompany plain wheat buns, that’s better than a New Year’s banquet. Brazilian people would not enjoy a meal without some sour dishes. Therefore, sour, sweet, bitter, or spicy—which food tastes best?
In fact, taste is relative and illusive. Buddhism teaches that all phenomena arise from the coming together of causes and conditions; they are illusory and empty in nature. The different preferences for taste are all due to our discriminations and attachments.
For example, before we are accustomed to the simpler and more natural vegetarian diet, many of us crave for the heavy taste of meat. But after practicing vegetarianism for 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, we can appreciate the sweetness and fragrance of vegetables and find meat and fish stenchy.
And suppose you have a stressful day and your mind is filled with anxiety, then even if you are served the most delicious dinner, you will probably find it tasteless. Whether a food tastes good or bad is really due to our discriminating mind.
Vegetables Are Healthy and Nutritious
Many people also think that a vegetarian diet is not nutritious enough. This is simply false! In fact, vegetables are very nutritious; many vitamins and proteins are extracted from plants. And due to its health benefits, vegetarianism has become the choice of diet for more and more people nowadays. Moreover, many who have been on the more natural vegetarian diet for decades found themselves quite healthy, whereas those who eat sumptuous meals every day and even take nutrient supplements may have more health problems. Furthermore, strong animals such as elephants, cows, and horses all just eat grass.
In the old times, people ate more natural vegetables and fruits, used grasses and leaves to make clothing, and lived in wooden houses and tree houses, yet there are records of ancient people living very long lives. Today people eat and dress luxuriously, yet our food contains many artificial ingredients and chemicals, creating various health problems. As a result, many people are reverting to natural food because they recognize that the ancients’ natural way of living and a vegetarian diet are healthier and more nutritious.
The Right Starting Point
In Buddhism, the reason for being a vegetarian is not so that we can live a long life but because it is a practice of compassion and equality. All sentient beings are future buddhas and bodhisattvas because everyone has buddha nature; therefore, we should respect the lives of all beings and not eat their flesh. In addition, all beings have been our family and relatives in previous lifetimes; we are all connected by the principle of causality that spans the past, present, and future. When we practice vegetarianism based on these reasons, then we are generating the right cause, the bodhi cause (for enlightenment), and our actions will also create immeasurable merits and rewards. On the other hand, if we practice vegetarianism without the right cause, even though it is still a virtuous deed and will bring virtuous effect, its benefits will be greatly reduced.
Not only does Buddhist practice work this way, so do worldly endeavors. Whatever career we pursue, we must constantly examine our motives and ask ourselves why we wish to become a physician, an architect, a politician, a businessman, or even pursue knowledge.
For example, if politicians seek office in order to bring peace, safety and prosperity to society out of a mind of compassion and care, then the higher their political offices are, the better the services they can provide and the more people they can serve. In this way, they are really practicing the bodhisattva way! On the contrary, those who seek office solely for personal fame and profit will eventually bring scandals and bad karmic retributions to themselves.
The same principle applies for the Buddhist practice. For example, chanting sutras is a spiritual practice, but if Buddhists go to funerals to chant sutras with the sole intent of making money, then they turn this spiritual practice into a commercial event, and it will only bring them negative karmic entanglements. Similarly, if we practice meditation not with the aim to awaken the mind and realize our true nature, but with the ulterior motive to gain special spiritual powers or foretell the future in order to, for example, win the lottery, then meditation will only bring us anxiety or even mental illness instead of calmness and wisdom.
As devoted Buddhist disciples, the monastics also need to constantly reflect on their intention for choosing their path. They should reflect: “Do I embrace the monastic life with the desire to truly renounce the worldly life, the three realms, and be liberated from the home of ignorance, and to benefit oneself and others? Or do I simply want to escape from life’s stresses, responsibilities, or problems such as debtors?” It is said in the sutra: “If the starting intention is distorted, the result will surely be twisted.” Having renounced the home life but with the wrong cause, one still will not get the true benefits of a monastic life.
The way of the mind is extremely subtle; if missed by a hair’s breadth, the result can differ by a thousand miles. Buddhism teaches: “The three realms are formed from our mind; all phenomena are manifested by our consciousness.” Spiritual cultivation is nothing but how we regulate our mind, and how we use this mind. We must achieve a mind of samadhi, purity, and clarity; be able to discriminate what is right and what is wrong; and know what should be done and what should not be done. The mind must be perfectly clear.
If this mind is like a mirror or a pool of still water, without the least bit of defilement, without giving rise to a single deluded thought, constantly abiding in samadhi and wisdom, then this mind is the Dharma. When we truly attain this state, our mind will penetrate the entire Dharma realm and attain “spiritual resonance.” Then, as the sayings go—“Whatever the mind wishes for will be fulfilled,” and, “a spiritually attuned mind brings blessings”—we will surely be successful in our studies or careers. On the other hand, if the mind is always scattered, drowsy, and confused, then not only will we have bad dreams at night, but we will also feel lethargic and unable to make clear decisions during the day; then how can we expect any spiritual resonance?
Nurturing Blessings and Wisdom
In summary, how is vegetarianism related to Buddhism? The relationship between the two is very profound! Both the Mahayana and Theravada sutras teach the importance of practicing vegetarianism. Since there are many mistaken ideas about the Dharma, we will review these key principles to ensure practitioners will take the right path: First of all, we must have a compassionate mind. To develop compassion, firstly, we must not kill; secondly, we should save and protect lives; and thirdly, we should practice vegetarianism. Following these guidelines in our daily life will discipline and train our mind to realize true compassion and equality, which will then purify our mind and bring us to liberation.
Buddhism is the truest of truths. If we put in one measure of effort, we will get one measure of benefit; if we put in ten measures of effort, we will get ten measures of benefit. For example, to cultivate merits and virtues, we must uphold the precepts and understand what should be done and what should not be done. Vegetarianism is a good deed. From a medical viewpoint, vegetarianism is good for our health and conducive to lowering blood pressure and decreasing the chances of cancer and many other diseases. From the Buddhist perspective, practicing vegetarianism is a good deed based purely on compassion. But whether we wish to attain good health or spiritual progress, wisdom, blessings, merits and compassion, we should practice Buddhism and vegetarianism. The first step is to get used to eating the “three pure meat,” then, from not killing lives but saving lives and protecting lives, we go even further to pure vegetarianism.
Right view and right understanding are the foundation in the Buddhist practice. Vegetarianism is inextricably related to Buddhism and significantly connected to our health, merits, virtues, wisdom, and samadhi. We hope everyone will work diligently from the right cause, instead of blindly wishing for the right result. Whatever we sow, we will surely reap. We must be steadfast in this right direction if we wish to make progress in our cultivation.