After the Buddha’s death, some of his followers had some difference of opinion which led to breaking away and forming separate kinds of Buddhism. Formation of different schools within Buddhism lead to difference in interpretations of the Buddha’s word.
The attitude about vegetarianism within schools of Buddhism is mixed. Theravada Buddhist, a sect that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which is considered the oldest record of the Buddha’s teachings, consider vegetarianism to be a personal choice. They are spread in South East Asian countries.
Mahayana Buddhists, a sect that believes in the path of Boddhisattva to attain enlightenment in order to end suffering of all sentient beings are often vegetarian. They are spread in China, Korea and Japan.
The latest school of Buddhism is Vajrayana developed in Tibet. This sect of Buddhist not only eat meat but also drink alcohol. Different texts and quotes have been used to support both vegetarians and meat-eaters, each claiming that the Buddha is on their side.
The Buddha was not a vegetarian
It is more likely that the historical Buddha was not a vegetarian. Moreover, it is mentioned that after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha accepted any kind of food offered with respect as alms, including meat.
Some accounts of Buddhism even mentions that the Buddha died from eating tainted pork.
Although the Buddha approved of eating meat offered to them by laymen during the alms, some exceptions were made. The Buddha told his monks to refuse meat if the animal is specifically killed for serving to monks. The meat should be avoided even with a small suspicion.
However, leftover meat from a laymen was acceptable even if the animal was killed. This was because the animal was not killed to serve monks but for their own consumption.
View of Theravada Buddhists
The Buddha also listed certain types of meat that were not to be eaten. This included horse, elephant, dog, snake, tiger, leopard, and bear. There were regarded as too noble to be used as food or they were repulsive.
Because the Buddha forbade eating of certain groups of animals, his followers, especially who follow the Theravada Tradition, assume that eating other meat that was not forbidden by the Buddha is perfectly fine.
There was also an incident during the lifetime of the Buddha, where the Buddha was asked Devadatta to institute only vegetarian food in the monastic code. Devadatta was the Buddha’s cousin brother who was always against the philosophy of the Buddha. To this, the Buddha kindly rejected without further clarification.
Today, Theravada Buddhist do not kill animals themselves but openly accept to eat meat.
View of Mahayana Buddhists
The sect of Buddhism that do not eat meat is in the Mahayana Tradition. Mahayana Buddhists argue that the Buddha insisted his followers to never eat meat or fish in any kind. Even vegetarian food that has been touched by meat should be washed before consumption.
This school of Buddhism believe that the Buddha prohibited monks from picking out the non-meat portions of food and leave the rest. If the food has been touched by the small stain of meat and blood, the whole meal must be rejected.
The Mahayana scriptures, for example, in the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha is said to have specifically forbidden the consumption of animal flesh under any circumstances. He stated that he had never approved a meat diet. He also said that killing animals for profit and buying meat are both evil deeds.
Likewise, the Buddha declared that eating meat hinders the development of compassion and eating meat would develop demerits in monks.
View of Vajrayana Buddhists
Vajrayana, a sect within Mahayana followers not only eat meat but drink alcohol and marry. Moreover, Vajrayana followers offer meat and alcohol to the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas during rituals.
Influence of geography and climate
It’s not only the schools of Buddhism that has developed different attitude about vegetarianism. Tradition, climate and geographical conditions of a particular region had an impact on consumption of meat.
For example, people of Tibet and Ladakh had to survive on meat. The land was barren and covered with ice and frost for more than eight months. Low temperature, dry season, strong wind never gave a room for agriculture practice. Therefore, vegetarianism in these regions meant starvation. Starvation meant death. If given a choice, they would have opted for survival over Dharma.
In contrast, regions of China, Japan and Korea has arable land with moderate climate suitable for agriculture. A variety of grain, vegetable and fruit were grown in huge quantity.
Even today, China’s agricultural output is the largest in the world and China’s arable land is estimated at the 10% of the total arable land in the world. Therefore, people in these region had options over meat. Therefore, the availability of grains and vegetables for survival favoured the culture of non-meat food.
Buddhist Philosophies condemning eating meat
1. The Five Precepts and the Ten Precepts
The Buddha composed rules for lay people known as the Five Precepts the Ten Precepts for monks and nuns. Not killing or not engaging in any kind of killing act is the first precept of the both the precepts. Therefore, meat is the result of killing and eating meat shall be considered going against the words of the Buddha.
2. Loving kindness and compassion
Loving kindness and compassion are desire to remove harm and suffering in all sentient and bring happiness and the Buddha encouraged his followers to develop them. Loving kindness and compassion are embraced by both Theravada and Mahayana followers to purify mind and avoid evil consequences.
As meat comes from the body of slaughtered animals, and animals undergo so much pain in the process of being killed, eating meat prevents one from developing loving kindness and compassion.
Buddhism strongly believes in rebirth and the Buddha considered all animals as sentient beings. A sentient beings take rebirth and die a thousand times, it is possible that all the animals in this world could have been our parent, children, relative or loved ones at one point of time.
Thus, eating meat of animals is like eating one’s parents’ flesh.
As all sentient beings possess Buddha nature, a potential for enlightenment. Moreover, some Boddhisattvas take the form of animals. Therefore, eating eat is like eating the future Buddha and Boddhisattvas.
Another core philosophy of Buddhism is the Karma, the law of cause and effect. It is better explained as ‘every action creates a reaction’.
Killing animals bring suffering in animals. Therefore, the one who kills animals or eat animal’s meat shall have the negative effect in future. The ultimate goal of every sentient being is to be happy or attain enlightenment. Killing animals gives suffering to animals.
The attitude about vegetarianism and non-vegetarian food is mixed even with in the scientific communities. Some believe that meat should be included in food for human body needs meat to evolve while some insist on eating plant based food as human’s digestive system is meant for plants only and not meat.
Meat gives protein. Protein is a macronutrient that is essential to building muscle mass. Macronutrients provide calories, or energy. But protein is also found in plants in the form of nuts and beans. It is found adequately in cheese, eggs, milk, and artificially fortified products, legumes, grains, nuts, and a range of vegetables.
A numerous studies have confirmed that consumption of both processed and unprocessed red meat to an increase in death rates from diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, infections, kidney disease, liver disease or lung disease.
However, meat is considered a healthy food by the scientific community and advised to include in daily food intake.
The Buddha taught constantly for forty five years and always encouraged his followers to question his teachings. The Buddha never proclaimed that his teaching was superior. Every followers were asked to confirm his teaching through their own experiences.