Should a Buddhist Eat Meat?
We never cease to be amazed by the number of non-Buddhist individuals that we encounter who believe that abstaining from eating meat is a prerequisite for being a Buddhist. However, it is not just amongst non-Buddhists where this view is prevalent because in the region of about 25% of Buddhist individuals that we meet (in both the East and West) also appear to share the same view. The question of whether or not it is appropriate for Buddhists to eat meat raises a number of important ethical (and practical issues) that are as relevant today as they were when the Buddha was teaching some 2,500 years ago. In this post, we examine the logic and scriptural provenance underlying some of the leading arguments for and against Buddhists eating meat.
A Scriptural Account
We have sometimes read or heard it said that the Buddhist scriptures are ambiguous on the matter of meat eating. However, this presumption is incorrect because the Buddha gave some very specific advice on this topic. According to the Jivaka sutta, the Buddha stated that there are three particular instances where it is acceptable for a Buddhist practitioner to eat meat, and three circumstances where it is inappropriate. The exact words as recorded in the English language Pāli canon edition of this sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 55) are as follows:
“Jivaka, I say that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard, or suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat should not be eaten in these three instances. I say that there are three instances in which meat may be eaten: when it is not seen, not heard, and not suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat may be eaten in these three instances.”
Thus, the Jivaka sutta, which contains one of the Buddha’s most direct references to meat eating, makes it clear that although the Buddha was adverse to a spiritual practitioner consenting for an animal to be killed on their behalf, he was not adverse per se to the idea of a spiritual practitioner eating meat.
Arguments against Eating Meat
The main argument against Buddhists eating meat is that meat eating is incongruous with the core Buddhist precept of abstaining from taking life, as well as with the general emphasis placed in Buddhism on cultivating loving-kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings (including animals and fish). Of course, it could be argued that if a person buys meat in the supermarket then they haven’t personally killed the animal. However, the robustness of this position is questionable because clearly the consumer is a vital link in the chain of meat production (i.e., if there wasn’t a demand for meat then the number of animals slaughtered for the purposes of supplying meat would be significantly less).
There are several other views relating to why Buddhists should not eat meat but they are mostly encompassed by the primary argument outlined above. An example of such a secondary argument is that by capturing and killing a mature wild animal (i.e., an animal that has not been specifically bred for meat production), it is possible that: (i) its offspring will suffer (and possibly die) due to being without the protection of their mother or father, or (ii) an animal (or animals) higher up the food chain will suffer (and possibly die) due to not being able to find a prey. In other words, due to a human being eating just one single animal, it is possible that numerous other animals will incur suffering.
A further example of a secondary argument relates to the Buddhist view of reincarnation in which it is implied that a living being that is currently an animal may, in its recent past, have been a human. Since most people would be repulsed by the idea of eating a human being, the question arises as to whether it is ethically correct to eat an animal that was a human being during a previous lifetime. These secondary arguments add additional ‘food for thought’ but they are all basically encompassed by the view that human beings are in many ways responsible for the wellbeing of the insects, fishes, and animals with whom we share this earth, and that it is cruel to kill them or cause them to suffer.
Arguments for Eating Meat
From the point of view of practicality, there are certain geographical regions where, without going to great expense, it would be very difficult for a Buddhist practitioner to live on a meat-free diet. In arctic, sub-arctic, and tundra regions, it is much more difficult to grow produce compared to regions that are much warmer. The same applies to very arid regions where droughts can last for months on end. In such areas, it is probably unrealistic for a person on an average or below average income to live on a diet that excludes meat or fish.
In addition to influences and limitations imposed by the elements, an individual’s level of wealth may also affect the dietary options that are available to them. For example, there are regions of the world that are conducive to growing produce but where poverty places restrictions on the types of food a person can buy. In the West, it is becoming increasingly easier to be vegetarian without it meaning that one’s health and nutritional intake somehow has to suffer. Indeed, some Western supermarkets now have entire sections of the shelves, chillers, and freezers that are dedicated to meat alternatives and vegetarian meals. Many restaurants in the West also have vegetarian sections of the menu and there are also some restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian. However, this isn’t the case all over the world and it is probable that in abstaining from eating meat, some individuals of below average means would not be able to afford to buy everything they need for a balanced and healthy diet.
The above arguments are not necessarily in favour of Buddhist practitioners eating meat but they simply highlight the fact that there are certain circumstances where it is impractical for an individual to be vegetarian. In addition to such practical considerations, there are also arguments that support meat eating that are more philosophical in nature. In particular, there is the argument that by eating meat, Buddhist practitioners (and anybody else for that matter) are actually sustaining life. This somewhat paradoxical argument relates to the fact that if there wasn’t demand for meat, then a large proportion of animals currently being bred for meat production simply wouldn’t exist. It is true that some animals bred for meat production live in conditions that are far from ideal (or that in some instances constitute cruelty to animals). However, it is also true that many of these animals – particularly in developed countries – live in conditions that are deemed to be comfortable and conducive to their health and wellbeing. Therefore and according to this line of thought, by eating meat a Buddhist practitioner plays an integral role in the process of giving and sustaining life.
The above slightly paradoxical argument could be challenged by asserting that although the meat eater is a contributing factor for new life being brought into the world, they are also the cause of that life coming to a premature end. This is a valid counter-argument but it can be easily undermined by taking into consideration the fact that even when living in the wild, a lot of animals die ‘prematurely’. The reason for this is because unless they are at the top of the food chain, animals are predated upon. In fact, even animals that are at the top of the food chain are an easy target for a carnivorous or scavenging animal when they become sick or old. Thus, in the wild, there are probably very few animals that die of old age, and it is not uncommon for an animal that becomes the prey of another animal to meet with a brutal end (in some cases probably much more brutal than being slaughtered in a controlled environment).
There are strong arguments both for and against the Buddhist practitioner eating meat. According to the suttas, the Buddha’s personal view on this matter was that spiritual practitioners should avoid killing, or directly consenting to the killing of, an animal intended for consumption by human beings. However, the Buddha was seemingly not opposed to a person eating meat where the animal had been killed without that individuals ‘direct’ knowledge or consent. Our own personal view on this matter is that Buddhist practitioners should appraise themselves of the key arguments for and against meat eating, and then come to an informed decision.
As far as we see it, although we would encourage people to make sure that whatever they eat (meat or otherwise) has not somehow resulted in the subjecting to cruelty of an animal or human being, there isn’t really a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ position here. If a spiritual practitioner makes an informed decision and decides that they would like to eat meat, then that’s fine. Likewise, if a spiritual practitioner understands all of the options and decides that they would like to be vegetarian, that’s also fine. In other words, from the point of view of authentic spiritual development, the issue of eating or abstaining from eating meat is actually of limited relevance. Today, some people that call themselves Buddhists make a big deal out of this issue, but according to the record of the scriptures, it wasn’t considered to be a big deal by the Buddha. In terms of its spiritual significance, rather than ‘what’ a person eats, we would argue that ‘how’ they eat counts for a lot more. If a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal with spiritual awareness, gentleness, and good table manners then this will certainly contribute towards their spiritual growth. However, if a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal in a greedy and mindless manner (e.g., by slouching over their meal and shovelling it into their mouths), and if they eat without being considerate of other people who might be in their presence, then such comportment actually counts as a hindrance towards progressing along the spiritual path.
Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon