Buddha and Diet
Sustainable organic farming was all that existed 2,500 years ago. Buddha couldn’t have imagined the suffering caused by factory farms, petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, or MSG laden processed food, much less genetically modified organisms. But the issue of killing animals for food was one to which he gave considerable thought.
The Buddhist sutras are seemingly contradictory on the issue of vegetarianism, and different schools of Buddhism have taken different attitudes toward it depending on which sutras they believe authoritative. Or, given the way we get attached to our food choices, perhaps they have chosen which sutras they believe authoritative depending on their attitudes toward vegetarianism!
After all, it is probably easier to get people to change their religion than to change their diet. People will allow their health to deteriorate, they will die of heart disease or diabetes, rather than change what they eat. Many Americans have their bellies ripped open and their digestive tracts surgically modified to “cure” gross obesity, because they find themselves unable to alter their eating habits.
Nonetheless, few things are as truly irritating as someone telling you what to eat, perhaps because it brings up feelings of childhood. But it’s exactly because we have such a charged relationship with our food choices that considering them more deeply is an opportunity for spiritual development. If spirituality concerns our relationship with the Universe, how could that relationship manifest in a more intimate way than in how we eat?
Mindfulness requires us to take a good honest look at the effect of our choices on our bodies, on the environment, and on the lives and deaths of other sentient beings. Closing our eyes to unpleasant facts about how our food is produced, or about its effect on our health, is not mindful. All of these considerations recommend a diet based around sustainably-grown plant foods. Many books have been written about the health advantages of a vegetarian diet, as well as the environmental devastation caused by modern factory farming. Objective studies have repeatedly shown that diets high in fruits, vegetables, and grains are the most healthy and have the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer. Cholesterol and saturated fats found in meat and animal products are the leading culprits in heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Wikipedia states, “The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Unlike the Biblical commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill) which Jewish and Christian authorities have typically applied only to human beings, the First Precept has always been held to apply to animals as well as humans. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. There are however differing points of view. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats.”
On the other hand, the Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras strongly denounces the eating of meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion,” adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha goes on to emphasize that meat eating cannot coexist with the great compassion and calls for not just a vegetarian, but a vegan lifestyle. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will “hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma” and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas, in fact he does not.
The Lankavatara Sutra (a Mahayana scripture), in particular, devotes an entire chapter to the Buddha’s response to the request of a disciple named Mahamati to “teach us as to the merit and vice of meat-eating.” A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha states that he “does not permit the eating of meat and will not permit it” since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.
Self indulgence refers to chasing after pleasures of the senses without regard for consequences. It is an attachment to the senses. If we know that meat eating is not needed for survival or health and we choose to eat it because we are attached to the taste, that is a form of self indulgence. In the Pali Canon Uraga Sutta, Buddha gives ten analogies to describe how bad attachment to sensory desires can be, including a skeleton, a burning torch that is about to burn our hands, and a poisonous snake. The final analogy the Buddha makes to describe something very bad, is that of a slaughterhouse.
Buddha spoke of freeing animals destined for the butcher as a great act of kindness. But he did not require his followers to be vegetarians, and explicitly rejected such a requirement when suggested by his cousin (and, later, rival) Devadatta.
After Buddha’s enlightenment, we do not find one sentence, one sutra indicating anywhere that he ate meat. In fact, he defines delicious foods as choice hill rice with curry (Sutta 7, Majjhima Nikaya). In another sutra, Buddha and Ananda compare the teachings to a sweet honey ball which consists of flour, ghee, molasses, and honey (Sutta 18, Majjhima Nikaya). Today, it is the consensus that the Buddha ate poisonous mushrooms (not pork) which led to his death at the age of 80.
There are some Buddhists who ignore the issue completely. Some (like the Dalai Lama and the famous Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki) praise vegetarianism while continuing to eat meat themselves, and then there are the Japanese Zen temples that have elevated the vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori to an art. The Dalai Lama was a vegetarian until Doctors advised him to eat meat every other day for hepatitis. This highlights the necessity of compassion regarding the food choices of others, especially in times of illness. Of course, Paul McCartney has famously disagreed with His Holiness on this issue.
Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, supposedly lived with hunters for several years during his exile, but would sabotage their traps and gather vegetables to eat. On the other hands some Vajrayana Buddhists seem to believe that it’s more important to chant mantras or dedicate merit to the souls of slaughtered animals, than to refrain from killing them.
What are we to make of all this? Were the early Buddhists quite happy to eat animal flesh, so long as someone else accumulated the bad karma of doing the actual killing? This is how things were once done in Japan, with the burakumin, a low caste, getting stuck doing “unclean” work like butchering. Discrimination against the descendants of these people continues today. Or was the Buddha up to something more subtle?
First we should note that the prohibition against taking the lives of animals is very specific and strong. It applied not just to monks, but to lay followers. If everyone followed the Buddha’s teachings, there would be no slaughterhouses, no butchers, no meat to eat. The world he was working toward was clearly a vegetarian one.
Beggars Can’t Be Choosers
Also, we must consider that the early Buddhist monks lived with a very different economic system than we have today. They were forbidden from using money and went begging for their food — essentially, they were trading teaching to the lay community in return for offerings of food, clothing, and medicine. It’s a pattern that goes back to the time the Buddha spent under the Bo tree, when local children would bring him food and he would teach them meditation and mindfulness techniques.
The monks were pretty much expected to accept whatever was offered to them without discrimination, but were expressly forbidden to accept offerings of flesh foods from animals that had been killed specifically to feed them. Even the suspicion that this was so, was enough to put the meat on the forbidden list. It was only when someone had meat that they were going to eat themselves, and decided to offer it instead to a monk or a nun, that he or she could accept. This acceptance wasn’t any sort of endorsement, as one of the first things the monk or nun would teach them was the precept against the taking of life.
If the Buddha required his monastic followers to accept only vegetarian food, his message of compassion would be less likely to reach those who did not have vegetarian food to offer. By allowing (but not requiring!) his monks to accept offerings of meat, the Buddha allowed his teaching to spread to many more laypeople.
But there were those in the order who were less enthusiastic about letting laymen into the game. (In the years after the Buddha’s death, this was one of the issues that lead to the split between the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism — would it be a practice centered around monastic practice, or could lay people be full participants too?) When Devadatta proposed that the monks be allowed to accept only vegetarian food offerings, it was part of a package of proposals that would have made for greater separation between ordained followers and laypeople. I believe the Buddha’s rejection of these proposals was intended as affirming the importance of being inclusive, not as an endorsement of flesh foods.
Cause and Effect
So if we look to the principle of mindful compassion toward all sentient beings that the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, how might we apply it today? If you dropped some money in his begging bowl, what would Buddha buy at the supermarket? Would he be hanging out by the butcher’s case looking for a good pork chop, or over in the produce section, thumping melons?
In our economic system, to purchase a product is to reward its maker, to support and endorse the actions taken to produced it. The Buddha, who was quite familiar with cause and effect (four noble truths, dependent origination, among many other teachings) would not be blind to the obvious effect of ordering or purchasing meat from a grocer or butcher.
We cannot avoid responsibility for our choices on the basis that it was someone else’s hands that implemented them. If wicked things are done to produce a product — workers exploited, land or water polluted, animals treated cruelly, precious resources wasted — then we must honestly, mindfully, and compassionately consider the consequences, and do our best to find alternatives. It’s not enough to refrain from doing harm with our own hands; we must not encourage others to do harm.
Furthermore, we don’t want to do harm to our bodies. As Buddha taught, “Man is not a carnivore by nature.” As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, they are advanced, progressive, and ahead of his time. The Buddha knew that man is not suited for a meat-based diet. Modern medical science concurs with this finding. Heart disease, cancer, and many other illnesses have been linked to foods too high in animal protein and fat. It is astounding how the compassionate act always ends up being most beneficial.
With all that in mind, I’m pretty sure you’d find Siddhartha buying broccoli rather than a beef brisket, being mindful of optimal health and supporting those who cause the least suffering. But, rather than telling the butcher to kiss off, the Buddha might well invite him to share a meal.
Compassion Trumps Diet
We must keep in mind that the goal is compassion and mindfulness, not attachment to meal plan. We have to be kind to others and to ourselves, to recognize the difficulty of changing fundamental behaviors. The Universe is a complicated place, and we have to maintain mental flexibility to deal with it.
As wonderful as the practices of vegetarianism and veganism are, getting self-righteous about them is not just harmful to our own minds but reduces the opportunity to influence others to choose compassionately. Zen masters were known to sometimes trick students into eating meat as a shock to their self righteousness in order to remind them of the compassion and love that motivated the choice to be vegetarian in the first place. Trying to change others food choices can lead to conflict and disharmony.
This can deprive us of the opportunity to reach out to our fellow humans to work for greater compassion. Compassion, after all, is the prime directive of Buddhism, not diet restriction. Mindfulness should lead us as far down the road toward a vegetarian diet as we can go in our circumstances — maybe in one big jump, maybe in a series of small steps. The Buddha instructed us not to judge others, but rather to improve ourselves. One thing is certain. Buddha would never lose his perfect equanimity, or love, or compassion for others, no matter their food choices.
-Adapted by the Buddhist Learning Center from the Tom Swiss Website, Why Buddha Touched The Earth
The Facts About Eating Animal Products…
Number of People worldwide who will die of starvation this year: 60 million
Number of people who could be adequately fed with the grain saved if Americans reduced meat intake by 10%: 60 million
Human beings in America: 296 million
Number of people who could be fed with grain and soybeans now eaten by US livestock: 1.3 billion
Percentage of corn grown in US eaten by people: 20%
Percentage of corn grown in US eaten by livestock: 80%
Percentage of protein wasted by cycling grain through livestock: 90%
Percentage of oats grown in US eaten by livestock: 95%
How frequently a child starves to death: every 2 seconds
Pounds of potatoes that can be grown on an acre: 20,000 lbs
Pounds of beef produced on an acre: 165 lbs
Percentage of US farmland devoted to beef production: 56%
Pounds of grain and soybeans needed to produce 1 pound of feedlot beef: 16 lbs.
Cause of global warming: greenhouse effect
Primary cause of greenhouse effect: Carbon Dioxide from fossil fuels
More beneficial for global warming–Switching to a Prius vs. Switching to a Vegetarian Diet: Vegetarian Diet
Fossil fuels needed to produce a meat-centered diet vs. a meat-free diet: 50 times more
Percentage of US topsoil lost to date: 75%
Percentage of US topsoil loss directly related to livestock raising: 85%
Number of acres of US forest cleared for cropland to produce meat-centered diet: 260 million acres
Amount of meat US imports annually from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama: 200,000,000 pounds
Average per capita meat consumption in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama: Less than eaten by average US house cat
Area of tropical rainforest consumed in every quarter-pounder hamburger: 55 sq. ft.
Current rate of species extinction due to destruction of tropical rainforests for meat grazing and other uses: 1,000 species extinct per year
Increased risk of breast cancer for women who eat meat four times a week vs. less than once a week: 4 times
Increased risk of breast cancer for women who eat eggs daily vs less than once a week: 3 times
Increased risk of breast cancer for women who eat cheese and butter 3 or more times a week vs less than once a week: 3 times
Increased risk of ovarian cancer for women who eat eggs 3 or more times a week vs less than once a week: 3 times
Increased risk of fatal prostate cancer for men who consume meat, cheese, eggs and milk daily vs sparingly or not at all: 3.6 times
User of more than half of all water used for all purposes in the US: Livestock production
Amount of water to produce a pound of wheat: 25 gallons
Amount of water to produce a pound of meat: 2,500 gallons
Cost of common hamburger if water used by meat industry was not subsidized by US taxpayer: $35/pound
Current cost of pound of protein from beefsteak, if water was no longer subsidized: $89
Years the world’s known oil reserves will last if every human ate a meat-centered diet: 13 years
Years the world’s known oil reserves will last if human beings no longer ate meat: 260 years
Barrels of oil imported into US daily: 6.8 million
Percentage of fossil fuel energy returned as food energy by most efficient factory farming of meat: 34.5 percent
Percentage returned as food energy from least efficient plant food: 328%
Percentage of raw materials consumed by US to produce present meat-centered diet: 33%
Number of US Medical Schools: 125
Number requiring a course in nutrition: 30
Nutrition training received by average US physician during four years in medical school: 2.5 hours
Most common cause of death in the US: Heart attack
How frequently a heart attack kills in the US: Every 45 seconds
Average US man’s risk of death from heart attack: 50%
Risk for average US man who avoids the meat-centered diet: 15%
Risk for average US vegan man: 4%
Amount you reduce risk of heart attack if you reduce consumption of animal products by 10 percent: 9%
Amount you reduce risk of heart attack if you reduce consumption of animal products by 50 percent: 45%
Amount you reduce risk by changing to a vegan diet: 90 percent
Meat, dairy, and egg industries claim you should not be concerned about your blood cholesterol if it is: “normal”
Your risk of dying of a disease caused by clogged arteries if your blood cholesterol is “normal”: >50%
Percentage of US antibiotics fed to livestock: 55%
Percentage of staph infections resistant to penicillin in 1960: 13%
Percentage of staph infections resistant to penicillin in 1988: 91%
Response of European Economic Community to routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock: Ban
Response of US meat and pharmaceutical industries to routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock: Full and complete support
Percentage of pesticide residues in the US diet supplied by grains: 1%
Percentage of pesticide residues in the US diet supplied by fruits: 4%
Percentage of pesticide residues in the US diet supplied by vegetables: 6%
Percentage of pesticide residues in the US diet supplied by dairy products: 23%
Percentage of pesticide residues in the US diet supplied by meat: 55%
Pesticide contamination of breast milk from meat eating mothers vs non-meat eating: 35 times higher
What USDA tells us: Meat is inspected
Percentage of slaughtered animals inspected for residues of toxic chemicals such as dioxin and DDT: <0.00004%
Number of animals killed for meat per hour in US: 500,000
Occupation with highest turnover rate in US: Slaughterhouse Worker
Occupation with the highest rate of on-the-job injury in US: Slaughterhouse Worker
Cost to render animal unconscious with “captive bolt pistol”: 1 cent
Reason given by meat industry for not using “captive bolt pistol”: Too expensive
by John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and founder of Earthsave International.