May 15, 2014

Beggars Can’t Be Choosers

The Buddha explicitly rejected vegetarianism as a requirement for his followers.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the third in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

Bhikshu and bhikshuni, the Sanskrit terms for a monk and a nun, literally mean a “beggar” or “mendicant.” Buddhist monks and nuns originally received their single daily meal by going on alms rounds in local villages and towns, a practice that is still followed today in some Theravada Buddhist regions of Southeast Asia. Monks and nuns were required to accept whatever the laity offered to them, including meat, since charity (dana) was the principal means for laypeople to gain merit and thus better their prospects of a happy rebirth. The only exception to this rule recognized in the Vinaya is if a monk knows that an animal has been killed specifically to feed him, in which case he is not allowed to accept that meat. Monks were always free to choose what to eat from their bowls, but the vast majority probably ate offerings of meat.

We know that the Buddha rejected strict vegetarianism as an imperative of monastic life from a dispute with his cousin Devadatta, an ambitious monk who had sought unsuccessfully to be named the Buddha’s successor. Devadatta practiced five severe types of austerities (dhutanga), including vegetarianism, and he specifically asked the Buddha to require all monks to be strict vegetarians. The Buddha refused this request, since such a requirement would limit what monks could accept from the laity, and thus restrict the amount of merit laypeople could generate.

Another piece of evidence that early Buddhists ate meat is found in the story surrounding the Buddha’s death. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Discourse on the Great Decease), which narrates the last year of the Buddha’s life, his final meal was offered by the blacksmith Cunda, who invited the Buddha and his monks to his home to feed them. Cunda offered them a dish called sukaramaddava, which the Buddha accepted on behalf of the monks but warned that no one else should taste the dish and ordered that the remainder of the dish be buried. After eating this sukaramaddava, the Buddha came down with the severe case of dysentery that eventually killed him. Cunda was distraught at having sickened the Buddha, but the Buddha sent his attendant Ananda to comfort him and tell him that he would receive great merit for offering a buddha his last meal. There has been much debate in the traditional commentaries as to exactly what sukaramaddava was. The term literally means “tender boar,” which in Indian and Sinhalese commentaries is usually presumed to have been some sort of pork dish. In East Asia, where vegetarianism was more common, this term was translated as chantanshu’er, which means “sandalwood tree fungus,” suggesting that the meal may instead have been something eaten by pigs, such as truffles or mushrooms.

The practice of vegetarianism, which is now widespread in India, seems to derive from the Jaina tradition, one of the rival schools of the wandering shramana ascetics with which Buddhism was also aligned. The Jainas were strong advocates of non-harming (ahimsa) and had strict vegetarianism as one of their defining practices. Since the mainstream Brahmanical tradition of the Vedas also was not originally vegetarian, we can conclude that the pervasive practice of vegetarianism in both Hinduism and later Buddhism is probably a result of Jaina influence.

In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, strict vegetarianism began to be promoted in some Buddhist texts, such as the Mahayana recension of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, and eventually was codified as one of the bodhisattva precepts in such indigenous Buddhist scriptures as the Fanwang jing (Brahma’s Net Sutra) of China. In East Asian Buddhism, vegetarianism became ubiquitous, perhaps prompted by dietary restrictions of Daoist adherents who comprised the early audience for Buddhism in China. Even today, however, not all Buddhist monks and nuns are vegetarians. For example, in China and Korea they typically are; in Tibet and Thailand, they are not.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

Further reading: Meat: To Eat It or Not | The Meat Question | West Eats Meat Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat

More at Tricycle:


In the second installment of our new blog series “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism,” we tackle the assumption that mindfulness is the primary form of Buddhist meditation.


For dharma to fulfill any promise, we need to know how to learn it. Scholar Lama Jampa Thaye explains this process: the triad of hearing, reflecting, and meditating.

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wsking's picture

Some interesting sources on the topic of how a Buddhist eats:
"To Cherish All Life", by Phillip Kapleau Roshii
"Food of Bodshisattvas" by Shabkar ( a great Dzogchen Tibetan yogi, 1781-1851)
and the bibliographies in the back of these books will lead you on.
A useful organization to belong to which supports legal action for compassionate, healthy and humane animal husbandry, as well as transitional recipes for those who want to give a meatless diet a try: Compassion Over Killing,
It is said that a sincere practitioner does not do anything that will cause harm to another, including creating a market for harmful practices. It is also said that if you recite the Great Heart Sutra, the Surangama Samadhi Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra, you will not be able to eat meat, because the minute you put it into your mouth, you feel the animal's fear at death, "see" its life and death, and share in its anguish. This actually has happened to a lot of western students after reciting the Surangama Samadhi Sutra, and it happened to me, too.

Some one gave me bear stew at a New Year's Eve party, from a bear they had killed on our mountain. I had recited the sutra at the beginning of Xmas break in a little retreat I did. The minute that meat was in my mouth, I was the bear; a great slow gentleness of nature, overwhelmed with pain like stinging wasps, fear and confusion,"Why? why?" I spit it out immediately and couldn't eat it. I could feel the vibe of utter terror in my mouth. Since then I have had the same experience once or twice. I do eat meat, but rarely, and try to avoid it. Videos on YouTube about the meat industry make a good point: "There is no meat, milk, cheese, eggs, etc. from any living source that does not come from rivers of blood, brutal cruelty, and voiceless terror."

As Lama Zopa says: "You eat it, its' vibration becomes the vibration of your mind. If you eat lamb, sheep, or goat, it can affect your whole life!"

dhRma4all's picture

All creatures require nourishment, and all creatures will eventually give nourishment to others.
Perhaps a more productive question might be, "How can I use this nourishment for the benefit of others (including making all due progress toward liberation)?"

Simply being alive means taking nourishment, and this always requires some risk of harm or death to others (and, yes, we should aspire to minimize those risks). This dilemma is inescapable, and perhaps we should all be aware of this, in a humble and non-condemning way.

Therefore, when I eat a meal, I pray, "May my day be worthy of the sacrifices made by all those who have brought this food to me."

candor's picture

As long as we distinguish between those organisms who are obviously conscious and sentient (for example, who, in a healthy state, respond immediately, and with fight-or-flight, when stabbed with a knife; i.e. chickens, pigs, cows, fish, and so on) from those organisms that are obviously not conscious or sentient (for example, that, in a healthy state, do not visibly respond when stabbed with a knife; i.e. broccoli, carrots, beans, and so on), then your comment makes complete sense.

But if we attempt to gloss over or ignore that essential distinction, then your comment is nothing more than a series of empty Panglossian platitudes.

sanghadass's picture

dear candy, i am waiting for you to clear up some fresh confusion - in the 'Buddhism and Science' blog. I even included a vegan argument. Bless my cotton socks! xxoo

candor's picture

Sangha, that's off-topic here and a vegan comment was off-topic there. I have no confusion to clear up in the B&S thread. You got the last word. :-)

deanp's picture

Nothing like a discussion on meat eating vs vegetarianism to get the opinions and egoic juices flowing. Perhaps the fact that nobody ever 'woke up' due to types of food they ate, is reason enough to relegate it to the 'secondary considerations' bucket. But then again, it can provide too many years of fun "striving for a good cause" to be dismissed so easily.

candor's picture

In my experience, advocating for veganism among non-vegans is similar to advocating for gun control among members of the National Rifle Association, and Buddhists are not much of an exception.

I’m not sure what motivates non-vegans, Buddhist or not, to be so defensive. After all, vegans are a tiny, tiny fraction of the human population, and very sadly, I doubt vegans will ever grow larger as a percentage. Kin selection is strong in all primate species, including humans, and it seems not to be much in the human genome to care much about “others” generally, but especially an “other” so removed from kin as to be a separate species.

In these debates, strong reasoning and appeals to empathy and highly relevant characteristics, such as sentience, have little or no weight. Old habits, appeals to popular opinion, tradition, culture, and palate pleasures dominate. Perhaps it’s this contrast that generates cognitive dissonance, which in turn gets the “opinions and egoic juices flowing.”

It's food for thought, anyway.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is common sense, and that goes for nutritional needs as for anything else in our daily life.

drleroi's picture

While I was the chef at the Samye Zong center in London, the center itself was vegetarian, as per the Karmapa's request. I had many of the sanga including monks to my apartment for an American Thanksgiving dinner. Every single one of them ate turkey. I was explaining to Lama Thubten what a Turkey was, as he had never seen one. I told him it was like a big chicken. When he saw it, he said, Oh, very big chicken. Perhaps an attitude of only eating meat on special occasions would be a good ecological compromise. The Dalai Lama tried being a vegetarian, and now eats meat sparingly for his health.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The middle way would be that between herbivore and carnivore. Giraffes swallow bugs, dogs nibble on grass.

candor's picture

And tigers eat humans. Oh wait...

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's what Buddhism sees as the interdependence of all phenomena.

candor's picture

Indeed, you are correct, and that is why I stated early in this thread that I "part ways with" (meaning: think differently than) Buddhism on this topic. Buddhism claims, beyond mere dependent origination (or cause-effect), and more or less as blind faith, that we are reincarnated, which is a religious view, requiring a relatively long leap of faith for someone familiar with the vast majority of modern science.

If one accepts this view of reincarnation, in connection with karma (cause-effect [somehow] causing rebirth, another religious view), then it is much easier to justify dispensing with "lower forms" of life, since, in Buddhist cosmology, you cannot achieve nirvana (or at least it is extremely improbable) in a "lower form" of life. The remaining logic follows: to kill a “lesser being” results in “lesser karma,” especially if the Buddha gives *any* indication, even indirect, that this is okay

I accept none of this Buddhist cosmology of religious karma or reincarnation (i.e. religion), but do accept, and attempt to practice, the "mundane" or "worldly" teachings of the Buddha, a significant majority of which, if practiced diligently, I see as the most brilliant of philosophies of life, leading to a high (an extremely high, depending on diligence) degree of psychological health.

My cosmology is identical to the cosmology of modern science.

As David Hume said (paraphrasing closely), from the point of view of the universe, a human is no more important than an oyster.

But my ethical point of view, as opposed to the "universe's," takes into account what it might be like to be a chicken, cow, or any other sentient being. I sincerely try to empathize. I sincerely try to place myself in the "other's shoes." When I do place myself in their situation, I am disgusted with the way I am treated by humans, even if I have no choice in how I am treated, and even if I don't realize my fate relative to other possibilities. It weighs heavily on my conscience that I would be part of the collective cause of such a fate.

As a human, after empathizing sincerely, I can no longer take part in exploitation. I am disgusted by the thought of taking the life of someone who seems (often desperately) to want to live.

True, nature is ruthless. Insects and herbivores will eat my plants, fruits, and crops! Farming is war! (As was pointed out in this thread.) I don’t deny any of this.

But I have a choice. I can try putting up fencing against herbivores. (According to my veganic farming friends, a GOOD fence works better than most non-veggie farmers admit.) I can try deterrents and birth control. Ultimately, if none of the peaceful measures work, just as in national or tribal diplomacy, the last resort is violence and killing in defense of our nourishment. There is nothing wrong with violence and killing in self-defense after one has exhausted reasonable, peaceful attempts.

And speaking of self-defense, the next “misconception of Buddhism,” #4, is pacifism. It’s interesting, if not astounding, how many parallels surround pacifism and veganism. Both are considered *extreme* versions of views and behavior because they are perceived to be *absolute* prohibitions: one against *any* violence of any kind for *any* reason toward humans; the other against *any* violence of any kind for *any* reason against sentient nonhumans.

But could there be a middle way between *absolute* prohibitions against violence versus casual violence inflicted on behalf of relatively trivial pursuits such as: tradition, culture, pleasure, amusement, or convenience? I certainly believe there is a middle way here. We should act violently *only* in self-defense (including defense of home and garden or nourishment), and only after more peaceful measures have been sincerely attempted, regardless of whether the “opponent” is human or sentient nonhuman. To me, this is pacifism and veganism. Purists might argue with me that I’m neither pacifist nor vegan, but I’ll be more than happy to decline purity and take on the modified version: “moderate pacifist” and “moderate vegan.” It’s also known as “the middle way.”

The “moderate vegan” realizes the nature of the planet, and the culture and society he or she lives in. Just like pacifists, who rely on militaries and police to keep them safe from human predators, vegans cannot possibly be pure. And striving for purity and perfection in anything is a psychological disease. We, as moderate vegans, first learn about vegan nutrition. Then, we learn about cooking, recipes, and substitutes for the foods we’ve been nurtured on (there are plenty; they are delicious and nutritious (no rhyme intended); and they are increasing in number annually). Over time, we learn new habits. Once those habits are formed, and our convictions as vegans confirmed, sometimes taking months or years, we are on autopilot. Months or years? Yes, some of the best things in life take time to achieve or master. Being vegan has certainly been one of the best paths I’ve taken for over more than 10 years. As long as I'm not in a coma (or otherwise mentally incapacitated), I'll be a happy vegan until I die. :-)

PS: If anyone would like help with becoming vegan or has any questions, please feel free to send me an email at candordan at gmail dot com.

50percentDakini's picture

I am always a bit saddened to see how much energy goes into defending and justifying meat-eating by Buddhists when choosing not to eat meat seems to me to be a simple sacrifice for a more compassionate, less resource-depleting impact on the world. His Holiness the Karmapa has spoken eloquently on this and I'm very grateful for his leadership on this issue in the realm of Tibetan Buddhism, which has traditionally been a bastion of meat-eating.

In the wonderful More-With-Less Cookbook, which reflects Mennonite values and advocates reducing (rather than eliminating) meat consumption, is this exchange posed by Doris Janzen Longacre. The question is one that haunts a lot of people who seriously consider whether the necessarily limited actions of one person can really help: “Does it do any good if I conserve?” Her answer is: “Intricate reasoning on the causes and solutions of world hunger has its place. But there are times when the only answer is, ‘Because they have little, I try to take less.’”

For me, the vegetarian rationale is similar. I am neither monk nor Tibetan nomad; I can make choices about what I consume. This is the choice I make in accordance with my intention to reduce suffering in the world.

sanghadass's picture

Thats good enough for me. xxoo

dansarich's picture


drleroi's picture

As a long time Chef and former organic farmer, I find the argument for veganism specious and elitist. A working farm requires animal manure to replenish the soil. Even if the animals are for eggs and dairy, every other baby chicken and calf are male. Roosters are disruptive, and there is no purpose for more than one bull other then raising for meat. In addition, farming is war. All kinds of animals and insects want to eat your crops. If you ever had to deal with woodchucks, racoons, deer, etc. you understand the havoc they can create in a field. Fences only partially work. I am all for ethical treatment of animals, and try to serve grass fed beef and free range eggs. Our industrial agriculture system is a blight on our planet, and is destroying the soil, water and air. However, some land is best suited to grazing.

candor's picture

As I wrote below, I see veganism as the middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. If one participates in society, one is indirectly contributing to exploitation and harm of humans and sentient nonhumans by paying taxes and participating in a global economy that supports industrial-scale killing of innocent animals, unjust warfare, torture, killing of innocent humans, environmental pollution, and the list goes on. To drop out of society and try for perfection in harm-avoidance would be to practice asceticism.

It is self-indulgent, on the other hand, to *intentionally* exploit animals, or to pay someone else (a person or corporation) to do it for you when you have vegan alternatives. It is a specious and elitist argument to claim that, because we cannot avoid harming animals altogether, we are justified in intentionally and unnecessarily exploiting and killing animals. It is specious in the same way as claiming that because we kill innocent civilians in wars and in traffic and other accidents, we should legalize and contribute to the *intentional* exploitation and killing of humans. Or because there are more human slaves and human trafficking than ever in history, we should legalize human slavery. It is elitist and speciesist because it arbitrarily discriminates against sentient nonhumans on the basis of morally irrelevant characteristics, and in this way, identically resembles racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Sentient nonhumans can benefit immensely from human cultures becoming vegan and taking their most basic interests seriously.

We do not need to use animal manure to grow crops. Plant compost and synthetic fertilizer can and do replace manure. On small scales, we do not need insecticides. I have several friends who are veganic farmers: they don’t use animal manure or insecticides. They are mostly self-sufficient in this way for several months out of the year. On large scales, we might need insecticides, but if so, it is, by definition, a *necessity* instead of mere convenience or preference, similar to fighting a war of genuine self-defense. There is an overwhelming lot we can do to avoid harming animals, but we need to care enough about animals not to treat them as commodity items for our pleasure, amusement, and convenience in the first place. Being vegan is merely a first step in recognizing animals as sentient beings instead of insentient commodities like beans and corn. We could go further as a society, but not unless we, at a minimum, take animals’ interests seriously enough to avoid *intentionally* exploiting them as if they were insentient things.

Claiming that vegans are “elitist” for searching for reasonable middle ground in avoiding exploitation in a global human society where animal slavery is ubiquitous and that is *intentionally* extremely violent toward over 56 billion land animals (and hundreds of billions of aquatic animals) is disingenuous. After you take animals interests seriously enough to go beyond what the vast majority of vegans currently do, then you can criticize vegans for not going far enough. Until then, your argument is analogous to a slavery proponent -- in a society where slavery is ubiquitous and virtually impossible to entirely avoid -- who argues that because anti-slavery proponents cannot entirely avoid all goods and services directly or indirectly touched by slavery, their arguments are “elitist” and “specious.” The slavery proponent has no moral standing, and neither do you.

Rob_'s picture

Veganism is the middle way. Quite a humorous definition. I suspect you and some of your vegan friends are the only people with such a belief. Virtually all humans are omnivorous, and to you we’re all self-indulgent. That’s a good one.

Raising or hunting animals for subsistence is hardly equal to racism, sexism, and heterosexism. You can say it, but almost everyone will laugh you out of the building. All cultures have a semblance of morality towards animals (even if you only see it all as animal slavery), but they certainly don’t get the same rights as humans.

We could go further as a society if we didn’t “exploit” animals? What does this overly vague and general statement mean? I could give you a pretty good list of concerns that don’t bode well for us “going further” that have little to do with the eating of animals.

The only thing that’s self-indulgent are all of your funny definitions.

candor's picture

I see the resident troll of Tricycle has found this thread. I’m relatively new here, but I read Rob’s recent bombastic rhetoric against Dominic Gomez (I think it was in “Let Them Eat Empathy” last week) and realized that I would have little to say to Rob unless he read carefully and made intelligent points, as everyone in this thread has except for Rob. I understand that debates can get heated, but anyone who tries to make up for their inability to articulate intelligent objections by using intentional misunderstanding, misinterpretation, bombast, insults, and rhetoric, especially on the first comment in a thread, is not worth our time.

If anyone other than Rob believes Rob hasn’t set up a straw man (attacked a much weaker argument than I made) or misunderstood or misinterpreted what I wrote, or has a point worth addressing, then please reply to this comment without bombast, insults, or rhetoric, explaining where Rob has or might have an intelligent point that I should address. I will then be happy to politely address such a point. If I don’t see anything posted explaining a point Rob might have, I’ll presume no one, other than Rob, believes Rob has a point.

Rob_'s picture

So much for "intelligent" arguments I suppose. Your response is one long missive of name calling. You haven't responded to any point I made.

Whatever arguments you've attempted previously are based on your own presumptions that are quite unique. We don't have to get into who is "right" or "wrong", but your presumptions aren't held by almost all humans. Previously, I simply pointed this out. They aren't strawmen. How exactly have I mischaracterized your previous statements? Unfortunately, you were too busy with your ad homs to go into that.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Rob, I have attempted an intelligent response to your comments below. I look forward to recieving your feedback.

sanghadass's picture

The Buddha did not encourage people to kill animals at all! Under any circumstances. He drew the line at the invisible! So viruses are fair game if you are a practising Buddhist, and you are observing the five precepts. If a mosquito is driving you nuts, a Buddhist teacher will advice you to avoid killing it. Just brush it away gently! This may sound a bit odd to some. Oh well, never mind! In a subsistence economy where there is no other alternative, killing is understandable. It may well be a necessity. But a subsistence based existence as a lifestyle choice. Like living on a permaculture farm aiming for self-sustainability - that includes killing animals for instance. Well, that ain't quite the same thing is it? There is clearly a difference between necessity and choice. The Buddha clearly advised that killing anything that breathes is not a good idea. I guess they had not figured out that plants had a kind of respiration as well, in the good old days! I think these reflections are quite relevant in this kind of forum. ''We could go further as a society if we didn’t 'exploit' animals'', resonates well with the Buddha's advice against killing animals. He advices that raising animals for sale to be killed and, being a butcher, are wrong forms of livelihood. Clearly, if you buy meat products from a butcher, that have been cut from an animal that has been raised for slaughter, you are directly encouraging wrong forms of livliehood in society at large. Why, because the buying of these products encourages people to raise and sell animals for slaughter and keeps the butcher busy. How are we benefitting society if we are encouraging wrong forms of livliehood? It seems more than reasonable to assert that we will go further as a society - in the right direction - if we don't exploit animals in this way, which encourages and supports the continuity of wrong forms of livliehood. Unless you think wrong forms of livliehood are a really good idea that should be encouraged? Or, do you now see how we could go further as a society by not exploiting animals? In the sense of raising large numbers of animals to be killed in slaughterhouses, butcheries etc.?

Rob_'s picture

Well, I don't go much for "what the Buddha said" type of statements. I don't presume to know what the Buddha said or did ... although we do have a vast canon that might give one that idea. Quite frankly, Buddhism's various traditions and schools are not in full agreement philosophically or morally. You have your source (or tradition), he has his source (or tradition), etc ... Even the original article that started all of this discussion suggests many stories that don't restrict one to a vegetarian lifestyle. So we could go on and on trading quotes. I don't argue much if any about other people's views on Buddhism. It doesn't interest me.

You use the same phrase the other guy did, "we could go further". Further where? It's simply some high minded, emotive, feel good statement with no context (and really no meaning). We'd all be better off I suppose? Oh yeah, and how so? Who could even hazard a guess, but it sure does sound good! Sorry, I'm not one for platitudes.

candor's picture


I agree with what you wrote about going “further in society.” Just as a society without race-based slavery has gone further (morally) than one with race-based slavery, so a society without species-based slavery has gone further than one with species-based slavery.

But in the context of my post that Rob was referring to, I didn’t say or imply that we could go further in the general and vague way he misread and mischaracterized it; rather, in context, I said society could go further, morally, than merely avoiding intentional, and unnecessary, harm and killing (i.e. avoiding exploitation). How? By, for example, making significant efforts to protect all animals and significant efforts to avoid harming them *beyond* merely leaving them alone. I'd be overwhelmingly happy, however, with merely leaving them alone if they're not harming us (e.g. harming us by eating our crops), since it would be such an unimaginable improvement over the status quo.

sanghadass's picture

Yes I agree, we could go further, morally, than merely avoiding intentional, and unnecessary, harm and killing (avoiding exploitation). By, for example, making significant efforts to protect all animals and significant efforts to avoid harming them *beyond* merely leaving them alone. We should all be encouraged to widen the circle of compassion and make significant efforts to protect all animals. Wilderness preservation and nature conservation in general, is also very important. We need to actively work to protect, conserve, and restore natural habitats that many species depend on for their survival and wellbeing. At the same time as we pursue better outcomes in every arena of animal welfare. xxoo

Rob_'s picture

You're wrong. My characterization of your statement as vague is accurate. Originally, you gave no context to it, you simply said, "we could go further as a society ...". You had to make a big kerfuffle with your name calling instead of simply clarifying.

Oh, was that too "bombastic" of a response? You're a bit excessive with your adjectives, and a little short on substance.

sanghadass's picture

sadhu sadhu sadhu!!!!

sanghadass's picture

There is a parallel here with regard to non-violent forest activism. The protesting activists often 'feel' that an old growth forest has intrinsic value, beyond its resource value. How we feel, and not just what we think, is also very important with regard to environmental issues, as it is regarding our relationship to animals. If you don't see and feel that the forest is a natural treasure in its own right, you won't insist that it must be left as it is. If the old growth forest is seen as nothing more than potential planks, posts and, woodchips, then bring on the chainsaws - there is money to be had! Something of 'real value'. If someone does not believe that animals have an intrinsic value in their own right as intact creatures, whose wish to live is truly felt and respected, then not much can be done to shift their perspective. They may value animals in a different way. By what function they may serve as edible 'resources'. Products for the market place. Valued as, beef stakes or chicken drumsticks. Or, as a focus of some other kind of human interest. Companion animals are often the exception to the rule. They may be loved more than humans. Working animals sometimes benefit from their master's affection, sometimes not. Singing birds are often appreciated because they make sounds we find edifying. Crows on the other hand are singing from a different hym book ergo shoot the crows and smile at the the song birds! As for insects in the garden! Well, if they take a shining to my lettuce they are in deep trouble. Frogs, spiders and insects are a staple food in many Asian countries. My Theravadin teacher waxes lyrical about 'Ajahn Mosquito'. Ajahn means 'teacher' and the mosquito's are regarded as some of the best teachers available. Some monks in North East Thailand practice in mosquito infested forests. By practising loving kindness and giving regular blood donations to these little critters, the monks learn patience and forbearence. They can also help a meditator to go deeper into their calm abiding. The calmer and stiller my teacher/friend was, the less 'testing' these little winged wonders became. May we all grow in our love, respect, and care for all living beings. May loving kindness bring us into closer communion with all of life on earth.

wilcuneo's picture

I am a simple man. The way i see it is as follows.

The human body has evolved to eat plants and flesh, it the heritage of the body if you like.

There is nothing inherently wrong in eating flesh, it is considered wrong because a being has to be killed first.

The issue is who says that Plants are not being killed, there seems to be so much evidence that plants have a form of consciousness and feel pain! Are they not being killed also?

I have always though that it is the intention behind the act that is the most important issue. My body needs the nutrients that only flesh can provide. Go ask the eskimos how they would survive on a vegan diet. If I kill something so that I may live is that wrong or should I allow myself to die?

I agree with the Buddha, what I eat has nothing to do with my spiritual development, what I think and do does. Foremost I have to ensure that my body is healthy and that includes flesh, and plants for both sacrifice their life that I may live :)

wonderwheel's picture

The issue is to see that today is not the same world as 2500 years ago. Then there was the exception to the begging "rule" of eating whatever was put into one's bowl: "if a monk knows that an animal has been killed specifically to feed him, in which case he is not allowed to accept that meat."
Today, in our modern society the exception swallows up the rule because of the role of money. Monks were also not allowed to carry money or use money to buy food. The point of the exception for "knowing" is a karmic issue, not a nutritional issue.
Today, vegetarianism is the reasonable combination of these two rules about money and the intent of killing based on the laws of karma not the laws of nutrition. If someone goes to a store with money to buy meat, then it is known that the animal was killed specifically to feed the customer buying the meat. Thus, in the modern world where money is the currency of intention, to buy meat is the same as the exception to the rule of eating whatever is put into one's bowl as dana. To buy meat is an intentional social activity that inescapably entails knowing that the animal has been killed specifically to feed you. The money transaction doesn't obscure the intention; it actually focuses the intention and thus the effect of the karma of eating the meat.

candor's picture

Let’s clear up some confusion.

First, there is no evidence that plants are conscious or feel any pain whatsoever. But even if plants felt more pain than humans, having to eat something to survive, we’d reduce pain and suffering the most by eating plants directly rather than cycling plants through animals, who are reverse protein factories, using up more plant protein in living than they produce in flesh and bodily fluids. And then, after this inefficient process, killing animals.

Let’s go back to the evidence, though. Plants do respond to their environment. However, plants process information hormonally, which is a slow process comparable to the unconscious process of digestion at best, but more commonly comparable to the unconscious process of humans going through puberty. It's a process incapable of producing consciousness of any sort. Contrast this with computers, which process information via electronic circuitry, a process several orders of magnitude (up to millions of times) faster than plants. Computers do not process information fast enough to achieve consciousness or the feeling of pain. Animals, including humans, process information via neural networks, which is a process several orders of magnitude (up to tens of millions of times) faster than computers. On this planet, at least, only animals (including human animals) process information at a rate of speed possible for consciousness.

The evidence explains why plants “react” to their environment AND why this “reaction” cannot plausibly be a conscious one.

Second, there are no nutrients that animal products have that aren’t also found in plants. If there were, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and the American Medical Association would be broadcasting such “missing nutrients” far and wide. Instead, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics endorses a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet as meeting all nutrition requirements. One would need to be allergic to the vast majority of common plant foods to have a reasonable claim that they need animal products to obtain proper nutrition.

Third, that we evolved to be able to handle some animal products (animal products cause health problems in more than light doses) is irrelevant. We also evolved to be able to kill and torture each other, but that’s irrelevant to the ethical question of whether we ought to.

Fourth, the Eskimos would be healthier on a vegan diet than their native diet, which is too high fish fats and Omega 3 (causing premature strokes), and likely lacking other nutrients found in a diet with more variety. That they are forced to consume a limited diet by their location and logistical and transportation barriers is unfortunate for both them and the animals they kill.

Finally, the best argument against being vegan -- one that I have no rebuttal to -- is that one simply doesn’t care about the well being of individual animals. To that, I have nothing to say, other than perhaps it would be beneficial to work on developing the four immeasurables with animals as one’s focus.

If one cares about animals, there are many great sources of information about how to be vegan on the Web, from what to eat, to nutritional considerations, to how to prepare vegan food. These days, even if you love the taste and texture of animal products, there are so many excellent substitutes to animal products (vegan "cheese," vegan "butter" or "margarine," vegan mayonnaise, vegan milk and cream, and vegan meat analogues).

wonderwheel's picture

Actually, plants are conscious. It is only that their level of consciousness is not as deep or complex as animal consciousness. I'm an ovo-lacto vegetarian and I don't pretend that plants are not conscious. When a plant bends towards sunlight, that is because of the consciousness of the plant. It is anthropocentric to presume that plants are not conscious. Perhaps we can say plants are not reflectively self-conscious, but that is not the same as saying that plants have no consciousness at all. Awareness is the "stuff" of the universe and consciousness is the fabric of the universe. There is consciousness even at the level of the cell and the molecule, though it is a primary and basic consciousness..
But, in general terms, the karmic results of killing and eating a plant are far different from the karmic results of killing and eating an animal. That difference has nothing to do with theories about computers as analogies to plants. Computers are not alive in an autonomous sovereign sense, while plants and animals are alive in such a sense.
Also, the karma of meat eating is situational, as others have stated; because the karma is different for a person living in a subsistence hunter society or a capitalist society.

candor's picture

Actually, plants are not conscious, but I'm guessing we might be defining consciousness differently, and/or coming from incommensurate paradigms. My definition of consciousness is the same as ethologists (animal behavior scientists) and neuroscientists. My paradigm also comes from 21st century science. If your paradigm is different from, or rejects, 21st century science, then we'll be unable to reconcile our different ways of seeing this issue.

wilcuneo's picture

Candor thanks for your reply I appreciate the time you spent and the information you have provided me with.

My thoughts are unchanged I feel that all life is conscious and we split hairs on the level of consciousness.

The thing that strikes me is that that the approach to being a pure vegan is so complex and scientific that it is almost unnatural.

Life has evolved on earth as it has it results in death and suffering of all beings one way or another, surely enlightenment is above waht we eat.


candor's picture

PS: I must add that if you're basing the exploitation and killing of nonhuman animals on the notion that "all life is conscious; therefore, it doesn't matter where we draw lines," then you have no moral argument whatsoever against killing humans (other than self-interested motives like not going to jail for it, but those aren't moral reasons). If we're not going to draw lines between spinach and chickens (where an obvious line exists), then we certainly shouldn't draw any lines between chickens and humans! To do so would be ludicrous!

wonderwheel's picture

Yes, it is exactly because all life is conscious, that it DOES matter where we draw the lines.

Danny's picture

Although the popular opinion is that chickens and humans taste much the same, human flesh with its similar levels of myoglobin is thought to be more like pork, lamb--or beef in particular; not only in taste, but in both texture and appearance. People that eat other people "claim" the flavor and texture is closer to pork. But as anyone whose donned an apron knows much of it comes down to how the meat is prepared and what cut is sampled.

janetmartha's picture

Pretty creepy, Danny. Hope you don't spend much time taking that fantasy for a walk. Maybe what cannibals really crave is to know how humanity tastes, not human beings.

candor's picture

A former acquaintance of mine, several years ago, half-jokingly said he wished the law permitted the killing of one human annually, for any reason, for everyone, with no legal consequences. I didn’t share his wish, but then small things don’t bother me as much as they bothered him, so maybe that's why I’ve never felt the urge to kill anyone. But this is along the lines of what I was thinking in killing humans. Eating them wasn't what I had in mind.

That said, I too have read that cannibals report humans taste like pigs; and whenever I smell flesh on the barbeque, I remember that it’s probably exactly what human butt roast would smell like. In fact, we probably wouldn’t know the difference in smell or taste. And this is yet another reason to avoid flesh. Muscle is muscle, animal fat is animal fat, and spongy-brain disease aside, there's no significant difference between a pig, dog, or human primate.

candor's picture

You're welcome.

We'll have to agree to strongly disagree on the issue of plant consciousness. However, you seem to admit of "levels of consciousness" and the ability to "split hairs" on the issue. I agree that we split hairs on the level of consciousness; however, for me (and the vast majority of biologists and neuroscientists) the hair splitting is in the area of beings like mollusks and certain insects. Nobody believes they are splitting hairs in estimating the consciousness of a pig, human, or chicken versus broccoli. If you do, you're a highly unusual case, and I'd be fine ending the discussion right there.

Further, there is no area of ethical thought that is immune from splitting hairs. What should the speed limit on a road be? When is "fighting back" self-defense versus aggression? When is killing considered "murder"? How much effort should we put into self-improvement? Almost every ethical question we can ask has areas of hair splitting. But that doesn't prevent us from acknowledging obvious differences, such as the difference between a living chicken and a spinach plant.

As for being a "pure vegan," there is no such person, and it's not even something worth taking seriously. Perfectionism is a psychological disease. I see veganism as the middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. Asceticism would be to strive for perfection in non-harming (see my other posts in this thread). Self-indulgence is to knowingly consume animal products when vegan alternatives exist (even if it requires significant effort or temporary restraint to find or wait for the vegan alternatives). All I do, and suggest others do, is take the middle path. No personal purity is necessary or desirable.

Lastly, I'm too down-to-earth to think about things like enlightenment. But what we eat is a very big part of what we do. And what we do matters a lot. Hundreds of billions of sentient beings annually would benefit immensely from human cultures adopting the middle way of veganism that I've described in this thread. In being vegan, you may not be able to change the world in such a way, but you can live your life knowing that the extreme, intentional, and unnecessary violence inflicted on animals for our pleasure, amusement, and convenience is not being done on your behalf. As the Buddha would say, you would be blameless in this massive and perpetual atrocity.

mmhalliday's picture

Thanks Sangha Dassa and Candor for your replies to the above. It's saved me writing one myself. I endorse your argument and clarity on the subject.

sanghadass's picture

If you need to eat meat to live then do the needful. If you need insulin from a pig to survive then please take your injections. I find that it is not a matter of 'life or death' in my case. The killing I have participated in - even as an accomplice - I found to be mostly sickening. That is something I cannot easily ignore! I remember catching a fish or two as a kid and was kind of happy about it, as mum and dad smiled at me for my efforts. I guess how we feel about it has a lot to do with our upbringing and culture. But I still have to follow my own conscience with regard to my choices or, suffer the consequences. If I had dependents' that relied on me to bring back dead animals or, their body parts, to feed them. I may well be prepared to ignore how I feel about killing animals. I would also kill animals if my life depended on it. But I would not celebrate the fact! However, no such situation exists. Nor do I need to rely on others to do the killing for me. As already mentioned, killing and eating meat is not a survival issue for me. This may change if I fall on hard times. If so, watch out! You might end up on the menu! May you be well and happy. But keep a watchful eye on me if I get really hungry! xxoo

mmhalliday's picture

Sangha dassa's comment makes a lot of good points re being vegetarian. I could add another pragmatic one : the factory farm conditions in which some animals are kept in order to produce cheap meat can be horrific. Do we want to satisfy our taste buds at such expense of suffering to other beings?

My initial reason for being vegetarian was quite simple : I could do it fairy easily and it meant fewer animals would be killed. Not many given the overall situation, I know, but some. That initial reason was later on supported and augmented when I came across the first Buddhist precept of practising harmlessness. That precept doesn't just stem from later Mahayana interpretations of the Buddha's teachings. It's there in the earliest texts and refers to killing an animal or having it killed; 'animal' being a translation for a word that literally means 'having breath'. (See ) And surely one outcome of practising Buddhist meditations such as Mindfulness, Brahma Viharas, Tonglen is a personally felt experience of just why that first precept is so prominent in Buddhist teachings? Of course the precept doesn't just refer to eating animals but perhaps that's where we are first faced with making the choice?

Now, I understand the difficulties of being vegetarian on the Tibetan plateau where it can't be easy to grow vegetables. I understand needing to balance the practice of receiving alms with the practice of non-harming. And I can understand that sometimes a person may even have a specific dietary need that is most easily met by eating meat. But none of those is exactly an excuse for me when I go into a supermarket and can easily buy non-meat products, even vegetarian fast food!

I'm writing this because, although I'm sure the article is accurate factually as far as it goes, it seems to me to imply that being vegetarian is a Buddhist lifestyle option if we feel like doing it. I think it's rather more than that.

sanghadass's picture

People' who live in a subsistence economy - relying on fishing for instance, to feed themselves - have an understandable reason to kill to survive. But if it is really not required why do it? Or, which is more often the case, have others do the killing for us! Any tour of a slaughter house will instantly expose you to the unspeakable horrors of the industry. In some traditional Buddhist communities I was told meat eating was a sign of social status. I know when I have eaten meat it has usually been for reasons difficult to justify. I can only hope that I find the inner strength to say no to this unethical behavior when the weakness arises in me. I find it difficult to freely express my love of animals when I know I have not treated them with appropriate care and respect. If monks and nuns eat meat then it is their issue to resolve. Perhaps it is really up to the monks and nuns to encourage vegetarianism in their lay communities - where possible. What would be the harm????????????? Our dear monks and nuns encourage us to be thoughtful, compassionate, caring human beings in so many other ways. It is hard for me to see why we should not be encouraged to not support the killing of animals for food as we are encouraged to avoid killing anything ourselves. A deepening care for the environment and a discouragement to be ''casual'' with regard to the lives of fellow sentient beings is a natural and intelligent extension of compassion and human responsibility towards all sentient life.

candor's picture

Yes, what would be the harm in encouraging restraint from exploiting other sentient beings whose lives, just like ours, can go better or worse for them?

Being an ethical vegan, and taking it seriously, is another area in which I part ways with Buddhism and Buddhist teachers. For me, being vegan is, among other things, an essential and down-to-earth application of the four immeasurables and the middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. I would find it quite difficult to ignore the contradiction involved in sincerely and deeply wishing the best for all sentient beings, then consuming the products of treating other animals solely as resources, rather than as the highly sentient beings they are.

sanghadass's picture

Though I suspect you are just using a figure of speech, there is no need to part ways with anyone because they are meat eaters. Most of us would loose the company of loved ones and good friends if we did. As we all know being vegetarian or vegan does not make you a good person per se. We all know that Hitler was a vejo! I know that a lot of people understand that not killing and not eating meat - is more often than not - an expression of kindness and sensitivity, even if they are meat eaters themselves. This is the place in our awareness where we need to be encouraged to 'listen' and feel. This is the place where an opening is found into a new way of being. Also, not all of Buddhism advocates meat eating and not all Buddhist teachers are indifferent to what they eat. A lot of monastics - in the west at least - are probably vegetarian. This has been my experience, from what I have seen in my own sangha. Buddhist practices and teachings - particularly meditation - are of benefit to people regardless of their diets. Many people have a deep and commited interest in other important issues and Buddhist teachings can help them in the contributions they make to creating a better world. Our goal is to widen the circle of compassion and not jettison any one along the way - if we can help it. I know you already understand this, but I felt it was important to express it, as we explore this important theme of growing awareness and care together. We all need to wake up 'together'. We all need to carry and help each other in this process. So often, we hurt, harm and even kill sentient life. We even threaten the intgrity of the biosphere as a whole. We need to lift each other as best we can. In anyway we can. We do not do this effectively when we confirm each other in our particularity. We dont want to scare or alienate people. We want to invite them to 'come and see'. I think this is also an important theme of inquiry. xxoo

candor's picture

Let’s get Mr. Hitler out of the way first. My understanding is that Adolph might have avoided flesh, but for health reasons only. Regardless, he could not have been an ethical vegan, if only because he’d be disqualified, by definition, for intentionally and unnecessarily killing (or causing the killing of) innocent humans, who are animals too.

Now that Hitler is out of the way: yes, I meant “part ways” as a figure of speech only to mean “take a different line of thought about the issue.”

I take the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination -- cause and effect -- maybe further than the Buddha took it. I believe tropical storms are entirely caused by the sun heating the planet, causing evaporation, wind currents, and pressure differences, which ultimately create concentrations of wind and moisture called storms. In the same way, I believe the cause of all animal behavior, including all human behavior, is solely a result of genetics and environment. I no more credit or blame a human for behavior (including myself) than I blame a lion or a tropical storm for behavior. When I use terms like “blameless” or “fault,” I use them in the same way one would if referring to a storm, e.g. “the storm was to blame for the damage.”

Because of dependent origination, I have no hard feelings toward anybody, regardless of what they’ve done, what they do, or what they will do. I’m friendly toward all, whether they are saints or psychopaths. :-)

I agree that we need to encourage people. I also believe we need to discourage people who harshly or ignorantly misunderstand or miscommunicate our reasons for being vegan. You’ll see both approaches from me, responding to the specific argument or comment in question.

sanghadass's picture

Thanks for that insight into hitler. I did not know why he bothered with it given his proclivities. Always a pleasure to hear what you have to say. Best wishes, be well and happy.

candor's picture

You too, Sangha. :-)