March 08, 2011

Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat

Sam Mowe

Due to Buddhist teachings on nonviolence and compassion, people often assume that Buddhists are vegetarians. Indeed, many Tricycle readers cried foul after we ran a recipe in the Winter 2010 issue that listed chicken as an ingredient. One letter to the editor said, "I feel this [recipe] is as disturbing in your magazine as it would be if it had been published in Vegetarian Times. Please no more chicken recipes." We printed a short response saying that while we respect vegetarianism, the fact is that many Buddhists eat meat. (Note: personally when I say I "respect" vegetarianism, I mean it in the "hold in high esteem" sense of the word, not like "I respect your right to eat whatever you like." Also, a fun fact: when it comes to dietary restrictions the Tricycle staff is a motley crew.)

Of course, the fact that many Buddhists choose to eat meat does not mean that it is an enlightened thing to do. We are killing sentient beings for food, after all. In a previous blog post ("The Meat Question") I tried to create a space for people to talk about the issue of meat eating without losing their heads (it didn't work: one of the first commenters wrote "Is there an ethical way to rape a woman? How about an ethical way to murder a child?"... not exactly an inviting way to start a dialogue).  

In an effort to continue exploring this important question, let's take a look at an excerpt I came across recently in Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, an impassioned Buddhist critique of eating meat from the famed Tibetan wanderer and pilgrim, Shabkar (1781-1851). The following comes from the second text in Food of Bodhisattvas, entitled The Nectar of Immortality. In it he raises two compelling questions: 1) If every sentient has been our mother, how can we eat their flesh? and 2) How can bodhichitta [the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings] be developed if we are craving meat?

It is said that if we eat evil food, if we consume the flesh and blood of beings who were once our mother or our father, we will, in a future life, take birth in the hell of Screaming, which, of the eighteen, is one of the hot hells. To the extent that we once consumed their flesh, so now red-hot clubs of iron will be forced into our mouths, burning our vital organs and emerging from our lower parts. We will have the experience of endless pain. And even when we are born again in this world, for five hundred lives we will take birth in monstrous and devouring forms. We will become demons, ogres, and executioners. It is said too that we will be born countless times among the outcasts, as butchers, fisherman, and dyers, or as carnivorous beasts thirsting for blood: lions, tigers, leopards, bears, venomous snakes, wolves, foxes, cats, eagles, and hawks. It is clear therefore that, for the gaining of high rebirth in divine or human form, and thus from progress on the path to freedom, the eating of meat constitutes a major obstacle. 

Most especially, we have been taught that the primordial wisdom of omniscience arises from bodhichitta. Bodhichitta in turn arises from the roots of compassion and is the final consummation of the skillful means of the six paramitas. It is stated in the tantra The Perfect Enlightenment of Bhagavan Vairochana: “The primordial wisdom of omniscience arises from bodhichitta, which arises from the roots of compassion and is the fulfillment of the entire scope of skillful means.” It is therefore said that one of the greatest obstacles to the birth of bodhichitta in our minds is our craving for meat. For if great compassion has not arisen in our minds, the foundation of bodhichitta is not firm. And if bodhichitta is not firm, we may well claim a hundred times that we are of the Mahayana, but the truth is that we are not; we are not Bodhisattvas of the great vehicle. From this it should be understood that the inability to eliminate the desire for meat is an impediment to the attainment of omniscience. For this reason, all those who practice the Dharma—and indeed everyone—should strive, to the best of their ability, to forsake this evil food, the flesh of their parents.

Whether or not you agree with him, Shabkar is an impressive figure. He's all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it would have been to be a vegetarian in Tibet more than 150 years ago.

Image: "meat or death II" from the photostream of procsilas

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joshkennedy.atx's picture

Well, the best way I ever heard this issue put was thus:

We strive to eliminate dualism, so taking sides in general establishes dualism. We struggle to be compassionate towards all sentient beings, but how far do you take this extreme? Creatures are driven from their homes and killed to mine the resources to manufacture computers, yet we still use computers, regardless of the ethical labor standards to make them in some countries. Most of us drive cars, and arguably oil extraction takes a large toll on myriad sentient beings, yet we still drive. As one reader pointed out in the story of the nuns, what of the pests that inhabit the food we eat? Even organic farms eliminate pests, yet we still consume their produce.

It goes on. The question we should be asking ourselves is rather one of awareness. Without taking sides, can you be simply aware in what goes into, and what sacrifices were made to bring you everything you have in your life. If being vegetarian slakes your thirst for compassion, so be it. If you are aware of the sacrifices made by all for everything you have, so be it. Each of us only has to live with ourselves ultimately, and so the choice you make to enable that is yours alone.

I do eat meat. However, I am aware of the fact an animal gave its life for that. I am also aware that as Dogen put it, "in attachment, blossoms fall, and in aversion, weeds spread" Don't attach yourself to a personal ideal, nor should you cast aversion at those who do not follow your personal ideal.

mbennison61's picture

Philosophical rhetoric aside - it's just such a simple thing to do that has a primary rather than secondary or tertiary interface with the lives and sufferimg sentient beings. And healthy too!

Anreal's picture

Hitler was a vegetarian ... and that little fact always helps me to keep things a little in perspective.

Observances as I see it are primarily to get the practitioner to be more aware of each choice so that eventually they can make the best choice possible according to their own awareness.

Thanks to everyone here who represent their views so calmly.
It seems I may be the only Chod practitioner here so instead of agreeing with you all on certain points, I feel at least I should represent my view from a Chod perspective here.

As part of my Chod practice and naturally the dissolution of the 'self-other' dichotomy that the deluded mind continues to create, all objects, foodstuffs, liquids, fragrances etc. are viewed as and experienced as 'self'. Therefore, whenever I eat or drink or smell or touch I remain in the state of non-duality whereby I visualize that I am consuming my very own body which I have offered as sacrificial substance to the entire cosmos and which I dedicate to the benefit of all sentient beings. In this way I am doing two things at the same time, destroying the attachment to self by imagining that I am consuming myself, (dissolution into emptiness practice) AND offering the energies of substance to the universe and all other beings (thereby practicing awareness of all form as blissful nectar). In this way I try to remain deeply aware of whatever I am consuming without getting caught up in addictions or aversions while dissolving my sense of self at all times.

Strictly speaking from this perspective even 'smoking' or any other so-called 'harmful' practices are pretty much void since one consumes oneself in the instant and ongoing process of affirming the dance of 'emptiness and form'.

I do not believe there are any hard and fast rules besides what is right for each person, what helps their awareness and what serves as obstacles to awareness.

I stopped smoking not because I believed even for a moment that it was harming me, but for the following reasons:
- I received a message in a dream that a very specific Persian teaching is available to me, but I was asked what I would offer in return to show my commitment. Because I enjoyed smoking it seemed like an appropriate thing to offer (after all what is the point of offering up something that isn't much of a sacrifice?)
- I also realized once I stopped smoking that for me smoking was literally a 'smoke screen'. I find most people dreadfully dull and going out to smoke where I could be by myself in public without anyone thinking I'm weird was a good way of dealing with that.
- I believe that when one has done something for a long time, one owes it to oneself to do the opposite for at least half the amount of time. In the same way I think that anyone who hasn't done something should at least allow themselves the option of doing it at least once. But that's just me. I'm curious by nature and adventurous by spirit and considering that it is all self anyway, everything that exists quite simply represents a unique thread of experience of pure enjoyment, provided one views it through the lens of Awareness where all things are seen as pure, or as 'divine mandala' or 'buddha-field' etc.

I like the hardcore aspect of Chod, although I am only one of two people I know who practice it in this particular way, a truly western adaptation of Tibetan Chod. I simply put it here for posterity sakes let's say, in case there are some who might find that they resonate with it.

Much respect to all :)

Bob Wallace's picture

A Vegan knows that all beings share the same life force and none are more equal than the other as we are all inter-connected. All are born, live and die. All are, if you believe, of the same spirit. However you define spirit. If you do not have any spiritual belief or are free to do as you wish...just as the world takes a breath while hundreds of children starve to death during the time it takes to exhale.

LaurelLorraine's picture

I presently have two Black Angus cows, one protector Scotish Highland cow (who protects the small herd from wolves and coyotes) and two Black Angus steers. These animals have a calm, clean, well-fed, well-cared-for life on my little farm. They grow to very healthy, apparently content adults. I have families who are so pleased to have healthy animals, no antibiotics, no hormones, no shipping stress, no slaughterhouse, always treated with respect. I have a young man who is very calm and kills the animal in one shot. The carcass and meat is treated with respect. I have donated meat to local shelters and mission kitchens. I believe that the animal has fulfilled it's purpose for evolution and existance in a place of stewardship. I eat meat every other day and only that which has been raised on my farm. I do not support the slaughter and disrespectful processing of other meat. I do not believe that I will be tortured after death due to my behavior, and my suffering now consists of feeding them in 20 below weather, getting up every two hours all night when a cow is ready to calve, a brief spell of grief after a slaughter, and the anxiety of their suffering due to storms or severe weather. Also, the ever-so-light burden of not being as free to travel as I might like due to my acceptance of the responsibility for their lives and well-being. I'm very blessed that I can have this life, and believe me I know it is a luxury others could not have, or would choose not to have. That's fine. Consequences do not escape any of us.

mbennison61's picture


Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for your comment, Laurel. It sounds like you raise your animals with compassion and awareness, and while you note that "consequences do not escape any of us" it seems to me that you do your part to ensure that you reduce the negative consequences substantially.

Maura High's picture

Thank you to the article writer for opening the discussion again, despite a dispiriting first try. And thanks too to the commentators who are "keeping their heads." Whether it is better to be a vegetarian is a very tangled and troubling question, often the first that a person new to Buddhism (in the West) will ask. It is all about metta, and metta, as we know, means making difficult decisions about harmful and less harmful, or beneficial and less beneficial courses of action. As our practice progresses, we become more skilled at this, but unless we're fully enlightened will never be easy. But the fact we struggle and try to do our best is already practice.

If you don't believe in reincarnation, half of Shabkar's argument just sounds like threat and superstition (see also ch 8 of the Lankavatara Sutra). The other half of Shabkar's argument is based on bodhicitta, which I think of as instinctive loving-kindness, and which is probably still the greatest motivator for a mindful vegetarianism: a kindness not only toward other creatures, but also toward one's self and the planet. I say "mindful," because we have to be aware of the costs and compromises of this path, and understand it as a middle way.

lisamaureen's picture

I am a mother of 4 ...the idea of nourishing "my children" as an animal seems like a maternal instinct. In another life didn't the Buddha (as a prince no less) lay down his life for a tigers cubs? I like the new trend of giving animals dignity in life and in death and honoring their passing as they nourish their "children".
It is good to see we are all working it out...the answers will come.'s picture

* i have not yet come to the realization that "every sentient being has been my mother/father since beginningless times";
* thinking that eating vegetables is better than eating meat means one respects animals more than plants; a plant is as alive as is an animal, me or you; not more, not less; just the same;

rebecca_1854's picture

Plants are alive, valuable and beautiful but there are reasons why people consider plants less likely to suffer than animals - they have no central nervous system, and there would be little advantage to them evolving any form of pain-sensation since most plants couldn't physically escape anything potentially harmful.

glenzorn's picture

Some animals are similarly incapable of escape: barnacles, anemones and oysters com to mind, though I'm sure that many others exist.

rebecca_1854's picture

There's no avoiding the fact that we will all cause some suffering and death to other living things, but that's not a reason to promote it or expect everyone to think it's fine to cause terrible suffering on an industrial scale - that just isn't a very logical progression. Someone who compromises their own health by smoking or has some other weakness is still right to say cruelty to animals should be avoided, when possible. If you buy all your food in a store, you have a choice between products which directly caused suffering and death and others which may have involved accidental suffering or death. Saying some people will get run over by accident under any circumstances doesn't make it a good idea to legalise drunk driving; saying suffering is everywhere is no reason to encourage more, especially when there are so many other reasons (health, ecology, global food security) to adapt to dependence on a plant-based diet.

wenderwoman's picture

um... all food in the store caused suffering and death to get there. It took a universe to make it. It took eons of evolution, blood and death to arrive where it is. There is no less suffering happening to produce a vegetable. What? The billions of insects and worms that are trampled, poisoned and murdered don't suffer compared to the one cow. Or they don't suffer by your human standards? Is it because animals seem more human that you have more compassion for them than insects?

I'm not sure you have really considered the vastness of the universe and the permeation of suffering throughout if you really believe an insect (or worm) death is less meaningful.

And yes, it is more important for them to quit smoking than to stop eating meat. Sorry. Really? People can slowly murder themselves and be righteous protectors of life? I don't think so.

rebecca_1854's picture

You're putting words into my mouth. I never said anything about whether smoking or vegetarianism were more 'important' - I said someone can be imperfect and still make a valid point. Nor did I say that one life form is more important than another, I said claiming that all food causes some suffering doesn't justify encouraging more. Insects are killed producing animal fodder as well as plant food destined for humans.

If you're that concerned about the harmful effects of smoking, I would have thought you'd be glad when smokers at least succeeded in avoiding the potential harm of excessive meat consumption, rather than being angered by any apparent contradiction.

Bob Wallace's picture

The term vegetarian is used by many who make exception for various food products. The term Vegan is used by those of us who make no exceptions. A Vegan Buddhist has a personal spiritual practice that does not require any authority reference. As we grow in number and connect with each other and learn how to be together regardless of our particular school of darma the Vegan Buddhist Sangha will be a reality. Metta

sharmila2's picture

The Buddha's story of the young parents wandering in the desert forced to kill and eat their son for survival is a very powerful (and deeply disturbing, therefore not often repeated) simile of how our very existence in this realm is dependent upon the suffering and deaths of others - whether we intend it to be that way or not. He used this analogy to spur the monks to redouble their efforts at liberation, in order to end the cycle of suffering - the only way to finally put an end to suffering we inflict on beings including ourselves. This also helps explain why the Buddha never explicitly forbade the eating of meat; he realised that all consumption involves the death of creatures big or small (as Alex's story of the nuns illustrates beautifully!thanks).
That said, I happen to be a vegetarian myself, and find this to be in harmony with my practice; however taking a dogmatic stance either for or against doesn't really help anyone IMO.
Metta to all

wenderwoman's picture

I've always thought that it would be much easier to convince people that we eat too much meat. Which is very true. I like to challenge people to just cut out meat from one meal a day. Or better, try eating it for just one meal. That alone would drastically cut down meat consumption and is relatively simple to do, for anywone. People never like to hear doom saying ultimatums.

wenderwoman's picture

I know a vegetarian that runs around finger wagging at everyone and boldly professing his dedication to not contributing to this suffering YET smokes like a chimney. What good is it to be righteous about vegetariansim and then destroy yourself?

There's an assumption here that one cannot achieve enlightenment while eating meat. That's not the case. It is simply that it could be an obstacle, "could" being the operative word. I know many great and wonderfully accomplished practioners that eat meat. In fact, I believe that most people say the Buddha himself ate meat.

sharmila2's picture

Per the original Pali sutras, his final meal was pork, in fact. (since this precipitated his dysentery it probably wasn't very good pork either!) This was changed in some later translations to "fragrant mushrooms", but this appears to be an embellishment. The Buddha also told the distraught householder who served him the pork that he should not feel bad, and that the last meal offered was as meritorius as the meal offered before his enlightenment.
The Buddha forbade his monks from eating 10 types of meat (including human and tiger) but otherwise they could eat whatever was offered, with the caveat that they could not know or suspect that the animal was killed expressly to serve them

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

I was once fortunate enough to receive a teaching from Tai Situ Rinpoche that may shed some light on this issue. He told a story of a nunnery that for reasons that I cannot remember, decided to grow their own food. During the time before harvest, though, the nuns realized that their cabbages were under siege by legions of small worms - thousands of them . In order to make the food viable, they would have to kill these small worms, numbering about a thousand per single cabbage. Needless to say, the project didn't last long, and the nuns were back eating food farmed by farmers. The conundrum, though, was that these worms would have to be killed anyway, even if not by the nuns specifically.

A lot might be derived from this teaching, but if we are to extract really the most superficial insight, it is that even eating a vegetable involves killing - however indirectly - perhaps hundreds or even thousands of sentient beings! Therefore, I don't think the argument presented really holds up. There are however, far more cogent arguments not to eat meat. Abstaining from eating meat or eating significantly less meat is a more sustainable model that if adopted by most would have an enormous environmental impact. The amount of resources - especially energy and water (water is a big one) - used to raise and eventually kill livestock at the scale it's being done now is wasteful, to say the least. Considering that much of the world is regularly devastated by droughts and 15 million children alone die of hunger every year, it is quite tragic that so much food and water - among other things - are being diverted to sustain livestock to eventually be killed for "one-time use." These considerations should be more prominent in considering the "meat question."

gtirloni's picture

It becomes increasingly hard to eat meat once one understands all the suffering and how many sentient beings that are killed daily. One should strive to do as few non-virtuous actions as possible and I find that, for me, not eating meat is part of that.