The Buddhist Diet
In this paper I will examine the Buddhist diet - its restrictions, significance, symbolism, and the reasons behind these guidelines. Most of the world's great religious or spiritual faiths have some sort of guidelines, restrictions, recommendations, and/or symbolism involving diet, food and beverage. Some faiths exclude certain types of animals, have certain holidays that restrict specific types of food, discourage gluttony, and/or limit or prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages. Buddhism, in general, fundamentally prohibits any and all animal meat or intoxicants at all times. However, with further investigation, there are some unusual or less-well-known additions or exceptions to this relatively simple guideline. The reasons behind these restrictions are slightly more complex and warrant further discussion. It is necessary to note that, like many other faiths and traditions, there are various translations, interpretations, and degrees of tolerance within Buddhism. I will not focus on any one "school" or "sect" in Buddhist thought, but refer to and contrast/compare any specific variances as they come up, if they are crucial to my focus.
Whether or not the reader does or does not "believe" in the Buddhist teachings should not matter to the spirit of my argument. The Buddhist teachings and tradition provide important "food for thought" to all of us; thought that can at least be adopted metaphorically for today's more secular and science-centered world. (This by no means is meant as a discredit to Buddhist thought and faith, but merely a prelude to the following argument and a request that the reader proceed with an open mind and an open heart).
I will begin by summarizing the importance of The Buddha's instructions for the "Five Contemplations While Eating", since this is an exercise that forces the Buddhist to stop and think about the food they are eating. It is the first step in questioning what food is, why we eat it, where it comes from, and when and how we should eat it. One must:
"think about where the food came from and the amount of work necessary to grow the food, transport it, prepare and cook it and bring it to the table." (1)
One should then consider if one deserves the food or not - are they worthy of it? One should consider one's own mind - is it greedy, out of focus? One should know that the food provided is a necessity and a healing agent for the body, that they are subject to illness without the food. And finally, one should remember that food is only received and eaten for the purpose of "realizing the Way" (1) or a part of the means-to-an-end to reach enlightenment.
While one contemplates these, s/he must determine which food is appropriate for consumption, and which is forbidden. Furthermore, it is important to know why certain foods and drink fall into either the forbidden or appropriate categories. To do this, we must first look at the "Five Moral Precepts", one of the most important aspects of Buddhism.
Failure to follow any of the "Five Moral Precepts" causes harm to others, further clouds one's true seeing nature, and greatly decreases one's chances of being born a human again (a vantage point along the path to enlightenment); these are the basis for their forbidance. The "Five Moral Precepts" are NO killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or partaking of intoxicants. The last one is forbidden because it tends to hinder one's judgment and make one more susceptible to committing one of the first 4 precepts. This is why alcoholic beverages are forbidden. Having a drink may not have direct karmic effects on another being, but if drink increases the chances of one committing the other precepts, then it is dangerous, and therefore discouraged. And to the individual (an oxymoron in Buddhism), intoxicants will distort and cloud one's samadhi (proper concentration, necessary for meditation) and path to enlightenment.
So what is wrong with the other 4 moral precepts? Stealing and lying are not directly related to my topic of diet, but are forbidden because they cause bad karma. Causing bad karma harms other sentient beings, and sooner or later will come back to haunt the original liar or stealer.
How is sexual misconduct related to diet? In the Shurangama Sutra (Mahayana school), The Buddha explains how the "Five Pungent Spices", including garlic and onions, are forbidden:
Beings who seek samadhi should refrain from eating [the] five pungent plants of this world. If these five are eaten cooked, they increase one's sexual desire; if they are eaten raw, they increase one's anger. (2)
Furthermore, the gods "will stay far away from them because they smell bad, [and] hungry ghosts will hover around and kiss their lips". (2) Being around ghosts will hinder one's quest for enlightenment. These demons have the power to appear as false Buddhas and speak false Dharma. The Buddha further warns that in the Dharma-ending Age (the age in which we are now) there will be an abundance of false prophets, or ghosts and demons who will appear as Bodhissatvas. Those who are so far off the path might believe in or be possessed by ghosts or demons mascarading as enlightened masters. These demons might talk the misguided ones into consuming "excrement and urine, or meat and wine" and justify it. (3)
I discuss killing, the first and most important moral precept, last because it is the precept that is the heart of the focus of the Buddhist diet, indeed the most important aspect of it.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition's Ten Commandments - "Thou shall not kill" is generally taken with multiple exceptions. For example, it is all right to kill in battle for protection, or to eat or sacrifice animals (in the Old Testament, God required animal sacrifices). By contrast, no kind of killing of animals or people is ever allowed in Buddhism - these are the indisputable guidelines. However, there are various levels of "severity" that these tenets hold in various times, places, and sects. For instance, in the early Indian Vinaya (Monastic Code), since the monks were homeless wanderers, it was common practice to beg for food (this tradition is still practiced similarly in Theravada (or Hinayana) countries in SouthEast Asia). The monks "were expected to eat everything that was put in their begging bowl without discrimination, including meat or rotten food". (4) The Vinaya was so strict that monks had to watch out for any tiny organisms in their drinks or where they walked. Since the monks' food was obtained by begging, they were to have no knowledge of the food's source beforehand. If they received meat,
the monk had to be convinced that the meat was not specifically prepared for him. The criteria were that the monk had not seen, not heard, or did not have a suspicion that the meat had been prepared specifically for the monks. (4)
It was the monk's conscious effort to obtain vegetarian food that "counted".
In the early centuries of the common era, Mahayana school Buddhism made its way into China (and eventually other Mahayana countries, Korea and Japan). Here, monasteries developed with land for monks to cultivate their own food, more or less guaranteeing its vegetarian nature that is not always possible through begging. This made it possible for the monks to follow a more strict vegetarian diet, and even develop a cuisine style (jai in China, shojin ryori in Japan). It is a Mahayana goal to help all other beings achieve enlightenment. So it is due to the newer Mahayana traditions that the stricter vegetarian diets came, and eventually made its way into the culture of modern Buddhist lay persons. From the Fan-wang-jing text:
A son of the Buddha shall not eat the flesh of any sentient beings. If he eats their flesh, he shall cut off great compassion, as well as the seed of Buddhahood within him. (4)
So we see that the vegetarian diet is followed in both major Buddhist traditions (Theravada and Mahayana), but that slightly different measures are taken to achieve this.
Vegetarianism, "a natural and logical ramification of the moral precept against the taking of life" (5) is a diet that includes no animal meat. In modern terms, we might use the word "vegan" to describe the strict Mahayana diet. The term "vegan" refers to one that does not eat any animals, but also any animal products or derivatives, including milk, cheese, honey; or using animal furs, leathers, skins, etc. The Buddha recommended that pure Bodhisattvas follow this ideal:
[they] who do not wear silk, leather boots, furs, or down ...and who do not consume milk, cream, or butter, can truly transcend this world. Both physically and mentally one must avoid the bodies and the by-products of beings, by neither wearing them or eating them. I say that such people have true liberation. (6)
The Buddhist term ahimsa is now being adopted by many secular vegans. Ahimsa refers to the compassionate, non-violent treatment of animals and all sentient beings. Not only does the practice of ahimsa keep the Buddhist on the right path, it also enforces a "better life and better health". (7)
Killing or eating meat breaks several rules at one time. One who does harms other sentient beings and restricts their path/chance to gain enlightenment/nirvana. One also hurts one's self since all beings are a part of one whole. One also spreads the bad killing karma, which will later cause one suffering, or propagate more killing. One also enforces the suffering caused by the cycle of death and rebirth.
All sentient beings desire to live. All animals try to escape when being killed for food;
Like a fish which is thrown on dry land, taken from his home in the waters, the mind strives and struggles to get free from the power of Death. (8)
When one kills an animal, either directly or indirectly by requesting the meat, s/he is taking the life of a living being (or beings). So to the Buddhist, a butcher is the worst trade. However, as a consumer, purposefully buying or consuming animals is a part of the killing process. By creating demand, it is the same as killing the sentient beings yourself. Doing so goes against the "highest and most universal ideal of Buddhism, [to] work unceasingly for permanent end to the suffering of all living beings, not just humans". (9)
Eating meat causes two kinds of suffering: the immediate suffering for the animal that is being slaughtered, and the suffering caused by the cycle of death and rebirth. When a sentient being dies, it is forced to begin again the painful process of rebirth. The only way to stop this cycle is to reach full enlightenment. Since it is possible for animals to become enlightened, killing them deprives them of that chance.
The Western notion of the individual self (or shall we say "selfish individual") is distinctly "un"-Buddhist:
He who lives only for pleasures, and whose soul is not in harmony, who considers not the food he eats, is idle, and has not the power of virtue - such a man is moved by MARA (evil one), is moved by selfish temptations, even as a weak tree is shaken by the wind. (10)
In Buddhism, one cares for other beings as s/he does for one's self - they are interconnected, a part of one whole. The Buddha taught that all sentient beings are really a part of one original whole organism. Therefore, when one kills another, they are actually killing a part of themselves. They are also killing a part of their parents (also forbidden in Buddhism). So, in effect, eating meat is suicidal!
We affect and are affected by one collective karma. Karma works sort of like a bank account. Beings that have caused bad karma are reborn as lesser beings (animals, demons); those who follow the moral precepts and spread good karma will be reborn as higher beings (gods, humans). When lesser beings pay off their "debts", they can be reborn as humans. Since human beings are in the best position for enlightenment, this is the most desired level. As the Buddha explained,
if in the process of repayment the lives of other beings were taken or their flesh eaten, then it will start a cycle of mutual devouring and slaughtering that will send the debtors and creditors up and down endlessly. (11)
When we kill, we increase and perpetuate the bad karma of the killing karma. This bad karma will come back to us in this life or the next, but certainly has a more immediate affect on the being that we have just killed. Spreading the killing karma affects the whole so much that it collects and perpetuates, eventually leading to wars in the future.
When a person dies, their soul can split up into several animals - a flock of sheep, a hive of bees, a hill of ants, etc. When one takes the life of one of these animals, they are actually taking part of the life of the human that once was. The Shurangama Sutra tells how a person who eats a sheep may become a sheep in the next life, and how the sheep might become a person. In a repetitive cycle, "they eat each other" (Shurangama Sutra, 80). There is no hierarchy of sentient beings; although each are at different levels, they are equally important. So, killing an animal is really an act of murder; eating the animal is cannibalism. Following this line of belief, we can see why many Buddhists practice liberating animals, or saving animals that are destined to be slaughtered. The Buddha recommended this practice:
Whenever a Bodhisattva sees a person preparing to kill an animal, he should devise a skillful method to rescue and protect it, freeing it from its suffering and difficulties. (12)
(One theory for the rapidly increasing human overpopulation is that due to modern mass market meat, animal testing, industrialization and science, we are killing more animals than ever before. These beings that are killed may come back as humans, thus increasing the human population).
I have briefly summarized the reasons behind the Buddhist diet, founded on the moral precepts. I urge the reader to consider these ideas; as Dharmachari Saaramati adds,
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike - have only begun to fully appreciate what this tradition can add to current efforts to transform our attitudes towards the world in which we live. (13)
There are other restrictions involving diet that vary from sect to sect, like proper times and amounts of food that can be eaten, forbidance of raw foods; but the observance of a diet that does not violate the moral precept of no killing is most important and universal.
Food, and the guidelines involving it, play significant roles in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha talks about how in a past life he had to "eat the grain meant for horses" (6) to pay a karma debt. One unusual passage in the Shurangama Sutra tells how the Buddha created "pure meat...a transformation brought into being by my spiritual powers. It basically has no life-force". (6) It is believed that the Buddha himself actually died from food poisoning.
The ironic paradox of my topic is that in Buddhism - food, eating, and taste are all illusions in the first place, not a part of our true seeing nature. But our true seeing nature is distorted by our ignorance, which is caused by the cycle of death and rebirth. All suffering stems from this cycle. And so, ahimsa, the compassionate treatment of animals; and the resulting Buddhist vegetarian diet, are essential to the ending of all suffering and ignorance; and a mandatory practice in the quest for true enlightenment for ourselves and all living beings.
Michael Ohlsson is a student at San Francisco State University.
December 9, 1998
(1) Epstein, Dr. Ron, Buddhism A-Z, selection: "Five Contemplations While Eating". http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Buddhism.htm
(2) Shurangama Sutra, p.182, translation Buddhist Text Translation Society, see: [http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Shurangama/Shurangama.htm]
(3) Shurangama Sutra, p.232, translation Buddhist Text Translation Society, see: [http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Shurangama/Shurangama.htm]
(4) Eijo. Buddhism & Vegetarianism. published on [http://www.ccil.org/~cneal/veg.html]
(5) Epstein, Dr. Ron, Buddhism A-Z, selection: "Vegetarianism"
(6) Shurangama Sutra, p.145-7, translation Buddhist Text Translation Society, see: [http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Shurangama/Shurangama.htm]
(7) Wu Hung Bhiksu, "The Buddhist Perspective on Animals and Life Conservation...", [http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Buddhist%20Perspective%20on%20Animals.htm]
(8) Dhammapada. p. 34, from [http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~bp239/dhamma.html]
(9) Epstein, A Buddhist Perspective on Animal Rights,
(10) Dhammapada. p. 7, from [http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~bp239/dhamma.html]
(11) Shurangama Sutra, p.205, translation Buddhist Text Translation Society, see: [http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/Shurangama/Shurangama.htm]
(12) Epstein, Dr. Ron, Buddhism A-Z, selection: "liberating living beings"
(13) Sponberg, Alan, "The Buddhist Conception of an Ecological Self", [http://www.fwbo.org/wbr/vol2/ecological_self.html]
(14) Long Discourses of the Buddha, translated by Maurice Walshe. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Mass. 1995.
Update : 01-12-2001