Simply put, no. One does not have to be a vegetarian or vegan for that matter, to be a Buddhist.
Vegetarianism as a pre-requisite to being a Buddhist is a misconception that had been advocated directly or indirectly in the Chinese Mahayana tradition.
I’ve received many queries and responses from lay people about vegetarianism. Some wonder if it is a pre-requisite to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist. Others wonder if it is a precept or by-clause under the No-Killing precept. All these questions plus some exchanges with a fellow Buddhist who is a vegan spur me on to write this post.
Here is a summary:
- To be a Buddhist, it is optional to be a vegetarian.
- To observe the First of the Five Precepts of “abstaining from Killing”, one does not have to be a vegetarian. It is still optional to be a vegetarian even if one observes the Five Precepts.
- To observe the Bodhisattva vows under the Chinese Mahayana tradition, it is *compulsory* to be a vegetarian.
Foot note to #3, it is not compulsory to be a Bodhisattva even if you follow the Chinese Mahayana tradition. It is only at a later stage that the Bodhisattva vow became a somewhat compulsory package for monastics. For lay people, the Bodhisattva vow is still *not* compulsory.
More after the jump.
1. To be a Buddhist, it is optional to be a vegetarian.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating meat-eating, nor am I encouraging that. If the whole world were to become vegetarians or vegans, I would applaud it. But before that happens, I recognise that there are many who wish to learn and benefit from the Buddha’s Teachings but are somehow put off by vegetarianism right at the start.
Vegetarianism is a personal choice for Buddhists, and not a precept, except for the case of the Bodhisattva vow. See #3 below for more information. When one feels so inclined, it should be well and good to do so.
To be a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Triple Gem, The Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha. It is not just a ceremony that one undergoes, but a daily commitment to be happy. To make that conscientious choice to apply Buddhist Teachings (Dharma) to one’s life and be happy.
But being happy alone is insufficient if we end up causing suffering to others, so there is the Five Precepts.
2. To observe the First of the Five Precepts of “abstaining from Killing”, one does not have to be a vegetarian.
It is still optional to be a vegetarian even if one observes the Five Precepts.
The Five Precepts are to abstain from 1) Killing 2) Stealing 3) Sexual misconduct 4) Lying and 5) Taking of fermented drinks and intoxicants that dulls the mind.
Some thinks that “Meat eating == Killing” and hence one have to be a vegetarian to be observe that precept. If that being the case, then wouldn’t the Buddha have explicitly highlighted that in the Five precepts or in the Monastic Rules. Instead, he permitted the monks and nuns to eat meat that are offered, and are not seen, heard or suspected to be killed for oneself. There are further restrictions that forbade raw flesh, human flesh and flesh from wild animals such as “the flesh of human beings, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and hyenas (panthers)”. See Buddhist Monastic Code I – Chapter 8: Pacittiya – 4.
The Food Chapter Chinese Mahayana Buddhists, read with discretion.
While it may appear counterintuitive for some to observe the Five Precepts and still consume meat, one must realise that under the precept, one should not order for an animal to be killed for one’s food. Hence, one should not eat live seafood, turtle or frogs etc where one’s request for a meal results directly in the death of an animal.
Further, consider the consumption of alcohol itself. It does not directly result in breaking the first four precepts nor necessarily lead to it, but has the potential for doing so. Even so, the Buddha has it as the Fifth precept. If eating meat (under the allowables) is really so strongly linked to killing, it makes us wonder why the Buddha did not institute it as a separate precept and only put it in the Bodhisattva vows? One might argue that monks then were alms eater and hence could not choose, but how about lay people. Lay people could choose then, just as they can now. Why didn’t the Buddha not lay down vegetarianism as a precept, but left it optional and only institute it in the Bodhisattva vow?
3. To observe the Bodhisattva vows under the Chinese Mahayana tradition, it is *compulsory* to be a vegetarian.
To start off, some misconstrue the statement “All sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood” to imply that “All sentient beings must become Bodhisattvas in order to attain Buddhahood”! This is incorrect.
That is like saying “Everyone must become doctors, since we all have potential to become one”. Apparently everyone’s aspiration differs and so in the Mahayana tradition, the Bodhisattvas learn all the paths that lead to Enlightenment. So one learns the path to Arahanthood, PaccekaBuddhahood and Sammasambuddhahood. Bodhisattvas learn these ways so that depending on the individual’s capabilities and inclination, the appropriate teachings are given.
Mahayana is Maha (Great or Greater) because it advocates and teaches all three paths! 統攝三乘名知為大! So if you incline towards Arahanthood, then the Bodhisattvas will teach accordingly. If you incline towards PaccekaBuddhahood, likewise, they will teach accordingly. And if you aspire and incline towards SammasamBuddhahood, I say Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!, the Bodhisattvas will teach you accordingly as well.
For that matter, when the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he did not go around insisting that everyone aspire towards SammasamBuddhahood, PaccekaBuddhahood nor Arahanthood; instead he just taught that there is Suffering, the cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering and the path leading to the Cessation of Suffering. So to insist that everyone aspire towards SammasamBuddhahood is wishful thinking at best, if not being unrealistic or unreasonable.
Vegetarianism had been a point of contention for some Buddhists since a long time. One has to wonder if it were of such importance to one’s well-being and spiritual progress, wouldn’t the Buddha had highlighted it explicitly, as did the Fifth precept on taking fermented drinks and intoxicants.
In the end, if you read my other article on mock meat in vegetarianism, you will read how I attempt to explain that it is a gradual attitude towards vegetarianism, that I am not against vegetarianism. I’m just concerned with how it is stopping many from learning about Buddhism and benefiting from it. Kind of defeats the intention of compassion behind vegetarianism isn’t it?
PS: I’m an alms-eater monk, so I will eat whatever food that is offered and allowed by the Buddha. This way, I am welcomed by food donors who may be vegetarians, vegans or meat-eaters, except for those who eat unallowables. And hopefully, they can through the contact and teachings, be inspired to learn and practise Buddhism for their benefit here and now, and in the future attain Final Liberation.