Vegetariansim and its associated issues is one of the most visible areas of confusion among newcomers to Buddhism, especially in the West. The variety of traditions and teachings on almost any topic can be quite daunting, but nothing can confront the perplexed seeker quite as often as food.
Unfortunately, tempers have a tendency to run a bit high on both sides of this debate, and the arguments invoked very quickly become rather distant from identifiable Buddhist principles, relying instead on emotional appeals, local customs, and "everybody else is (isn't) doing it!"- all of which may be presented as the Real Dharma™. Furthermore, the arguments that one hears often fail to clearly identify the tradition that the debater is speaking from; ask a bhikkhu from Sri Lanka and you're likely to get quite a different answer from what you would hear from a Lama from Tibet. There are a lot of different scriptures, a lot of different doctrines and practices, and no one in a clear position to say that one is "Buddhist" and the other is "not". And frankly, that's the way most of us like it.
But the confusion can be unbearable, particularly for the newbie. Thus, in the interest of clearing some of the confusion and exposing the teachings and customs that underlie the debate, I present here a systematic study of teachings and practices regarding vegetarianism and meat eating. The information is presented in terms of two sets of divisions or distinctions. The first is the division between the Theravada (the last remaining Hinayana school) teachings, and those of the Mahayana, the two main categories of Buddhist schools of thought. The second part is a presentation of meat eating beliefs and practices in three Buddhist countries: Thailand, Tibet, and China.
These three nations are particularly instructive, not only because they represent different points on the spectrum of meat eating (or non-eating!), but also because their cultural influence, and the cultures that influence them, extend beyond their national borders. While Sri Lanka may provide a different case because of its closer ties to the caste system and Indian attitudes towards meat, Thailand's attitude is useful in looking at other, related Southeast Asian Theravada nations. Tibetan culture and practice is also applicable to the other Himalayan kingdoms, such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Ladakh. Chinese influence in thought, culture, and religion can be seen throughout East Asia, particularly in Japan, Korea, and to some extent Vietnam (which has also been influenced by Theravada culture from Cambodia and Laos).
Theravada & Mahayana: The Teachings and Scriptures
The two most recognized categories in the analysis of Buddhist teachings are the split between the Theravada (way of the elders) and the Mahayana (great vehicle). Unfortunately, direct comparison between the two is ill-advised. The Theravada encompasses a single school, centering around a single set of texts (the Pali Canon), with a fairly clear history and linneage, and an overall conservative outlook oriented towards preservation and revision, rather than innovation. The Mahayana includes a variety of schools- from the tantric and esoteric traditions, to the austerity and insistence on intuition of Zen, to the highly intellectual Madhyamika, to the faith and devotion of the Pure Land school. The Mahayana canon varies greatly from place to place- some countries or schools emphasize particular works more than others, and some places simply did not have access to certain texts until late in the modern era. It's a bit like comparing County Cork to the entire United States.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand the regional differences that emerge in vegetarian practices without understanding the doctrinal differences that underlie them. So, without further ado:
Theravada: No Enlightenment Until You Clean Your Plate
The Theravada is in many ways the easiest school to analyze. Their canon (the Tipitaka) is, if not concise, at least bounded fairly clearly, and consistent from country to country. There are two basic ideas that inform attitudes towards meat-eating in the Theravada: the prohibition from killing living beings, and the role of monks in society.
The first rule applies to vegetarianism clearly enough. The Noble Eightfold Path, through the auspices of Right Action and Right Livelihood forbids both killing and the occupation of butchery to Buddhist monks, nuns, and laymen. This raises several issues. First, in order to discourage butchering and killing among lay supporters, monks must refuse any meat that they know has been killed expressly for their sustenance. The exact rule is that they must not see, hear, or otherwise observe the animal being killed, or be told by the layman that the animal is being killed for them. This rule is in place to prevent laymen from killing more than they would ordinarily to feed themselves or their family, and to ensure that food is not wasted in an attempt to gain merit (it is unlikely a single monk could eat an entire animal!).
Further, because lay Buddhists are enjoined to avoid making a living through acting as a butcher, or by any other occupation that entails killing animals, it becomes difficult to ensure access to meat for Buddhists, lay and otherwise. In the time of the Buddha, one did not run to the freezer case of the grocery for meat; it had to be raised, killed, and dressed locally.
The "solution" to this dilemma was that butchery became regarded as an occupation fit only for those who could not make a living by any other means, and that non-Buddhist butchers rose to dominate the occupation in regions where they could be found. In the modern era, butchering is commonly done in many Buddhist countries by the poorest people in the area, or by Muslims, who are not bound by Buddhist behavior rules. Further, keep in mind that you can not be "thrown out" of Buddhism for violating the Eightfold Path or any other tenet; one must pay the price for ones actions, karmicly, but otherwise it is only ones own conscience (or local law!) that prevents any single course of action
Thus if there were only "proper" Buddhists, living in accordance with the Buddha's teachings, there would be no possibility of maintaining a meat-based diet (except, of course, that there is absolutely nothing to prohibit eating the flesh of animals that have died naturally). But, the Buddha and his monks did not live in such a society, and so the regulations regarding the feeding behavior of monks reflected the circumstances of the greater world around them.
Thus, the place of the bhikkhu in society becomes important in determining what he can and can not eat. Monks in a traditional Buddhist 'economy' are beggars; they live only by what they receive as gifts, and do not themselves raise crops or livestock. Therefore, they must be fed and clothed from the excess of the society that supports them. This makes a specialized diet undesirable; anything prohibited to monks to eat must be replaced by something else, something that may be in greater demand, or more difficult to provide.
In the time of the Buddha, the society was dominated by Hindu/Vedic ideas about purity and social order- the caste system. Under this system, contact with anything dead- including the flesh of animals- was seen as unclean. Thus, the Brahman caste (which was at the time in competition with the ksatriya caste to decide who would be dominant in the religio-social system of the time), was likely to keep a vegetarian diet, which was seen as closer to purity. This meant that the ability to maintain a vegetarian diet was a hallmark of the upper classes. Furthermore, since occupations related to killing or handling dead animals (such as butcher, leather tanner, etc.) were of the untouchable caste, poor and alienated members of society were more likely to have access to meat.
Thus, enjoining monks not to eat meat would have effectively meant putting a much greater strain on those low-caste members of society who wished to support the Sangha. They could not gain merit by giving to the monks, or might face financial ruin if they did. Since the Buddha sought to make his teaching available to all people, regardless of caste or class, this was unacceptable. Further, it threatened the survivability of the Sangha by making them a greater burden on the people who supported them.
To this end, the Buddha regulated that monks must eat almost everything that is given to them in their begging bowels. They are permitted to refuse certain foods regarded as being unfit for consumption (flesh of dog, elephant, horse, snake, or human, for instance), but otherwise must eat everything they are given, without regard to preference, taste, etc. Monks are forbidden from trading food with one another, or asking their benefactors for specific foods- laymen would soon tire of attempting to provide for picky eaters!
Further, the Buddha specifically rejected an attempt by the monk Devadatta to make the Buddhist order vegetarian only. Citing arguments similar to those above, the Buddha decreed that he would never make strict vegetarianism a tenet of lay or monastic life, as it would lead to the dissolution of the order due to internal and external pressures. Devadatta later used this fact in an attempt to rebuke the Buddha for soft living. Needless to say, this did not work out as he had hoped (see Devadatta for his fate).
Mahayana: Meat is Murder! . . . Maybe!
Ascertaining any single attitude towards meat and vegetarianism in the Mahayana is a much more difficult task than it is with the Theravada. The diversity of scriptures and precedents makes it a truly daunting task. Two points are worth mentioning: first, that the Mahayana had access to most of the same teachings that shaped the Theravada view. Second, that there do exist Mahayana scriptures that clearly prohibit eating meat, at least for monks.
The combination of these two means that one would expect to find a greater diversity of opinion among Mahayana Buddhists than one does among the Theravada. While the early Theravada influence would imply that monks must live as beggars, and must eat what they're given, the influence of certain scriptures means that there existed at least some prohibition against eating meat that must have been known to Mahayana thinkers.
The two scriptures best known for condemning the eating of meat are the Lankavatara Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. The first source, the Lankavatara Scripture, enjoyed great popularity among the early antecedents of the Zen and Chaan schools, and contains a clear indication that the Buddha did not permit the eating of meat- it even claims that the Buddha never taught that it was acceptable to eat meat. It is unclear how either of these sources attempt to address the Buddha's earlier refusal to make the Sangha vegetarian- it is possible that this scripture was unknown to the collectors of these Sanskrit texts.
The latter is the Sanskrit/Mahayana version of the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta, and both recount the final days of the Buddha, his death/Nirvana, and the distribution of his relics following his death. But the differences between the two versions is more than just language- there are significant doctrinal and narrative differences as well. In particular, some versions of the Sanskrit interpret the Buddha's fatal meal of consisting of mushrooms rather than pork, as most Theravada sources claims.
There is more than just wishful thinking in this interpretation; the Pali term for what the Buddha's fatal meal consisted of is quite ambiguous. It is a compound term, consisting of the word for 'pig' and the word for 'soft'. From commentarial texts, it is clear that the meaning of this term was lost even in Medieval times, if not before. It has been variously interpreted as indicating the flesh of a young pig, rotten or spoiled pork, or even organ meat from a pig. Some early translators read the term as something akin to 'pig's delight', and concluded that this indicated truffles or some other, non-meat food consumed by pigs. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Pali version is now sometimes translated this way in the West, in order to avoid giving offense to Mahayana adherents and other strict vegetarians!
Finally, while the Theravada version of the scripture includes only the Buddha forbidding his disciples to eat the dish that brought on the Buddha's death, the Mahayana version describes the Buddha forbidding meat to his followers in more general terms, rather than just spoiled pork (or other food) offered by the smith Cunda.
So here we can see that there are some significant doctrinal differences between the Theravada and the Mahayana. What is done with these differences is another story.
National Differences: The Practices
Thailand: Eat It! & Hierarchy I
As several noders have noted, vegetarian eating is far from the norm in Thailand. As a Theravada Buddhist country, Thailand inherits the general teachings of the Pali Canon regarding meat eating, monastic begging, and butchery.
As the Theravada teachings do not contain any explicit call for vegetarian eating, neither monks nor lay followers in Thailand typically observe vegetarian practices. Among some, vegetarianism may be observed for specific holidays- Vesak or Vassa, for instance- but this is far from the norm. In general, meat remains an important part of the diet for both monks and the laity.
But while vegetarianism is not obligatory for Buddhists in Thailand, there remains the problem of butchery. As in some other Buddhist countries, some Thais rely on dedicated butchers drawn from the lower classes or from the Muslim minorities that live throughout the south and in many urban areas in Thailand.
One phenomenon that is occasionally observed in Thailand is a "hierarchy" regarding killing and eating. Some Thais regard it as better to eat smaller, "lower" animals, like chicken or seafood, rather than large animals like cows. This reflects a belief that the larger animals are more sophisticated, and more capable of feeling pain and suffering. There is no clear textual basis for this belief, and it is unclear how it emerged. It is possible that this belief is a relic of earlier Hindu/Indian beliefs that dominated in Southeast Asia prior to the arrival of Buddhism.
Tibet: New Plan- Try Not to Starve to Death & Hierarchy II
The high plateau of Tibet is one of the best known (or at least most photographed and televised) Buddhist cultures in the modern world. The unique beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism encompass concepts from the Mahayana, Tantra, and indigenous shamanistic beliefs.
One would imagine that the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism would incline Tibetan Buddhists towards vegetarianism. However, in the harsh wilderness of the Land of Snows, a vegetarian diet is all but impossible. A short growing season, high altitudes, and freezing temperatures make any sort of agriculture tenuous at best. The continuing presence of nomadic lifestyles is testament to the difficulties of fixed cultivation in many parts of Tibet. The Tibetan diet is centered around hardy varieties of barley, and the meat of certain hardy animals (the yak and goat, most prominently) that can sustain themselves on more marginal food sources (grasses and other foliage that are not normally digestible by humans).
The reliance on meat and dairy products in the Tibetan diet makes the contemplation of vegetarian eating nearly impossible; there simply are not enough supplemental sources of protein, fat, and other nutrients available in the environment to maintain good health. This means that despite the general Mahayana prohibition on meat eating among monks, all Tibetan Buddhists must eat meat in order to survive. This problem is acknowledged even in scriptures that recount the arrival of early Buddhists in Tibet. Some chronicles mention monks who acknowledge that they will have to break their strict vegetarian discipline in order to bring the teachings of the Buddha to Tibet, but they willingly make this sacrifice, giving up any selfish notion of maintaining their purity at the expense of the salvation of an entire people.
As in Thailand, a hierarchy is observed in the killing and eating of animals. However, that hierarchy is the reverse of that observed among some Thais. Most Tibetans believe that it is better to kill large animals for food, rather than small ones, as this reduces the total number of deaths needed in order to provide sustenance and other needs. Thus, Tibetans are more likely to kill a yak for food, fur, and products made from the bone, gut and other parts. A single family or group of family may be fed for an extended period from the death of a small number of yaks, and they will be provided with a number of other goods that can be used or traded. Yaks are also useful for their milk and dung, however (the dung is a valuable source of fuel in a wood-starved environment), and so some yaks are tagged as "pets" and kept alive throughout their natural lives.
Much like in Thailand and other areas, butchery in Tibet is performed by poor Buddhists or by Muslims. A curious addition to this practice is the stigma associated to specifically requesting or ordering meat from a butcher. Specifically asking for meat from a butcher in advance is considered to be breaking of the precept of not killing by speech. Rather, a butcher in an urban area (like Lhasa) must be able to gauge by knowledge of the time of year and local preference how much of what sorts of meat he is likely to sell in a given period, and cull his herds in accordance. There is almost always enough demand that the meat will be bought or eaten, but it is considered bad form to ask the butcher specifically for a certain kind or quantity of meat that he does not have available. In the wilderness, this discipline is much more relaxed; a Tibetan herder or farmer will simply invite a poor neighbor over to perform the butchering, and pay him with a portion of the meat, or with other trade goods.
Finally, no discussion of Tibetan meat eating would be complete without a word about Tibetan sky burial, the practice of feeding the bodies of the deceased to vultures, wolves, and other animals. This form of burial practiced by Tibetans is seen as a final gift on the part of the deceased given to the animals that consume their corpse. Note that the deceased does not have to explicitly agree in advance to this practice in order for it to "work"; the deceased gains the merit from the act no matter what. This provides an interesting framework for consideration of the eating of animals; by eating the flesh of the dead, whatever one believes the personal cost to be, one is giving an animal a better chance at future birth as a human or other higher being, by virtue of the merit generated by the gift of their corporeal form.
China: The Confucian Gentleman & the Eminent Monk
China is the pinnacle of Buddhist vegetarianism, a place where religious and cultural factors combined to make it the logical choice, particularly for monks and nuns. Eventually, the notion of vegetarianism became so associated with the identity of the Buddhist monk that a monk who ate meat was considered to be no monk at all. Of course, the free-wheeling teachings of Ch'an put a wrinkle in all this, but then it wouldn't be the Zen we know and love if it didn't.
China had a certain love affair with vegetarian eating that predated the arrival of Buddhism. Though meat was a small component of the Chinese diet during these ancient times, it was considered to be of significant symbolic value. Not to be able to provide any meat at all for ones family- or worse yet, a guest- was seen as a great dishonor for a Chinese family. Eating meat was a sign of wealth, prosperity, and festive times- not to serve meat at a wedding or banquet was unthinkable.
In such an environment, voluntary abstention from eating meat was seen as an important statement. "Great men" in the Confucian tradition would abstain from meat for a variety of reasons. An administrator would give up meat in a time of famine or shortage so that his charges could eat better- presumably, his share of the food would go to others. A good host in reduced circumstances would give up meat so that his guests might eat better. A mother would do the same for her children. Finally, a man or woman might forgo meat following the death of their father or mother, as a sign that they were denying themselves all worldly comfort out of sorrow for their departed parent- a terminal expression of filial piety.
Enter onto the scene Buddhism, represented almost exclusively by the Mahayana traditions. When the Mahayana teachings were brought into China, it so happened that the two scriptures that most clearly called for the abstention from meat- the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and the Lankavatara Scripture- rose to prominence in Chinese Buddhist thought on the basis of their other messages. The Nirvana Sutra was considered vitally important because it represented the last words of the Buddha- his final benediction, and the culmination of his career as a teacher. The Lankavatara Scriptures discourses on the structure of reality and the mind were taken to heart by the Ch'an school.
The authority granted these two documents on doctrinal matters bled over into their other proclamations, and as a result the injunction against meat eating was taken rather more seriously in China than in any other area where the Mahayana penetrated. Furthermore, the association of meat with wealth and plenty made it all the more incompatible with the life of a Buddhist monk- no one wants to support a beggar who is obviously more well off than they are!
These cultural and religious factors combined to make vegetarian eating the norm in China, at least among monks and nuns. Among the laity, vegetarianism was sometimes adopted as an occasional or temporary practice, as a show of devotion during a holiday or other special event. Permanent adoption of strict, exclusive vegetarian practices by lay Buddhists was sometimes seen as excessive or prideful, but may have been praised when practiced by well known lay teachers, or among laymen who lived in Buddhist monasteries as attendants or laborers.
In addition to vegetarian eating, many monks and nuns foreswore "the Five Strong Flavors", five traditional Chinese spices and herbs that were used to give flavor to food. These flavorings were regarded as inflaming the passions of those who ate them, and so were deemed unsuitable for monks. This practice was not nearly as universal as vegetarian eating, and was much common among the laity.
As important as the religious and cultural reasons motivating vegetarianism in Chinese monks was a need to distinguish early Buddhist followers from devotees of other traditions in China. Throughout the early centuries of Buddhist introduction into the Middle Kingdom, there was a great deal of rivalry and animosity between Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists. This rivalry meant that each group sought to distinguish themselves from the others, and to find ways to vaunt their own followers over those of other traditions.
With vegetarianism well established as a sign of moral concern for others, and its practice supported by Mahayana teachings, vegetarianism became a natural means of boosting the prestige and perceived morality and piousness of Buddhist followers. Keep in mind that in the early days of Buddhist transmission to China, Buddhists were very sensitive to allegations by Confucian followers that Buddhist teachings were amoral because they advocated a withdrawal from family and public life. Vegetarianism was accepted as a sign of concern for ones family and community, and aided Buddhists in countering such claims.
An interesting wrinkle on the East Asian background provided by China is the hierarchy observed in Japan. There, animals with four legs were considered to be "higher", and thus unfit to eat. Beef, pork, and venison were accordingly looked down upon, and fish, fowl, and rabbits (which stand on two legs occasionally) were okay. Since monks were generally vegetarian, this hierarchy was observed primarily by lay followers. Thanks to gn0sis for mentioning this to me.
Conclusions: Meat- It May or May Not be What's for Dinner
So what's a good (or even mediocre) Buddhist to do?
A few observations. One, it seems rather clear that eating meat has as much to do with local culture and personal preference as Buddhist truth. Vegetarianism does not seem to be an obligation for Buddhist laity- but there is nothing to forbid it, either. And there are decidedly arguments to be made in its favor, based solely on Buddhist principles. Some see vegetarian eating as a logical progression from the prohibitions on killing and butchery. Since precepts can be broken through speech as well as by action (inciting another to violate a precept on your behalf is held to be violation of a precept by speech), one can extend the principle and see eating meat, even if bought from a supermarket, as contradicting Buddhist beliefs regarding killing.
At the same time, the fact that the Buddha did not clearly an unequivocally establish vegetarian practices for all his followers (as he did in the case of murder, theft, adultery, and certain other violations), it is hard to argue that the Buddha intended for the Sangha to be vegetarian. His specific decision to refuse to make the ordained Sangha vegetarian, a request made by Devadatta, is recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka, and is difficult to argue against.
I, for one, find it highly unlikely that there is any single "right" answer with regard to this issue- or if there is, it is impossible to retrieve from the records that we have at this point in time. Local culture always has shaped Buddhist belief, as has personal practice, and will continue to do so in the future. The adaptability of Buddhism to new situations has always been its strength, and my feeling is that any attempt to fix some dogma about vegetarian eating (or much else!) would ultimately be counter-productive. Buddhism is always described as a path, and personal reflection and individual decision making and accountability must play a role on this path. At some point we must decide for ourselves our course of action, and agree to be held accountable for it.
I think that it is this very ambiguity and accountability that makes debates over vegetarian eating so tempestuous. People realize, on one level or another, that they are plotting their own course, and they want desperately to know that the path that they have chosen is right, and right in terms that are clear and indisputable.
But it may be that there is no karmic "get out of jail free card"; maybe by eating meat, we condemn ourselves for playing a part in murder, and by not eating we condemn ourselves by letting the sacrifice of animals already dead go to waste. There may be no "right" answer that preserves in us some notion of "purity"- no matter how much we want there to be one. And it is that desire for a good, clear answer that promotes the endless debate, and high tempers.
For is not desire the root of suffering?