Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Is it okay to eat meat, according to Buddhism?

Amlan Shekhar Baruah

Buddhism is one of the most popular religions in the world and is known especially for its teachings on ahimsa (non-violence), compassion, peace, harmony, etc. Since it teaches us to treat all living beings equally, it should certainly condemn the killing and eating of innocent animals, right? Here, we are going to state some quotes from Buddhist texts that discourage meat-eating and violence and encourage non-violence and compassion.

The “Four Noble Truths” are usually thought to be the first thing Lord Buddha ever taught. Among these truths, the last is known as the “Noble Eightfold Path”, which is one of the most important teachings of Buddhism. It consists of eight practices that can help us end our suffering, live a righteous life, and achieve bliss and liberation. The fourth practice is “right action”. This is explained in the Saccavibhanga Sutta of both the Pali Canon and the Chinese Buddhist Canon versions of the Tripitaka (the holy book of the Buddhists) as follows:

“And what is the right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex (or sexual misconduct). This is called right action.”

In Buddhism, there is a basic code of ethics and conduct for lay people called Pañcasīla, or the “Five Precepts” or five rules of training, which is considered the most important system of morality for lay followers of Buddhism. Among these 5 precepts, the very first is about abstinence from killing. In the Pali tradition, or the tradition of Theravada Buddhism, the first precept reads as follows:

“I undertake the training-precept to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings.”

In one of the texts of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, the first precept reads as follows:

“As all Buddhas refrained from killing until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from killing until the end of my life.”

The Lankavatara Sutra is an important text of Mahayana Buddhism and is in the form of a dialogue between Lord Buddha and Mahamati. It has an entire chapter dedicated to abstinence from meat-eating. The following are a few lines from the chapter:

“O Lord, I see that in all worlds, the wandering in births and deaths, the enlaced animosities, and the falling into evil paths are all caused by meat eating and cyclical killing. Those behaviors increase greed and anger and make living beings unable to escape suffering. That is truly very painful. …Mahamati, the Rakshas, are ferocious ghosts who constantly eat meat. Having heard my words, even they can arouse the merciful heart and give up meat-eating. So how could my disciples, who practice virtuous Dharmas, be allowed to eat meat? If anyone eats meat, we should know that he is the big enemy of living beings and is destroying his holy seed. …Meats are combinations of pus, blood, urine, dung, purulence, mucus, etc. One who practices pure behavior should discern that and should not eat meat.”

The Nirvana Sutra is another important text of Mahayana Buddhism that is particularly known for talking about the “Buddha-nature” in all living beings, i.e., the text says that the nature, essence, and spirit of the Buddha are universally and eternally present in all living beings. So, if we hurt any innocent being, whether it is a human, animal, insect, or anything else, it is equivalent to hurting Lord Buddha. How could a Buddhist ever think about doing that and disrespecting their own master? The Tibetan version of the Nirvana Sutra also quotes Lord Buddha as follows:

“One who protects the authentic Dharma should not do that. Noble son, henceforth I will not permit my disciples to eat meat. If I have said that [one should view] the country’s alms-food as the flesh of one’s son, how could I permit the eating of meat? I teach that the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion.”

The Angulimaliya Sutra is another Mahayana Buddhism text that talks about the presence of “Buddha-nature” in all living beings and says that meat-eating is equivalent to self-killing and cannibalism. It quotes Lord Buddha as follows:

“There are no beings who have not been one’s mother or sister through generations of wandering in the beginningless and endless saṃsāra. Even one who is a dog has been one’s father, for the world of living beings is like a dancer. Consequently, one’s own flesh and the flesh of another are a single flesh, so Buddhas do not eat meat.”

Then, buying and selling meat is discouraged in the Vanijja Sutta, which is a verse included in the Pali Canon version of the Tripitaka. It reads as follows:

“Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison. These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in.”

The Dhammapada, which is a collection of Lord Buddha’s teachings in verse form and is one of the most esteemed and widely read texts of Buddhism, states:

“All living beings are terrified of danda (punishment); all fear death. Putting oneself in another’s place, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.”

Thus, it can be concluded that, contrary to what some people believe, even among Buddhists, Buddhism doesn’t support the act of killing living beings just to satisfy one’s tastebuds.

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