Vegetarianism is itself a rather minor topic within Buddhism, yet it generates controversy beyond its importance. In examining the single subject of vegetarianism we need to bring in other seemingly unrelated subjects: how is Buddhism adapted to new languages and cultures? What or who is a monk? How did the Mahayana and Vajrayana scriptures expand on the Pali records? What is the teaching on killing? Researching these questions is not an exercise in selecting passages from the sutras to justify a preconception. Rather it is an exercise in understanding the intention and reasoning of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Toward the end of Shakyamuni’s eighty years, the monk Devadatta requested that his cousin the Buddha reform the rules of the sangha of monks and nuns in several specific ways, including adopting a vegetarian diet. The Buddha refused, and reiterated the existing rule: monks may eat meat when it is offered, as long as (1)the animal was not killed specifically for them, and as long as (2)they did not witness the animal being killed or (3)hear its cries as it was being killed. With these three stipulations, the monks could not refuse meat if it were offered, and so could not be vegetarian. In addition to the three stipulations, the Buddha at other times enumerated various animals whose flesh should not be eaten under any circumstances, such animals as tigers, bears, elephants and humans.
The exchange with Devadatta is generally cited as the justification for the belief that we Buddhists of today should eat meat and not be vegetarians. But I think if you examine a little more deeply into the Devadatta story and others in the scriptures, and if you look with an unbiased and open eye, you will conclude that almost all of us should be vegetarian. This is not to say that if one is not vegetarian, he is not a proper Buddhist, and some of the brightest spiritual lights of today are not vegetarian.
But Shakyamuni’s words to Devadatta were meant to apply only to monks and nuns, who were entirely dependent on the kind offerings of lay people for their sustenance. Monks and nuns did not handle money or purchase food for themselves. The animal whose flesh was being received was killed without the knowledge or participation or encouragement of the monk, and as far as nutrition it served to sustain the life and practice of the monk, which in turn benefited the people.
Now 2500 year later, how many of the robed Buddhists lead a life like the monks of Shakyamuni’s time, or even receive all their food from the hands of lay people? Very few, I think. Those who have left home, shaved their heads, wear the Buddhist robes, and practice the Dharma lead lives quite different from lay people. But neither do the great majority of them lead lives of monks or nuns, specifically with regard to how they obtain their food. Even though the title “monk” is often used by those wearing the robes, in reality they are Buddhist priests, not monks, and they by different constraints than monks. They carry money and they choose what foods to buy. In this sense they are “consumers,” serving that role in society. As a class, “priests” were not part of Shakyamuni’s fourfold sangha of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, but appeared later in history, partly in parallel with the evolution of the Mahayana. Today, even when one lives within a Buddhist community, handles no money, and eats whatever is set before him, some person or persons in that community do handle cash and buy food. When they go into a supermarket or restaurant and choose to buy meat, that meat was killed specifically for them, as consumers. This is Skakyamuni’s stipulation number one. To the extent consumers do not buy meat, the supermarket does not order meat, and animals are not killed. Therefore, unless the priest is begging his food, he should not eat meat or cause others to eat meat, whenever he has a choice in the matter. Not to do so means ignoring Shakyamuni’s reasoning and intention about when to and when not to eat meat.
But if those who have entered Buddhist orders are not truly monks or nuns, does the Devadatta story apply to them? Even though they are not monks, they have in effect taken the place of monks within modern Buddhism and are the inheritors and transmitters of the various Dharma traditions begun by monks. It is their intention to master all Dharmas, faithfully serve all Buddhas, save all sentient beings, and so forth as they have pledged in taking upon themselves the five great vows of the bodhisattva. Consequently it is proper for them to understand and follow Shakyamuni’s instruction on meat-eating, as expounded in the Devadatta story and other places.
Some say Buddhists should eat meat in order to avoid offending people. But the Buddha himself, though refusing to engage in fruitless and speculative debates, did not avoid offending people if the situation called for it. In the records, he ridiculed not only Devadatta but heresies of other sects, as well as various philosophies and some ascetic practices. And monks were enjoined to offend donors by refusing the offerings of food if the three stipulations were not met, or if the meal included the flesh of a prohibited animal. Also one of the primary duties of a disciple of the Buddha was the teaching of the Dharma to the people. In Chinese Buddhism, when a well-meaning layman brings an offering of meat to the temple, he may be taught that to offer a product of killing brings no merit to either priest or layman. The result of such teaching over the years is that now most Chinese priests as well as many laypersons are vegetarians, and their temples flourish.
The next question is as follows: if Buddhist vegetarians are opposed to killing, why do they kill vegetables? Here the problem of translation must be considered.
It is widely acknowledged that as the Dharma was propagated in countries outside the part of India where Shakyamuni traveled, countries with different customs and different languages, Buddhism itself changed and adapted to these new cultures, just as it is now doing in America. However, not any and every adaptation is licensed. At one time a disciple brought this problem to Shakyamuni: in the case where this disciple and his companions were intending to go and spread the Dharma in a foreign country, should they teach in the language the Buddha used (now thought to be Pali), or should they teach in the new country’s language? The Buddha replied that it was alright to translate the teachings into a foreign language, provided two conditions were met. First, they should retain his meaning and intent, and second, they should retain his reasoning.
The Chinese language presented a particularly difficult barrier, and pertinent to our inquiry is the meaning of the precept against killing, almost always placed at the forefront of any list of precepts, indicating its primacy. In this precept, sometimes phrased as “not to kill living beings” or “not to take life,” the words “life” and “living beings” in Chinese (and therefore in Japanese) as well as in English, although the words usually refer to the animal kingdom, they do not exclude the plant kingdom. So, were one to strictly uphold the precept against taking life, both plant and animal life, human life could not possibly be sustained. And if a precept is impossible to uphold, then we have to ignore it, or rationalize it breaking, which is exactly what has happened as time progressed into the modern world. But this is obviously not the intent of the Buddha, not his reasoning, not his meaning.
To kill plants for food or other necessary uses is in no way wrong. (On the other hand, the Buddha did try to reign in thoughtless, unnecessary, and wasteful destruction of plant life. The plant world is worthy of great care and respect, in part because it sustains the entire animal kingdom with food, oxygen and shelter.) Yet vegetarians occasionally hear from non-vegetarians something like, “Well, you kill potatoes and spinach, don’t you? Aren’t they living beings also?” The implication here is that since animals and plant are both living beings, and everybody kills plants, it is also OK for us Buddhists to kill animals, that is (they may add), if it is done with an attitude of respect and reverence and gratitude. And here is where the translation problem comes in. If you go back to Pali or Sanskrit, the precept clearly distinguishes between the plant world and the animal world by using, not the term “taking life,” but the term “taking breath” (“panatipata” in Pali). This is what the Buddha meant and intended. By understanding this glitch in translation, it becomes possible for one to fully uphold the precept against killing while at the same time sustaining body and mind.
Mahayana sutras as well, following the guidelines for adaptation of the Dharma to differing circumstances, do not contradict the teachings of Shakyamuni. The bodhisattva precepts are generally taken to be the 10 major and 48 minor ones discussed in the Sutra of Brahma’s Net. The third of the minor precepts prohibits eating meat or causing others to do so. And the Lankavatara Sutra states that the bodhisattva exists for the purpose of saving living beings, not eating them. In the Vajrayana scriptures can be found an apparently shocking statement that even if they kill all sentient beings in the Triple World, practitioners of this sutra (a part of the 600 volume Prajna Paramitra Sutra) will not fall into the lower realms as a result. The controversy over this passage in ninth century Japan was settled authoritatively by Kobo Daishi, who concluded that the “Triple World” refers to the three poisons of greed anger and ignorance, which when destroyed eliminate all notions of sentient beings as such, and he warned that any person who interprets the passage literally is an enemy of the Buddha. Furthermore, in the Vajrayana the “special precepts” are all based on the four samaya vows, one of which is the vow never to harm sentient beings.
So in summary we can see that the Buddha stressed the importance of not killing, and that this refers to animal life only, not to plant life. Also, the Buddha’s reasons for eating meat were integral with a way of living that is almost nonexistent today, when the great majority of persons wearing the Buddhist robes are neither monks nor laymen but rather priests who meet the Buddha’s criteria for refusing meat. Therefore, if the Buddhist practitioner is not leading a life of begging, and to the extent he has a choice in what he eats, he should follow the intention and reasoning of the Buddha and refrain from eating meat.