Are Buddhist Vegetarians? Exploring Dietary Practices in Buddhism

Within Buddhism, attitudes towards vegetarianism vary by tradition and texts, with many adhering to non-violence principles.

Buddhist Perspectives on Vegetarianism

Within Buddhism, the approach to vegetarianism is rooted in ethical precepts and the interpretation of scriptures.

It varies significantly across different traditions and individual practitioners.

Foundations in Buddhist Teachings

Buddhist teachings place a strong emphasis on ahimsa—non-harm—toward sentient beings, which fosters compassion and minimizes suffering.

The foundational ethical guidelines, including the First Precept, instruct adherents to abstain from killing.

This has been interpreted by many to include avoiding meat consumption as it implies complicity in killing for food.

The Lankavatara Sutra, influential in Mahayana traditions, explicitly advocates for abstention from meat.

However, the Buddha’s guidelines in the Vinaya—the monastic code—reflect a more nuanced stance, permitting monks and nuns to accept meat if it was not killed specifically for them.

Diversity Among Buddhist Traditions

The three major schools of Buddhism—Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana—show differing attitudes to vegetarianism.

Many Mahayana Buddhists, respecting the Mahayana Sutras, view vegetarianism as a means to express their practice of nonviolence and follow a vegetarian diet.

Conversely, Theravada and some Vajrayana followers might consume meat, as their interpretations of the scriptures and Vinaya code provide allowances for it.

Additionally, the choice of diet can be seen as a personal one, where laypeople and monastic members alike weigh individual ethical considerations and paths to enlightenment.

Monasteries in different regions adapted their practices in response to this complex mosaic of teachings, local customs, and practical circumstances, with many moving toward plant-based diets as they became less dependent on alms for sustenance.

Cultural and Regional Practices

A group of people gather around a table, filled with a variety of colorful and aromatic vegetarian dishes.</p><p>Incense burns in the background, creating a serene and peaceful atmosphere

The relationship between Buddhism and vegetarianism varies greatly across different regions and cultures, with diverse practices rooted in the particulars of local tradition, religious interpretation, and historical context.

Adoption in Asian Countries

In countries like China and Vietnam, Buddhism has strongly influenced the prevalence of a vegetarian diet.

Chinese Buddhism, with its Mahayana roots, often encourages a plant-based diet as an extension of the principle of non-harm, leading to the widespread practice of vegetarianism among its followers.

Notably, the Chinese Buddhist cuisine is distinct for excluding alliums such as garlic and onion, adhering to the Five Pungent Spices doctrine meant to aid in meditation and health.

Similarly, the Vietnamese tradition integrates vegetarian meals into religious observances, especially on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month, reflecting a synthesis of Buddhist and Jaina beliefs regarding non-violence.

In Korea, the practice of a Buddhist diet often involves shojin ryori, a type of cooking that is purely vegetarian, rooted in the belief of causing the least harm to living beings.

Meanwhile, Japanese Buddhism incorporates vegetarian principles in varied ways depending on the sect, with the monks traditionally adhering to vegetarianism, although lay practitioners might not.

The case of Tibetan Buddhism presents a different scenario where, due to harsh climatic conditions and the historical scarcity of plant-based foods, a vegetarian diet is less common although it is gaining popularity with the global movement towards non-violence and compassion.

Buddhism and Vegetarianism in the West

The West has witnessed a growing number of Buddhists who adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, often for reasons that expand beyond traditional religious teachings to include environmental and health concerns.

The ethical implications of meat consumption, aligned with the Buddhist precept of non-violence, have resonated with individuals seeking a lifestyle that minimizes harm to sentient beings.

Moreover, the Western interpretation of Buddhist teachings sometimes blends with contemporary understandings of health and sustainability, resulting in a personalized approach to a Buddhist-inspired diet.

This can also involve interpretations of the Jivaka Sutta and other scriptures from the Tripitaka that are seen as providing guidance towards a compassionate lifestyle.

These Western adaptations often take a more flexible approach to dietary practices, with individuals making choices that accommodate personal health needs, like ensuring adequate iron intake from plant sources or opting for lacto-vegetarian diets that include dairy products.

Moreover, Buddhist communities in the West are diverse, and while some may emphasize strict adherence to vegetarianism, others may follow the ‘middle way’, allowing for exceptions based on circumstance, personal choice, and nutritional needs.