Can Buddhists Eat Meat?
As we discussed in the Step 3: Code of Ethics, one of the five moral precepts instructs us not to kill living creatures.
As beginner Buddhists, we may be confused and concerned about whether eating meat violates this moral precept.
While Buddhists, or anyone for that matter, can eat meat that doesn’t mean that you should.
Giving up meat or at least reducing your consumption is likely more in line with the spirit and doctrine of Buddhism and should probably be your goal.
Also, many people find that as they progress along the path towards inner peace, they have a natural tendency to move toward vegetarianism.
However, there is not an unanimous agreement among Buddhists worldwide on this point and it is certainly possible to be a good Buddhist and not be a vegetarian.
The decision to be a vegetarian or not is a more complicated question than initially meets the eye.
Your decision should be made individually, after investigating and considering the environmental impacts and suffering involved under both options.
What can we all agree on?
Let start with what everyone can agree on.
We need animals: the tame ones for companions and to love, and wildlife to preserve our fragile ecosystem.
We can also agree that a major tenant of Buddhism is to develop a compassion that is all embracing and undiscriminating.
The moral precept that instructs us not to kill without a doubt prohibits the hunting animals, i.e., directly being responsible for causing their death.
We should strive to see the world as a unified whole where each thing and creature has its place and function.
How have humans impacted the natural environment?
Unquestionably, the human being as a collective species are exploiting nature to the max and squeezing every last drop out of it without putting anything back. The results?
The air and rivers are becoming polluted and poisoned, many animals and plants are heading for extinction, and the slopes of mountains have become barren and eroded. Before we destroy or upset natures delicate balance, we should be very careful.
We should strive to develop a little more respect for all life instead of having this crush, kill and destroy mentality.
What are the arguments for becoming a vegetarian?
We should not be under the illusion that animals raised for slaughter by multinational corporations using modern methods are living a carefree life on the farm.
On the contrary, multinational corporations use assembly-line methods of production where animals are treated like machines.
These factory farms are concerned about high production and low cost – not with the welfare of the animals.
The cruelties include extreme overcrowding and confining, stress and anxiety.
As a practical matter, it is impossible to raise animals for food on a large, cost-effective scale without inflicting suffering.
The passive support of these inhumane methods through meat consumption is counter to the pity, sympathy and compassion that Buddhism teaches us to have for all living things.
Even if animals are humanely raised and humanely killed (if that is truly possible), should we intentionally be putting scorched animal corpses in our stomachs if not absolutely necessary for our survival?
Change can be difficult
Giving up or reducing your meat consumption may prove challenging because consuming meats has been a lifelong habit for the majority of us.
Most of our parents began feeding us meat at an early age under the misguided but honest belief that proteins from chicken and beef were critical for physical and mental growth.
There is a common misconception that vegetarian diets lack sufficient protein.
This is simply not true.
\ A well-planned vegetarian diet that is focused on plant foods can provide more than sufficient protein.
Examples of plant based foods that are rich in protein include: wheat gluten, tofu and edamame, lentils, chickpeas, beans, green peas, quinoa, oats, rice, nuts, etc.
There are also lots of vegetables that contain good sources of protein such as: potatoes, spinach, broccoli, sweet corn, and asparagus.
The culture of meat eating is further perpetuated by advertisements and propaganda from the meat industry that meat and fish are the best sources of protein. This has scientifically been proven to be false.
As difficult as it is to change an ingrained habit of eating meat, we should make a serious effort to make our diets as humane as we practically can. It is the best decision for both us as well as other living things.
What are the physical health benefits of giving up meat?
Undisputed world health facts show a correction between those who eat lots of meat and having a shorter life expectancy. Those who eat less protein tend to have higher life expediencies.
A diet high in animal protein and fat increases your chances of cancer.
Whereas diets low in animal protein and fat but high in vegetable protein and fiber are associated with a lower risk of cancer.
The reason is that animal meat has high levels of saturated fact and cholesterol which is a leading cause of heart disease.
Studies have shown that vegetarian have lower levels of both cholesterol and blood pressure than non-vegetarian. Consuming meat also carries additional health risks that are associated how meat is processed on a large scale. Meat processing facilities are also often dirty and poorly inspected by government regulators.
Additionally, the consumption of processed meat involves eating human added hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, preservatives, stabilizers and other harmful, foreign substances.
Consider the following short story and remember it the next time you think a meat produce looks appetizing: A man who was a vegetarian was served a vegetarian meal on a plan.
The man noticed that the woman next to him had also ordered a vegetarian meal. So the man turned to the woman and asked, “Excuse me, but are you also a vegetarian.”
The woman replied, “No, I am a meat inspector.”
What are the mental health benefits of giving up meat?
Choosing to become a vegetarian also has a purifying affect on your mind.
If you have given up eating meat then you likely know that it is a wonderful feeling to know that no animal had to suffer in order to provide you nourishment.
After all, food should be a means of nutritious ourselves; food should not be used merely to satisfy sense desire. If you want to give up eating meat but are having difficult, try to slowly wean yourself from flesh foods.
You can try first giving up beef, then poultry and then lastly fish.
What are the arguments for having meat in your diet?
It is true that when you eat meat you are indirectly or partially responsible for killing a living creature.
However, it is believed that Buddha may not have been vegetarian and that he may not have taught his disciples to be vegetarians. Buddhist scriptures say that being heartless, arrogant, greedy makes one impure, not the eating of meat.
Here, it’s easy to see how one could eat meat and have a pure heart just as one who does not eat meat could have an impure heart. Buddha’s teaching emphasize the quality of your heart over the contents of your diet.
Consuming meat does not necessarily mean that one approves the killing of animals, nor does it necessary mean that bad Karma will result.
As we discussed in our Law of Karma post, Karma is an intentional act and its result. Among meat eaters, few likely associate their hamburger or chicken tenders with a live, suffering animal.
As living beings strive to survive, those that succeed inevitably do so at the expense of other living beings.
Contrary to popular belief, eating vegetarian food still indirectly involves the killing of animals such as rabbits, squirrels, monkeys, and billions of insects and other ‘pests.’
How is that possible? The vast agricultural fields need to produce vegetarian products such as wheat, rice and vegetables require the clearing of vast swathes of natural vegetation and animal habitat.
After clearing, farms typically spray their crops with large amounts of insecticides and pesticides so that the vegetables arrive on our plates without unsightly holes or blemishes in them.
Just imagine the acreage required to grow enough coffee beans to satisfy one person’s daily coffee habit. Also, imagine if the whole world became vegetarians, animals would multiple in massive numbers.
This could quickly become a threat to humans, which would likely lead to animals being killed as they overtook our living areas or posed a risk to our safety.
Reasonable minds can differ
Trying to compare the environmental impact and amount of suffering between a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian diet is a complex endeavor with no definitive outcome.
We can likely all agree that both have an environmental impact and cause suffering to living things. While one of the five precepts is do not kill, it also follows that we should not cause another to kill or harm any living creatures.
Furthermore, one would definitely have developed a high level of compassion if they chose to avoid meat out of concern for animals and not wanting to be involved in the cruelty of modern industrial farming.
The key is to be mindful of your actions
Buddhism is not a religion of blind belief. Ignorance is not bliss and does not lead to inner peace.
In fact, Buddha urged his followers not to believe solely in the written words of some wise man, but to accept as true what you agree with using your own reason and experience, after thorough investigation.
Regardless of whether you are a vegetarian or not, you should consider the indirect suffering involved in bringing meat, grains, fruits and vegetables to your table.
If we look beyond what we eat, we see that animals have been killed to provide leather for belts, shoes, handbags, couches, the oil for soaps we use and a thousand other products as well.
It is impossible to live without, in some way, being indirectly responsible for the dead of some other beings. Every day, as you clean your kitchen or work in your garden, you are very likely to kill some insect that happens to get in the way.
As Buddhists, we should not be blind to these realities. How are we to realistically deal with this genuine problem?
The point is not whether we can observe all the rules of morality all of the time.
The point is that if the rules of morality are an appropriate way of carrying out principles of equality that are worth believing in, then it is our duty to follow these rules as much as we possibly can.
It is indeed impossible to follow the rules of morality absolutely; but we should do our best to follow the rules of good conduct.
If we want to live at peace with ourselves and others, then we must respect the life and welfare of all living things.