The three main vehicles of Buddhism namely Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana have seemingly different guidelines for the dietary needs of their practitioners, ordained or otherwise.
Theravadans eat in the morning and fast after midday. They eat whatever is offered to them on their alms rounds – even meat. They do that not because they crave meat but rather because of their practice of non-discrimination and non-attachment. The only and most important criteria here is that any meat offered must not have been slaughtered specifically for them. Having said that, the lay practitioners who do offer food to the Sangha are encouraged to offer vegetarian food.
The Buddha did not forbid meat as in his omniscience, he knew that many would not be able to even begin to practise Buddhism if they had to give up their cravings for meat immediately. So, although they are encouraged to give up their cravings, they are not forbidden to consume meat. As they practise, many eventually feel compassion for the sufferings of sentient beings and, generating Bodhicitta, give up the consumption of meat on their own accord. Such may have been the case with Shravakas who may have started on the Path as meat-eaters but along the way, generated compassion and then abstained from the consumption of meat.
The Lankavatara Sutra, written in the fourth or fifth Century CE strongly advocates abstinence in relation to the consumption of meat. Scriptures such as the Mahayana Jataka tales indicate that meat-consumption is undesirable and karmically unwholesome. So, Mahayana practitioners are strictly forbidden from consuming meat. They are also forbidden from consuming aromatic plants that stimulate the senses such as onions and garlic.
This strict adherence is based on the first precept of Mahayana Buddhism, the abstinence from killing. If one eats the flesh of an animal, it means that the animal was killed for food. So, even if one did not kill with one’s own hand, the mere fact that the animal died for one’s consumption is akin to oneself performing the act of killing. In essence, one is the cause for the animal’s death.
Buddhism teaches the principle of reincarnation and the six realms of existence that one can take rebirth in. During our migration among these realms, all sentient beings have been our mother at one point or another.
Therefore, any animal consumed has been our mother in a previous life. They have cared for us, nourished us and loved us. So can we really consume the flesh of a being who has been our mother?
Moreover, the Buddha has emphasised that all animals, insects, fish and shellfish are sentient beings that have feelings and should be cherished. Therefore, they deserve our respect and kindness.
In Tibetan Buddhism which belongs to the Vajrayana vehicle, the consumption of meat is not encouraged. However, the Tibetan terrain and climate are very harsh and little can be grown there. In such situations, the consumption of meat is a matter of survival and is thus allowed. If the Tibetan Lamas and Dharma practitioners had not survived, then as a consequence the Dharma itself would not have survived. Even in the face of such adversity, some great lamas practised a vegetarian diet such as Khedrub Je, one of the two main disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug lineage.
In Khedrup Je’s commentary on The Three Vows, it is said that, on the whole, only the Bodhisattvas are required to abstain from meat. Therefore, monks, nuns or lay practitioners who have taken the vow to attain Bodhicitta should abstain from eating meat as they are on the Bodhisattva path. If they eat meat, a strong desire will grow in them to consume more. This would then result in the decline of their compassion. So, Khedrup Je advises those who are on the Bodhisattva path to abstain from the consumption of meat.
Lama Tsongkhapa teaches that one must transform one’s mind towards compassion and Bodhicitta. The meat industry in modern times is a cruel one where animals are treated harshly, where breeders separate offspring from their mothers at birth or as soon as is physically possible, and where even the young or embryos are consumed as food. Such constant and indiscriminate consumption breeds indifference instead of compassion and mindfulness. We thus forget that the piece of meat on our plates was once a living being. Meat on supermarket shelves just becomes food to be consumed without a second thought to its origins.
Upon closer inspection, the seemingly different policies towards meat consumption in the different Buddhist vehicles is actually the same. The core of being a vegetarian is the abstinence from killing and the compassion for all sentient beings. The Buddha’s teachings are not unyielding; however an understanding should be made as to the demarcation between what is allowed and what is forbidden. We should bear in mind the teachings and practices, stress the accumulation of merits and hold our vows of non-violence. Through this, we come under the care and protection of the Three Jewels, lifetime after lifetime until we achieve Enlightenment.
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