Vegetarianism in Buddhism Vegetarianism in Buddhism
The three main vehicles of Buddhism have seemingly different guidelines for the dietary needs of their practitioners, ordained or otherwise. However upon closer inspection,... Vegetarianism in Buddhism

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 Buddha surrounded by beings from the animal realm.

The Buddha surrounded by beings from the animal realm

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.

In Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms in samsara, and one of them is the animal realm

In Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms in samsara, and one of them is the animal realm

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.

Khedrup Je, the 1st Panchen Lama

Khedrup Je, the 1st Panchen Lama

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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  • jerry_sito

    Posted on June 1, 2016 #1 Author






    无论如何,修持佛法,如Khedrup Je’s ,宗喀巴大师都是鼓励我们不要杀生与持素,发愿并受戒持素,能够增长我们的菩提心(佛法的修持菩提心很重要),培养出我们时时保持与锻炼我们有一颗慈悲的发心与动机。

    Jerry Sito (泽利司徒)



  • Wylfred Ng

    Posted on June 1, 2016 #2 Author

    Thank you for the sharing.

    I felt blessed that i am already a vegetarian since 3 years ago. Rinpoche always encourage us to be a vegetarian and love animals.

    Now we have more and more people in Kechara took life long vegetarian vows, and promote vegetarianism.

    Thank you


  • Carsden

    Posted on June 1, 2016 #3 Author




  • Sock Wan

    Posted on June 1, 2016 #4 Author

    Being a vegetarian is to help us to develop the quality of compassion in Buddhist practice. If on one hand we say we want to develop compassion, but on the other we are still eating meat, it is contradictory.

    Becoming a vegetarian is also a very good way to learn how to control our mind. All the craving we have for meat is generated by our mind, our mind tells us we must eat meat otherwise we will feel hungry which is not true at all. If we think retreat is difficult and it is hard to focus, being a vegetarian will be a very good starting point to tame our mind.


  • William Chua

    Posted on June 1, 2016 #5 Author

    I totally agree with Compassionate eating because all living beings have feelings and if we eat meat to fulfil our pleasure, then we are encouraging the act of killing. True that during Buddha’s time, vegetarianism was not practiced but in this day and age where we are more informed and that animals are bred in cruel ways just to satisfy our cravings, then it is against our morals. Many many people are turning to vegetarianism because of this and also a healthier living.

    I think all religion does encourage compassion and kindness and should be extended to animals. If we were to contemplate on the meat that is served on our dining table; where it comes from, how will the animal feel, and how will the family members of that animal will feel; we may abstain from eating meat.

    It is a matter of making an informed choice.


  • Carmen

    Posted on June 1, 2016 #6 Author

    When I walk through wet markets and see a whole animal there, dead, I think – this is what I used to put through my mouth, for my pleasure. A carcass. People don’t see animals as a life – but they are a living thing. They have feelings, they cry, they love, they feed and care for their child, they eat – just like humans do. So why do we have to kill and eat another living being?

    Moreover, nowadays, people breed animals purely for human consumption – their treatment is unethical, and the resources used for that could go instead to feed say, the poor in Africa. To sustain the growing demand of meat consumption, it also contributes to environmental issues.

    I used to think that it was impossible to not eat meat, but having made the decision to just do it and be vegetarian, it has become much easier. Thinking about the suffering of the animals prior to their slaughter, makes me not want to eat meat.


  • Justin Cheah

    Posted on June 2, 2016 #7 Author

    I have just became a vegetarian almost 4 months ago. On and off it was a struggle in the beginning but in the end, it is smooth sailing. I felt a lot lighter and healthier abstaining meat from my diet. Good for my spiritual as well as health! One of the reason why i became vegetarian apart from health, i feel by eating meat, i am contributing to the meat demand in the market and hence encourage more to be killed and tortured.


  • Fong

    Posted on June 18, 2016 #8 Author

    From the article, it is quite clear that all beings in Samsara have been our mothers before. They have such a connection with us that if we consume them, it would be like consuming our own kin.

    And, they have feeling and can sense pain and mental turmoil. So, killing them subject them to all these pain.

    And, we create negative karma as a result of killing when we take their life so that we can consume the flesh for there will be no flesh for consumption without killing.

    So, in order to achieve enlightenment we have to have compassion for them and so must abstain from the consumption of their flesh. A human cannot practice Bodhicitta if he/she cannot feel the tremendous pain and suffering of the animal at the point of forced death of the animal, merely to satisfy the palette.

    So, from this perspective, we should refrain from consuming meat. Thanks for the clear article.


  • Lew

    Posted on June 18, 2016 #9 Author

    This article explains the vegetarianism pretty well. In this part of the world (Malaysia), many of us grow up with Mahayana and all of them are are abstained from consuming meat. Therefore, it is quite a common question as to why the monks from Tibet can consume meat. When I grow up, I quite often hear my uncles/aunties ask the similar questions.

    I agree with what this article said, which is the underlying motivation is to relieve animals from suffering. If we follow this understanding, then it won’t go wrong. Many of us are so used to see dead animals in butcheries and we forgot that once they were sentient beings too. This is actually very bad, because we don’t even think twice before eating any meat.


  • Sharon Ong

    Posted on June 19, 2016 #10 Author

    One of the things that reaffirmed my choice that compassionate dining is the way to go, is Rinpoche’s teachings with the following points that stayed with me till today:
    1) How can one claim to be an animal lover and still happily eat meat
    2) How can someone become compassionate if one is still happily eating meat
    3) Chanting OM MANI PADME HUM and still eating meat just doesn’t make sense as one cannot become compassionate just by chanting mantras alone because the action of eating meat is still taking another being’s life.

    It seems just wrong that the same mouth that is chanting sacred mantras one moment is eating the flesh of another sentient being whose life was prematurely cut short to fulfill the demands of one’s cravings.

    While it is not an easy switch for many due to their strong attachment to meat, but by starting with smaller manageable steps such as going meatless for a day or even a meal will actually help reduce the demand for meat in the long run. And when the demand drops, so will the killing.


  • nicholas

    Posted on June 19, 2016 #11 Author

    Being vegetarian is to train our mind for compassion. When we see all animals as a living being that have feeling just like us then we will learn to care for them just like how we care for our family and friends. As mentioned in this article being in any vehicle in Buddhism the important key is not to kill and create cause of killing. By understanding karma we are guided to live in a compassionate life.


  • Lin Mun

    Posted on June 24, 2016 #12 Author

    Thanks for sharing this article as it explains how each Buddhism vehicles Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana apply different guidelines for practitioners on vegetarian. I learned that :

    1) Therevadan – eat whatever that is given to them when they go around for alms, which sometimes includes meat. They eat meat because of their practice of non-discrimination and non-attachment. A lot of people misunderstood and take it as Buddhism encourage us eat meat, as they see Theravadan monks do.

    2) Mahayana – practitioners are not allowed to eat meat. It even extend to disallow consuming aromatic plants that stimulate the senses such as onions and garlic. Mahayana Buddhism forbids killing and therefore eating meat it killing and eating meat is merely for our own pleasure. Furthermore Buddhism stress in reincarnation principal, therefore the animals that we eat may be our mothers in previous lives. Hence we should not be eating as the animal could be our own mother. We must have compassion, respect and love on other being.

    3) Vajrayana – It is not encourage to eat meat. Lama Tsongkhapa teaches us to practise compassion and love towards other being. Hence eating meat will not encourage our Bodhicitta practise. We must hold our non violence vow and through this may the practitioner be blessed and protected by Three Jewels.

    Ultimately, we must train our Bodhicitta mind by practising compassion and non killing.



    Posted on July 2, 2016 #13 Author



  • Stella Cheang

    Posted on July 9, 2016 #14 Author

    From the outside, people often question “how come some school of Buddhism can eat meat while some cannot?”. This article answers all the doubts with clarity. There are three vehicles in Buddhism which practice the same essence of Buddha’s teaching but apply slightly differing dietary practice. As the saying goes “all routes lead to Rome”; the non-discriminatory diet and the meatless diet are circumstantial. The essence is to have compassion towards all sentient beings, including animals. Understanding the law of cause and effect, as well as knowing that there are 6 realms are the main purposes why we should have compassionate to all sentient beings. Through our endless rebirths in these 6 realms, we could had well been the offspring of anything and anyone. How cruel it is to have the insatiable desire to eat the beings who once was our mother? By not eating animals, we are creating the cause now to perpetuate the 6 realms and ending up on someone else’ dinner plate.


  • Sarah Yap

    Posted on September 6, 2016 #15 Author

    One of the easiest way to develop kindness towards other beings is by changing our diet into a vegetarian one. Not only we learn to develop kindness, but we learn how to put others first before our desires and attachments. We are all so attached to our sense, more than we know or want to admit. Having control over one sense at a time is a great way to start with spiritual practice, and it can start with omitting meat from our diet.


  • Fong

    Posted on September 28, 2016 #16 Author

    Nowadays, there are more and more people becoming vegetarians. There are some that take it a step further, by being vegan – renouncing all animal products. This is also in line with Buddhism though not all vegans are Buddhists. They come from the side of kindness to animals and sustainability in the food chain and supply. They recognize that earth is is only so big and that we are all interconnected.

    The Buddhist will take it a step further as e believe in reincarnation and the 6 realms of existence. S, everyone has been our mother before, so we do not eat them. So, the believe of interconnection is there in all vegetarians though on a slightly different plane.


  • elaine

    Posted on December 7, 2016 #17 Author



  • Wah Ying

    Posted on February 26, 2017 #18 Author

    Many confused and some have different arguments on vegetarianism in buddhism, and this article explains the issue so clearly and make all easy to undrstand. It has the information and explanations on vegetarianism, and the seemingly different policies of meat consumption in the different Buddhist vehicles, so clearly presented. This makes it easy for many to understand the concept, the reasons behind vegetarianism in Buddhism, especially on the seemingly different policies towards meat consumption in Vajrayana, Mahayana and Hinayana. Thank you.


  • CindyH

    Posted on March 14, 2017 #19 Author

    Thank you for such a concise explanation about the different approaches taken by different schools and it is apparent that despite such differences, all placed huge emphasis and same importance on compassion and wisdom (including practicality and skilful means). At the end of the day, if we are serious about our spiritual practice and growth, then making the choice to not eat meat is easy. After all, how can one expect to internalise compassion but feed off the pain and deaths of many others? How can one work towards reducing delusions, attachments and motivation to benefit others when one blatantly prioritise satisfying oneself daily even with something as basic as each meal at the expense of other lives? Not to mention the build-up of negative karma as a result of inflicting pain and even taking away life just for some fleeting moments of dining pleasure (when the point is to reduce and purify negative karma for any shot at progressing in our spiritual practice). And if at this (beginning) juncture, it is already so difficult for one to have the discipline to say no to eating meat, is it even realistic to expect one to be able to have the discipline to advance to anything higher?