Contrary to popular belief not all Buddhists, Buddhist monks or Buddhist nuns are vegetarian. There are some hot debates among scholars as to whether or not, according the texts of Buddhism, they should be.
I was recently reading a PDF booklet by one Buddhist monk describing his decision to go vegetarian. He wrote that one reason he decided not to go vegetarian in the past was that he was turned off by vegetarians talking obsessively about the workings of their digestive organs. I can relate to that. Sounds like the kind of thing you hear all of the time from raw foodists and other people into “nutrition folklore”.
Yet, the other week I was watching a video of the Oprah show where she discussed the vegan challenge that she and her staff took. None of the vegan guests on her show talked about their inner bodily workings, but the carnists among her staff did. At least two people mentioned how before they took the vegan challenge they were only going to the bathroom once a week and now they were amazed ( and feeling better ) going to the bathroom every day. Oy. That kind of shocked me. Having gone vegetarian at 14 I’ve never thought about those issues as an adult.
Getting back to Buddhism, not being a scholar, I have to defer to the scholars who write that there is no clear writing in Buddhist texts mandating veganism. However, in my non-scholarly way I think there is a good case. Since I am not a scholar, please take these thoughts with salt.
First, I think that there being no explicit mandate doesn’t mean as much as many people would think. The Buddha was very liberal for his time ( ancient India, about 563 B.C.E. ). Innovations that he made had to be pulled back for his order to coexist with the culture around them. For instance, the Buddha allowed women to be ordained as nuns. That later disappeared. To this day in Asia the concept is still hotly debated.
Given that the Buddha made compromises with the culture he lived in and some explicit writings about food in Buddhist texts, I think a case can be made that while not mandated, the Buddha saw veganism as the way to go.
Buddhist monks in the earliest surviving sect of Buddhism, Theravada, are not allowed to accept meat as almsfood, if the animal was killed specifically for them. As consumers, cows, pigs, chickens and fish are killed specifically for us.
Next is the specification of “Right Livliehood” for lay followers. Right Livliehood is one part of the 8 Fold Path, the Buddha’s prescription for eventually reaching “nibbana” ( nirvana, unbinding, liberation, awakening, enlightenment, etc ). In his description of Right Livliehood the Buddha describes 5 types of businesses that will retard a person’s spiritual progress and that should be avoided:
- business in weapons
- business in human beings
- business in meat
- business in intoxicants
- business in poison
So, wow. According to Buddhist texts the Buddha put bringing meat to a market on the same level as being an arms dealer, being a slave trader, being a pimp or being a drug dealer. Mighty fine company there.
You don’t have to be a scholar to see that there is no “business” of any kind without buyers and users. If all meat producers were strict Buddhists it would be impossible for people in Buddhist countries to buy meat. Buddhists who buy meat are enabling businesses to exist that Buddha would want no part of for anyone. If Buddhists did not buy and use meat, there would be no “business in meat”.
That point may not be a smoking gun to serious scholars of Buddhism, but it is a mighty hot gun.
Well, what about veganism? The word “vegan” was not invented until 1944. The Buddha died about 2,600 years ago.
Central to Buddhism is the goal of eliminating “dukha”. “Dukha” can mean any unsatisfactory mental state from feeling life is not all that it could be, all the way to feeling flat out miserable. It is commonly, inadequately, translated into English as “suffering”. Back in 500 B.C.E. in ancient India ( now Nepal ) a dairy cow could live a pretty decent life. In 2011, with factory farming, dairy cows and egg laying hens get killed just the same as animals killed for their meat. A dairy or egg animal that can no longer produce milk or eggs is nothing but a cost that can’t be recovered. So, these worn out animals are killed. Since dairy and egg animals are kept alive in the horrible conditions of the factory farm longer ( to get more dairy and eggs ), than animals killed for their meat, these animals also suffer more. Dukha. The one thing all Buddhist teachings are motivated by to reduce as much as possible.