Courtesy Kyoto National Museum. Jakuchu, c. 1780, Vegetable Parinirvana, ink on paper, hanging scroll.
Courtesy Kyoto National Museum. Jakuchu, c. 1780, Vegetable Parinirvana, ink on paper, hanging scroll.

dolf Hitler was a vegetarian; the Dalai Lama, the embodiment of compassion, eats meat by his doctors’ orders. Clearly, there’s more to mind than what is put into the mouth: yet, as long as food remains a fundamental part of life, these choices are a proper focus of spiritual awareness. Every bite of macaroni contains choices about culture, history, meaning—even the “Nutrition Facts” newly listed on every U.S. noodle box have resonances for us that spread as far as asceticism, sin, compassion, the place of science in our beliefs, and the importance of supporting one’s own well-being along with that of others.

So what should a Buddhist eat? This has been a topic of debate since there have been Buddhists to argue about it. Some Buddhists who eschew meat out of compassion for other beings might be surprised to know that Shakyamuni Buddha more than once rejected suggestions that his followers should adopt a vegetarian diet. The earliest monks and nuns lived on alms food; they could eat anything donors offered to them. “Living on alms as they did in the conditions of rural India at the time,” comments Pali translator Maurice Walshe, “they would either have gravely embarrassed those who offered them food, or starved if they refused all meat.”

In part, the conditions of rural India consisted, as they still do, of a class structure in which the elite Brahman caste was vegetarian and lower castes ate meat (or whatever they could get, presumably). The Buddha, however, denied the validity of these caste hierarchies. Inner purity was the genuine measure of a person, rather than an aristocratic birth or formal, external observances. The Buddha structured his monastic order so that people of all castes—priestly Brahmans, the warrior Kshatriyas, the merchant Vaishyas, and even outcast Shudras—were treated on an equal basis. Rejecting meat would have identified Buddhists with Brahmans in a way that contradicted these teachings.

The Buddha was quite specific, however, in his efforts to sensitize people to the suffering of animals being slaughtered. Compassion, the ability to identify with others’ suffering, is the basis of the first Buddhist precept against killing. According to the workings of karma, direct involvement in killing would lead to future distress.

The Buddha also forbade monks to accept meat that had been specifically killed for them. The Buddha made minor recommendations about the monks’ food habits—stipulating, for example, that specific menus could not be requested in advance, nor could monks dine at laypeople’s houses in bodies of more than three at a time. Among his reasons were “compassion for families, the restraint of wrongminded people, and the comfort of reasonable ones.”

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