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.

Adolf 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.”

According to the Buddha, it is possible to eat meat with a compassionate, pure, and gentle mind. Once, a wealthy donor named Jivaka came to the Buddha to check out a nasty rumor.

Venerable Sir, I have heard this: ‘The recluse Gotama knowingly eats meat prepared for him from animals killed for his sake…do those who speak thus say what has been said by the Blessed One, and not misrepresent him?’

The Buddha said he had been misrepresented—he did not eat meat from animals specifically killed for him. Then he described the monk who lives “pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness” and is invited to accept a meal. That monk eats the almsfood “without being tied to it, infatuated with it, and utterly committed to it, seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape from it. What do you think, Jivaka? Would that (monk)…choose for his own affliction, or for another’s affliction, or for the affliction of both?” Jivaka says no. The Buddha goes on to describe his own mind, in which cruelty of any kind was no longer a possibility. “Any delusion whereby cruelty or discontent or aversion might arise has been cut off.”

From this story, it seems that the Buddha must have eaten meat. He did so without cruelty toward animals, without anger and judgment toward those who offered the meat to him.

Late in the Buddha’s career, his troubled cousin Devadatta argued for the adoption of five new ascetic rules, including vegetarianism. Additionally, monks should wear only rags from garbage heaps, rather than donated robes; they should live only in forests, not in buildings or pleasant groves offered by wealthy supporters. Though the new rules all seemed blameless in themselves, perhaps even more pure than the existing ones, all of them would restrict relationships between Buddhists and laypeople. Commentators universally agree that Devadatta’s real motive was divisive; his suggestions came on the heels of several of his attempts to murder the Buddha. The Buddha’s response was that any monk who chose to eat only vegetarian food, or to take on the other ascetic practices, was free to do so; others still might choose to accept what was given to them.

Compassion and ethics can rarely be reduced to black and white absolutes. It seems that the Buddha’s thinking stressed a global perception of all relationships involved in any given meal. “[The Buddha] concentrated on defining the basic principles or premises according to which people should live,” remarks Japanese biographer Daisaku Ikeda, “and left it to his adherents to consider” exactly how these principles were to be carried out.

Find other perspectives on food and practice in our special section: Meat: To Eat It or Not