by Thich Huyen-Vi
Bengal Buddhist
Association, India

      To live on a vegetarian diet is a part of Buddhist practice. The question of eating and drinking is vital to all human beings. In order to live man needs food, and as a prince, Shakyamuni Buddha expressed this in a meaningful sentence: "The life of one depends on another's death." We all like to live safely from the day we are born into this world, yet we kill many living beings, either intentionally or not, in order to stay alive.

      We eat, we drink, we breathe, we lie down, we stand, we walk, we perform many actions by which, without being aware of it, we affect many lives. In this way we cause trouble for many living beings around us. But ours are definitely not the actions of the cruel people who kill to make fortunes, or only for pleasure or for the sake of reputation. If our lives are not the cause of the suffering or death of other living creatures, then the lives we live are blameless. If we aspire to attain such a goal, it will help a great deal if we become vegetarians.

      The Northern Vehicle of Buddhism follows the Path of the Bodhisattva called the Bodhisattva-marga. These Mahayanists observe the Bodhisattva precepts, one of which is the prohibition against partaking of food that is prepared using the flesh of an animal. This prohibition is called Tapasa Shila-vrata, and is a practical rule for eradicating the evil of wrath. It is described in detail in the Maha-Simhanada Sutra, The Sutra of the Great Lion's Roar, and has received the special name of a Bodhisattva precept.  This Bodhisattva precept proscribes the eating of food prepared from the flesh of an animal, and was observed by Lord Buddha when he was called Shakya Bodhisattva, before he attained Enlightenment.

      Thus, following a vegetable diet as practiced by Buddhists is not for the sake of attracting attention or winning approbation. We simply eat vegetable food. This practice is one of the utmost importance. The more we Buddhists practice vegetarianism, the better are the results we get.

      What is vegetarianism? Vegetarianism is the abstention from flesh foods and is a practice, which results in the purification of the body. We have plenty of plants, fruits, and vegetables at our disposal, and we should live on them. We should never take fish or the flesh of animals, who also cling to life and fear death as we do.

      Why should one eat vegetable food? Out of compassion and because of equality. During the lifetime of Lord Buddha, the Venerable Ananda once asked, "Revered Bhante, why did you allow us formerly to partake of three kinds of "pure flesh"? This is when a monk has not seen the creature being killed or heard its cries while it was being killed and has nothing to suspect regarding specially arranged slaughter on his account. But now you do not like for your disciples to eat meat or fish?" Lord Buddha replied, "O Ananda, in the beginning your standard of knowledge was of a low level. You had no capacity to receive the high Doctrine. So, when I preached the primary tenets, I allowed all of you to partake of three kinds of "pure flesh." But now your knowledge is mature enough to understand the highest Doctrine.  Therefore, I do not like for you to eat meat and fish. To do so means to kill living beings; if we do not do so directly, we do so indirectly. Thus we lose the "seed of compassion and equality," and it is difficult to attain Arhatship in such a state (Maha Simhanada Sutra).

      Lord Buddha has clearly taught us to live on a vegetarian diet so as to nourish a compassionate heart and preserve the "spirit of equality," with regard to all creatures. When a Buddhist has decided to follow the Doctrine of the Compassionate One there is no reason why he should not practice compassion in his life and thought, deed and word, and also in connection with eating. If we want to eat flesh for the sake of taste, we should not be so heartless as to look at decapitated and dismembered animals. We shall be called hard-hearted if we watch animals that are struggling on the chopping block or the butcher's table. How then can we call ourselves Buddhists?

      If we do not feel regret over such killing, the "seed of compassion" in us will dry up gradually, and we shall become callous, and all pious actions like the chanting of Sutras, meditation, or intoning the name of the Buddha will become useless.

      Buddhism is a religion of kindness, humanity, and equality; Lord Buddha said, "All beings can become Buddhas, for all have the Buddha-nature and all will finally become enlightened." This is the Doctrine of developed Mahayana as opposed to the limited salvation of Hinayana and of undeveloped Mahayana. Thus, Buddhists do not look at men and animals differently. The same Buddha-nature, as a matter of fact, is present in different forms of existence.

We should also eat vegetable food in order to avoid the retribution of rebirth. Lord Buddha said, "All human beings have committed many offenses, such as killing, from beginningless time, and thus, they have caused suffering to others. Therefore they are severely punished in the wheel of birth and death, the round of mortality." In the Shurangama Sutra it is said, "The killing of others is bound to be repaid.  Our inclination towards killing never ceases. Thus we are never free from suffering." We want to avoid transmigration and the offenses resulting from killing. Buddhists should eat vegetable food. If we eat meat and fish, we shall never be able to get out of the ocean of mortality.

      Mahayanist monks consider their refusal to eat meat a means to make the charitable man aware of the need to acquire merit by not committing the sin of taking the life of an animal. There is a passage in the Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra which runs as follows: "Again, innumerable kalpas ago, there was a Buddha named Pure Lotus Eyes. He lived a long life of forty kalpas, and during his lifetime, there was an Arhat who worked strenuously to propagate and convert living beings to the Noble Teaching of the Buddha. A girl named Bright Eyes made offerings to the Arhat and he asked her what her wish was. The girl replied, 'I made some merit on the day of my mother's death in order to relieve her of her sufferings. I long to know in what state my mother is at present.' The Arhat took pity on her and started to meditate.  He came to know that the mother of the girl had been cast into the 'Hell of Great Sufferings.' The Arhat asked the girl what evil deeds her mother had committed during her lifetime due to which she had been east into this hell to receive such severe punishment. The girl replied, 'My mother used to be very fond of eating tortoises, especially their eggs, and fish. Because of this she took countless lives. Compassionate One, kindly tell me how to rescue my mother.' Out of great compassion, the Arhat told the girl to chant the name of the Buddha Pure Lotus Eyes, earnestly and respectfully. He also told her to carve images of that Buddha, so that both she and her mother could benefit from this."  The girl complied with these instructions and was told by the Buddha Pure Lotus Eyes that her mother would be reborn as a son of her servant. When this child was born Bright Eyes asked him, "Since you were my mother in your last life, you ought to know what sins you committed that caused you to be cast into hell." The child, who, as the Buddha had previously informed Bright Eyes, could speak as soon as he was born, replied, "I have committed two kinds of sins, both of destroying life and speaking evil of and slandering others." We can see from this the gravity of the offense of taking life. Eventually the girl Bright Eyes was able to rescue her mother through her meritorious acts. Bright Eyes is now the Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, and her mother is at present the Bodhisattva of Emancipation.

      There are also hygienic reasons for practicing vegetarianism. A long, long time ago the philosopher Seneca said, "With the eating of every non-vegetarian meal, one is poisoning oneself. It follows that one kills oneself out of ignorance, but one does not know it; thus one meets an untimely death." That holds true of today as well. The famous doctor of medicine, Dr. Soteyko-Varia Kiplami, said, "In all kinds of meat there is much poison which harms us." Evidence for this is that vegetables keep fresh for a long time, and then only wither or become rotten. Flesh, however, is usually kept for many days and then becomes parched, stinking, and so putrid that no one can bear its nauseating smell. When we eat meat, we feel heavy in body.  Furthermore, animals often get many kinds of diseases, such as tuberculosis, Typhoid fever, worms, and so forth. If we eat their flesh, we too might get such dangerous diseases and parasites from them.

      To avoid contracting disease and to enhance our health we should eat a lot of vegetables. Scientists and physicians from both East and West agree that vegetables, plain as they are, are full of vitamins. Therefore, in Japan there are many vegetarians whose motives are hygienic rather than religious.  In China there are vegetarian associations whose members abstain only from meat.

      There are many people who think that "to eat fish and meat means to become strong and healthy." As a matter of fact, non-vegetarians are not healthier than vegetarians. After many experiments, Professor Terwin Fisher of Yale University declared, "To eat meat or other food which contains much nitrogen will easily affect people with tiredness, just like a man who drinks too much wine and gets intoxicated." Mrs. White, a great scholar, said, "Fruits, soyas, arachis, green beans and vegetables are the 'natural food' which feeds us. The preparation of such 'natural food' is easy, and suitable for health. 'Natural food' makes our body vigorous, our spirit penetrating, and avoids many diseases."

We vegetarians, however, should avoid the following: We must not be proud. Those who are fortunate enough to get vegetable food easily should not be proud, deeming themselves better than others or looking down upon non-vegetarians. To do so is to create enmity and destroy the virtue of humility.  We should not eat the five forbidden pungent roots: onions, garlic, scallions, leeks, and chives. If eaten raw these cause irritability of temper, and if eaten cooked they act as an aphrodisiac. Moreover, the breath of him who has partaken of pungent roots will, while he is reading the Sutras, drive away the good spirits.

 The benefit of having vegetable food from the standpoint of the individual is very great. A vegetarian does not only obtain favorable results in the present, but in the future also. In the present one saves money, because vegetables are cheaper than meat and fish. One also saves time, because vegetables can be cut and washed quickly, and need little time to cook. Thus, one also economizes on cooking fuel.

      As our bodies become more healthy, pure, and lively, our wisdom increases and it is comparatively easy to sit in meditation as a result of partaking of vegetable food. In the future there will be much less killing and we shall not have to repay the debt of bloodshed, obtaining thus as a result a long life in our next existence.

      From the viewpoint of society and mankind as a whole, a vegetarian diet is beneficial in that if everyone in the world stopped eating meat there would be no moaning of animals being slaughtered nor would there be any danger of our destroying one another through internecine war. One great scholar has said, "If we wish to establish peace in the world, we must not consume the blood and flesh of all the animals for our meals. " The following stanzas convey the same meaning:

If all human beings become non-killers,

No war can take place in the ten directions.

If, in every home, every person does good deeds,

There will be no cause for worry, for people will obtain peace.

      With the weapon of great compassion, vegetarians "fight" for peace.  They regard all living beings the same as themselves. They identify themselves with all beings and do not wish to kill animals. On account of their loving kindness, they would not, for the sake of glory or money, be so heartless as to kill their fellow beings, which share the same Buddha-nature.

      If everyone in society ate vegetable food, enmity and fighting would be very rare and peace would be completely restored in the whole of the world.  If all citizens of a nation were vegetarians, the strong would surely not oppress the weak, and the intelligentsia would not encroach on the rights of simple folk. Killing one another would in due course of time completely cease, since all would be fully satisfied in their desires. If every person in the world were a vegetarian, all could share in making this world the "Land of Ultimate Bliss"!

      In conclusion we would say that Buddhists as well as members of other religions ought to have vegetable food. We have shown that from a religious as well as a scientific point of view there are countless benefits, which accrue to a pure vegetarian. Therefore, all who want to have healthy, energetic bodies and keen minds and lead a harmonious life should have vegetable food. Living on vegetables makes us happier in comparison to those who live on the "blood and flesh" of animals.

      Those who are Buddhists and try to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha should practice vegetarianism. Then they may more easily attain Arhatship on account of their enlarged compassion and understanding of the spirit of equality.

      It is said that speaking is easy, but practice is very difficult. None the less, men of good will and virtue will always try their best to lead a life of altruism by practicing vegetarianism as instructed by Lord Buddha.


SUTRA OF THE PAST VOWS OF EARTH STORE BODHISATTVA. Paperback & hardbound, 235 pp., Buddhist Text Translation Society, The Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions, New York, New York.

The foundation of this sutra's teaching rests on four principles:

      1. THE PRACTICE OF FILIAL PIETY: The first duty of human beings is to be filial to their parents. Father and mother are heaven and earth; father and mother are teachers and elders; father and mother are all Buddhas. If you had no parents you could have no body, and if you had no body, you could not become a Buddha. If you want to become a Buddha, you must start out by being filial to your parents. So it is said: "Heaven and earth deem filial piety essential; filial piety is foremost. With one filial son, an entire family is peaceful."

      2. THE CROSSING OVER OF LIVING BEINGS: This means taking them from this shore of birth and death to the other shore of nirvana, from affliction to Bodhi. The six paramitas are used to help take living beings across.

      3. THE RESCUING OF SUFFERERS: This sutra is able to pull living beings out of their suffering.

      4. THE REPAYING OF KINDNESS: This means to repay the kindness of your parents.