It is not as central and important in Buddhism as many may think, especially for other religious groups that there is no need at all to judge others and say that they are a “Bad Buddhist” just because they eat meat or even kill animals for food as a hunter.
The Dalai Lama even did his best to be a vegetarian though he comes from Tibet originally where for many generations the people have eaten large quantities of meat, as is natural for a people used to living in a very cold climate with little agriculture. So he used to be a big meat eater like most Tibetan Buddhists. But later on, he became a vegetarian.
He accepted meat of course though at one point in time tried to be a vegetarian but as he got ill and thereby was advised by his doctor that it was because he wasn’t eating meat so he had no other options but to eat meat to be healthy.
According to the Buddha’s principle, a Buddhist monk or nun have to accept a gift of food if it is offered to them, whether it has meat in it or not. The monks can refuse it if they know that the creature was killed especially for them or will be killed for them. It doesn’t matter even if the monks are offered shrimps or many whole creatures in the meal. It’s not to do with the number of creatures if the monks eat a whole one or a part of one or many but whether it was killed for them. It is because the main thing is to encourage the generosity of others.
As a Buddhist, I am not on a campaign to try and save all living beings from death. Animals, birds, insects, fish etc., are all going to die anyway. And we can’t do anything about that. So, when I take the vow of not killing, it is not particularly to try to stop other people and creatures from killing. I am not taking a vow to stop a dog from killing a chicken or to stop spiders eating flies.
The focal intention indeed is to bring under control myself from killing other people, if that is something I might be inclined ever to do. So when Buddhists take the vow of not killing; I also do my best to avoid killing animals and even insects. Nevertheless, for example, a Buddhist can be a gardener. When digging the soil he or she will kill many small creatures certainly but can’t be helped. However, it is not killing on purpose and that’s not one’s aim when gardening.
When you walk around and breathe just to stay alive, then according to modern understanding there are many tiny creatures that go through their life cycles and that technically, we are killing all the time. But again there is no intention in any of this, so it doesn’t even go against the vows.
There are plenty of examples of societies and cultures where killing animals is normal and done in a good way. The American Indians are mostly hunters and they have a respectful way of dealing with the animals they hunt. But a Buddhist cannot just look at them and say that they are wrong just because they kill animals. They just have a different way of working with the world. It is very much a personal thing also.
In Buddhism, the vow of not killing is one of the five lay vows, which are not obligatory. You have to take these vows as a Buddhist monk or nun, but only some lay Buddhists take these vows. Thus, it is not as central to Buddhism quite as people generally think. The idea behind this is (karuna) compassion and (metta) loving-kindness for all sentient beings, even animals and insects.
The Buddha taught that some of the monks and nuns and their vows are major and others are minor therefore and you don’t need to follow all the minor rules because there is a trifle here that we actually do not know which are the major and which are the minor rules?
But most Mahayana monks and nuns, especially treat these as minor rules and accept the realities that in the modern world you have to do things such as handle money and buy food for yourself. So it is fine for them to carry money and buy meat and that is not going against their main vows such as not killing. So, paradoxically there is no harm at all when Buddhists buy meat from shops for themselves to eat. But what about the vow taken?
It is about mindfulness for one’s own conduct and not about trying to save all beings from death in the ordinary sense which is impracticable. Nor one is attempting to prevent other humans from killing animals either. We are just working on our own conduct. Therefore, when we live in a society where meat is available as a result of other people who kill animals and then sell the meat for food then it is absolutely fine to eat that meat. It is not as central and important in Buddhism as many may think, especially for other religious groups that there is no need at all to judge others and say that they are a “Bad Buddhist” just because they eat meat or even kill animals for food as a hunter.
However, some Buddhists do become vegetarian. Many Therevadhan Buddhists especially most probably because they come from warm countries where vegetables are found in bulk.
And of course, as others have pointed out that becoming a vegetarian doesn’t mean that no lives were killed in order to create your food. Even if you only eat carrots, nuts and rice, you should not forget that many living beings were killed in the processes of agriculture used to grow these vegetables for you. So from a Buddhist point of view, there isn’t really an enormous difference between buying carrots from local shops and buying a turkey. In both cases, many beings died so that you could get your food.
There is nothing we can do about that. But we can develop compassion and love as best we can for all beings. And starting with the practical situation we are in, realizing what we can and can’t do is part of that compassion. It is then realistic compassion rather than wishful “pink puffy clouds, rainbows, and bunny rabbits” type compassion. And if you want to take a vow of non-killing as part of your practice, that’s a personal decision.
Many Buddhists are vegetarian but at the same time, many of them are also not as well. So even if you are a vegetarian Buddhist, there may well be situations you encounter where the most compassionate thing you can do is to accept meat when offered to you.
And as for alcohol, the main problem is not the alcohol itself or its effects but whether it causes you to break your other vows or harm others. So this is something you can learn as an individual. And for many a small amount of alcohol where what counts as small depends on the individual may be no harm at all but in fact very useful.
You can take a Buddhist vow to not take any intoxicants. If you do that you will probably restrain from taking alcohol at all in your ordinary life. But still, there may be situations where you take a bit where it becomes a part of what is expected. Perhaps at a wedding ceremony and it all depends on the tradition. When you take the vow, you might find that they advise you it is not wrong to take alcohol in small amounts because the main problem is not the alcohol but what other things might happen as a result of taking it.
And some Buddhists have learned to deal with alcohol and even take large quantities without it leading to harmful action. This is the path of the “crazy yogin” where a Buddhist practitioner may drink a lot of alcohol and the idea is that it helps them relate to a kind of uninhibited wisdom we all have but this type of situations may be difficult to access because we are so caught up in our ordinary cozy comfortable conceptual divisions of the world that particular path though one is for very few people to follow and only done with many precautions and much preparation, e.g. long retreats and such like.
For obvious reasons, it is easy to fool yourself and to think you are connecting with this uninhibited wisdom when instead all that has happened is that your critical judgement has become impaired so that you don’t realize how much harm you are doing. Therefore, to deal with it is important that you have a good teacher in the tradition who is able to recognize when this happens so as to help you keep on track.
The writer is a Columnist of The Morning Bell