In Buddhism several viewpoints can be distinguished, according to the particular school of Buddhism that is referred to: Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana.
Theravada (The Pali Canon)
Many of the text cited in debates about Theravāda Buddhism and vegetarianism derive from the monastic code (Vinaya) although there are also important sources from lectures given to laypeople. In general, (1) the teachings directed at laypeople concern non-violence (including the refusal to kill insects, rodents and snakes) whereas (2) the teachings directed at monks concern the propriety of accepting donations of food (while living as a mendicant). The diversity of these two categories of text in the ancient (Pali) canon results in considerable (and still ongoing) controversy about vegetarianism in the Theravāda world today, where a mix of traditions can be found (e.g., refusing to eat meat during the full moon is a common sign of piety in Southeast Asia, and the refusal to raise farm-raised animals (as opposed to wild animals) was common in Cambodia, but year-round vegetarian traditions were rare in the region).
Teachings for Laypeople
For general people (or laypeople - not monks) Buddha just said that if they want to be good people and take up his teachings, they should follow the five precepts. The first precept calls for abstention from taking the life of living beings. Selling meat is also on the list of forbidden professions for laypeople, along with selling alcohol and armaments/weapons. In general, this distinction is insisted upon throughout the Theravada Buddhist tradition in such countries as Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, where monks do not teach people to abstain from eating meat, but to abstain from killing living beings, with the excuse often being offered that the butcher (or shop-keeper) from whom the meat was purchased is non-Buddhist.
Although it is recognized that when one buys meat, there is a causal effect in that part of the money will often go to the people who kill for meat, this is not seen as affecting one's inherent morality. Buying is not killing, and the meat could very well come from an animal which died a natural death. Buying meat, one does not have the intention to kill a living being. The quality of one's intention is what determines one's karma, so if the intention is not to kill but to buy, one does not make the bad karma of killing a living being. One is not inflicting pain and suffering on a fellow living being, although it can be said one is acting in a way which, unintentionally, causes it.
At the time of the Buddha, the meat-industry as it exists today did not exist, and so the meat would not carry all the chemicals and hormones that it does nowadays. The adverse benefit to one's health would thus be significantly lower than with the meat that is available today in the regular supermarket.
Teachings for monks
For monks the situation is different, as monks are forbidden to use money, and are also forbidden to prepare their own food. They are dependent on laypeople for gifts of food for their daily meals, which can only be eaten in the morning-time.
The one significant rule regarding the eating of meat for buddhist monks is directly linked to killing living beings. If a monks has seen, heard or suspects that the meat he is offered comes form an animal which is especially killed for the purpose of feeding monks, he is not allowed to receive that meat, and he should tell the donors why he cannot accept that meat. Otherwise, he is free to receive and eat meat for sustaining and feeding the body, and for dispelling the feelings of hunger. A practical example is that if a family does not follow the advice of Buddha not to kill, and kills a chicken to provide food for themselves, a monk is free to accept (part of) this meat since it has not been prepared with the specific purpose of feeding a monk.
When Buddha was advanced in age there was a monk called Devadatta, who wanted to become the leader of the monks, and who is famous for trying to kill the Buddha several times in order that the position he coveted would become available. Before he tried to kill the Buddha, he tried to gain control of the order of monks in another way, by striving to introduce 5 rules of which he knew the Buddha would never approve of. After receiving the refusal of Buddha to introduce those rules, he tried to establish for himself a position of strictness by proclaiming that he (Devadatta) did follow those rules. One of the rules he tried to introduce is the rule forbidding the eating of meat by monks. Consequently it is very clear in Theravada Buddhism that this rule is not part of the instructions of Buddha. However, there are many monks who take up the practice of vegetarianism voluntarily, in which case it is allowed. Buddha didn't want to make his monks 'have to' abstain from eating meat, and it is easy to imagine situations where a prohibition to eating meat would make the life of a mendicant monk too difficult.
A monk in Theravada Buddhism will not encounter the situation of having to kill in order to prepare his own food, and so the whole issue of killing an animal oneself for preparing one's own meals is not relevant for these Buddhist monks.
To recap: in principle, according to the teachings of Buddha contained in the Pali Canon, it is always bad karma to kill, whatever reason one uses to justify the killing. Eating, however, is not killing and is allowed.
- Eisel Mazard, 2012, Vegetarianism and Theravada Orthodoxy, blog-article at à bas le ciel, http://a-bas-le-ciel.blogspot.com/2012/06/vegetarianism-and-theravada-orthodoxy.html
The Mahayana tradition in China went through various phases and developments, and sometimes had to struggle developments of adversive religious groups, aiming to take away political and societal support from (Mahayana) Buddhism. Also, they sometimes were lax in their standards of Vinaya (monastic discipline).
Because of these two circumstances, the Mahayana buddhist monks started growing their own food, which is actually forbidden by Buddha. When these monks started making their own food (and not going on almsround any more), the framework for providing food for the body for living changed for these monks: they had to actively choose what dishes to make and eat, which does not occur for those living on almsfood. Since the monks could not kill, they just made vegetarian dishes. In this way they broke one precept, but still kept the other. This was later made into a monastic rule for all Mahayana buddhists (both monks and laypeople).
(1) Mahayana Buddhists have traditionally followed the Buddha's vegetarian preference.
(2) The first of Buddhism's Five Precepts, which a Buddhist should follow, is: 'I undertake the precept to abstain from taking life'
(3). A disciple of the Buddha 'should avoid the livelihood of butchering, trading in flesh and in living beings' (this is referred to as wrong livelyhood - 'miccha ajivo').
(4) The 'Buddha taught that all sentient beings...seek to obtain pleaure and avoid pain. It therefore includes all animals, including insects'.
(5) Chinese Buddhists, especially the monks and nuns, regard meat eating as repellent to the Buddha'.
(1) It is not known if Buddha himself ate meat. Some believe that the last meal he ate was probably a dish of pig meat, while the majority of scholars believe it was a plant food favored by pigs called "Pig's Delight". (Parinibbana Sutta - Pali Canon)
(2) Buddha forbade the adoption of a rule forbidding the consumption of meat by monks. (Vinaya Pitaka - Pali Canon)
(3) Many currently practicing Buddhists eat meat. For example most Tibetan (Vajrayana) monks and most South-east Asian (Theravada) monks.
(4) Killing a living being is not the same as eating meat. 'Simply eating' meat however, is really the same as killing it, because it would not be killed if nobody ate it. This is the hypocrisy of some Buddhist teachers.
(5) Chinese Buddhists monks became vegetarian because the monks started to prepare and grow their own food, and thus stopped practicing mendicancy. Not being mendicants any more, the context of the original rules on meat-eating for monks was not valid for these Mahayana monks. The adoption of vegetarianism by Mahayana Buddhist monks was thus not a wholly ideological affair, but had a basis in a fundamental change in daily living-conditions for monks.
(6) Although Mahayana and Vajrayana buddhists are in principle vegatarian, they have a permission to circumvent this rule if circumstances make vegetarianism difficult. Most Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhists eat meat 'because the altitude of the Tibetan mountains make the growing of crops for human consumption difficult or impossible. Tibetans who move to more fertile lands, such as America, may (or may not) become vegetarian.
- Tsuji, 'An Outline of Buddhism', p29
- Mahinda, 'The Blue Print of Happiness', p10
- Roger Corless, 'The Concern for Animals in Buddhism, in Shore 'Can a Buddhist Ethic Condone Animal Cruety?', p11.
- Ibid, p12