David's Book : Vegetarianism And The Middle Way
[By Dr.David N. Snyder]
To accurately find out what the intention of the Buddha was we need to look at the basic
teachings that all Buddhist clergy and Buddhist schools can agree on. If we ignore the Buddhist
scripture references that seem to allow meat eating and also ignore the references which
specifically forbid it, we can analyze what the Buddha really taught by focusing on his core
teachings. The core teachings of the Buddha, accepted by all Buddhist schools, are found in the
Eightfold Middle Path. Consider the following points:
1. Right Action of the Eightfold Middle Path refers to ―no killing or causing to kill.
2. The first precept is to not kill or cause to kill. The precepts are based on the Eightfold
Middle Path, moral constituents.
3. When a person buys meat at a grocery store, the meat is definitely going to be replaced by
the grocer. The butcher will request another killed animal from the slaughterhouse.
4. Right Understanding of the Eightfold Middle Path includes an understanding of the Four
Noble Truths, which are based on cause and effect.
5. Right Livelihood of the Eightfold Middle Path does not permit an occupation of killing
animals or handling animal flesh, such as a butcher.
When you consider the above points, all drawn from the core teachings of the Buddha in the
Eightfold Middle Path, it is very difficult to imagine that the Buddha would have condoned the
eating of meat.
One of the arguments for meat eating is that the meat could be eaten if you do not do the killing
or if the animal is not killed specifically for you. If it is okay to eat meat, but not do the killing,
then why would the Buddha forbid a job that simply handles the flesh, such as a butcher? What if
everyone were Buddhist? Who would do the dirty work of killing so that others could eat the
meat without doing the killing? There is an obvious hypocrisy in the thinking that it is okay to
eat meat if someone else does the killing.
Even if you accept the idea that it is okay to eat meat as long as you do not do the killing, that
still does not explain why the Buddha specifically forbade the handling of animal flesh, even if it
was killed by someone else. The Buddha also required the monks and nuns to carry a filter for
their water. He did not want the monks and nuns to even accidentally eat an insect. If the Buddha
was this concerned about the life of an insect, we can imagine the extent of the compassion
toward a cow or pig.
Even if you still believe that it is okay to eat meat if you are a monk or nun and it is offered to
you, then this still does grant the right to lay people who must make the decisions on which types
of food to purchase at the grocery stores. If you feel that lay people must be vegetarian and
monks and nuns must accept whatever is offered to them (as most Buddhists believe) then the
monastics become de facto vegetarians too, as they receive their foods from the vegetarian lay
The Buddha‘s teachings are centered around cause and effect, including the Four Noble Truths
with its answers to our everyday suffering and in his teachings on kamma and re-birth and
dependent origination. The Buddha was like some kind of super scientist who deeply understood
cause and effect in every facet of existence. To say that he would not understand the cause and
effect relationship between meat eating and the killing of animals is unimaginable.
The very first Buddhist writings of any kind are not the Pali Canon, but the edicts of Ashoka.
The Pali Canon was not written until the first century B.C. The edicts of Ashoka written on rock
and granite were completed in the third century B.C. King Ashoka lived only 179 years after
Buddha and helped spread Buddhism in those ancient times. As one of the first Buddhists after
the life of the Buddha, his edicts and example provide a good clue as to the intent of Buddha on
this subject. Ashoka was a vegetarian and declared that animals should not be killed for food to
another and gradually phased out the killing of animals for food. One of the most famous edicts
is in the state of Gujarat, India and reads:
―Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadas [Ashoka], hundreds of
thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this
Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not
always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.
(Dhammika, Edicts of Ashoka)
The edict above was originally written in the ancient Brahmi script. It represents one of the first
(perhaps the first) writings about the Buddha-Dhamma.
Vegetarianism and the Middle Way
Q. How does vegetarianism fit with the middle way? Isn’t vegetarianism an “extreme”
A. Middle way does not necessarily mean “a little of this and a little of that.” For example, we
know that abstaining from drugs and alcohol is a good precept to follow because if we abuse
drugs and alcohol, we can become addicts. We become prisoner to the next fix or dose. Under
the influence we can do all kinds of other bad things which we may not even be aware of. An
extreme or fanatical view of middle way would seem to suggest that Buddhists would be able to
take some drugs and alcohol, since it is a ―middle position between addiction and abstention.
But when you start the craving process, addiction can surely follow. How about a little bit of
poison? Who wants to ingest some poison that can kill almost instantly, such as rat poison? This
is why we need to let go of all views, including Buddhist ones. If we take an extreme view of
Buddhist middle way, we might think that ―a little of this and a little of that is okay, regardless
of the content.
If you feel that you can handle such things as alcohol in moderation and wish to do so you can
continue with that experiment and see if your judgment is not impaired, so long as no being is
harmed or killed. In regard to meat eating, even in moderation, we can not honestly say that no
living being will be killed (to replace the meat).
Middle way or moderation is for wholesome and nonviolent activities and not for obvious
actions which harms yourself or others. Perhaps a better way to describe the middle way is,
―everything in moderation, including moderation.
Vegetarianism can actually be a ―middle way position when you look at the Buddha‘s first
description and definition of the middle way. The Buddha first described the middle way as not
being the extreme of an ascetic where you deprive yourself and torture the body (such as some
yogis trying to reach enlightenment through self mortification) and the other extreme of self
Self mortification, as practiced by some yogis included long fasts. The Buddha broke the rule of
the ascetics when he ate and bathed. Vegetarianism does not require long fasts or even short
fasts. The one extreme is fasting and torturing your body and the other extreme is doing
whatever you want. Vegetarianism does not require malnutrition or sacrificing your body or your
Self indulgence refers to chasing after pleasures of the senses without regard for consequences. It
is an attachment to the senses. If we know that meat eating is not needed for survival and we
choose to eat it because we are attached to the taste, that is a form of self indulgence.
If you consider the different levels of vegetarianism, the minimum amount to be called a
vegetarian of ―Lacto-Ovo (no meat, but will eat animal products, such as eggs and dairy) does
not look so extreme. For example, there are vegetarians who do not eat eggs (lacto-vegetarians),
vegetarians who do not eat dairy products (ovo-vegetarians), vegetarians who do not eat any
animal products (vegans), and some vegetarians who only eat macrobiotic, organic, raw vegan
foods. And then there are those who take even that a step further, like the Jain food diet where,
foods are eaten only from plants where the source plant did not die. For example, in this diet you
only eat greens that are trimmed from the top of the plant so that the plant is not killed.
In India there are millions of Jains who only eat greens from plants that are trimmed. They check
their seats before sitting down to make sure they are not sitting on any insects. The Jains also put
a cover on their mouths, thinking that it will prevent the death to microorganisms in the air. The
Buddha said that it is the intention that matters so that if we accidentally sit or walk on an insect,
it is okay. To be a vegetarian Buddhist, one only needs to eat at the lacto-ovo level or higher.
Seen in this way, with all the levels of vegetarian diets, the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet does not
look so extreme.
------to be continued----------