By Allan Hunt Badiner The debate about vegetarianism in Buddhism is as old as Buddhism itself. It is told in the Vinaya that Devadatta, in his struggle to steal control of the Sangha, tried to turn the pious against the Buddha for his refusal to legislate on the question. It is useful to consider that not even the precept to abstain from killing is a Buddhist commandment or "law." The Buddha held that the key to our salvation is within us. We are ultimately accountable to the karmic consequences of our actions, not to some religious authority.
Today's demand for animal products wastes resources, degrades the global ecosystem, and disrupts indigenous cultures. It also has devastating effects on human health. Students of the Dharma who are aware of the realities of a meat-centered diet are likely to be inclined against choosing animal foods. However, there is a subtle yet important distinction between the Buddhist and vegetarian perspectives.
Being a formal "vegetarian" can polarize people, setting vegetarians apart from non-vegetarians. The Buddha taught that identifying oneself with a dogma of any kind is unwholesome. The Buddha and his followers ate like vegetarians and most people knew it. But occasionally, when offered nonvegetarian food (from an animal that was not, to their knowledge, killed just for them), the monks were warned against declining it, at the risk of offending donors, and thus turning their hosts away from the Dharma. The vegetarian who judges another person by virtue of what he or she eats may be more deluded than the naive but well-intentioned omnivore. Concurrently, the carnivore can be deluded by the failure to look deeply into the ethical, ecological, and cardiovascular consequences of eating meat.
The Dharma suggests the same ethical constraints on eating practices that vegetarians adopt for themselves. But there also is a measure of flexibility. I can imagine the Buddha giving advice on this matter, smiling and commending the questioner's vegetarian diet as wholesome, but cautioning them to remember that what comes out of a person's mouth is a more significant factor in their enlightenment.
When a Buddhist shuns meat, it is not out of identification with being vegetarian, but because it is the only appropriate behavior given their compassion for all living beings of the Earth. When one looks before taking action, one comes to a clear choice of what not to buy at the market.
Thay, when asked about this issue during a tea ceremony at Plum Village, smiled and would say only that "in the Mahayana tradition, vegetarian food is enjoyed." So while there may be no Buddhist imperative to become vegetarian, Buddhist practice and the cultivation of awareness lead one to eat like one.
Allan Hunt Badiner, editor of Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays and Buddhism in Ecology, lives in Big Sur, California.