‘Vegetarianism’ is quite a debatable topic these days. Primarily, two categories of views could be identified with respect to this subject:
1. People who say it’s a noble practice.
2. People who say Vegetarianism is an act in vain.
In Buddhism there are several well known facts related to Vegetarianism which provide a basis for many debates:
1. Whether meat eating breaches the first precept or not.
2. The Buddha allowed meat eating for monks that is quite pure in three circumstances: if it is not seen, heard, suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk.
3. The Buddha rejected Ven. Devadatta’s proposal to forbid meat-eating for monks.
4. The Buddha has not directly recommended ‘Vegetarianism’.
The objective of this article is to analyse above aspects in brief.
Nobility of Vegetarianism
Vegetarianism is simply refraining from eating animal food especially meat. People need food and water for their survival. Since the beginning both humans and animals required food as a basic need.
Method of supplying themselves food has been evolving over the generations and both vegetables and animal fleshes had been the two main methods. Even now in some parts of the world, people are compelled to kill animals for food for their survival. Their main intention is to fulfill their hunger.
But today, in many parts of the world there are plenty of options available for food than killing animals. In layman’s economic theory, if people started abstaining from eating meat, then the demand for meat will decrease. Consequently the number of animals getting killed will decrease and at the end of the day Vegetarians contribute to save lives of many animals.
Theoretically, if the whole population stops eating meat then none of the animals will get killed at least for food in that community. Therefore, it is out of question and un-debatable that the vegetarianism is noble and not an act in vain.
The first precept
Buddhist text clearly identifies five main conditions to be satisfied in order to breach the first precept: (1) target is a living being, (2) the knowledge of target is living, (3) volitional thought of killing, (4) effort to kill, (5) death is caused as a result of killer’s action.
In one’s meal if meat or fish is available, it is just another food item among the others. Simple analysis would show that none of the above factors are satisfied when eating meat. Therefore, it should be clear beyond doubt that eating meat does not breach the first precept.
On the contrary if one took a decision to stop having meals with fish and meat then he or she may distantly supports to save a life of at least one animal.
On the other hand if the same person becomes greedy and wanted to have more and more meat then he or she indirectly contributes to kill at least one more animals. But this person does not breach the first precept at any of these circumstances.
The Law of Kamma
However, the indirect contribution to increase the demand for meat should have some affect and it could be explained using the law of Kamma. Any Volitional act causes Kamma.
Rooted by Immoral causes (Akusala Hethu) of Lobha (Attachment), Dwesha (Hatred or Aversion), Moha (Delusion or Ignorance) Akusala Kamma are caused and rooted by Moral causes (Kusala Hethu) of Alobha (Non-attachment), Adwesha (Goodwill), Amoha (Knowledge) Kusala Kamma are caused.
For each and every wholesome and unwholesome activity there will be corresponding Kamma collected. The nature of Kamma collected when eating meat depends on the thought process of oneself at that moment. If that person eats meat with greediness, then the root of Lobha is there and Akusala Kamma is caused. Depends on the degree of greediness the severity of Akusala Kamma would differ.
However, if that person eats any other vegetable food with same greediness, nature of Kamma collected would be the same. When eating meat, if that person thinks about the animal and the way animal is getting killed, the pain of animal and etc. then depending on Lobha, Dwesha and Moha arise there will be Akusala Kamma collected. But still it does not breach the first precept.
Assume that having eaten beef that person ordered his or her servant to kill the cow in the garden and bring him more meat for his dinner then the first precept may be breached as it may satisfy the earlier-mentioned factors.
It is as such how one’s action and thought process becomes evil or meritorious in different circumstances. If one engages in all other evil acts and only refrain from eating meat would not make him a noble person in the society nor does he or she gets good resultants.
The Buddha’s position on vegetarianism
It is due to above facts the Buddha did not directly recommend Vegetarianism for Monks and the Buddhists. But he always discouraged eating meat and included a precept to refrain from killing as well. Samma Ajiva (Right Livelihood) in Arya Ashtangika Margaya (Noble Eight Fold Path) is described as abstaining from selling poisons, intoxicants, weapons, slaves, and animals for slaughter.
Karaniya Meththa Suththa is about spreading loving-kindness to all the living beings.
In broader explanation the first precept is not just abstaining from killing but also leaving aside all harming equipments and being fearful and ashamed of killing.
Another important point is that when monks are having their meals they meditate considering food just as a factor for their survival and not for the taste or the shape or color of the body. They are disciplined not to consider the nature of food and their make and origin. Monks are to accept alms offered by anyone.
Even if meat is present in that meal it is an irrelevant factor unless it falls under earlier-mentioned three circumstances.
In conclusion, it is clear that eating meat does not breach the first precept but does involve collecting bad Kammas depending on one’s thought process when having meals (not just meat). But a pure Vegetarian who is protecting all Five Precepts, always refrain from evil acts and engage in meritorious deeds contributes to save a life of at least one living being and is a noble person while being an asset for the society.