Should Buddhist Temples Serve Meat?


(An earlier version of this article was published in the October 2012 issue of Animal People News)

Several years ago, I learned of a letter-writing campaign protesting against a chicken teriyaki dinner hosted by a west coast Buddhist temple. As a vegetarian and Buddhist myself, I was appalled at the notion of a Buddhist establishment condoning and actively supporting the slaughter of chickens. Even more appalling was learning that this event was by no means an anomaly. Dozens of Buddhist temples have recently hosted chicken teriyaki dinners – especially on the west coast, but all over the U.S. and Canada.

Such dinners are not only complicit in producing enormous suffering for living beings, but also defy the spirit of ahimsa and the bodhisattva ideal, profaning and disgracing the teachings of the Buddha.

Ahimsa, or harmlessness, is an ancient virtue shared by all the Dharmic religions. In Buddhism, it forms the basis of the religion’s First Precept, “to refrain from killing living beings,” and is therefore a cornerstone of Buddhist morality. Among Buddhist teachers, there has never been any doubt that “living beings” includes not just humans, but animals as well (in addition to various unseen supernatural beings).

Within the Mahayana, one of the two major schools of Buddhism, numerous scriptures are explicit in their assertion that eating meat is a violation of the First Precept. For instance, in Chapter 7 of the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha states, “One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion.” The Angulimaliya Sutra teaches that, “There are no beings who have not been one’s mother, who have not been one’s sister through generations of wandering in beginningless and endless samsara [the cycle of rebirth]…Therefore, one’s own flesh and the flesh of another are a single flesh, so Buddhas do not eat meat.”

It is true that scriptures of the Theravada school, the other major sect, portray the Buddha eating meat and permitting his disciples to do so as well. However, this is only on the condition that it is not “seen or heard or suspected” that an animal was purposely slaughtered for their food.

Ogyen Trinely Dorje, the 17th Karmapa Lama, encourages his followers to be vegetarian (Photo credit: Vasudev Bhandarkar, used under CC BY-2.0 / cropped from original)

Ogyen Trinely Dorje, the 17th Karmapa Lama, encourages his followers to be vegetarian (Photo credit:
Vasudev Bhandarkar, used under
CC BY-2.0 / cropped from original)

It is important to recall that early Buddhist monks lived on donations, and as such made no financial contribution towards the production of meat. This justification obviously does not apply to the purchase of meat in an economy based on supply and demand, in which every purchase of chicken finances the future slaughter of more chickens. In the latter case, one is thus directly responsible for the taking of life; far from merely suspected, it is known (if not seen or heard) that an animal was purposely slaughtered for one’s food. That economic participation in animal slaughter is karmically equivalent to slaughtering animals oneself is indicated in the Vanijja Sutta, which lists the meat trade as one of five wrong livelihoods for a lay follower.

Ogyen Trinely Dorje, the 17th Karmapa Lama and one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most influential leaders, acknowledges the merit of both the Mahayana and Theravada positions. However, he encourages his own followers to keep a fully vegetarian diet at all times, so that craving for meat never clouds their judgment or compassion:

“Because we have such strong attachment and aptitude or tendency to eat meat, therefore, for the beginner bodhisattvas it is very good not to eat meat. … And when we talk about bodhisattvas here, we are not talking about the great bodhisattvas like Chenrezig or Chana Dorje… but just ordinary bodhisattvas like ourselves who can be called bodhisattvas who wish to work for the benefit of sentient beings. According to the Bodhisattvayana, it is said that, even if [meat]is pure from the three ways as allowed in [Theravada], even those kinds of meat, the bodhisattvas or beginner bodhisattvas should not eat. Because of our having too much attachment to the taste, therefore, unknowingly we will kind of commit mistakes, thus it is not good to eat meat. … We have to see every being as our own son or our own child, and therefore when we eat meat, it is like, just for our food we are giving up the sentient beings who are supposed to be dear to us, like our own child.” (from the Karmapa’s Talk on Vegetarianism)

Regardless of whether one follows the scriptures of the Theravada or the Mahayana, it is clear that even if the Buddha did permit meat-eating, the circumstances in which he did so do not apply to the case of a temple purchasing and serving chicken to followers.

Pig boiled alive in scalding tank (Photo credit: Elige Veganismo, Occupy for Animals)

Pig boiled alive in scalding tank (Photo credit: Elige Veganismo,
Occupy for Animals)

Furthermore, beyond the issue of eating meat in the abstract, one also must consider the horrendous conditions that chickens (and other animals) suffer in modern factory farms and slaughterhouses. Buddhist scripture describes a multitude of hells in which beings with highly negative karma are reborn. Damned souls are imprisoned in darkness, tortured mercilessly, butchered and boiled alive… practices identical to those of the modern meat industry.

The Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who postpones nirvana for him/herself out of compassion for others – calls on Buddhists to intervene to prevent or reduce suffering wherever it is encountered. Famous bodhisattvas such as Kuan Yin and Dizang (Avalokitesvara and Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit) are said to have descended into the hells to save beings trapped there. Dizang in particular is said to have vowed that he would never accept nirvana for himself until all the hells had been emptied. If judged by their conditions, factory farms and slaughterhouses are clearly hellish, but rather than easing the suffering of their occupants, serving chicken teriyaki dinners perpetuates the existence of these hells on Earth.

If the chickens have been sourced from so-called “free range” producers rather than factory farms, their suffering is less, but a lesser hell is still a hell. Free range animals may not be locked into cages, but most still endure lifetimes of misery in overcrowded enclosures with little if any outdoor access, and die in the same horrific slaughterhouses as their factory-farmed brethren. Serving these tormented beings for dinner is not merely ignoring the bodhisattva ideal – it is actively defying it.

It may not be feasible to demand that every Buddhist temple require lay members to be vegan or vegetarian, or even actively promote vegetarianism. Even in most Mahayana scriptures (let alone Theravada), the Buddha requires vegetarianism only of monastics. Nonetheless, there is an enormous difference between allowing lay members to eat meat and actively encouraging them to do so. The former can perhaps be excused as a concession to human weakness. The latter, however, is a clear violation of Buddhist morality and the bodhisattva ideal, and goes against all that Buddhism has ever stood for.

Buddhist temples should be able to replace chicken teriyaki dinners, and other events that serve meat, with dinners based on the many widely and easily available vegetarian foods (including meat analogs), which would be equally fun for members and attractive to non-members, as well as compassionate toward all forms of life and truly representative of the Buddhist message.

Hen roosting at White Chicken Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Shangri-La, China where locals release animals spared from slaughter (Photo credit: Kim Bartlett - Animal People, Inc.)

Hen roosting at White Chicken Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Shangri-La, China where locals release animals spared from slaughter (Photo credit:
Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.)

(Featured image: Pig and piglets eating offerings at White Chicken Temple – photo credit:
Wolf Clifton – Animal People, Inc.)

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About Author

Born and raised within the animal rights movement, Wolf Gordon Clifton has always felt strongly connected to other creatures and concerned for their well-being. Beginning in childhood he contributed drawings of animals for publication in Animal People News, and traveled with his parents to attend conferences and visit animal projects all over the world. During high school he began writing for the newspaper and contributing in various additional ways around the Animal People office. His first solo trip overseas, to film a promotional video for the Bali Street Dog Foundation in Indonesia, led him to create the animated film Yudisthira's Dog, retelling the story of an ancient Hindu king famed for his loyalty to a street dog. It also inspired lifelong interests in animation and world religion, which he went on to study for college at Vanderbilt University. Wolf graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and minors in Film Studies and Astronomy. In 2015, he received a Master of Arts in Museology and Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology from the University of Washington. His thesis project, the online exhibit Beyond Human: Animals, Aliens, and Artificial Intelligence, brings together animal rights, astrobiology, and AI research to explore the ethics of humans' relationships with other sentient beings, and can be viewed on the Animal People Forum. His diverse training and life experiences enable him to research and write about a wide variety of animal-related issues, in a global context and across the humanities, arts, and sciences. In his spare time, he does paleontological work for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and writes for the community blog Neon Observatory. Click to see author's profile.

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