The first lay precept in Buddhism is usually translated as “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.” Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is a divergence of views within Buddhism on the need for vegetarianism, with the majority of schools of Buddhism rejecting such a claimed need and with most Buddhists in fact eating meat. A minority of Mahayana Buddhists, however, strongly oppose meat-eating on certain scriptural grounds.
In the Pali version of the Tripitaka, there are number of occasions in which the Buddha ate meat as well as recommending certain types of meat as a cure for medical conditions. On one occasion, a general sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. The Buddha declared that
meat should not be eaten under three circumstances: when it is seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); these, Jivaka, are the three circumstances in which meat should not be eaten, Jivaka! I declare there are three circumstances in which meat can be eaten: when it is not seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); Jivaka, I say these are the three circumstances in which meat can be eaten.– Jivaka Sutta
The Buddha, on one particular occasion, specifically refused suggestions by a monk to institute vegetarianism in Sangha. According to Kassapa Buddha (a previous Buddha of legend not Shakyamuni Buddha) “aking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat.” (Amagandha Sutta). There were, however, rules prohibiting consumption of 10 types of meat. Those are humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas because these animals can be provoked by the smell of the flesh of their own kind.
Theravada commentaries explain the Buddha was making distinction between direct destruction of life and eating of already dead meat. Moreover, they point out that any act of consumption would involve proxy killing, including the farming of crops, so the idea that meat eating amounted to proxy killing while eating vegetables does not is ignorance. For this reason, they discourage gluttony or any other act of craving which lead to over consumption. However, some Therevadan monks suggest that it is possible to make some case for vegetarianism starting from brahmavihara. Interestingly, that is how Mahayana Buddhism makes the case for vegetarianism.
There is no mention of Buddha endorsing or repudiating vegetarianism in surviving portions of Sanskrit Tripitaka. Moreover, no major Mahayana sutras explicitly declare that meat eating violates the first precept. However, certain Mahayana sutras vigorously and unreservedly denounce the eating of meat, mainly on the ground that such an act violates the bodhisattva’s compassion. The sutras which inveigh against meat-eating include the Nirvana Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, the Brahmajala Sutra, the Angulimaliya Sutra, the Mahamegha Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra, as well as the Buddha’s comments on the negative karmic effects of meat consumption in the Karma Sutra. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which presents itself as the final elucidatory and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha on the very eve of his death, the Buddha states that “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness”, adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals found already dead) is prohibited by him. He specifically rejects the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it: “. . . it should be rejected . . . I say that even meat, fish, game, dried hooves and scraps of meat left over by others constitutes an infraction . . . I teach the harm arising from meat-eating.” The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will “hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma” and will concoct their own sutras and lyingly claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact he says he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha speaking out very forcefully against meat consumption and unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. In several other Mahayana scriptures, too (e.g., the Mahayana jatakas), the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.
Some suggest that the rise of monasteries in Mahayanan tradition to be a contributing factor in the emphasis on vegetarianism. In the monastery, food was prepared specifically for monks. In this context, large quantities of meat would have been specifically prepared (killed) for monks. Henceforth, when monks from the Indian geographical sphere of influence migrated to China from the year 65 CE on, they met followers who provided them with money instead of food. From those days onwards Chinese monastics, and others who came to inhabit northern countries, cultivated their own vegetable plots and bought food in the market. This remains the dominant practice in China, Vietnam and part of Korean Mahayanan temples.
In Tibetan Buddhism, a strong emphasis was placed on number of esoteric sutras which were transmitted from Northern India. In these sutras, it is clearly stated that the practice of Vijrayana would make vegetarianism unnecessary. In fact, a number of tantric texts frequently recommend alcohol and meat–though most do not take such passages literally. The Tibetan position is that it is not necessary to be vegetarian if one practices Vijryana, but that it is necessary to be vegetarian if one practices the Mahayana path. In fact, the Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can. When asked in recent years what he thinks of vegetarianism, the 14th Dalai Lama has said: “It is wonderful. We must absolutely promote vegetarianism.” (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Buddha Heart, Buddha Mind, 2000).
Japan initially received Chinese Buddhism through Korea in 6th century. And in 9th century, Emperor Saga made a decree prohibiting meat consumption except fish and birds. This remained the dietary habit of Japanese until the introduction of European dietary customs in 19th century. In the same period, two Japanese monks (Kukai and Saicho) introduced Vijryana Buddhism into Japan and this soon became the dominant Buddhism among the nobility. In particular, Kukai, who founded the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, declared that strict observation of viyana code to be unnecessary. During 12th century, number of monks from Tendai sects founded new sects (Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren) of Buddhism, further de-empasising the aspect of vegetarianism.
In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat; while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat. In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetables have been historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvāstivāda, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can.
Theravadins generally affirm that there there is no evidence at all in the Pali Canon that the Buddha forbade meat-consumption or advocated vegetarianism — rather the opposite. For Theravadins, eating meat is not seen as contrary to Dharma in any way. Likewise, many followers of Mahayana Buddhism (including monks) also eat meat despite the emphatic denunciation of the practice found in some major Mahayana sutras. Part of the reason is that there are many hundreds of Mahayana sutras and the position on vegetarianism depends on one’s position on the authority of any particular sutra. Japanese Zen, for example, relies on very few sutras. They consider the act of meditation to be paramount in pursuit of enlightenment. The Japanese Pure Land puts a heavy emphasis on the Pure Land sutras and aims to achieve enlightenment by reincarnating into the Pure Land where one’s enlightenment is assured. Therefore, vegetarianism holds very little relevance for them, either. The Vajrayana of Tibet and the Japanese Shingon sect consider that tantric practice makes vegetarianism unnecessary. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monastics. Overall, it can be said that the debate over whether Buddhists should ideally be vegetarian or not continues.