Veganism Isn’t a Buddhist Teaching (Yet)

I’ve written here before about my struggles being a vegan in a non-vegan sangha. It’s been so painful of a process that I’ve taken several months off of sanga activities, including weekly group meditation. Recently I’ve had a breakthough on the subject that I wanted to share.

What I realized, and it seems so simple to me as I’m writing this, is that veganism isn’t actually a Buddhist teaching. At least not directly.

For me, veganism and spiritual practice are inexorably linked. I came to veganism because for the five precepts. I took it to heart the they should apply to all sentient beings, animals and humans alike. For me, the link is clear and obvious: skillful application of the precepts necessitates being vegan. And I think in a sense, I’ve really been holding it against my fellow practitioners for not having this same view.

Here’s the thing, though: Veganism as a concept is in its infancy. It’s less than a hundred years old. Buddhism is over two thousand years old. Talking about veganism in the context of human life as it was 2500 years ago doesn’t make a lot of sense. It particularly doesn’t make a lot of sense as differentiated from vegetarianism, for which there is conflicting directives about within the Buddhist cannon (in so much as there isn’t an overwhelming agreement that there is evidence that vegetarianism was mandated by the Buddha).

Today, however, 56 billion (land) animals a year are breed and killed for use as food. This number doesn’t include the scores of marine life we also kill for food, and animals we kill for clothing, lab experiments, etc. The animal products we consume as food are not required to thrive, but consumed for pleasure and convenience. Unfortunately for us, this pleasure and convenience is also killing us (read Eat to Live and the China Study if you are unclear about this).

It is important to distinguish strict vegetarianism (vegan) from non-strict vegetarianism now (as opposed to during the Buddha’s time) because the way we treat animals today is nothing like how animals were treated when the Buddha was alive. Under our system of industrialized animal agriculture, meat, cheese, eggs and other animal products are indistinguishable from one another in terms of the amount of suffering they inflict. I firmly believe that if the Buddha were around today, he would teach veganism. Some Buddhist teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, already have switched to being vegan and are encouraging their students to do likewise.

However, Buddhism can’t be separated from the cultures in which it is practiced. In reality, a great number of Buddhists are vegetarians, but many are not and even fewer are vegan. And this has been the case for a very long time. Some Buddhist traditions, like Chan, are more vegetarian-leaning than others. Practitioners in my lineage (Zen) are particularly known for being omnivores.

My point is that I can’t really expect anything more from my Sangha, including my teachers, than what is clear and present in Buddhist teachings and traditions. And, unfortunately, veganism isn’t one of those things. What I now understand is that a practitioner can be wise, compassionate, and mindful and be an omnivore as well.

Am I still saddened that I don’t know a lot of Buddhist teachers who are vegan? Yes, I am. Do I wish more Buddhist practitioners would include all sentient beings in their skillful application of the precepts and thereby practice veganism? Yes, I do. Do I think that people, Buddhist and otherwise could be even more compassionate by practicing veganism? Yes. But I no longer expect this simply because someone is Buddhist. And I feel less anger and resentment towards Buddhists who are not vegan.

But I have also recognized that because veganism is at the foundation of my spiritual life, I need a spiritual guide who is herself vegan. So, I will continue my search for one. In the meantime, I feel better at the idea of practicing again with my mostly non-vegan sangha. Though, I think I will still avoid shared meals (particularly ones of celebration).

I do think that Western Buddhism, as young a veganism itself, has a tremendous opportunity to bring greater compassion to the world through veganism. I look forward to spreading vegan education to my sangha members (far and near, Buddhist and otherwise).

11 comments

  1. Kram Namloc

    When I first went vegetarian (1987), a big influence on me was a Tibetan Buddhist who said that to achieve certain levels of enlightenment, one must be vegetarian for a minimum of ten years. I’ve since become vegan/raw vegan and do believe that it imparts a definite clarity on the mind and the body.

    I agree with you totally and I applaud you for allowing things to be as they are, yet moving forward with your desire to continue with a vegan teacher.

    I find it somewhat surprising that some Buddhists actually smoke, in addition to eating meat. I’m do not mean that as a judgment, just an observation.

    We are all on the spiritual path and we all help one another, simply by being who we really are. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings on this important issue.
    Namaste.

  2. Daitetsu

    This is very inspiring and insightful. Thanks for the clarity and transparency of your process. Although I am not a strict vegan I try to maintain honesty and consciousness about what I eat. Your integrity on this issue has been very meaningful. I look forward to sitting with you again.

  3. Amy Farrell

    Reading this made me really happy. I knew this was bothering you, but didn’t realize it had been keeping you from sangha activities. I’m glad you’ve found an insight that resolves this painful conflict, and lessens the space between you and others.

    I wish you luck in finding a spiritual guide who is vegan.

  4. Fred

    The answer to your dilemma is really very simple, those who aren’t at least vegetarian are not really Buddhists no matter what title they may hold nor where they originally came from. What sort of person would cause unneccessary suffering? Certainly not anyone who considers themselves Buddhist (note I wrote UNNECCESSAY there). The first precept applies to all, monks and lay-persons alike. So, in the oft quoted passages who is depositing the meat in the monk’s alms bowl? Can’t be some devout lay-person who upholds the first precept can it? Must be some charitable neighbor who isn’t Buddhist I guess. And should not the monk be advising the donor he is breaking the precepts?

    To me this cvontroversy is also fueled by some teachers so eager for Western converts they are willing to overlook the most glaring inconsistencies in their interpretations of the doctrine so as not to offend. Peace fRED

  5. 明輝子 (Akiko)

    A large amount of Japanese Buddhist temples very much promote vegan life styles. And it’s very much a part of their belief system.

  6. Noah-D.M.Sanchez

    Happy vegan Losar 2012. Being vegan is a true blessing. Having a Lama that practices veganism is a quest I have been doing also. I hope not to offend the Lama. My woman and I are both vegan and do electronic cigarettes. We have much compassion for animals and don’t advocate slaughter. Supreme Master Ching Hai founder of the Loving Hut is a vegan also. I wish her much success on her quest to save our planet. I commend you for addressing the vegan Sangha issue. I to am careful at celebrations that the food be vegan. I am happy that my Sangha would only want wellbeing for all being and likes me being vegan. Much success. Vegan tashi delek.

  7. Edward I.

    Hi, Christie. I realize that I’m late to this conversation and I’m just a stranger passing by, but I thought you might want to know that veganism is part of the highest ideal in Ch’an Buddhism, as taught explicitly in the Shurangama Sutra and indirectly in other texts. In addition to forbidding meat-eating, the Shurangama Sutra discourages the consumption of “milk, cream, or butter” and the wearing of “silk, leather boots, furs, or down.” It also teaches: “Both physically and mentally one must avoid the bodies and the by-products of living beings, by neither wearing them nor eating them.” (The Brahmajala Bodhisattva Sila Sutra in addition to prohibiting meat eating, directly and indirectly supports certain aspects of veganism and the non-exploitation of sentient beings as well.) Avoiding products derived from other animals, according to the late Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, is a way to “thoroughly uphold” the precept against killing and the way of those who “hold precepts with a maximum of purity.” Moreover, within the Ch’an tradition, the doctrine of ping deng (“equality”) encourages us to see that all sentient beings have “equal status” and should be treated equally.

    I wish you the best in your search for the right teacher, if you haven’t found her already. May your practice benefit all beings.

  8. Prakriti

    Thanks for your comment.. beautifully said. I too feel strongly about the clear linkage today between the core values of veganism and buddhism, and am somewhat surprised that I did not make the connection sooner. Being vegan has become the central component of my lived spirituality, for it places compassion at the core of my every interaction.. “for the benefit of all sentient beings”. I have since struggled to accept that my fellow practitioners are no more inclined to embrace a vegan lifestyle than my non-buddhist friends. The best approach, I agree, is to extend compassion to all those who are not yet in a place (right conditions, inspiration, information) to make the connection, and to resolve to work towards creating those conditions with them (to the extent possible and practical) while accepting their present efforts to practice wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness. However, people can and do change their minds all the time, and I think buddism offers a powerful platform for opening hearts and minds to veganism, and vice versa. Good luck on your journey!

  9. Fred

    Hello Christie,
    I have done a great deal of research on Buddhism and the vegetarian/vegan issue even though I’m not that into texts that much. There in fact is a passage in the Mahayana Ch’an (Zen) Surangama Sutra that speaks in favor of ethical veganism (Chapter X) very strongly. Ethical veganism at that- clothing, etc. Historically there were quite a few Mahayana teachers who promoted vegetarianism at least. Please, I hope you haven’t gotten discouraged by your associates. I’m leaving my email address if anyone would like references to teachers/texts: ormondroyd2002@yahoo.com. Fred

  10. fred

    Actually there are plenty of Theravadin vegetarians and there are many vegetarians in the Mahayana school as well. The Shan people in northern Burma are Theravadin vegans for example. Also the Mahayana Shuragama sutra extoles ethical veganism (no animal products at all). We just don’t hear much about any of these for reasons that are unclear to me. Is there any doubt what is the most compassionate course? Persevere! Fred