Contrary to common perception, Buddhists are not absolute vegetarians. To set the facts straight, some Buddhists are practicing vegetarians while others are not. The stand on vegetarianism differs from sect to sect and from one Buddhist to another. When you are wondering if there is a necessity to observe vegetarianism when one wants to become a Buddhist, you will most likely get a conditional answer.
Records will show that historical Buddha was not a vegetarian. Based on some of his earliest teachings, he did not make any categorical prohibition of meat consumption to his disciples. The truth is that if meat is served to a Buddhist monk, he is supposed to partake it. The disciples of Buddha are supposed to receive and eat the graces served them, and these include meat.
Not All Buddhists are Vegetarians
The First Precept of Buddhism commands its disciples not to commit any killing. However, meat consumption has never been explicitly considered as a consequence of killing. In fact, there is no mention in the scriptures prohibiting meat eating. This is what can be gleaned from the Pali scriptures and it is clear that Buddha did not make any prohibition on meat consumption and this applies even to monks.
In fact, there was even a clear opposition by Buddha to the suggestion from Devadatta to abstain from meat eating. In the modern societies of Theravada, a bhikkhu who practices vegetarianism with the sole intention of obtaining positive impression of their ascendant spiritual superiority are deemed infringing on several monastic rules.
However, Buddha has clearly manifested his opposition to the consumption of the flesh of an animal that is deemed butchered mainly for the monks’ benefit. This particular rule specifically applies to monastics, although it can also be applied and followed by those who are considered devout Buddhists.
Buddhism and Vegetarianism
There are 2 schools of thought about vegetarianism in Buddhism – those who subscribe to it and those who do not.
Vegetarianism was considered a part of the early traditions of Buddhism. In fact, scholars and devout followers of Buddhism agree that Buddha was not a vegetarian. Buddha subsisted on the alms that he received or graces served to him after getting invited to the homes of his believers. In both instances, he consumed whatever is given or served to him. Prior to his enlightenment, Buddha actually experimented with different diets and these included dishes that are meat-free. However, Buddha eventually gave up the idea of meatless diet primarily because of his belief that it does not have any positive effect on his spiritual development.
This is what is being emphasized by Nipata Sutta, when it declared that impurity is caused by immorality and not by meat consumption. The Buddha was in fact mentioned in several instances to be consuming meat broth in order to treat various illnesses. In some cases, however, he even went to the point of advising monks to refrain from consuming meat for practical reasons. This could only mean that other types of diets are also acceptable.