Buddha Buddhist Dietary Customs
Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism and probably Jainism. While eventually driven out of India it still flourishes in surrounding countries and may be the fourth most populous religion in the world. Including an even wider range of ethnicities and languages than Hinduism, variation in dietary customs is to be expected.


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Buddhism was founded in about 500 BCE by a Nepalese prince named Siddhartha Gautama. He was a fully trained and certified warrior and scheduled to become king, but instead escaped from the palace by night and wandered about India as a mendicant trying various forms to achieve enlightenment. He finally succeeded while meditating under a Bodhi tree (Sacred Fig Tree Ficus religiosa), and from that time on was known as Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the dharma (the underlying order of life, nature and the cosmos). Upon his death at 80 his well briefed disciples continued the teaching and Buddhism became a major influence on the Indian subcontinent and beyond. It is, however, endlessly debated whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy.

The Hindu Brahmins were very much against Buddhism because it negated the caste system. They campaigned vigorously against it, even making changes in Hinduism (promoting the cow cult) and succeeded in driving it almost entirely out of India by the 12th century CE. Recently, though, it's started to seep back in.

Buddhism did survive and thrive in surrounding countries and is thought to now be the fourth most populous "religion". The major branches of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, as detailed below.

General Rules

  • No killing of any sentient being (similar to Jainism) nor using animal products (milk, eggs, leather, feathers, etc. - similar to vegan). Oddly, the cuisines of all the predominantly Buddhist populations feature meat.
  • Alcohol and other intoxicants are forbidden because they may result in violations of others of the "Five Moral Precepts": no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying or partaking of intoxicants. Also intoxicants cloud the mind and interfere with the concentration needed to achieve enlightenment.
  • Onions, Garlic, Scallions, Chives and Leeks, "the five pungent spices" are forbidden for some sects (China, Vietnam) for pretty much the same reason as in Hinduism, they're said to lead to anger (raw) and passion (cooked), but the Buddhists add that their odors repel gods and attract hungry ghosts and demons.

Meat Eating Among Buddhists

Give the rules stated above, it may seem strange that the world's Buddhist populations are predominantly meat eaters, and they honor neither the Hindu ban on cow nor the Muslim ban on pig. They do, however, prefer that the slaughtering be done by Chinese or Muslims, though Christians will do too if any are on hand. If a Buddhist must kill an animal there are certain last rites to be performed for the beast, depending on sect.

Strict adherence to vegetarianism is the rule for priests, monks, nuns and those who feel they are on the Bodhisattva path - except in some schools and sects. The Buddha himself is reported to have died from eating tainted pork. Some apologists say it was mushrooms but pork is well documented. This pork may have been provided in accordance with the exception rule (see below) or it may not.

It is said the Buddha sometimes ate meat that was prepared specifically for him in violation of the exception rule. This is said to be to demonstrate freedom from attachment - even attachment to the rules of Buddhism. Either that or he just kinda liked the stuff.

Theravada Buddhism

Asoka Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. It is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It is also practiced by some ethnic groups in Vietnam, parts of southwestern China. Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. While gaining popularity in Singapore, Australia and California, it is also the form that's sneaking back into India.

Monks and priests of Theravada are generally mendicants who depend for their sustenance on donations by the people. In some regions most young men are drafted to be monks for a particular period of service before re-entering the community as full adults.

In Burma the monks march out in the morning in their saffron robes carrying their begging bowls and the people crowd around to place their offerings in the bowls. In other areas this process may be much less formalized.

Clearly monks have little control over what is put in the bowl, and are expected to eat whatever food is placed there. Because the population is not vegetarian meat may be what is on hand and may be included and it is allowed to be eaten in accordance with standard rules.

The standard rule is: meat must not have been prepared specifically for you and you must not have seen or been in any way involved in the slaughter of the beast. If you are an unexpected guest in a household and you were unaware they happened to be serving roast pig, they may offer it to you and you may eat it. If you were an expected guest and they prepared roast pig for you you must decline it.    Photo of an Asoka pillar distributed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike v2.5.

Mahayana Buddhism

Bodhisattva Mahayana Buddhism began developing out of Theravada Buddhism in about 100 BCE. It was carried to China as early as 200 CE but did not become significant in India until around 500 CE. It is now the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Japanese Zen school was the most popular version in California but massive influx of both Theravada and Vietnamese Mahayana from Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War as well as support for Tibet has pushed Zen into the background.

Mahayana monasteries were well supported financially and acquired considerable land, so the monks were able to raise plenty of food for their own use. Mahayana monks and nuns are, therefore, expected to follow a strictly vegetarian diet in accordance with the Buddha's doctrine of no killing, along with subscripts that shunning all animal products facilitates enlightenment. Many vegetarian recipes developed by and for the monks are to be found in cookbooks from the countries within the Mahayana range.

On the other hand, the major Japanese Kamakura sects, Zen, Nichiren and Jodo, have loosened the rules and do not required vegetarianism. Chinese and most Korean Buddhist monks and nuns are strict vegetarians. This often includes non-violence to plants so root vegetables are off the menu in favor of beans and fruit. Some sects observe this additonal strictness only during special occasions.     Photo of Chinese bodhisattva image is public domain.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Prayer Wheel This tantric form developed from Mahayana and is now prevalent in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Arunachal Pradish (Indian state) and some areas of the Russian Far East, Siberia and Manchuria. In the U.S. it is generally known just as "Tibetan Buddhism" and is becoming more popular here along with support for Tibet.

In the region dominated by Vajrayana neither the people nor the monks and nuns have had the luxury of vegetarianism - year round agriculture is simply impossible. For this reason, and explaining that their tantric practice makes vegetarianism unnecessary, Tibetan Buddhists do not attempt to avoid meat.

Though many monks and lamas have fled Tibet and live in vegetarian parts of India or other countries where a vegetarian way is not difficult, they retain their meat eating ways. American and European converts from other Buddhist forms often give up their vegetarianism as well to be more in tune with their lama (1).


This list does not include all sources used to prepare this page but those listed are particularly informative.

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