Should Buddhists be vegan?

Should Buddhists be vegan? September 27, 2017


I love food.

What we eat is deeply personal, like our religion. It nourishes us not only physically but emotionally and spiritually. It brings us together with our friends and families and helps us to celebrate. Most of us use food, at least occasionally, to soothe ourselves when we are sad or to suppress unwanted feelings.

Food is close to our hearts. And so I want to begin this blog by saying that it’s not my intention to force anyone to change their diets. What we eat is our choice, and it should remain so.

All the food we eat contains suffering. One of the blessings we regularly use before we eat goes:

This food is the gift of the universe; the earth, the sky, all sentient beings. In this food is much joy, much suffering, much hard work. We accept this food to follow a path of practice, and to help all beings everywhere.

What suffering does it contain? Men and women have toiled in sometimes difficult circumstances to plant the seeds, harvest the vegetables, package them, transport them and sell them. Some of the earth’s dwindling resources have been spent in transporting the food. Worms were cut in two by farm machinery, just like at the ploughing festival centuries ago when the young Buddha saw them die and sat down under a Rose Apple tree to contemplate on suffering. Bees have been bred and released by the van-load to pollinate vast tracts of crops.

When I became vegan, I was very tempted to step up onto a superior moral platform and look down at those tucking into bloody steaks. I often did, in fact. Look at the suffering they were causing! Did they have no idea what they were eating? And then I remembered that I also ate meat when I was a child, and that I ate eggs and dairy until five years ago. Food is very close to our hearts. I was afraid of looking at the facts, because I didn’t feel able to make any changes. I lived in everso-slightly-uncomfortable denial, clasping my cheese toasted sandwiches, luxury ice-cream and milk chocolate to my breast.

It is impossible for us to eat food without causing suffering, but we can minimise it. I am vegan because when I ate eggs I was complicit in the killing of male chicks, and when I drank milk I was complicit in calves being taken away from their mothers. Yes, I continue to make unskillful choices that lead to more suffering, when I buy food wrapped in plastic, when I eat palm oil, or when I give money to companies engaged in unethical behaviour. But I spend less money on these foods that contains more suffering, and I don’t put it into my mouth.

It is impossible for us to never cause suffering. It is possible for us to reduce the suffering we cause, bit by bit – gently and kindly. We can have a meat-free day twice a week. We can try one new vegan recipe every Thursday. We can swap our milk for a non-dairy alternative. We can choose a vegetarian meal from the menu. We can start experimenting with luxury vegan ice-cream!

I would urge all Buddhists to move in the direction of a plant-based diet (and all non-Buddhists, for that matter). It makes sense in terms of animal suffering, environmental impact and health. Enjoy super-delicious food, a happier body, and a cleaner conscience. Reduce little bits of suffering, here and there – they do add up. Start here or here. What do you think?


Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash with gratitude

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  • As a vegan, I’m always happy to share my experience with others but I don’t think I’d go as far as to say that having a faith or no faith means you’ve to stop eating meat. It has to be a personal choice. In fact, I’m not against people eating meat but I am firmly against the industrial farming and obliteration of the sense of connection that we once had with the land and sea. Blessings Julian

  • Roselle Angwin

    I agree with you, Satya. Anything else is not congruent with Buddhist vows and living with compassion. However I do find it hard to suggest to others that they should stop eating animals in any form.

    I personally feel we need to stop urgently, for many reasons, including environmental degradation – as well, obviously, to minimise suffering.

    Trouble is, as you will know, if people aren’t already on that path, the simple fact of our writing about it and talking about it can come across as sanctimonious. And yet if people know the full picture I believe far more would go vegan.

    I do give myself a hard time about all this.

    Good blog post; thank you. Wondering about asking for it for 57billion?

  • Mat Osmond

    Thanks for this Satya. I’ve tended to just stay silent when my Vegan friends advocate theirs as the most – or more often, the only – ethically coherent dietary position. I’m lapsing here, because these days it begins to feel more open, and perhaps generous, to break cover. I also eschew many forms in cruelty in my diet; I also am co-opted into far more suffering than I manage to avoid, and am not always as robust, by any means, as I would like to be, in tackling that. I don’t eat factory farmed meat at all, likewise dairy, and keep my consumption of food that comes from the killing of (wherever I can manage it) local grass-fed, outdoor-reared animals, or non-farmed fish, to a low level. My many perceived failures in this wish to avoid causing suffering include, for instance: varieties of fruit, vegetables or bread, all almond milk, chocolate, anything at all with palm oil in it (chocolates!), that are implicit in the mass extinction – in the ‘ecocide’ that rolls out across the globe with every hiss of a supermarket door. Far more implicit, with many of these foods, than with (e.g.) a piece of beef bought from my local farmers’ market. To steer away from leaving damage behind us where we pass, to steer towards fostering conditions that lead to the thriving of life, rather than to its wholesale extermination: these are noble, gut-instinct aims that we all yearn towards with our partial, half-understood versions of ‘the world’. Personally, whilst genuinely respecting its motivation, I understand veganism as a reactive position: an understandable ‘NO’ reaction to the insane and toxic way of life that is our industrialised agriculture; NO to the the appalling utilitarianism and barbaric cruelties of late-stage capitalism (blah blah!). It’s also true that indigenous communities have lived, still live, on meat-based diets, and have done so over millions of years, without ever destroying the very fabric of life that held them in the way that our own everyday civilised lives can barely help doing, so enmeshed are we in this consumerist machine. It is not, from where I’m standing, meat-eating that’s the problem here, and I even dare to believe that it’s possible to accept meat into my diet in a way that affirms life – and v versa: to eschew it in a way that denies life. Whether this makes me a ‘non-Buddhist’ is also, of course, a matter for debate. I’m not sure! I do understand that the Buddha resisted attempts to make his community of followers adopt strict vegetarianism as a rule, but others may correct me there, or give that factoid some context. Wishing you well as ever, Mat

  • Yes, there’s always a danger of sanctimonious. But I think it’s a shame if we never speak up at all because of a fear of being judged. For me it’s a question of how we can skilfully broach the topic, with some people and not others, and be open to a discussion which respects all of us as a mix of ethical and unethical behaviour… It’s VERY tricky! Thanks for your thoughts. What’s the 57 billion?

  • Thanks Mat. Yes, as I point towards in the blog these things are ALL big issues that very few of us (including myself) are fully facing. I wouldn’t say that I’m coming from a reactive position, but many vegans tend towards that – personally, I felt this too and at least some of it was guilt that I hadn’t stopped eating animal products earlier. But we all have different levels of compassionate/passionate response to different issues – animals has always been a big one for me – I will hold up the flag for animals, you can hold it up for the environment and other issues, and together we will all hopefully step by step become kinder….

  • Thanks Julian _/_

  • Roselle Angwin

    Yes, I agree. 57billion (didn’t want to post the link in case my comment was removed) is my vegan website to which you contributed when I first created it. This piece is sufficiently different I think?

  • Ah yes of course. Yes do feel free! Love from Malvern _/_

  • Roselle Angwin

    Thank you! Is there copyright on the pic? And any chance you might send me a Word doc of piece? Love back, so to speak. _/|_ (zen druidry)

  • I took the pic (it’s my little office shrine) so will send both now _/_

  • Mat Osmond

    Great answer Satya, and yes indeed :-). Hmm – ‘reactive’ was an impertinent word I guess, and not meant as a label for your good-hearted letters. I have vegan friends who just won’t go there at all, re other perspectives.I guess I was trying to speak to why I’ve not yet taken the same step, when there are so many reasons compelling reasons to eschew animal agriculture altogether. Another thread we’ve spoken of elsewhere is living well in community, including that of the family, and making allowances for that. Enjoying your blog, thanks. _/_

  • Yes, vegans haven’t done themselves much favours 😉 There is much we could do that we don’t, and much we’d like to do that just isn’t possible. Thank you. Namo Amida Bu, _/_

  • Brianna LaPoint

    One doesnt have to be vegan to be Buddhist. Life takes life, and if it works for you great, but some of us have to have protien.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I dont think it wise to tell other people how to live. but if you choose to be that way that is your choice to make.

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    I’m going to be honest: my sister is (periodically) a vegan, so my family has (periodically) been a vegan when she has been around. During these periods, our health has suffered. For example, my mother’s hair has started falling out (several times) when we have been eating vegan diets. So, in addition to the the increased labor of trying to find recipes that are vegan and make sure all the ingredients are vegan, we actually have had physical problems as a result. And not long term physical problems that showed up after many years, short term problems that showed up relatively quickly.

    I’m not down with this. Yes, I’ve had vegans tell me that there are ways to avoid this, but good heavens, if a vegan diet is one that I have to be careful on to avoid having physical problems, that makes me incredibly nervous.

  • John

    Often stress can cause health problems, that we can then confound with other factors. I know of no biologically plausible mechanism which would cause those symptoms associated with a short term vegan diet, nor have I seen any peer reviewed evidence of such an effect as that described. Indeed if one looks at the evidence vegans tend to have lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a number of cancers

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    Other than when my mother was undergoing chemotherapy, her hair only fell out as I described. Both before and since we have all experienced much more stressful situations and not had such effects. My sister has stayed with us when she was vegetarian and we all went vegetarian but this didn’t happen, she’s stayed with us and we didn’t conform to her diet and this didn’t happen.

    If you don’t believe it, that’s fine. But when I was engaging the vegan community about this, it was something lots of people had experienced and they had all kinds of suggestions on how to deal with it. I tried none of them, partially because I was (and am) very irritated that this was an issue that was both being denied yet also experienced enough that vegans were figuring out what to do about it.