Anyone wanting to follow in the Buddha’s non-violent footsteps will sooner or later have to examine their beliefs about food and decide for themselves whether or not they align with the dhamma. This essay examines some of the claims that are frequently made by Buddhists who eat meat and Buddhists who don’t.
SHOULD BUDDHIST’S REFRAIN FROM EATING MEAT?
To abstain from immorality, to develop morality, to end all deluded clinging, is essentially the Buddha’s dhamma or teaching.
Anyone wanting to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps will sooner or later have to examine their beliefs about food and decide for themselves whether or not they align with the dhamma. Many practising Buddhists today are vegetarian or vegan; most of them adhere to the Mahayana Buddhist traditions and will invoke the Buddha’s teaching of compassion and respect for life as their justification for a meatless diet.  Theravada Buddhists, on the other hand, tend to rely mainly on the Pali Canon and Commentaries to justify a more flexible attitude to meat-eating. 
In this essay I’ll examine some of the claims I see being made by Buddhists who eat meat and Buddhists who don’t. However, whether or not Buddhists should or shouldn’t be eating meat is a thorny problem, and my own layperson’s view is it’s never appropriate for anyone to be giving out simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers or promoting any kind of lifestyle choice as the perfect spiritual ‘solution’.
The Buddha said meat is ok (the case for meat-eating)
Like it or not, the Pali Canon is probably our best source for understanding what the Buddha himself taught. , 
The canonical ‘Jivaka Sutta’ describes the Buddha teaching three instances when meat should not be eaten (i.e. when it is seen, heard, or suspected, that the animal has been slaughtered for oneself) and three instances when eating meat is permissible (i.e. when it is not seen, heard, or suspected, that the animal has been slaughtered for oneself). ,  The Buddha’s ruling on meat is clearly in line with his teaching of kamma (or karma) as intention. From the Buddha’s point of view, there’s no intention to cause harm when eating meat for nutritional purposes; there’s no unwholesome kamma and therefore no ethical problem.
The monastic rules on food that we find in the early Buddhist texts appear to have been instigated largely for the sake of political expediency and the reputation of the Sangha. I’m aware of no canonical evidence for the Buddha either recommending meat-eating or praising vegetarianism. In my opinion, if Buddhists want to promote the virtues of a meatless diet and persuade others to adopt their lifestyle they cannot point to the Buddha himself as an example. They are of course entitled to speculate that the Buddha would decide against meat-eating if he was alive nowadays, but that’s a weak argument and there’s nothing really to support it.
Given that the best available evidence shows the Buddha permitting his monks to eat meat one might be tempted to think the matter resolved. However, anyone who enjoys eating meat and has no intentions of giving it up should remember that the Pali Canon also quotes the Buddha advising us not to follow his or anyone else’s advice just because they are an authority figure, or because their words are written down in scripture –
“‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them… When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” 
We shouldn’t therefore simply take the Buddha’s word that meat-eating is okay under the conditions he specified. In order to decide for ourselves whether or not meat is an ethical choice we must carefully observe the results that follow (or are likely to follow) when the Buddha’s dietary advice is practiced, and we must also carefully observe the results that follow (or are likely to follow) when his dietary advice is rejected. The cessation of suffering doesn’t arise from following anyone’s rules blindly – not even when the rulemaker is the Buddha himself.
The Buddha preached non-violence and compassion (the case against meat-eating)
One of the best arguments against meat-eating that I’ve seen within Buddhism comes funnily enough from a Theravadin monk who understands the Pali Canon very well. Like many Buddhists, Bhikkhu Sujato struggles to reconcile meat-eating and the Buddha’s insistence upon non-violence. 
Clearly animals are killed to provide meat for consumption. Yet refraining from killing is the first of five training rules applicable to all who would follow the Buddha’s dhamma. For Buddhist’s like Bhikkhu Sujato, buying and eating meat nowadays is wrong because obviously there’s a lot more suffering being caused by industrialised meat-production methods, and obviously meat consumption is fueling the demand for more forests to be cleared and for more animals to be caged, drugged with antibiotics, and tortured prior to being slaughtered. As Bhikkhu Sujato himself puts it:
The simple fact is that eating meat cause [sic] massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves. 
So, if I understand Bhikkhu Sujato correctly, vegetarianism is one of the most compassionate choices we can make. It’s better for the environment and healthier for us.
I see similar claims being made by vegetarians all over the internet. But how true are they really? What assumptions are vegetarians making when they call upon others to adopt their lifestyle? We really need to take a closer look at the ethics, the science, and the practicalities involved in meeting global food demands before deciding upon a nutritional lifestyle and shouting it from the rooftops.
Is a vegetarian diet morally superior to a diet that includes meat? Not necessarily. Global food demand poses huge sustainability problems for food industries and for ecosystems. Death, habitat destruction, and worker exploitation, are an inherent feature of all food production – not just the meat industry. To my mind, there’s something not quite ‘Buddhist’ about focusing our compassion upon suffering cattle whilst turning a blind eye to the deliberate killing of crop ‘pests’ and other problems associated with large-scale arable farming and processed vegetable foods. It requires some serious clinging to accuse meat-eaters of behaving unethically whilst praising vegetarians and vegans who are also complicit in the clearing of forests for crop growing and the intentional slaughter of birds, rodents, and other ‘pests’ with traps, bullets, and poisons.
Now, I understand very well Bhikkhu Sujato’s response to an argument like mine. In his words –
The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. 
If we care to look closely enough we’ll be forced to admit that each and every one of us is unintentionally killing living beings (or causing others to kill living beings) as we go about our daily business, and I agree when Bhikkhu Sujato says it’s an existential problem that disappears only when we finally get off the samsara wheel. I also agree when he identifies the plight of farm animals as an ethical problem because we can do something about it right here and now – we can influence the supply of meat by buying and eating less of it, for example. However, true compassion is responsive to the sufferings of all beings, and for me it’s just not good enough to write off the deliberate killing on arable farms as mere collateral damage. The plight of crop ‘pests’ is an ethical problem as well because we could all just as easily choose to save many small lives and reduce environmental pollution by buying and eating fewer fruits and vegetables.
Is a vegetarian or vegan diet more sustainable than a diet that includes meat? Not necessarily. There’s no scientific consensus on the most sustainable use of agricultural land . Meat production is often criticised as inefficient because it uses grain and other resources that could be given to humans instead of cattle. Yet a kilo of meat contains far more stored energy than a kilo of plant material, and so vegetarians and vegans must consume more grams of food than meat-eaters in order to satisfy their daily nutritional requirements.  Whether or not arable farming is more sustainable, or less sustainable, than pastoral farming is of course an extremely difficult question for anyone to answer with certainty.  The less fertile upland areas, for example, are obviously more suited to grazing animals than crop growing, and my guess is a mix of both farming methods will be needed to satisfy the increasing food demands around the globe.
Is a vegetarian or vegan diet healthier than a diet that includes meat? Not necessarily. Just as eating meat is no guarantee of health, eating only vegetarian or vegan-approved foods is no guarantee of health either – you can eat only plants and still be malnourished.  Someone who eats just a little unadulterated meat with their fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, is likely to be better nourished than someone who eats a lot of veggie burgers, soya, mycoprotein, vitamin pills, and other processed junk foods that are dreamed up in laboratories rather than kitchens. However, when compared against factory farmed meat, some vegetarian foods may well be the healthier choice.
Enlightened compassion or delusional ‘speciesism’?
Prioritising the sufferings of livestock over and above the sufferings of ‘lesser’ creatures strikes me as delusional ‘speciesim’ rather than enlightened compassion. I see nothing wholesome or skilful in condemning the meat industry whilst ignoring for example the environmental costs of pesticide use (indiscriminate killing of ‘pests’ and their natural predators, pesticide resistance, pollination problems, water contamination, micro-organism losses, human and domestic animal poisoning… etc.) for the sake of higher crop yields and profits. , 
From an ecological point of view those crop-destroying rodents, birds, insects, bacteria, etc. are vital life forms.  Moreover, it seems we humans share a common ancestry with them. We have genes in common with them. ,  The entire diversity of life on Earth appears to be one mega-extended family, and yet we shed no tears over the fact that tiny lives are being destroyed and their habitats are being polluted or torn up in order to meet our increasing demands for food.
Co-dependent arising is an inconvenient truth for carnivores and vegetarians alike, but it seems we’d rather not think about that as we’re finger-pointing and pretending to be ‘stewards’ of the planet.
All is dukkha and there’s no living comfortably with it.
The issues around meat and vegetarianism don’t appear to have been of great importance to the Buddha – the canonical evidence suggests that his priority was to teach anyone who cared to listen how to escape the cycle of death and rebirth as quickly as possible. The Buddha saw the futility of samsara. He realised all is dukkha and there’s no living comfortably with it. His dhamma wasn’t taught so that we might ‘put the world to rights’ but to help us relinquish all views that keep us bound to samsara.
The Buddha advised that we acknowledge suffering, we understand the cause of suffering, and we end suffering through appropriate means. If we understand that clinging to a certain wrong view is a cause for mental stress it’s ok to let go that view and exchange it for a view we believe to be more realistic and less stressful. If we understand that a certain economic or political arrangement is inefficient and a cause for unnecessary suffering it’s ok to seek to change that arrangement for one we believe will be more efficient and less painful for everyone.
Working for personal change and/or political change is only a problem if we stop observing what’s actually happening, and we’re unwilling to take a different course as and when appropriate because we’re attached to a personal view or attached to a political ideology.
As Buddhists we shouldn’t need reminding that situations change and are never the same for everyone. For our own peace of mind we need to stop believing that the world would be a better place if only we could persuade everyone else to agree with our views and opinions on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Yes, we should of course be aiming to reduce environmental pressures and unnecessary animal cruelty. All modern mass-scale food production methods are costly, however, and there’s nothing anyone can point to that will justify an unwavering attitude towards meat-eating or vegetarianism. For some Buddhists, minimising harm and maximising benefits means going meat-free. For others it means eating less meat and avoiding food wastage. Sadly, many people around the world simply don’t have the luxury of choice.
The evidence of the Pali canon tells us that the historical Buddha allowed most kinds of meat to be eaten and he refused to impose vegetarianism. The priority he taught was to get off the samsara wheel as quickly as possible, and his rulings on food recognised that his followers needed to consume enough nutritious foods in order to remain strong and be useful.
Nowadays doing no harm as the Buddha advises requires much more enquiring into how the foods we’re buying are sourced, and awareness of the many sacrifices that are involved in getting those foods into the shops and onto our plates. That way we’re more likely to choose wisely when deciding what should be eaten and what should be boycotted. Doing no harm also requires that we refrain from over-eating or throwing away food that others could use more skilfully, for example.
The sufferings associated with meat production are obvious and hardly need pointing out. Calling for a blanket ban on meat-eating is inappropriate, however, when clearly vegetarianism is neither benign nor viable for everyone. My purpose in writing on this contentious issue of meat-eating within contemporary Buddhism is to neither promote meat nor to discourage vegetarianism, but to call for more ongoing enquiries and to warn against the complacency in assuming that one’s lifestyle ‘solution’ is most ethical.
 Piya Tan’s commentary on the ‘Amaganda Sutta’ provides an excellent summary of the classical Theravada and Mahayana stances on meat along with relevant scriptural references –
‘Amagandha Sutta: SN2.2’ translated and annotated by Piya Tan, The Dharmafarers, 2004.
 “The oldest extensive evidence for the Buddha’s ideas, I hold, is found in large parts of a huge collection of texts known in English as the Pali Canon.” – Richard Gombrich.
What The Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich , Equinox, 2009, p. 5.
 “Most of the EBTs [Early Buddhist Texts] are authentic… The EBTs were edited and arranged over a few centuries following the Buddha’s demise. The texts as we have them now are not a verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not of doctrine or substance… The inauthentic portions of these texts are generally identifiable [and] the above points are supported by a substantial and varied body of empirical evidence… The denial of authenticity is a product of excessive and unreasonable scepticism, not evidence.” – Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali.
‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’ by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali, Supplement to the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Volume 5, November 2013, pp. 10-11.
 ‘Jivaka Sutta’ (M 55) translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (3rd Ed), Wisdom Publications, 2005. (p. 474)
 ‘Jivaka Sutta’ (M 55) translated and annotated by Piya Tan, The Dharmafarers, 2008 & 2013.
 ‘Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas’ (AN 3.65) translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.
 ‘Why Buddhists Should be Vegetarian’ by Bhikkhu Sujato, Sujato’s Blog, 28 January 2012.
 “The desire for a sustainable agriculture is universal, yet agreement on how to progress towards it remains elusive.” – D. Rigby & D. Cáceres.
‘Organic farming and the sustainability of agricultural systems’ by D. Rigby & D. Cáceres. Agricultural Systems Volume 68, Issue 1, April 2001, Pages 21–40.
 “If you stop eating beef, you can’t replace a kilogram of it, which has 2,280 calories, with a kilogram of broccoli, at 340 calories. You have to replace it with 6.7 kilograms of broccoli.” – TamarHaspel.
‘Vegetarian and “healthy” diets may actually be worse for the environment’ by Peter Dockrill, Science Alert, 2015.
 “You can’t lump all vegetables together and say they’re good. You can’t lump all meat together and say it’s bad. My bottom line is that there are no simple answers to complex problems. Diet and the environmental impact of agriculture … is not a simple problem.” – Paul Fischbeck.
 “A vegan diet is actually more susceptible to being nutritionally poor… If you do decide to follow a vegan diet, apply all the same principles that you would to any healthy balanced diet: eat plenty of different fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, pulses, and limit sugary and fatty foods to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients that a vegan diet can lack.” – Mary Lynch.
‘Is A Vegan Diet Healthy’ by Mary Lynch. Jamie Oliver, 31 December 2014.
 “Pesticides make a significant contribution to maintaining world food production… Estimates are that losses to pests would increase 10% if no pesticides were used at all… Most benefits of pesticides are based only on direct crop returns. Such assessments do not include the indirect and economic costs associated with pesticides. – David Pimental et al.
‘Environmental and Economic Costs of Pesticide Use’ by David Pimentel, H. Acquay, M. Biltonen, P. Rice, M. Silva, J. Nelson, V. Lipner, S. Giordano, A. Horowitz and M. D’Amore, BioScience, vol. 42, no. 10, 1992.
 “In particular, there are four myths thrown around like they’re real… Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides… Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier… Myth #3: Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment… Myth #4: It’s all or none.” – Christie Wilcox.
‘Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture’ by Christie Wilcox, Scientific American, 18 July 2011.
 “Asking which group of organisms is the most important is a bit like asking which of four pillars holding up a house is most important. If you took any of them away the whole thing would fall over.” – Sandy Knapp.
‘Which Life Form Dominates Earth? Which organism has had the biggest impact on the planet?’ by Nic Flemming. BBC Earth, 10 February 2015.
 “There are all sorts of ways to reconstruct the history of life on Earth… biologists depend mainly on dating the rocks in which fossils are found, and by looking at the ‘molecular clocks’ in the DNA of living organisms.” – Michael Marshall.
‘Timeline: The evolution of life’ by Michael Marshall. New Scientist, 14 July 2009.
 “Over the past 30 years the underlying biochemical unity of all plants, animals and microbes has become increasingly apparent. All organisms share a similar genetic machinery and certain biochemical motifs related to metabolism. It is therefore very likely that there once existed a universal ancestor and, in this sense, all things alive are related to each other.” – Bernhard Haubold.
‘How closely related are humans to apes and other animals? How do scientists measure that? Are humans related to plants at all?’ by Bernhard Haubold, Scientific American, 2017.