Whether or not the reader does or does not "believe" in the Buddhist teachings should not matter to the spirit of my argument. The Buddhist teachings and tradition provide important "food for thought" to all of us; thought that can at least be adopted metaphorically for today's more secular and science-centered world. (This by no means is meant as a discredit to Buddhist thought and faith, but merely a prelude to the following argument and a request that the reader proceed with an open mind and an open heart).
I will begin by summarizing the importance of The Buddha's instructions for the "Five Contemplations While Eating", since this is an exercise that forces the Buddhist to stop and think about the food they are eating. It is the first step in questioning what food is, why we eat it, where it comes from, and when and how we should eat it. One must:
"think about where the food came from and the amount of work necessary to grow the food, transport it, prepare and cook it and bring it to the table." (1)
While one contemplates these, s/he must determine which food is appropriate for consumption, and which is forbidden. Furthermore, it is important to know why certain foods and drink fall into either the forbidden or appropriate categories. To do this, we must first look at the "Five Moral Precepts", one of the most important aspects of Buddhism.
Failure to follow any of the "Five Moral Precepts" causes harm to others, further clouds one's true seeing nature, and greatly decreases one's chances of being born a human again (a vantage point along the path to enlightenment); these are the basis for their forbidance. The "Five Moral Precepts" are NO killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or partaking of intoxicants. The last one is forbidden because it tends to hinder one's judgment and make one more susceptible to committing one of the first 4 precepts. This is why alcoholic beverages are forbidden. Having a drink may not have direct karmic effects on another being, but if drink increases the chances of one committing the other precepts, then it is dangerous, and therefore discouraged. And to the individual (an oxymoron in Buddhism), intoxicants will distort and cloud one's samadhi (proper concentration, necessary for meditation) and path to enlightenment.
So what is wrong with the other 4 moral precepts? Stealing and lying are not directly related to my topic of diet, but are forbidden because they cause bad karma. Causing bad karma harms other sentient beings, and sooner or later will come back to haunt the original liar or stealer.
How is sexual misconduct related to diet? In the Shurangama Sutra (Mahayana school), The Buddha explains how the "Five Pungent Spices", including garlic and onions, are forbidden:
Beings who seek samadhi should refrain from eating [the] five pungent plants of this world. If these five are eaten cooked, they increase one's sexual desire; if they are eaten raw, they increase one's anger. (2)
I discuss killing, the first and most important moral precept, last because it is the precept that is the heart of the focus of the Buddhist diet, indeed the most important aspect of it.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition's Ten Commandments - "Thou shall not kill" is generally taken with multiple exceptions. For example, it is all right to kill in battle for protection, or to eat or sacrifice animals (in the Old Testament, God required animal sacrifices). By contrast, no kind of killing of animals or people is ever allowed in Buddhism - these are the indisputable guidelines. However, there are various levels of "severity" that these tenets hold in various times, places, and sects. For instance, in the early Indian Vinaya (Monastic Code), since the monks were homeless wanderers, it was common practice to beg for food (this tradition is still practiced similarly in Theravada (or Hinayana) countries in SouthEast Asia). The monks "were expected to eat everything that was put in their begging bowl without discrimination, including meat or rotten food". (4) The Vinaya was so strict that monks had to watch out for any tiny organisms in their drinks or where they walked. Since the monks' food was obtained by begging, they were to have no knowledge of the food's source beforehand. If they received meat,
the monk had to be convinced that the meat was not specifically prepared for him. The criteria were that the monk had not seen, not heard, or did not have a suspicion that the meat had been prepared specifically for the monks. (4)
In the early centuries of the common era, Mahayana school Buddhism made its way into China (and eventually other Mahayana countries, Korea and Japan). Here, monasteries developed with land for monks to cultivate their own food, more or less guaranteeing its vegetarian nature that is not always possible through begging. This made it possible for the monks to follow a more strict vegetarian diet, and even develop a cuisine style (jai in China, shojin ryori in Japan). It is a Mahayana goal to help all other beings achieve enlightenment. So it is due to the newer Mahayana traditions that the stricter vegetarian diets came, and eventually made its way into the culture of modern Buddhist lay persons. From the Fan-wang-jing text:
A son of the Buddha shall not eat the flesh of any sentient beings. If he eats their flesh, he shall cut off great compassion, as well as the seed of Buddhahood within him. (4)
Vegetarianism, "a natural and logical ramification of the moral precept against the taking of life" (5) is a diet that includes no animal meat. In modern terms, we might use the word "vegan" to describe the strict Mahayana diet. The term "vegan" refers to one that does not eat any animals, but also any animal products or derivatives, including milk, cheese, honey; or using animal furs, leathers, skins, etc. The Buddha recommended that pure Bodhisattvas follow this ideal:
[they] who do not wear silk, leather boots, furs, or down ...and who do not consume milk, cream, or butter, can truly transcend this world. Both physically and mentally one must avoid the bodies and the by-products of beings, by neither wearing them or eating them. I say that such people have true liberation. (6)
Killing or eating meat breaks several rules at one time. One who does harms other sentient beings and restricts their path/chance to gain enlightenment/nirvana. One also hurts one's self since all beings are a part of one whole. One also spreads the bad killing karma, which will later cause one suffering, or propagate more killing. One also enforces the suffering caused by the cycle of death and rebirth.
All sentient beings desire to live. All animals try to escape when being killed for food;
Like a fish which is thrown on dry land, taken from his home in the waters, the mind strives and struggles to get free from the power of Death. (8)
Eating meat causes two kinds of suffering: the immediate suffering for the animal that is being slaughtered, and the suffering caused by the cycle of death and rebirth. When a sentient being dies, it is forced to begin again the painful process of rebirth. The only way to stop this cycle is to reach full enlightenment. Since it is possible for animals to become enlightened, killing them deprives them of that chance.
The Western notion of the individual self (or shall we say "selfish individual") is distinctly "un"-Buddhist:
He who lives only for pleasures, and whose soul is not in harmony, who considers not the food he eats, is idle, and has not the power of virtue - such a man is moved by MARA (evil one), is moved by selfish temptations, even as a weak tree is shaken by the wind. (10)
We affect and are affected by one collective karma. Karma works sort of like a bank account. Beings that have caused bad karma are reborn as lesser beings (animals, demons); those who follow the moral precepts and spread good karma will be reborn as higher beings (gods, humans). When lesser beings pay off their "debts", they can be reborn as humans. Since human beings are in the best position for enlightenment, this is the most desired level.
As the Buddha explained,
if in the process of repayment the lives of other beings were taken or their flesh eaten, then it will start a cycle of mutual devouring and slaughtering that will send the debtors and creditors up and down endlessly. (11)
When a person dies, their soul can split up into several animals - a flock of sheep, a hive of bees, a hill of ants, etc. When one takes the life of one of these animals, they are actually taking part of the life of the human that once was. The Shurangama Sutra tells how a person who eats a sheep may become a sheep in the next life, and how the sheep might become a person. In a repetitive cycle, "they eat each other" (Shurangama Sutra, 80). There is no hierarchy of sentient beings; although each are at different levels, they are equally important. So, killing an animal is really an act of murder; eating the animal is cannibalism. Following this line of belief, we can see why many Buddhists practice liberating animals, or saving animals that are destined to be slaughtered. The Buddha recommended this practice:
Whenever a Bodhisattva sees a person preparing to kill an animal, he should devise a skillful method to rescue and protect it, freeing it from its suffering and difficulties. (12)
I have briefly summarized the reasons behind the Buddhist diet, founded on the moral precepts. I urge the reader to consider these ideas; as Dharmachari Saaramati adds,
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike - have only begun to fully appreciate what this tradition can add to current efforts to transform our attitudes towards the world in which we live. (13)
Food, and the guidelines involving it, play significant roles in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha talks about how in a past life he had to "eat the grain meant for horses" (6) to pay a karma debt. One unusual passage in the Shurangama Sutra tells how the Buddha created "pure meat...a transformation brought into being by my spiritual powers. It basically has no life-force". (6) It is believed that the Buddha himself actually died from food poisoning.