1. The Buddha's Three-Fold Rule
  2. Other Religious Views on Meat Eating
  3. The Rationale for the Buddha's Rule
  4. The Arguments for Vegetarianism
  5. Conclusion

Buddhism and Vegetarianism

by Victor Gunasekara
(First Published: 1983; Revised 1996)

1. The Buddha's Three-Fold Rule

Vegetarianism is a growing practice in modern society and some of its-new-found enthusiasts have pointed an accusing finger at the Buddha who is recorded as having eaten meat, and at modern Buddhists who eat meat. In this situation it is worthwhile examining the attitude of the Buddha to the consumption of fish and meat. We shall first state the Rule which the Buddha laid down relating the consumption of fish and meat, and then investigate the rationale for this rule. While the Buddha's rule has been stated many times there is very little discussion of the rationale for this rule. It is this that the present article seeks to address.

There is some controversy as to the exact composition of the last meal of sûkaramaddava eaten by the Buddha, some (following Buddhaghosa) considering it to be pork, others (following Mahayana sources) to be medicine or truffles. However there are other incidents recorded where the Buddha and the early Bhikkhus ate meat. The classic reference to this is in the story of the "conversion" of General Sîha in the Vinaya Piaka (Mahâvagga, VI, 31-2). The General had invited the Buddha and the Bhikkhus for a meal at which meat was served. The Jains who had earlier enjoyed the exclusive patronage of the General, now spread the story that Sîha had a "fat beast" (thûla pasu, generally taken as an ox) specially killed for the occasion, and the Buddha by knowingly partaking of its meat, had committed an act of grave karmic consequence (pâ.ticcakamma). In fact the animal had not been specially slaughtered, but the meat had been purchased in the market. The term 'specially killed' will be discussed later. The Buddha took the opportunity created by this incident to lay down the rule governing the consumption of fish and flesh.

Addressing the monks he said: "Do not eat meat knowing that it has been killed specially for (your) use; I allow the use of fish and meat blameless [NOTE 1] in three ways, unseen, unheard and unsuspected" (na bhikkave jâna.m udissakata ma.msa.m paribhunjitabba.m. Anujânâmi bhikkave tiko.tiparisuddha.m maccama.msa.m adi.t.ta.m asuta.m aparisankitan ti [V I 233]). We shall refer to this rule as the Buddha's three-fold rule on meat eating [NOTE 2]. The three conditions postulated amount to not witnessing the actual killing, not being told that the meat had been specially killed (for the use of the consumer), and even in the absence of such information not suspecting that such was the case (i.e. the eye, ear and mind should be satisfied as to the "blamelessness" of the meat).

In the light of the three-fold rule the Pali texts make a distinction between two kinds of meat, called respectively uddissakatama.msa and pavattama.msa. The former term is used to refer to meat destined for a specific person's consumption. Such meat would not be cleared by the three-fold rule. Although not stated so a rough criterion which could be used to identify this kind of meat is that the person doing the killing has a clear notion that the meat would be consumed by a specific person, and if that person were to consume it that person would partake not only of the meat but also of the karmic consequences attached to the provision of that meat. The term used for the other kind of which it is permissible to eat (pavattama.msa) literally means "already existing meat" (translated by Horner as "meat at hand"). There has been some controversy as to what types of meat would fall into this category of "already existing meat". Some interpreters have taken it to mean that it refers to the meat of animals killed accidentally or killed by other animals. But in fact it includes meat sold commercially. This is clear from the example of Sîha's meal and from another incident in the Vinaya where the lady Suppiyâ sends her servant to the market to fetch meat (to make a soup for a sick monk), and is told by the servant that "existing meat" could not be found as "today is not a slaughter day" (n'atth'ayye pavattama.msa.m mâghâto ajjâ ti). This shows that meat slaughtered for sale in the market was regarded as pavatta-ma.msa and therefore falling into the category of permissible meat. This kind of meat is considered blameless because it is karmically neutral as far as the consumer is concerned (but not of course for the provider of the meat who must take the full karmic responsibility). We shall refer to the two kinds of meat as karmically effective and karmically neutral meat.[NOTE3].

A shorter version of this incident is reported in the Anguttara Nikâya. In the Jivakasutta of the Majjhima Nikâya the same rule is explained to Jivaka the physician. This sutta goes to great lengths to specify the wrong karmas that would accompany the violation of the three-fold rule. The rule is again reiterated when the Buddha rejected Devadatta's request to incorporate vegetarianism into the Vinaya [NOTE 4]>. It has been reported that this rule also appears in the Vinayas of the other early "Hinayâna" schools like the Dharmaguptas and the Mula Sarvastavâdins (although not in their Sutras). It can therefore be considered to be an authentic rule of the Buddha.

The distinction between karmically effective and karmically neutral meat is based on moral grounds. However there are other arguments for vegetarianism; these will be considered in Section 4 below. The Buddha attached some importance to at least one of these other reasons as well. It was on this grounds that the meat of ten kinds of living beings were prohibited. These were: humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas. The texts simply declare that such meat is "unsuitable" (akappiya). There is no detailed discussion why these ten species were selected for the prohibition, but one would suspect that this was so because they were so considered by the Public at large [NOTE5].

In view of the fact that only meat that was "karmically neutral" was permitted to the Buddhist community the Buddha requested that no meat should be consumed without enquiry as to its provenance: na ca bhikkhave appativekkhitvâ masa.m paribhunjitabba.m. Thus ignorance was no excuse if the wrong kind had been consumed. It was the responsibility of the consumer to determine the suitability of meat for his or her own consumption. These rules are specifically laid down with respect to monks, but they have been considered as applicable to the whole Buddhist community, both monk and lay. Thus the Amaghandasutta of the Sutta Nipâta states the essentials in a sutta delivered to a non-Bhikkhu.

Practices in modern Theravada countries differ. By and large in Sri Lanka only fish is served for monks although increasing number of monks are vegetarians. In Thailand there appears to be greater readiness to serve meat, and it has even been rumoured that some of this meat has been "specially slaughtered" for the use of the monks and therefore would fall into the category of karmically effective meat which violates the three-fold rule of the Buddha.

2. Other Religious Views on Meat Eating

The Buddha's views on meat-eating should be put in the context of his times. The earliest Indian religious texts, the Vedas, did not prohibit meat eating or the killing of animals. Indeed large scale sacrifice became the norm, particularly the cruel ritual of the asvamedha which gradually assumed large dimensions as the power of the Indian rulers grew.

It was the Upanishads that introduced, at first tentatively, the principle of non-injury (ahi.msâ) into Indian religious life. But even here sacrifice to the gods were permitted, though not on the scale that it had assumed in later Vedic times. The early Upanishads, like the Chândogya, permit the consumption of meat, especially if part of it is offered to god. It was only in post-Buddhist times that certain Hindu sects adopted vegetarianism as a general rule. But the rule was not universal and some Hindu sects, like those following the cult of Kâli engaged in ritual killing and consumption of meat. Most Hindus however either became vegetarians, or at least avoided some kinds of meat, notably beef.

It is amongst the Jains that we find the most extreme assertion of the principle of ahi.msâ. They prohibited the killing of all forms of life, even microscopic organisms. Most of Jain ethics consists of a series of rules and regulations all related to the principle of ahi.msâ. Thus the Jain layperson's eight basic restraints (mûlaguna) involve abstention from meat, alcohol, honey, and five specific kinds of figs. The last seven kinds of foods were prohibited because they could harbour small organisms. In addition a whole host of other rules have to be kept, e.g. not eating after sunset (because cooking fires could attract insects to their death) and not drinking unfiltered water (which may contain organisms). Jain laypersons even excluded agriculture from their "right livelihood" occupations as agriculture too involves destruction of life. Many of them took to commerce and trade. The rules for the Jain monk (muni) was even more strict, some sects even avoiding clothing which could be destructive to bodily parasites. Some Jain munis even undertook the practice of fasting to death (sallekhana) because no kind of food can be really free of harm to animals (see the section below on the arguments for vegetarianism).

Amongst Buddhists vegetarianism was extolled by certain Mahayanist groups. Already in the Sanskrit version of the Mahâparinirvâna Sutra the following statement is attributed to the Buddha: "I order the various disciples from today that they cannot any more partake of meat". This statement is, of course, absent in the Pali version of this Suttanata. It is well known that various statements have been interpolated into this sutta to get the Buddha's authority posthumously. The condemnation of meat eating occurs in other Mahayana sutras such as their version of the Brahmajâla Sutra, and more importantly the Lankâvatara Sutra. Chapter 8 of the latter sutra is devoted entirely to this question, and some 24 arguments are advanced against the eating of meat. Some representative arguments adduced against meat eating in the Lankâvatara are:

  1. present-day animals may have been one's kith and kin in the past;
  2. one's own parents and relatives may in a future life be born as an animal;
  3. there is no logic in exempting the meat of some animals on customary grounds while not exempting all meat;
  4. meat is impure as it is always contaminated by body wastes;
  5. the prospect of being killed spreads terror amongst animals;
  6. all meat is nothing other than carrion;
  7. meat eating makes the consumer to be cruel and sensual;
  8. man in not a carnivore by nature.
In this Sutra the Buddha instructs the Bodhisattva Mahamati thus: "There is no meat that is pure in three ways: not premeditated, not asked for, and not impelled; therefore refrain from eating meat".

It is clear that this is the Mahayana answer to the Buddha's three-fold rule given in the Pali and other "Hinayana" Canons. But the three conditions mentioned do not coincide with the conditions stipulated by the Buddha in the Pali suttas. In spite of the textual criticisms of meat eating Mahayanists have generally consumed meat in practice. This is particularly true of Tibetan Buddhists. The Dalai Lama has given the excuse that this is because of the poor soil and cold climate of Tibet which is not conducive to agriculture. But it may also be due to tantric influences under which fish and meat and two of the five "M"s which tantrists indulge in.

As we have seen the Theravada School sought to adhere to the Buddha's rule. The only notable exception was Devadatta's schism, which the Buddha categorically rejected including the rule of vegetarianism. However remnants of Devadatta's schism could still be seen in some of the tâpasa sects in Theravada[NOTE 6].

The monotheistic religions that arose in the middle east (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) did not develop the ethic of non-injury to animals. Both Judaism and Islam required animal sacrifice to God, and they also specify the way in which animals have to be killed for human consumption (a way that is often cruel). According to the Bible God shortly after the Creation ordered humans to be vegetarians. This injunction however was short-lived and was revoked after the mythical "Flood". Now humans were allowed to kill and eat meat with some curious restrictions relating to the shedding of blood. This is the basis of the cruel method of butchery resorted to by Jews and Muslims. The Judeo-Christian Bible sanctions the "dominion" which God had given man over animals and the environment which has had severe consequences in history.

It will be seen that Buddhism takes a middle position between the Jain ahi.msâ ideal and the complete abandon of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic position.

3. The Rationale for Buddha's Rule

What is the rationale for the Buddha's three-fold rule on meat eating? It cannot be said that the hands of the consumer of "karmically neutral" meat are clean, especially if the meat is bought in the market as is the case with most consumers of meat. For it is a rule of the market place that without the demand there would be no supply[NOTE 7]. At issue is the degree of involvement with the act of killing if meat of any sort (excepting accidentally killed animals, or those that have died naturally) is to be consumed. We may identify various degrees of involvement of the consumer with the act of killing. The most direct is where the consumer directly kills the animal whose flesh is eaten. The second degree of involvement is when an employee or someone under the direct power consumer is asked to do the killing. A variant of this degree of involvement is when consumer dines on meat offered by a friend or a relative who in turn had either directly killed or caused the animal to be directly killed. Both these degrees of involvement would fall outside the Buddha three-fold requirement and is prohibited to the Buddhist community.

The next (third) degree of involvement is when the consumer buys the meat on the open market. The Buddha seems to have considered this as satisfying the three-fold rule and it is deemed karmically neutral. The reasons for permitting the third degree of involvement with the act of killing is not directly discussed in the Canon. So the reasons for it has to be inferred from the Buddha's position in general. It is this rationale that we hope to supply in this section.

The relationship of this degree of involvement in killing to the first precept of Buddhism (refraining from the taking of life) must first be explored. Karma adheres to acts of sovereign choice. It is true that a butcher will only kill animals for the sale of their meat only if there are consumers will to buy the meat. But is so doing the butcher is making a sovereign choice. There is no compulsion for the butcher to have become a butcher rather than say a baker or a candle-stick maker. If there were no persons willing to supply the meat trade meat eaters would, if they want to persist in their meat eating, be compelled to do their own killing thus incurring karmic responsibility. It is this lack of compulsion on the part of the consumer of the meat that really frees this type of meat consumer from the full karmic responsibility for the act of killing which made it possible for this person to buy the meat in the first place. Thus the Buddha could logically hold on to both the first precept of Buddhism and the three-fold rule of meat eating as not involving a logical contradiction.

The most compelling argument for the Buddha's rule is that the whole of samsaric existence involves some from of killing or other. As will be shown in the next section the supply of "vegetarian" food also involves the destruction of life, sometimes to a greater extent than the supply of meat products. The stark reality is that both the vegetarian and the meat-eater by their very existence in samsâra causes the destruction of some form of life or other. In fact it may be impossible to live at all without the destruction of life (as the Jain munis realised).

The fundamental point in the Buddha's teaching is that the whole of samsâric existence involves some form of killing. This is indeed an aspect of dukkha, the omni-present reality. Instead of a fruitless effort to end all forms of killing, and make the world perfect in this respect, the Buddha laid a path to escape from samsâra and all its defects. This involves abstaining from the grosser forms of evil, including the consumption of "karmically effective" meat, together with the co-development of other elements of the Eight-Fold Path.

The Buddha stressed graver ethical defects than meat-eating. The classic sutta in this regard is the Amagandha Sutta in the Sutta Nipâta, one of the earliest books of the Pali Canon. In this an unnamed vegetarian Brahmin confronts the Buddha proclaiming the evils of eating fish and flesh. The word âmaganda literally means the stench of fish and meat, and is also used to denote defilements. In his reply the Buddha utters a number of verses listing the real defilements that taint moral conduct. At the end of each verse he utters the refrain: "...esâmagandho no hi ma.msabhojana.m" ("... this is the stench giving defilement, not the consumption of meat").

The Buddha's approach is validated in Darwinian theory. Darwin showed that all species are in constant conflict and that only the fittest survive. According to this the survival of any species is brought about by the non-survival of other species that compete for the same limited bio-space. The survival and proliferation of mankind must necessarily involve the destruction of countless lives irrespective of what the diet of humans is vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

4. The Arguments for Vegetarianism

We must next examine the ethical and other implications of vegetarianism. There are many arguments advanced for vegetarianism amongst which the following arguments should be considered: the moral argument, the biological argument, the ecological argument and the socio-cultural argument.

From the religious point of view the moral argument is the most important and will be considered first. Many vegetarians relish in taking the moral high-ground. They claim either that their diet does not involve the killing and suffering of animals, or that even if it does so there would be greater suffering and animal killing if they adopted non-vegetarian diets. Of course it is a simple fact is that commercial agriculture, which is the basis of vegetarian diets, cannot be undertaken without the destruction of life. Even the very act of tilling the ground kills many earth-bound insect life, but the main form of killing comes from the need to protect crops and harvests from insects, predators and other vermin. We need only contemplate the wholesale killing of feral pigs, rabbits, kangaroos, etc. for this purpose, often using poison, traps, and man-induced diseases involving cruel and horrible deaths. The snails, grasshoppers, grubs, locusts and other insects destroyed by powerful insecticides number by the million. Even the number of rats killed to save the stored-up grain from being eaten greatly exceed the number of cattle slaughtered to feed the meat eaters. Indeed it could be argued that the number of animals and insects killed to produce the average vegetarian meal greatly exceeds the number of animals killed to produce the a non-vegetarian meal of equal food value. If this is so the adoption of a vegetarian diet may actually increase the number lives lost in the food production process.

Also many vegetarians use animal products like milk. While it might appear that this is a "humane" food as no killing is resorted to this may not really be the case. Suppose that everyone gives up meat-eating but retains milk-drinking. A consequence would be that male calves will be killed at birth (except for a few kept for stud purposes), unless of course the unproductive bulls are maintained which is not likely to happen. Milk is meant by nature for the calves, and its forced appropriation by humans is questionable morals. It is curious to note that some of staunchest vegetarians like the Hare Khrishnas as also the most addicted to the use of milk products. They do not appear to see the moral dilemma involved in their dietary habits. The Buddha's three-fold rule, while not a perfect one as none such exits, at least avoids the moral conundrums that must remain to confuse the ethically motivated vegetarian.

The biological argument for vegetarianism has greater validity than the moral one. It may well be that the human body is not designed to subsist on meat (as the Lankâvatara Sutra claims). The two aspects of the human anatomy may suggest that vegetarian food is the normal food for humans. The first is the composition of human teeth (where molars are more important than the incisors), and the other is the rather large ratio of the length of the intestines to the body length in humans. Carnivores have incisor teeth to tear the flesh, and short intestines as the putrefying meat has to be expelled from the body as soon as possible. The human body is closer to that of herbivores, but not exclusive herbivores who have a different structure to their stomachs. In fact the human anatomy is a compromise between the pure herbivore and the pure carnivore - in fact it is that of an omnivore. Also the harmful effects from the consumption of animal products (e.g. cholesterol) are not counterbalanced by the alleged lack of high grade protein in vegetarian diets. On balance the biological argument seems to favour vegetarianism over meat-eating.


The ecological argument too is in favour of vegetarianism. Meat is a very inefficient way of converting energy into food. It is far easier and cheaper to convert energy into biomass that is suitable for direct consumption by humans rather than indirectly after feeding it to animals and then consuming the flesh of the animals. Mass production of livestock (chickens, pigs, cattle) would either lead to cutting down of native forests to create grazing lands, or under the battery method lead to great cruelty, release of methane, etc. Selective breeding of farm animals and use of chemicals and hormones to enhance growth can have unexpected side effects in other areas. But it must be mentioned that conversion into vegetarianism will not necessarily improve the environment ecologically. What is needed is a decline in the population, and the adoption of living standards that are sustainable without environmental damage.

The socio-cultural argument involves the aesthetic argument of what society considers fit to eat. Social norms differ in this respect. Most societies have ruled out cannibalism, and do not permit the consumption of carrion and scavenging of dead animals. In most Western countries and in the Indian subcontinent there is a general aversion to eating pets (dogs, cats) or reptiles. However no such inhibitions exist in parts of Africa and the Far East (although in China in 511 CE the Emperor Wu of Liang prohibited the consumption of meat). Logically there is no difference between eating one species of animal and avoiding another. But aesthetically and culturally there can be a significant difference. Certainly vegetarians foods are more aesthetic than meat products however well the latter may be dressed up to be.

5. Conclusion

The foregoing argument should not be taken as a justification of meat-eating. Our concern is to speculate on the rationale behind the three-fold rule on this subject enunciated by the Buddha and to refute the charge that the Buddha's rule involves a moral contradiction with the other parts of the Buddha's teaching such as his insistence on loving-kindness and the precept on the taking of life.

There are many compelling arguments for vegetarianism, the most important of these being the biological, ecological and social arguments we have identified in the previous section. The moral argument on which many vegetarians adopt to claim to a morality which is even higher than that taught by the Buddha has been shown to be invalid. In fact if people were to switch over from meat-eating to vegetarianism there will not necessarily be a reduction in the amount of killing and cruelty involved in the provision of food. Only different kinds of animals are likely to suffer.

There is also another interesting moral point to resolve. Most of the animals killed for human consumption are deliberately bred for this purpose (e.g. chickens, pigs and cattle). If there were no demand for their meat the animals would not simply exist. Thus abolition of meat eating will not in the long run "save" any animals as these animals will simply not be reared. The problem is whether it is morally preferable for some animals to be kept alive for a limited period rather than not allow them to exist at all. Without meat consumers most of the animals not slaughtered for food would not have existed at all. We shall not examine the moral conundrum involved in this question.

The Buddha's requirement was for moderation in eating (mattaññutâca bhattasmi). Whether vegetarian or meat diets are used eating should be restricted to the minimum that is necessary to keep the bodily functions going. The Vinaya rule of not eating after mid-day may be related to this rule of moderation in consumption. But however careful one may be in the matter of diet, there is no way to keep one's body going in a material sense that does not cause harm to some other organism. The interdependence between organisms ensures that the survival of any one species – even the human species – must involve the destruction of other forms of life.

Even though there is no blanket proscription on meat eating in the Buddha's teaching the three-fold rule that he enunciated has considerable value. The Buddha was concerned with devising a practical rule that will reconcile the dilemma involved in living in samsâra and allowing other life forms too to exist. The fact that the three-fold rule is not ideal is not a reflection on the Buddha but of the existential fact that samsâra-faring must involve harm to others. The Buddha's final solution to this is perhaps the only way in which this problem could be satisfactorily solved. This solution is to chart a course to get out of phenomenal existence, i.e. chart a path to Nibbâna.


1. The term parisuddha is best translated as "blameless" rather than the more literal "pure" which is the rendition favoured by Horner (who translated the Vinaya for the Pali Text Society). It is the karmic quality of the meat that is important, not its purity in other respects.

2. The word "meat" will be used to designate all forms of food derived from animals whether they fish, flesh or fowl. From the ethico-moral perspective there is no essential difference between these various form of flesh.

3. The relationship of meat-eating to karma is not specifically made by the Buddha. The distinction we have made should be treated with care. Even the consumption of what we have termed-"non-karmically effective" meat can have adverse karmic effects depending on the thought moments that accompany the consumption of that meat. What is meant however is that the consumption of what we have called "karmically effective meat" will always have adverse karmic consequences, while the other kind of meat may have adverse consequence. In neither case can there be any good karmic effects.

4. The rule of vegetarianism was the fifth of a list of rules which Devadatta had proposed to the Buddha. Devadatta was the founder of the tâpasa movement in Buddhism and his special rules involved ascetic and austere practices (forest-dwelling, wearing only rags, etc). The Buddha rejected all the proposed revisions of Devadatta, and it was in this context that he reiterated the tiko.tiparisuddha rule. (On this see the author's Western Buddhism and a Theravâda Heterodoxy.

5. In general the Buddha tended to accept currently prevailing social customs unless there was a direct conflict with the Dhammic principles. In this case there was no need to change current practices. It is interesting to note that the ten kinds of animals does not include the ox or cow. This was later to become of one of the greatest taboos of Hinduism and also adopted by Buddhists. Perhaps at the time of the Buddha this aspect of Hinduism had not developed the importance that it was later to assume.

6. On this see the present writer's Western Buddhism and a Theravada Heterodoxy.

7. The argument that the animal is already dead when its meat is bought is not a valid one. Most butchers and meat shops sell out of stocks they hold. When a sale is made the seller orders more stock to replace the item sold. Thus when an already dead chicken is bought an order is sent out to kill another chicken to replace the one sold.