Buddhist Teachings on Eating Slaughtered Animals

By Adele Tomlin

“There are many examples of Tibetan scholars and meditation masters who taught about giving up meat and the faults of eating meat, despite the fact it was very difficult to be vegetarian in Tibet.” – 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (2021)

“If we Buddhists-especially if we consider ourselves to be on the Mahayana path-wish to live according to the Buddha’s teachings, then, as is said again and again in these texts, we must definitely avoid harming any living beings, whether directly or indirectly. This means we must neither kill nor torture them ourselves, nor induce anyone else to do so.” – Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo


One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhist vows and ethics is not deliberately (and unnecessarily) killing sentient beings, or encouraging others to do so. In addition, the concept of non-violence (ahimsa) is a central tenet of both Buddhist, Hindu and other spiritual beliefs. In the 21st Century, Buddhists generally think they are non-violent, animal-lovers, have pets, and would not dream of actively harming another sentient being deliberately.

Yet, many also regularly eat murdered animals daily, preferring to turn a blind eye to the cruelty and murder of highly sentient beings (no different from their pet dog or cat), and its catastrophic effect on the environment, natural resources, land and health. Also, the Buddha taught that any monastic who eats animals for desire or health reasons, is breaching the basic Vinaya Rules. Yet, I have seen that among the people buying and eating animals in Tibetan exile communities in India, many are monastics.

This essay explores some of the Buddhist teachings and rules on eating murdered animals, via the three baskets of Vinaya, Sutra and Abhidharma and some of the potential reasons for this seeming hypocrisy or “blind spot.” I only consider eating slaughtered animals (1) in this essay, but am well aware that a vegan diet is considered the most compassionate one of all.  I conclude that it is clear that Buddha never advocated eating slaughtered animals, and positively recommended against it. For monastics, it is outright forbidden, except when begging for food or extremely sick.

Becoming Buddhist and Vegetarian: a personal transformation

Despite growing up in a meat-eating culture and family, in 2006, I abandoned eating animals, when I became Buddhist and interested in animal welfare and environmental conservation. As a Philosophy postgraduate in London, I not only became interested in Asian philosophy but also the question of animal consciousness, and the philosopher, Peter Singer’s views on the sentience of animals and animal rights. In his ground-breaking work, for example ‘All Animals Are Equal’, Singer compared common arguments used against the Black and Women’s Liberation movements to those used against the Animal Liberation movement (2). He accused those who argued against giving all animals equal ‘consideration’ when it came to killing or experimenting on them, of hypocrisy and unreasonable speciesm.

I also became aware of the cruelty and horror of mass factory farms breeding animals for meat, but also the inconsistency of eating murdered animals while talking about love and compassion for all beings as if they were one’s own child or mother. As well as the serious environmental and health issues also associated with consuming mass-bred animals.

Assuming that most Buddhists were also vegetarians/vegans too, I was surprised and saddened to discover that many were not. When I first started studying and living in India and Nepal, I saw many Buddhists from Tibet, Europe, America, China and other countries regularly eating animals. Seeing sick-looking chickens huddled up for hours with no room to move, and clearly in mental and physical anguish. It is not hidden away like in countries where mass factories and slaughterhouses present the meat in sanitised, cellophane-wrapped packages (3).

The Path of Monastic Discipline (Vinaya): permitted only when begging for alms and the three-fold purity rule

There is a misconception among some Buddhists, that Buddha permits people to eat animals due to an ancient rule allowing monastics to eat meat. However, as the 17th Karmapa recently gave extensive teachings on, it was only permitted if monastics were offered the meat while they were begging for food on their alms rounds. And even then, it had to be 100 % clear that the meat passed the three-fold rule that checked if it had been killed for them specifically, in one way or another, and it if had then they had to refuse it. However, in terms of actively buying and cooking meat it is forbidden. What this means is that many contemporary monastics are breaching the Vinaya discipline if they eat animals in any other context.

In fact, some Tibetan vegetarian masters, like the Sakya master, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1456)  have asserted that even meat that passes the three-fold purity text should not be consumed, in his Letter to Benefit Students (cited by Gyal (2018: 134) and that the Buddha himself states that he only create the three-fold rule as a means to gradually eliminate eating animals (4).

The Mahayana Path: Lankāvatāra Sutra (Chapter 8) – a handbook on why to abandon eating animals

The most famous Sūtra which details the Buddha’s teachings on eating animals, is the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, Chapter 8 (of which there are several English translations), in which Buddha is cited as saying:

“3. To those who eat [meat] there are detrimental effects, to those who do not, merits; Mahāmati, you should know that meat-eaters bring detrimental effects upon themselves.

“4. Let the practitioner/yogi refrain from eating flesh as it is born of himself, as [the eating] involves transgression, as [flesh] is produced of semen and blood, and as [the killing of animals] causes terror to living beings. . . 

“9. For profit sentient beings are destroyed, for flesh money is paid out, they are both evil-doers and [the deed] matures in the hells called Raurava (screaming), etc.”

In this Sutra, the Buddha cites many other reasons why Buddhist practitioners (particularly on the Bodhisattva/Mahayana) path should not eat animals, including:

  • Developing love and compassion for beings and wish to reduce any unnecessary suffering
  • Regarding all sentient beings are like our very own mothers/children
  • Its negative impact on our inner and outer health and chakras
  • Its negative impact on how we appear and smell to animals
  • The greater likelihood of being re-born as an animal that eats animals, or is eaten by animals, or in lower existences where killing is normal.

Further, in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, understood to be the final and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha given on the eve of his death, the Buddha teaches that “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Compassion,” and that all consumption of animals—even those found already dead—is prohibited. He specifically rejects the idea that monks begging and receiving meat from a donor should eat it:

  • “[I]t should be rejected… I say that even meat, fish, game, dried hooves, and scraps of meat left over by others constitute an infraction… I teach the harm arising from meat-eating.”

The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will “hold spurious writings to be the authentic dharma,” and concoct their own sutras, falsely claiming that the Buddha allows meat eating.

Also, when buying meat, we are inducing others to deliberately kill sentient beings, which is considered one of the five wrong livelihoods in Buddhist teachings (5). Similar to the post-traumatic stress disorders of soldiers involved in military combat, studies show that people who work in slaughterhouses, often suffer serious depression and psychological trauma due to witnessing and participating in murdering sentient beings. There are also studies that say meat-eaters show greater levels of aggression.

Tibetan Buddhist masters on eating animals

It was not only the Buddha who advocated abandoning eating animals, many great Tibetan Buddhist masters past and present, in Tibet and exile have strongly recommended it.  In his recent book, The Faults of Meat: Tibetan Buddhist Vegetarian Writing, Geoffrey Barstow collected translations of various Tibetan Buddhist masters, such as Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), Khedrup Jé (1385–1438), the eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorjé (1507–1554), Shabkar Tsokdrük Rangdröl (1781–1851) and Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö (1961– ). Barstow writes that:  

“Vegetarianism was not only present in pre-communist Tibet; it was in fact a significant aspect of Tibetan religious practice. . . . Furthermore, these vegetarian lamas came from all the major Buddhist lineages in Tibet, from all regions, and from all time periods. Some were relatively minor figures, but others were among the most important masters of their day and remain well known centuries later.”

For my recent video podcast interview with Barstow where we discussed some of these issues, see here.

In 2007, I heard the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje give an electrifying and important speech under the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya on vegetarianism. Citing the teachings of the Buddha and the previous Karmapas, he stated that the 8th Karmapa had taught that one could not reasonably call oneself a follower of the Karma Kagyu lineage and eat slaughtered animals, which left some meat-eating followers shocked. He also recommended that if devotees wanted him to have a long life, they should abandon eating animals.

More recently, the 17th Karmapa gave several teachings on the essential Buddhist monastic rules that forbid eating meat willingly for pleasure or health, the suffering of murdered animals he witnessed as a nomadic child growing up in Tibet, the teachings of past Tibetan masters like the yogis, Milarepa and Drugpa Kunleg (1455-1529) on the ‘wrongdoing’ of killing and eating animals, the strict vegetarianism of previous Karmapas, and on the catastrophic, destructive effects on the environment and natural resources. In his book The Heart is Noble, the 17th Karmapa explains:

“When you eat meat, you ingest not only the chemical substances that animals are full of, but also the emotional and physical stress that animals experience throughout their lives and at the moment of their slaughter. That stress is also part of your meat. Some people may tell you that you must eat meat for your health, for the protein. But this is simply not true. The millions of healthy vegetarians around the world are proof of that fact. Protein sources abound in legumes and other foods that are better for our body and for the environment. It really is just a matter of where we decide to get our protein. I think it is important to recognize that this is a choice we make every time we eat.”

Although he also explained recently that things are improving within the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. You can see a compiled transcript of the 17th Karmapa’s teachings on vegetarianism. In sum,  there were many great Tibetan Buddhist masters, past and present, before 1959, who were strict vegetarians who actively abandoned and advocated against eating animals.

Other contemporary examples of Tibetan Buddhist masters who strongly advocate against eating meat were the late Jadrel Rinpoche, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche, for more on them, see here.

Interestingly, within the Tibetan Buddhist community, the Dalai Lamas and some Gelugpa masters, including the present-day 14th Dalai Lama (who has stated he eats animals for health reasons, as advised by his Tibetan doctor), have taken a rather opposing view to what these teachers and the Buddha taught, saying that it is permitted in certain circumstances. Tibetan scholar, Nyangshem Gyal wrote about this difference recently in his interesting paper, The Sectarian Formation of Tibetan Vegetarianism: Identifying the First Polemic on Meat-eating in Tibetan Literature, which considers the fact that “the practice of vegetarianism among the Geluk was, indeed, rare prior to twentieth century, compared with other the norms in Tibetan Buddhist schools.”

However, from the perspective of the Buddha’s Sutra teachings, and those of the other main Tibetan Buddhist lineages, eating murdered animals for health reasons was never deemed an acceptable reason, unless one was begging for food or starving.

In brief, the Shakyamuni Buddha and Tibetan Buddhist masters taught against eating meat long before technological inventions allowed the mass breeding and slaughtering of animals for food. These days, however, there are even more reasons not to eat meat, including one’s health (physical and psychological) and environmental reasons.

Other contemporary considerations and their relation to engaged Buddhism

The Shakyamuni Buddha and Tibetan Buddhist masters taught against eating meat prior to technological inventions that allowed the mass breeding and slaughter of animals for food. However, if they were teaching today, such ‘advances’ and the now well-documented addiction to meat, catastrophic harm they cause the environment, wasting of natural resources, extinction of other species, physical and psychological damage to those who eat animals and work in slaughter-houses, and greater levels of aggression, would no doubt be included as part of the general Buddhist principle of non-violence, love and compassion.

There is also a false perception that one needs meat for health reasons. However, the converse is true. In Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhist, yogic, and Ayurvedic traditions, eating meat has always been considered unhealthy (and unethical) and unnecessary for a balanced diet. In other cultures and religions, the perception of eating animals for health reasons has been different, although that perception is also changing.

In conclusion, following a spiritual tradition’s ethical guidelines and discipline can sometimes be challenging, as we have many faults and a lack of wisdom. However, to answer the title of this article, the answer is no: Buddha did not permit or encourage eating animals, except in very limited or extreme circumstances. So, if we want to follow Buddha’s teaching actions speak louder than words, and if we genuinely care for and love animals as fellow species on this planet, then surely we owe it to ourselves (and animals) to take to heart the fact that, as The Smiths sang in Meat in Murder, “It’s sizzling blood and the unholy stench of murder.”

(1) Interestingly, one the most famous Tibetan vegetarians who wrote about the faults of eating meat, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo uses the term “slaughtered-meat” (bsad sha), instead of the term “meat” (sha) in general, which probably indicates that Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo tolerated the consumption of shisha (shi sha), “non-slaughtered meat”. See Nyangshem Gyel (2018: 134).

(2) “To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbors not to sell their houses to blacks.”― Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

(3) Yet, I saw many ‘Buddhists’ actively buying meat from these slaughter-shops. In fact, regular customers at the shops and in restaurants were monastics.  When I sometimes asked such people why they ate meat, I was met with either an uncomfortable look, or even outright hostility. Some monastic institutions even have attached restaurants in which meat is bought and cooked not only for the public, but also for themselves away from the monastic canteen.  In my recent review of Tibetan artist Tenzin Gyurmey’s work A Crime With My Mother (2022), I became aware that some Tibetans even travel out of state to buy illegal buff meat. Yet Buddha did not teach a hierarchy of animals, they are all seen as sacred, equal and worthy of life. So why are Buddhists eating animals?

(4) The quotation cited by Gyal (2018:134) is: “We read in the Mahāparinirvāna Sutra: “to offer somebody alcohol, poison, weapons, and slaughtered meat is evil charity.” Some might argue that monks are allowed to eat slaughtered meat under the three circumstances as the Vinaya states. However, this is an exceptional choice, not a definitive teaching of the Buddha. For instance, if a monk is sick, and without eating meat would probably die, then the monk can eat it as a medicine. Other than that, monks shouldn’t be eating [meat that satisfies the conditions of] threefold purity. In the Mahāparinirvāna Sutra, Kasyapa asked, “In the past, why did the Tathagata [the Buddha] permit the consumption of meat examined in the three ways?” The Buddha replied, “Kasyapa, I allowed the consumption of meat examined in the three ways as a means to gradually eliminate meat eating.” Therefore, we should understand Buddha’s teaching fully.”

(5) “A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, Business in human beings, Business in meat, Business in intoxicants, and Business in poison.” Vanijja Sutta: Business (Wrong Livelihood) Anguttara Nikaya 5.177

Support Our Dharma Work