I am an animal person. For as long as I can remember, I have adored animals of all species, shapes, and sizes, regardless of their “likeableness,” age or disposition, and I often feel I can relate much more easily with non-human animals than with my fellow human beings. In fact, my first memory is of my older siblings’ black bunny on our screened-in-porch in midwestern Ohio. My sister, six years my senior, still exclaims, “I can’t believe you remember Licorice. You were so young.”
I have been working for Shambhala for a bit over a year, and I began to wonder about where animals stand in Tibetan Buddhism. I especially wondered how it views eating meat. In my own life, I shifted in and out of vegetarianism until I watched a few documentaries on the treatment of animals within the factory farming and dairy industries. I just couldn’t shake the images from my mind, and nearly four years later, I am a vegan. I don’t believe a vegan diet is the healthiest choice for all people, but I did want to know where Buddhism stands on the subject. Isn’t Buddhism about doing no harm (ahimsa)? How is eating meat permissible if this is a guiding principle of Buddhist ethics?
This article explores overall Buddhist views on animals and animal rights, and in paritcular the range of views present in Tibetan Buddhism.
Animals in Buddhism: The Animal Realm
Buddhist cosmology views animals in a specific way: as sentient beings born into the animal realm, one of the “Six Realms” into which beings can take rebirth.
Buddhism views animals as sentient beings born into the animal realm, one of the “Six Realms” into which beings can take rebirth.
According to teachings common across Buddhist traditions, saṃsāra (the continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth) contains six realms, which include, in order, the “lower” realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals, and the “higher” realms of humans, demigods, and gods. Karma plays a key role in which realm we’re reborn into.
Geoffrey Barstow, an American religious historian and Buddhist scholar whose research focuses on Tibetan Buddhist ideas about animal ethics and vegetarianism, summarizes what he feels the “Six Realms” teaches about animal rights in Buddhism:
“While humans and animals belong to distinct realms of existence, they are not fundamentally different types of beings, and the boundary between their realms is not fixed or impassable.”Geoffrey Barstow
Animal Rights in Buddhism: Does Tibetan Buddhism Require Vegetarianism?
Tibetan Buddhism has an active tradition of expressing compassion for animals—for example, below in The Autobiography of Jigmé Lingpa, a master of Nyingma Buddhism living in the 18th century CE:
“Having now become animals, your fathers, mothers, siblings and friends from previous lives tremble with fear in the butcher’s sinful hands, tears streaming from their eyes, and panting for breath. In that state they wonder what to do. Alas, there is no refuge! There is nowhere to go! Thinking that, right now in this place, they may be killed, their urgent suffering is great.”
These practices extended into Tibetan culture. For example, wealthy individuals would on occasion purchase land simply to prohibit hunting, therefore giving animals the “gift of fearlessness” from being stalked and killed by human beings. This sensibility extends to the present day with, for example, community-organized “lobster releases” back into the ocean, and with some contemporary Buddhist masters strongly advocating that only vegetarianism is consistent with Buddhist principles.
As Barstow writes:
“The division between human and animal becomes even more blurred when we consider the common practice of intentionally viewing an animal as no different from one’s own mother.”Geoffrey Barstow
As Barstow describes, “This contemplative practice draws on the belief that all beings have lived an infinite number of lives: at some point in the past, simple maths suggests that any two beings have, in fact, been related as mother and child. In order to develop compassion towards animals, practitioners are sometimes asked to reflect on this and to see the animal in front of them as no different from their mother in this life, worthy of gratitude and love.”
Despite these currents within Tibetan Buddhism, it is not a strictly vegetarian culture, as we discuss below.
Buddhism and Meat Eating: The Buddha’s Three-Fold Rule
The monastic rules common across Buddhist traditions contain something called The Buddha’s Three-Fold Rule, in which if these three guidelines are taken into account, it is admissible for monks and nuns to eat meat. This is a loophole around the first of The Five Precepts in Buddhism, which is to abstain from killing.
When addressing monks, the Buddha is said to have stated, “Do not eat meat knowing that it has been killed specially for (your) use; I allow the use of fish and meat blameless in three ways, unseen, unheard and unsuspected (Gunasekara).”
In general, this rule comes to mean monks (there is some controversy here as to whether this is afforded to lay people) are sanctioned by the Buddha to eat meat if they did not witness the killing and they were not told or under any impression that the animal was slaughtered specifically for them to eat. This guideline may have stemmed from Theravada Buddhism in which monastics were not allowed to refuse or be picky about food given to them, even meat, so long as the animal’s life was not ended explicitly for their (the monks) consumption. It may also funnel down to a matter of mindset.
There is also a directive of a monk not being permitted to refuse food given to them by a lay person to eat. And still, there are also those who practice the belief that it is pardonable to eat meat when in not doing so one may bring harm, illness or death upon themselves or when participating in tantric rituals. We will explore these concepts in more detail below.
Vegetarianism Across Buddhist Communities
Humans’ relationship to animals in Buddhist communities are partly a result of circumstance. Tibet’s high altitude and harsh climate may have made eating meat unavoidable. During the winter months, when vegetables were unobtainable, Tibetan monks may have needed to eat animal meat as means of survival during the harsh season.
Even according to Shabkar Tsokdrük Rangdröl, a devoted proponent of vegetarianism and animal ethics in Tibetan literature, it is acceptable to eat meat when not doing so would lead a person to possible death:
“[It is allowed] if one is going on a long journey, such as from [the northeastern region of] Amdo to Central Tibet, and can find no other food. If you do not eat meat, your life will be in danger. Similarly, if one is weakened by illness and on the verge of death, where not eating meat would cause them to die. If a great Bodhisattva who dwells on the grounds of liberation were to die, the torch of the teachings would be extinguished, while if they lived a long time it would be very beneficial for the teachings and beings.”
Barstow finds that Tibetan Buddhism places clear precedence on human life. While all sentient beings deserve compassion and have Buddha-Nature, humans are thought to have superiority, because of their ability to teach, receive, and practice the Dharma. This manner of thinking appears to hold true even for those who are faithful advocates of animal rights and hope for compassion towards all sentient beings.
Outside Tibetan Buddhism, the East Asian Mahayana Buddhist traditions are known for the widespread adoption of vegetarianism, at least among their monastic populations:
- Chinese Buddhism: Most Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns are vegetarian, and the monastic codes often include guidelines that advocate for vegetarianism. Lay followers are also encouraged to be vegetarian, especially on specific lunar calendar days each month.
- Vietnamese Buddhism: Vietnamese monks and nuns commonly practice vegetarianism, and lay followers are encouraged to do so as well, particularly on certain observance days.
- Korean Buddhism: While vegetarianism is common among Korean Buddhist monastics, it’s not as universally practiced as in Chinese or Vietnamese traditions. Lay followers may also choose to be vegetarian, but it’s not mandatory.
Animal Rights in Buddhism: A Barstow Conclusion
Geoffrey Barstow sums up the complex topic of animal rights within Tibetan Buddhism beautifully:
“Like other forms of Buddhism, the Tibetan tradition is diverse, with a variety of distinct practices and points of view…
Most Tibetan thinkers agree on the basic point that animal suffering matters, and that humans should take that suffering into account when acting in the world.
…Animals are sentient beings, just as humans are. As such, they have rich mental lives, thinking, feeling, and suffering in ways that would be familiar to any human.
…Animals were assumed to be less intelligent than humans, and incapable of religious practice. Human needs, therefore, did outweigh animal needs. However, this does not mean [animal needs were] inconsequential.
…A variety of common practices reinforced the idea that while animals were below humans, they nevertheless mattered a great deal.”
Animal Rights in Buddhism: A Personal Conclusion
When writing this article, I did my best to not allow my passion for animal welfare to be interwoven into the facts and history of animal rights within Tibetan Buddhism. I must admit, however, the Three-Fold Rule did not sit well with me. There is something about this exception that strikes me as having someone else do your dirty work. With my investigation into the history of this rule, the feeling subsided slightly, however thinking about the advances in our current food industry, I’m not quite sure if this rule has legs in our modern world. It may be because I took a completely different approach when contemplating meat on my dinner plate. While deciding whether eating meat was the correct choice for my personal life, I chose to go hunting a few times with my father. My line of thinking was, “If I am willing to eat an animal, I should be willing to be the person to take its life.” I shot two deer, I cried, I prayed over them and thanked them for their ultimate gift, and I shared and ate them with my family. It was an eye-opening experience for which I am thankful, and which ultimately helped me make my final choice to not eat animals. I felt having less distance between me and the meat on my plate would be more, not less, compassionate.
The conversation about animal rights and eating meat can be a difficult one to have, especially when traditions come into the scene. I believe we all must make choices, as best we can, that sit well within our bodies, minds, and hearts. The above hunting example was how I solidified my choice to not eat meat. The peace I feel in my decision is enough to resist any temptation presented. While two animals did die at my hands, I still thank them to this day for their sacrifice in becoming nourishment for my body and for aiding me in my decision to do my best to do no harm. However, as I would like to continually state, this is my path, based upon what compassion means to me. I leave you to choose yours.