Note: This discussion refers to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism only. Theravada Buddhism has different dietary restrictions.
Buddhism is often described by people as a “vegetarian” religion, given that some who follow the religion practice vegetarian diets. However, Buddhism and diet are somewhat more complex here, so I hope to provide some information on this. Much of the dietary guidelines for Mahayana Buddhism (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Tibet) derive from certain Buddhist texts, or sutras. One particular sutra of note is the Brahma Net Sutra, which is thought by some to be a revision of earlier monastic rules. Here, the intent of the Brahma Net Sutra was to develop a moral code that would someone on the path to become a Bodhisattva (kind of like a Buddhist saint). So, as with Bodhisattvas who strive to help all beings, the Bodhisattva-precepts are likewise focused on compassion.
The Brahma Net Sutra is divided into 10 major and 48 minor precepts intended for monks, and lay followers who are particularly devoted. The 10 precepts cover all kinds of egregious behavior (lying, killing, etc), while the 48 minor precepts cover more specific actions. Of note in the Sutra are the following minor precepts:
- 3. On Eating Meat – A disciple of the Buddha must not deliberately eat meat. He should not eat the flesh of any sentient being. The meat-eater forfeits the seed of Great Compassion, severs the seed of the Buddha Nature and causes [animals and transcendental] beings to avoid him.
- 4. On Five Pungent Herbs – A disciple of the Buddha should not eat the five pungent herbs — garlic, chives, leeks, onions, and asafoetida [used in curry?]. This is so even if they are added as flavoring to other main dishes.
In the case of Minor Precept #3, the belief is that by consuming meat, you are not being compassionate towards animals. Other Buddhist branches limit this to meat that you have killed yourself, or meat that you asked someone to kill for you (either way, intentional killing), but in the Brahma Net Sutra this now includes all meat.
The fourth Minor Precept is kind of an interesting one. I asked around, and monks have told me it relates to Indian medicine, where the “five pungent herbs” were thought to increase anger or passion. Obviously if you are a monk, you’d want to be calm and centered, not passionate, hence this precept. It’s hard to be sure if the effects are real or not. I’ve heard some people say it does indeed help with meditation, but I have little meditation experience myself, so I can’t confirm or deny this.
So, in real traditional East-Asian Buddhist cuisine, you will see that there is no meat, nor any of the pungent herbs above. In Japan, this is called shōjin-ryōri (精進料理) or “devoted cuisine”. The idea here is that someone is devoted to Buddhist precepts, and so only eats meals within this framework. In the case of Jodo Shinshu, which is the Buddhist sect I follow, we only observe shōjin meals on special holidays or after someone has passed away. It’s a gesture of respect and appreciation for the lives we have to take to continue living, but also can be considered wholesome karma given that you are giving up meat and pungent herbs. Other Buddhist sects may differ. For many monks and nuns though in East-Asia, this is a pretty hard-fast rule.
Here’s a picture of a shōjin-ryōri meal I took when I visited the Zen temple of Ryūanji in Kyoto, Japan in 2005:
I’ll post more on Ryūanji in a separate blog entry (update: posted here). This meal was entirely vegetarian, with tofu and some kind of light broth. The flowers are actually radishes. It was surprisingly good and filling, though meals such as this would be hard to enjoy at home. In a Western context, I’ve been told by a respectable priest in Japan that even peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches can be considered shōjin meals because they fit the precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra just fine. 🙂
Of course, this all boils down to the question: if you are a new Buddhist, do you have to be vegetarian? The answer is no. All Buddhist moral behavior is a conscious, individual choice, and can’t be forced upon you (though some may try). Instead, as you practice Buddhism, and learn to appreciate it more, you may want to challenge yourself a little and then a little more and so on. I’ll be frank in that I am not a vegetarian, but I do try, and I believe that gradually I will become one. It’s hard for me right now since we have a baby in the house, and we want to make sure she gets a well-rounded diet. So for now, I focus on minimizing meat (as well as garlic/onions).
So, that’s Buddhist cuisine in a nutshell. 🙂
P.S. The same restrictions on meat, garlic and pungent herbs are found in the Shurangama Sutra and Chapter 8 of the Lankavatara Sutra.