Nichiren Buddhism and Vegetarianism

Traditional views in various societies tend to merge the image of “Buddhist” as being “Vegetarian”.  Where did this idea come from?

Tracing back the history of Buddhism, we find that the Brahmin, or “the seekers of the truth” in ancient India - where Shakyamuni Buddha lived – were all devoted individuals who chose to dwell in forests and retreats, spending their time in deep meditation and in teachings of their disciples.  They regarded killing of animals as an action of cruelty, and the daily life-energy they needed for their body to operate was well acquired by eating fruits and vegetables. 

Buddhism is about compassion. Buddhism is firmly against cruelty.  Animals do not have to experience pain at death. There are examples of some African tribes’ hunters, who tranquilize their prey by saturating the arrow they use by chemicals derived from plants, so that the animal would not feel pain or consciousness at death.  Prevention of pain and sufferings – even in hunting animals – is a mark of human compassion.

Buddhism is for all humanity

In the same time, Buddhism is not a teaching for a specific category of people. It is a teaching for all humanity.  there are billions of people whose diet is based on the meat industry - and these people cannot be excluded from attaining enlightenment as they are.  Buddhism is not about food diets, it is about  hardships, peace and attaining enlightenment.

Nichiren’s teachings against cruelty

Nichiren considers as evil any action intended at cruelty and harm.  Cruelty against animals is evil - even if the animal was not consumed for its skin or as food.

In modern terms, as Buddhists, we should support social movements acting against aggression and violence towards animals.  In the same time, we should ensure that the food industry is free from harming its subjects.  Putting animals to death is justified in cases of medical necessity ( many animals are euthanized to ease their sufferings when being sick), and also when animals are used for consumption.  This should be done without harming, a matter which is practically possible, and belongs to the responsibility of relevant authorities to enforce. 

Buddhism is reason, and its spirit is that of creativity and transformation.  It would be hypocrisy and lack of wisdom to ignore that millions of people are in need of the meat industry for their survival, and it is compassion towards all people.  Buddhism does not  dividing humanity into two categories of people: vegetarians and no-vegetarians. 

Providing practical solutions, such as eliminating pain of animals in the food industry, and also providing more creative and cheap food solutions based on vegetables - this would be an attitude which can minimise or eliminate harm to animals.

Acknowledging diversity of people

A great number of individuals were born in meat eating environment.  As the Lotus Sutra states:

“living beings have different natures, different desires, different actions, and different ways of thinking” Lotus Sutra Ch. 16 p. 267  Nichiren Buddhism is a teaching for all humanity, it encompasses all people as they are, regardless of their personal differences or ways of life style. 

In fact, Nichiren makes it clear that all of his followers who chant Nammyohorengekyo should transcend all differences among themselves.  He makes this a rule, and warns against using any categorization, which differentiates between people based on their personal choices:

“if any of Nichiren’s disciples disrupt the unity of many in body but one in mind, they would be like warriors who destroy their own castle from within. WND1 p.217

Buddhism does not condition attaining enlightenment by the type of menu or diet of practitioners, and is against differentiating between people, or dividing the society into whatever categories of classification.

Meat consumption does not necessitate cruelty

Cruelty has no justification - and the meat industry can be regulated so that animals can pass to the phase of death without being consciously aware - and without any pain.  Avoiding cruelty is possible, and it is an expression of the level of enlightenment and compassion of the community we live in.  (It is compassion itself that requires that sometimes animals are put to death to stop their sufferings, and are put into a deep sleep). 

It is important to view vegetarianism in its proper perspective – as a personal choice of diet, and not as a religious practice.  Consistency in behaviour is also importnat.  There are examples of vegetarian monks who were involved in actions of violence.  In Nichiren writings we find records of Buddhist monks, all traditionally vegetarians – who, while observing the precepts of not killing animals - they were involved in killing people (with “armed priests” shooting arrows at their opponents):

“Then the chief priest [Myōun] and his disciples employed all the rites of the True Word teachings in their prayers to vanquish the enemy and even ordered their armed priests to shoot arrows at the Minamoto soldiers”. WND 1 p. 795

“ I am vegetarian, but I work in meat industry! How to reconcile this?”

This question was asked by a youth in one SGI discussion meetings, sincerely concerned about her situation as being vegetarian, but has to take work in a restaurant serving hamburger and other meat based products.  One answer was that Nichiren Buddhism is against creating the feel of guilt in people.

We cannot demand society to change its rules to suite our thinking.  Meat industry is covered by government regulations to ensure procedures to prevent cruelty and pain in animals used in the food chain.  The responsibility in how the animal was treated in the meat industry belongs to relevant authorities, who can do something about it.   It is the responsibility of social authorities to ensure no cruelty was practiced in the meat industry and it is our civil right to demand steps to be taken in that direction. Therefore, karmic effects of any action against animals return to those who could prevent cruelty by taking action and finding solutions. 

Dwelling on worries which aim to create personal guilt is not supported by reason. 

Dissolving tension between Framers and Hunters

In the long journey of evolution, people used for their survival the available “energy of life” from both plants and animals.  Plants and animals are also expressions of the energy of life, as we human beings are. 

It may be true that life evolved from plants to animals to human beings, but all manifestations of life are interconnected and not hierarchical.   As an SGI member once mentioned:

“Life functions to evolve and to create from the energy contained within life itself.  Thus, what matters is that life continues to use its own energy, create progress and development, continually improving its own expression of existence.  We see this as evolution. Therefore, it is not how one obtains the energy to sustain one’s life, but how one shows appreciation for the energy itself.”

Whether one uses vegetables or meat - as long as there was no cruelty or intent to harm involved – one’s efforts for the betterment of humanity and the environment, are what matter.  

We do not have to worry.  In the chain of meat industry, animals do not have to experience pain, and as Buddhists, we can influence society to find solutions to for cruelty-free sources of food. This is possible, and even the necessary culling of animals to protect the vegetable and food industry - can be done without the animals feeling pain.