The Buddha advised five moral precepts (pañca-sīla) for the development of morality (sīla). The first of these precepts is ‘abstaining from killing’. How does Buddhism then look at eating meat? And was the Buddha vegetarian?
In Theravāda Buddhism the Sangha (the monastic order) lives on alms. It is considered very beneficial to provide the Sangha with food (and other necessities). It is sometimes thought in the west that in this way monks take advantage of the population, that monks are a kind of parasites. Keep in mind that the monks don’t just lie lazily in a hammock, but work hard.
In the monastery of Ahba they are, young or old, studying and working from sunrise until well after sunset. Day in and day out. They adhere to 227 precepts, much more than the five for lay people. And when they dedicate themselves to meditation, they make the superhuman effort to purify the mind. Those who think it’s an easy life should try it for themselves. Try it and look how long you can take it!
The most important thing is that they dedicate their life entirely to the Dhamma. In this way they can take steps on the path the Buddha taught and develop wisdom. They can share this wisodm with the people who support them. The monks are an inspiration for the lay people, an example they can strive for. Everyone is free to join the Sangha but for many this step is too difficult. However, they can support the Sangha.
Let’s get back to living on alms. The Buddha taught that no distinction should be made between man or woman, poor or rich. Everyone had to be able to give if they wanted to give. When you think of the Indian caste system, which was even more present 2500 years ago than it is today, you realize how radical this step was.
In order to give everyone the opportunity to practice generosity, the Buddha did not teach a vegetarian diet. In fact, he even spoke out against a purely vegetarian diet when Devadatta brought it up in order to split the Sangha.
Monks were not allowed to be picky, not to indicate what they liked or disliked. After all, that is an expression of desire. There is even a sutta (sutra) where the Buddha gets sand as food from a very poor man because the man has nothing else to give. The Buddha sees that this gift was given with good intentions and eats the sand as a meal. You eat what is given.
However, he did teach that no meat should be eaten from an animal that has been deliberately slaughtered for a monk (MN 55):
“… under three circumstances meat may not be eaten: if seen, heard or assumed that a living creature has been deliberately slaughtered for the monk…”
Today, it varies per Buddhist school whether monks eat meat.
In Theravāda Buddhism, where the monks themselves do not grow food and where the Vinaya (the rules of conduct for monks) are still very traditional, the monks in general still eat meat. The same goes for the monks in Ahba’s monastery. However, Ahba has sometimes indicated that vegetarian food would be better in principle.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism it is customary for monks to eat vegetarian. This has partly to do with the fact that the monasteries sometimes grow their own food, and of course slaughtering an animal is out of the question for a monk. But it also has to do with some Mahāyāna sutras in which the Buddha would have spoken out against eating meat.
In Vajrayāna (including Tibetan Buddhism) it is allowed to eat meat on philosophical grounds. Probably geography plays a role as well since in Tibet vegetables make up only a modest part of the diet because they are more difficult to grow.
And what about western lay-disciples? It is difficult to project the teaching of the Buddha on a life with meat in the supermarket. The Buddha himself gave no advice to lay people regarding food, and we don’t have a ready-made answer.
If you feel remorse when eating meat, if you don’t think it is in accordance with mettā (loving-kindness), if you doubt whether this is accord with the advice to abstain from killing, or if you think that living according to the Dhamma should spare everything nature, then perhaps you should switch to a (partly) vegetarian diet. It remains a consideration that everyone has to make for themselves, taking into account their own circumstances and health.