What is the Buddhist view on diet?When Buddhism first appeared in India, there were no specific dietary customs and rules for practitioners. Since religious practices were prevalent in India, most people of faith must have followed generally similar dietary customs. In the early stage of Buddhism, bhikshus and bhikshunis obtained their food by walking door to door through the village, carrying an alms bowl. This manner of subsisting is described by the saying "an alms bowl for food from a thousand households." To treat everyone equally and to seize opportunities to cultivate karmic relations, the monastics did not choose from whom to receive food; neither were there dietary taboos over whether the food was clean or unclean, sacred or not sacred.
In today's Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, where Theravada Buddhism is prevalent, this traditional custom practice has been preserved. Monastics cannot be picky or fastidious about their food; they accept whatever is given by the almsgivers. They wouldn't even refuse fish or meat, as long as it was not slaughtered for their sake. This is why there is no mandatory vegetarian diet in Theravada Buddhism. If one can follow it, a vegetarian diet is encouraged and emphasized in Buddhism. This is due to the belief in practicing compassion towards animals, not necessarily for health and economic reasons, as embraced by many vegetarians today. In fact, eating meat not only impairs compassion; it is also harmful to health. Therefore, some Mahayana sutras, such as the Brahma Net Sutra (Chn: 梵網經; Skt: Brahmajala Sutra) and the Shurangama Sutra, forbid eating meat and stress the importance of a vegetarian diet.
The Buddhist vegetarian diet entails abstaining from eating certain pungent vegetables (葷, hun) and food of fleshy smell (腥, xing). Vegetables with pungent and offensive odors include garlic, scallions, garlic chives, leeks, etc. According to the Shurangama Sutra, "Eating raw pungent vegetables may create anger; eating cooked pungent vegetables may lead to lust." Therefore, there is a rule for monastics that, after consuming pungent vegetables, one should sleep alone, stay a few steps away and downwind from others, or gargle until there is no pungent odor anymore. The main purpose of abstaining from eating certain pungent vegetables is to avoid disturbing others. Furthermore, before reciting sutras, one should also avoid consuming pungent vegetables to prevent the ghosts and spirits who may be present from arousing anger and greed. Food of fleshy smell refers to animal flesh or fish. Chili pepper, black pepper, five-spice, star anise, fennel, Chinese toon, and cinnamon are considered spices, not pungent food; therefore, they are not on the forbidden list.
Abstaining from alcohol is an important Buddhist precept. In some religions, not only is alcohol permitted, it is also used ritually. Since wine-making does not harm animals, and alcohol can often be used medicinally, some religions do not forbid it. However, Buddhism highly emphasizes wisdom, so we believe that alcohol use can easily alter one's temperament and personality. Not many people can be clear-minded and self-controlled after much drinking. Therefore, to stay clear-minded and to enhance diligence in attaining the goals of practice, one must abstain from alcohol. Confucius allowed that drinking would be acceptable for the general public if one does not lose self-control. Therefore, if a lay Buddhist practitioner cannot abstain from alcohol, he can forsake the no-drinking precept and can still be considered a follower of the Three Jewels. If alcohol is used in cooking, as long as there is no residual fragrance and intoxicating power, it should not be a concern.
In restaurants where meat is served, or at home where some eat meat and some are vegetarian, it would be ideal to use separate sets of cookware and utensils. Since the scents of meats and vegetables are very different, they will affect the eaters differently; for the sake of different preference, it is necessary to keep the food separated and unmingled. However, Sixth Patriarch Huineng after attaining enlightenment, traveled in disguise with a group of hunters. At mealtimes, out of compassion to sentient beings, he ate only the vegetables from mixed dishes and avoided the meat. So with restrictive living conditions, it would also be acceptable to cook vegetarian meals in cookware that was used for meat.
Regarding tobacco products and narcotics, it would be permissible in Buddhist rules with physician's prescription. Neither tobacco nor alcohol consumption will be considered a violation of precepts if they are used in this kind of circumstance. Certainly one should not use health as an excuse to fulfill one's craving for tobacco, alcohol and narcotics. In some places, smoking tobacco is a way to cope with miasma; therefore, the use of proper amount of tobacco is permitted for monastics living in the areas where miasma is widespread. Otherwise, for the sake of dignified bearing, bhikshus and bhikshunis should abstain from smoking. Smoking for stimulation, out of habit, or boredom is not permitted by the precepts. In tropical areas, chewing betel-nuts can prevent respiratory diseases, but again, if not for health reasons, chewing betel-nuts is undignified and harmful to the image of monks and nuns.
Of course, tobacco and betel-nuts are not staple foods; moderate consumption for health reasons is allowed, but they can also cause harm to health when used excessively. For example, excessive alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning; nicotine damages lungs and leads to cancer; betel-nut juice can damage one's teeth. Therefore, Buddhists should refrain from consuming these items, unless absolutely necessary
With regard to eggs, they are in the fleshy smell category because they can become chicks, and they also contain animal scent. Therefore, one who has taken a strict vegetarian vow should not consume eggs. Although mass-produced eggs are now sterilized and do not contain life, they are obviously not of plant origin. While eating sterile eggs does not violate the precept against killing or harm one's compassion, from the vegetarian point of view they should be avoided.
Dairy products do not belong to the fleshy smell category. Since cows and goats consume grass and grains, their milk does not emit pungent flesh odor. Also, consuming milk does not involve killing or harming the animals. When cows and goats are raised for milk, the process does not harm the growth and development of the young animals. Therefore, during the Buddha's time, people consumed milk in five ways: as milk, cheese (curds), whey, butter, and cream. These are common food staples and well-needed nutrients, so they are not forbidden to Buddhists. Today, due to the increasing demand for dairy products, many dairy farms and processing plants adopt mass-production techniques, and abuse the animals' biological nature and living conditions. For these reasons, some animal protection groups advocate against dairy consumption. Therefore, based on principles of compassion and animal protection, Buddhists need to be cautious when purchasing dairy products, to consider their source, and whether the animals are raised humanely.