All the Hungry Spirits:

Diet and Dogma in Contemporary Buddhism

by Kobai Scott Whitney

Note: Kobai Scott Whitney is a Buddhist chaplain in Washington State and is on the staff of Cloud Mountain Retreat Center.  He is the author of the book, Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in America’s Prisons.  


In prison systems, Buddhist chaplains are often asked for clarification about Buddhist teaching concerning diet. Some prison systems offer vegetarian diets that can be freely chosen by any inmate. Others require that inmates must have a religious reason for having a special diet. Many prisons provide special diets (sometimes at considerable cost) for Jewish and Muslim inmates. Sometimes inmates who want to eat a vegetarian diet for health reasons sign up as Buddhists so they can get the diet they want.

At one time the Washington State Department of Corrections asked me for guidelines on Buddhist dietary practice. What follows is the result of my research. Unfortunately, my findings do not deliver a clear-cut answer. We cannot say categorically, like the Seventh Day Adventists, for instance, that Buddhist teaching prohibits coffee, meat and alcohol. Inmates and prison policy makers have difficulty with nuance, with gray areas, with ambiguity. Subtle teachings do not lend themselves to the memo writers, nor to religious practitioners who crave absolutes.

Most Americans think that all Buddhists are (or should be) vegetarian. But the fact is that vegetarianism was not taught by the historical Buddha, who ruled that his monks should accept whatever was put in their begging bowls. Contemporary “convert” Buddhists in the West often base the rationale for their vegetarianism on the first Buddhist precept, which prohibits the harming or killing of sentient beings.

Yet the historical Buddha is said to have died of eating spoiled pork that was put in his begging bowl and even the Dalai Lama is not vegetarian. So where did American Buddhists get their ideas about diet as practice and, more importantly, what do the Pali sources tell us about the historical Buddha’s teachings about food?

American Buddhist centers are sometimes obsessed with diet and food practices. It’s a neurotic preoccupation that gets very contentious sometimes in these “convert” sanghas. In our own version of the food fight, Buddhist vegans look down on the ovo-lactos and the two of them scorn anyone who still eats meat, fish or foul. It is all quite dogmatic and self-cherishing. Food preoccupations get acted out in Buddhist kitchens, especially during times of intensive retreats when preferences about wheat, dairy, sugar and eggs, just to name a few, surface in the retreatants’ urgent requests to the cooks.

But let’s go back to the sources. One of the first scandals in the Buddha’s sangha (community) involved a schism brought about by one of the Buddha’s disciples, Devadatta, who was also Shakymuni’s brother-in-law. Devadatta insisted that Gotama endorse a list of rules that included things like monks must live under trees and monks must not eat the flesh of any sentient being. The Buddha refused to endorse Devadatta’s rules and, because of this refusal, Devadatta broke away from the original sangha, accusing the Buddha of violating the ahimsa (non-harming) principle. Devadatta later attempts to assassinate Gotama, an act which is not exactly ahimsa in action.

In the Jīvaka Sutta in the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, (Majjhima Nikāya) the Buddha emphasizes to his interlocutor, the layman Jīvaka, that “I say that meat should not be eaten when it is seen, heard, or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered for the bhikkhu.” (MN 55:5)  Here the Buddha emphasizes the avoidance of the direct, volitional karma of killing an animal to feed a monk or nun. But if this karmic condition does not exist, the order’s rule is to eat anything offered. And this rule only applied to the bhikkhu and the bhikksuni, the monks and nuns.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha refers to being an “almsfood eater” as one of the characteristics of the renunciant in the same way that being a wearer of a rag-patched robe or abiding under trees is one of those characteristics. He does not distinguish the contents of the almsfood. In fact, in one sutra he discusses the fact that even though the monks are not supposed to stay and eat in a layperson’s home, he himself sometimes makes an exception. “But I sometimes eat on invitation meals of choice rice and many sauces and curries.” Gotama further says that he himself is “content with any kind of almsfood and recommends contentment with any kind of almsfood.” (MN 77:9)

Later, as the Vinaya (the code of conduct for monks and nuns) is developed, there is detailed elaboration of the rules regarding food, distinguishing it into categories like staple and perishable, hard and soft. These rules regulate the times the monastic sanghas may eat and the conditions under which they may accept meal invitations from householders. In regard to meat, the Vinaya prohibits the bhikkhus from consuming the flesh of humans, elephants and horses on the grounds that these three are “noble” beings. The rules further prohibit the consumption of dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and panthers. Raw fish and raw meats that are otherwise permissible are also prohibited. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Buddhist Monastic Code).

According to some scholars, it was Chinese monks and nuns who began the tradition of not eating meat, basing the practice on the Lankavatara Sutra, which was translated into Chinese in the fifth century CE. It isaid the translators misunderstood the original text when rendering the sutra into Chinese.

Regardless of its origin, the tradition of not eating meat is predominant in those forms of Buddhism originating in China. This means Korean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Japanese Buddhists require some dietary practice for ordained people, though rarely from the laity. Devout lay people in the Chinese-descended traditions sometime eat vegetarian jai, or “monks’ food” twice monthly, on the day of the new and full moons or, in the West, on the calendar days of the 1st and 15th of each month. One Chinese Buddhist told me that that the vegetarian tradition was not based on the first precept at all, but rather was instituted as a form of voluntary poverty, stemming from the idea that traditionally only rich people had meat in their diets, so the monks were merely practicing a form of non-ostentation, much like the vinaya prohibition against wearing garlands and jewelry.

Even ordained Buddhists in Japan often eat fish or beef with no reservation. In Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetans—both lay and ordained—will not eat fish, but eat yak meat and dairy products.

To this day, Theravadan monks and nuns are frequently served pork or fish at their noon meal. I have myself eaten with them at temples in the Northwest. The laypeople of the temple prepare and bring this food and it is considered a great honor for Cambodian, Lao or Thai families to cook for the monks. Although they may eat fish or pork, these same monks practice eating only one meal a day, with nothing eaten after mid-day. In the evening, the monks may have some fruit juice, but that’s all. This is a spiritual practice surrounding eating and craving that has nothing to do with meat or not-meat. It’s a difficult and admirable practice that few American Buddhists I know have taken up. In the Pali sutras this practice is referred to as being a “one-session eater.” It is, like matted hair or wearing rags, one of the ascetic practices common at the time of the Buddha.

Contemporary Western Buddhists sometimes overlook the fact that the non-harming precept is intended to focus on the mind of the practitioner as much as on the act. All eating kills. Yet, lacking a sense of equanimity, we repent the killing of the cow, but not the demise of the cucumber. The idea of the first precept certainly has to do with the harm we do to other beings, but it is just as important to acknowledge the harm its violation does to our own psyche. To be granted a human life means also that very few days will go by in which other beings are not sacrificed so that we may survive. This is the core paradox of living up to ahimsa. It is the mind of killing we seek to tame. We do this by training the mind in gratitude and in generosity and by acknowledging the lives of all sentient beings who become our food.

Several  key ingredients have gone into the ideological stew of American Buddhist thought about food as practice. One was the publication in the 1970s of Frances Moore Lappé’s landmark book, Diet for a Small Planet. Perhaps just as powerful and from the same era was the dissemination of the iconic photo of the earth rising above the horizon of the moon. Both Lappé’s book and the NASA photo told us that the world was interrelated—and smaller and more fragile than we thought. Diet showed how there was no problem with feeding the people of the world if we stopped wasting water and grain feeding chickens, pigs and cattle. Thirty years later, Lappé published a sequel to Diet, called Hope’s Edge in which she looks at the corporate mega-food industry that continues the feedlot-slaughterhouse meat industry and spreads fastfood outlets across the landscapes of the inhabited world. These foods are both fast and lethal—filled as they are with sugar and fat. No wonder we have epidemic obesity in the U.S. and other developed countries while the Third World continues to endure famine and malnutrition.

Lappé recommended that we adopt a diet based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables. From a Buddhist point of view, the diet she recommends is based as much on the second Buddhist precept, not taking what is not offered, as it is on the first precept, not harming. Her research demonstrated how an American’s choice to eat a hamburger has implications for  the wellbeing of all people on earth.

Another contribution of American Buddhism to food ideology was the emergence in the same era of the Tassajara cookbooks and, later, the Green’s cookbook, all based on what San Francisco Zen Center was learning about how to cook vegetables and whole grains in elegant and appealing ways.

And this brings up the problem of elitism in American Buddhist food practice. Few working class people can afford to eat at Greens restaurant in San Francisco or at Alice Waters’ famous vegetarian restaurant, Chez Panisse, across the Bay in Berkeley. Oddly enough, because of how our economy is structured, being a vegetarian can be a much more expensive lifestyle than eating at Burger King and shopping at Safeway.

And much of the rhetoric of American vegetarians is riddled with New Age pseudo-science. Often people will tell me I should eat this or that or drink this or that tea because it will “get rid of the toxins”. I routinely ask which chemicals they are referring to under the label “toxins” and I get nothing back but very unBuddhist, hostile glares. 

No matter what our diet, the food we choose to eat can become an important part of our daily practice. Eating and/or preparing food is something that each of us does each day. To bring this activity into our mindfulness practice means that we focus on accepting and revering the food that we are given.

To do this we sometimes say a grace. This word in English actually has a Sanskrit root, grnati, which means “sings, praises, announces.” Thus, we are singing the praises and announcing the arrival of our food. Our grace can be anything from a brief bow to our food to a longer, recited meal sutra. A grace like this sanctifies (graces) our eating and reminds us to revere those beings who gave their lives so that we might prosper. As we eat we might focus on eliminating greed, hatred and self-centeredness from our heart-minds. That is the deeper practice. And it’s much harder than just not eating meat.

Philip Whalen, a Zen monk and poet who often ate meat and fish, wrote a special grace/poem. It’s from his book Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek.


Grace Before Meat

You food, you animal plants

I take you, now, I make you wise

Beautiful and great with joy

Enlightenment for all sentient beings

All the hungry spirits, gods and buddhas who are sad


When we have reverence for whatever we eat or drink, we are transmuting that food into wisdom and joy and clear thinking. That’s the practice.

In the Theravadan monastic tradition, the following grace is often used.

            Just as this almsfood is dependent upon and made up of mere elements, the individual that uses it also is not a permanent being, not a permanent life, void of self and made up of mere elements. All this almsfood is pleasant as it is, but when it is used by this body it becomes unpleasant.


It’s a rather severe grace, ending as it does in a Pali word that Sri Lankan scholar Dhammaruwan tells me should really be translated as “revolting.” In other words, the chant reminds the practitioner that food turns to shit. I don’t foresee this frank reminder of impermanence becoming popular with American Buddhists.

The Zen practice of oryoki, which involves eating in the meditation hall with a ritual set of bowls and utensils, teaches the practitioner that everything requires our mindful attention—even the “inanimate” objects like bowls, chopsticks and napkins.

If we go back to the original Pali sources, we see that the historical Buddha did not prohibit the eating of meat. He did suggest eating sparingly; he did recommend that almsfood eaters be content with what they received. He did admit that he himself sometimes lingered over an especially delicious meal.

We do not need to hold onto diet as dogma. How we eat can often be as important as what we eat. An attitude of loving attention and gratitude for our food is the key to food as practice. We need not judge others who eat differently. We need not cling to our strong opinions about what is dietarily right or wrong. This is the liberal, middle way that the historical Buddha envisioned.