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buddist dining etiquette
prohibited food & drink
Meat and fish are not eaten by many people in the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Some believers in both Theravada and Mahayana are vegans, and some particularly from China and Vietnam do not eat onion, garlic or leek either - referring to these as the ‘five pungent spices.’
Buddha advised the monks to avoid eating ten kinds of meat for their self-respect and protection: humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, boars and hyenas.
food laws and beliefs
There are no set dietary laws in Buddhism.
Buddhist dietary restrictions are structured very differently than those of the Abrahamic religions such as Judaism and Islam. In those religions, the dietary restrictions make a clear distinction between permitted foods and forbidden foods. By contrast, there is no such clear distinction between permitted and forbidden foods in Buddhism. Therefore, there is a great deal of diversity in Buddhist practise.
In the time of the Buddha, the monks were expected to eat everything that was put in their begging bowl without discrimination, including meat or rotten food.
There are some, particularly in the Mahayana school, who eat meat, fish and eggs. Others, particularly from China and Vietnam, refrain from eating the Five Pungent Spices such as garlic, onion and leek, because they are considered to increase one’s sexual desire and anger.
Tibetans will never eat fish, and usually stay away from foul. The reason is that different kinds of meat supposedly give different kinds of obscurations. Fish, the obscuration of aggression; foul the obscuration of desire; and red meat the obscruration of ignorance. It was generally better to eat red meat because the animal killed was very large and only one life had to be taken to feed many people; with fish, you usually have to take many more lives to fill the same number of stomachs.
The first Precept is often interpreted as ‘do not harm,’ and many Buddhists choose to be vegetarian as a result of this precept. One basic tenet of Buddhism is that of reincarnation and the belief that animals can be reincarnated as humans and vice versa. As a result, Buddhists do not kill animals, and many do not eat meat or fish because this is considered to be bad for their karma.
Buddhism and Jainism are the main religions who give utmost importance to Ahimsa (non- violence) and so there is a relationship with vegetarian belief in Buddhism.
According to the Buddha’s instructions for the “Five Contemplations While Eating,” one considers if one deserves the food, if one’s own mind is not greedy, if the food is a necessity and a healing agent for the body, and if the food is eaten for the purpose of a part of reaching enlightenment.
feasts and fasting
In Mahayana Buddhism, the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha are three common festivals in which feasting takes place (dates differ by regional calendar). In Theraveda Buddhism all three days are unified into the single holiday of Vesak.
Buddhist monks fast completely on the days of the new moon and full moon each lunar month; they also avoid eating any solid food after noon. This is done as a means of purification. Theravadin and Tendai Buddhist monks fast as a means of freeing the mind. Some Tibetan Buddhist monks fast to aid yogic feats, like generating inner heat.
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- Mike Lininger, Editor, Etiquette Scholar
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