The spirit of first precept

Hi all,

In Sri Lanka vegetarian Buddhists is not uncommon but in Thailand vegetarian Buddhists is quite rare compare to Sri Lanka.
Both are practicing Dhamma taught by the Buddha, based on Tipitaka. If everyone in a city practices five precepts particularly the first precept, the result is no one will kill the animals therefore everyone is vegetarian. That’s why it’s said vegetarianism is an inseparable extension of the first precept. But when asked the same question most Thai Buddhists has totally different answer they’re not correspond with each other.

Should we interpret the first precept based on our own personal understanding, I thought this precept is universal not personal? If we just be on the safe side I worry we could end up practicing extremism.

Does Tipitaka say anything in particular about the correlation between the first precept and vegetarianism, did the Buddha want us to develop the spirit of vegetarianism, what did the Buddha really teach?

If we can for a second put aside our personal opinion about food i.e. omnivorism and vegetarianism that would be great. Hope someone can clear up this confusion. Happy new year 2018! Thanks in advance.


This essay by Ajahn Brahm gives an overview of what the suttas have to say.

One that he doesn’t mention is snp2.2 which goes into all the other way the precepts are broken which (I interpret) are worse than eating meat.

IMHO, Yes. Buddhism isn’t a ‘thou shalt not’ religion. It is a training in growing our understanding through cultivating the heart and mind.

I’m not sure what you mean about extremism. We are not asked to go around telling people what to do, and it generally doesn’t make us happier or the other person when we do.

The precepts are a form of training we voluntarily undertake. We should reflect on how we are using them to train ourself regularly, in a compassionate way.


The Buddha refused Devadatta when he asked vegetarianism to be enforced. The Buddha even allowed some types of animal meats to be eaten. This to me suggests that vegetarianism is not a necessary result of following the first precept- otherwise he wouldn’t jeopardize the chances of his followers attaining stream entry by saying what he did.

The Buddha’s dhamma is for a realistic world- not an ideal world. In a realistic world not everyone will follow the precepts, much less be Buddhist.

The Buddha’s main aim is to get people to nibbana, and that doesn’t mean he can have world peace-vegetarianism-nuclear disarmament and an entire world converted to Buddhism all the same time. The Gotama Buddha didn’t convert everyone living during his time… Eating meat is not going to die out, even among Buddhists- but that wont stop people from becoming stream entrants- there is a story about a woman (who was a stream entrant) who would hand the bow and arrow to her husband who was a hunter gatherer, and people can argue this is breaking the first precept. But it isnt. The First precept is about killing animals. We can make it ever wider, until we are unable to ever keep the first precept- like the jains, and the only way to keep it will be to commit ritual suicide.

If we take the first precept to mean personally not killing, and for some this may feel like it isn’t enough, we will be able to keep the first precept- and fulful the sila training requirement (along with the other four precepts) for stream entry.

with metta


Hi SC1100,

I think it’s very important to have these sorts of questions asked. Thank you for being the one to do this right now! We need reminders that challenge us to look at our comfort zones and how they relate to our Practise and understanding about what the Buddha said too.

So I am assuming this is the heart of what you’re asking? Please do correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re asking us to set aside our personal beliefs and preferences and see what the EBTs say. I can see that @Pasanna has provided some textual references already - some of which are contained in the essay she has provided a link to.

I value what the EBTs say enormously. However I feel we cannot divorce such questions from our personal lives. The precepts, the 8 Fold Path and so much of what is in the EBTs themselves are a direct challenge to how we have viewed and lived our personal lives for a very, very long time.

For me this all comes back to the deep “personal-ness” of Buddhist spiritual Practice.

Some people I know have chosen to go beyond Vegetarianism and become Vegan. Partly for health reasons. But partly because they’re animal lovers and have done research into how animals are treated before they’re killed for meat in some places, or how they are treated even in dairy farms. There are horror stories. Such stories have caused some people to become Vegan. This is of course, perfectly fine.

If you view it as an act of generosity to be vegetarian/vegan and you find ways of ensuring you have metta for your body and support it using other sources of nutrition…then that’s fine.

If you view this matter in a larger context, developing some equanimity around the mess that is the world, and seek to minimise your intake of meat as a means of contributing to the minimising of harm to other beings, that’s fine too.

If, like one of my relatives, your very specific health issues demand that you consume meat, but you do not kill it and you also seek to acquire it as ethically as possible, that’s fine.

If you know your conditioning around eating and pleasure is too strong, at least you’re being honest and that’s also fine. Perhaps you even take it a step further and do some research so that you acquire you meat from sources that showed gratitude towards the animal, from the moment of it’s birth to it’s death. I believe that at least some ancient indiginous cultures had an attitude of respect towards what they hunted and even asked for forgiveness; further they didn’t eat meat in excess. I know there are some movements among meat-eaters that seek to provide a loving, kind life to the animal prior to a swift execution by someone who did not personally know the animal. (Personally I don’t know how they can do this…it seems like the betrayal of a loved one to me…but perhaps it’s better than some of the horrors some beings have to go through prior to their death.) Such movements are, aside from whatever ethical basis there might be, I think, very much based in the value of meat, not just for health but for pleasure and so you have people comparing the flavours within the meat of an animal who lived happily and an animal that lived unhappily. While there is something repulsive, perverse and dishonest in this - for me - at least there is the minimisation of harm for the animal - though I don’t believe you could live with this sort of betrayal if you believed that animals had a sense of self or even soul or saw them as a being like yourself. Such an action, for me with my Buddhist views which have informed how I interact with other beings, would poison my own heart. I hold the Buddha’s conditioning directly responsible for my viewing my little cats as people trapped in cat bodies!!

If you see the value in vegetarianism/veganism as movements that reduces harm to other beings and to the wider environment and you want to increase their ethical influence, that’s also fine.

If you’ve understood the value of a plant based diet as something that supports you and the planet in the best possible way, then that’s fine too.

Personally, I’ve tried all manner of diets, including that last one (which is brilliant and still greatly informs how I live) and now find that the most important thing is that I continue to be open to new perspectives and to reducing the harm for myself and other beings in the best way that I can right now. It’s not about finding an idealised “I should be doing this…” Rather it’s about starting with self-kindness, self-honesty and being open…and seeing where this leads me.

If you know in your heart whether something feels wrong for you to do and you refrain from doing it, that’s the most important thing. For me it’s about knowing where the line is for me personally and honouring that. But often, for most of us, this line is very, very far away from the first precept. Because the breaking of the first precept involves emotional and psychological states that have the power to make our Practice difficult to develop and will surely present a grave hindrance that will need to be acknowledged and forgiven and let go of; all of which can only be done with the cultivation of a great deal of wisdom and peace; both of which really only manifest when our virtue is very good… It wouldn’t be impossible, it would be very possible, but it would be harder, to return to the centre of our hearts with ease.

Such emotional/psychological harm is not caused by the act of eating meat. Reducing or eliminating meat from our diet is worthwhile and can surely reduce the harm to the other beings and the environment to some degree. And making people aware of these things is also likely to reduce such harm. But these things do not equate to the first precept. The act of putting another version of the 4 elements in our mouth that has gone through all manner of transformation prior to it landing on our fork, is not the same as killing another being. Surely that’s very obvious.

However, the greater sense of ease we would feel in at least reducing our consumption of meat, at least within the boundaries of that which comes out of our own kitchen, is surely something that is good for our hearts and minds to reflect upon. I imagine those of us who are or have been vegetarian/vegan know how much happiness is produced when we reflect upon the fact that we are not contributing to an industry that is essentially one that provides other human beings with Wrong Livelihood, is centred on mass murder for profit and is a major contributor to environmental damage of various kinds; it’s worth noting that these last two aspects would not have been so pronounced and impactful in the Buddha’s time.

Right now in my life it’s a lot simpler, for example, I know that I cannot (not do not, I just cannot bring myself to do it - this is my personal line) buy raw meat. This knowledge gives me a sense of ease. It might not for you…but that is fine. We give very personal meanings to these things. But this is a reflection that makes me feel happy, knowing I’m contributing to at least the minimisation of harm. I’m hesitant to share this personal example actually, as I don’t want to make it sound like I’m trying to force this choice on anyone else… Because I really do value the fact that we all make our own choices and must be free to do so within the bounds of at least relatively reasonable social laws.

The first precept safeguards our own hearts. This is its primary purpose and I think this is often misunderstood: we safeguard our own hearts by choosing not to kill another living being with our own hands. That choice guards our own minds from devasting consequences and the growth of habits/characters that would make our Buddhist spiritual goals even further out of reach.

In keeping the first precept we make the sphere of our own being, a place that is free of fear and harm; a place we want to be in because instead it’s safe and kind; when we want to be in it, we can be present, we can watch our breath with ease for longer…the rest as they say… Of course, the more we extend it, the more we cultivate it’s positives - in a way that is meaningful for us, personally, the more likely it is that we get to experience the pleasant present as something normal to our everyday being.

The first precept is both deeply personal and universal. It is the most basic principle of non-harm. But it is also not absolute. I once heard Ajahn Brahm refer to the precepts as red traffic lights. To paraphrase him, he said, if someone was in the back of the car having a heart attack and there was a red traffic light ahead, it would be quite okay to look both ways and go through that light. However, I believe such instances within the course of a lifetime should ideally be extremely rare and carefully thought through. The removal of a hornets nest in a school, the taking of antibiotics and a few other examples to do with specific medical cases come to mind here.

The universality of this precept means that we should recognise in our own hearts the value of keeping it. Yes we can influence others to keep it but if we decide how it should be kept by others and to what extent we want others to extend it or cultivate its positive opposites, then we are taking away other people’s power to make these decisions for themselves, to look into their own hearts, to become skilled at these things themselves; we stop them from walking their own path to kindness and peace and wisdom, because their motivation for their actions comes from our control, projecting of guilt or manipulation or even (more positively) from the wisdom we gained from our own path - but not from their inner path. Their ability to go inward, to make this Path their own, is weakened. Thus we end up causing harm, where we were actually seeking to reduce it!

Basically, the first precept is very specific. But that doesn’t mean it’s not pointing us in a more broader direction. Both it’s specific keeping and how we take up it’s greater call, are deeply personal choices that we have to make for ourselves.

Finally, more and more I value the voices of Vegans and Vegetarians in this world. The mass horrors that go on, mostly unnoticed by the general population, are well…I’m left speechless here… We need these voices, these questions. I need them. They prompt me on my own personal journey to being the best I can be, to understanding myself, my place. But I have learned, as the rain of such challenging voices have fallen into my life, that it is also valuable to stop forcing, to let go of guilt, to understand the bigger picture, to have forgiveness and gratitude as well. When we’re crippled by guilt or are functioning through a sense of being forced by ourselves or others, we cannot be honest with ourselves and some how kindness becomes harder to dwell in and to offer.

With metta and thanks again for this important question and Topic.


The 1st precept, which in my understanding cannot be kept perfectly, cultivates humility and lovingkindness. As science reveals that even plants can learn, experience distress and pleasure, have memories, communicate, cooperate and compete, we are faced with the the unobtainability of perfection. Even a diet of fruits or parts of plants which can be lost and survived, causes suffering to other lives.

This is :slight_smile: not a bug, but a feature. (An old InfoTech saying). Clinging to perfectionism is clinging to ego. Clinging to the Raft must be released. And every liberation reduces suffering in this world. … I do not personally think it is virtuous to strive to be the last being to leave Hell.

For those for whom this might be helpful, I post. If my words are not relevant to you, please, just roll your eyes and move on!

May all beings achieve liberation.


Plant is not part of the 31 realms of birth because there has never been an account of someone being reborn as a plant or someone remembering one’s previous life as being a plant.

Of course, unnecesarily causing destruction of plants is bad, but it is not an act of killing.

The working of plant is categorized as bija niyama.

1 Like

:slight_smile: When this world itself dies, do you doubt kamma will be incurred by sentient beings who contributed to or fought this violence? When species and biosystems die, kamma for humans.

But whether other species have kamma is none of our business, while we have form, etc.

Just because it is not humans’ business or Path -relevant for us, does not mean it is no things’ business/Path/ story.

But don’t get distracted, friend! And for you char, it seems this is a distraction, and probably is for others. Just work the Path. :slight_smile:

I hope you wont take offence at this, but I think many are involved in trying to bring about ‘heaven on earth’. As long as delusion (and therefore defilements) exists in the minds of people, the horror will continue. Therefore the only option is to teach the dhamma, and young people at that…! This is the greatest gift we can give.

At some point you will learn to let go and let be -this earth, and pave the way away from samsaric existence. The teachings point towards letting go, not to create a better earth- but to let go of the stuff of samasara to lean the mind towards nibbana; which I might add at this point, is not samsara…

Someone said we are stewards of this earth- it doesn’t belong to us. We look after it, for a bit. Our true destination is nibbana - if there is litter in the carriage we need to clean it and keep it in a good condition for us and future passengers.

with metta


I see your post as an expression of lovingkindness. :slight_smile:

1 Like

Thank you. There will be a range of persepctives one can subscribe to, based on their degree of understanding, and they wont be fixed and may change with time, so it good to have that range expressed.

with metta

1 Like

Sangha (in the broadest sense): also a feature, not a bug. It WAD Works as Designed! :slight_smile:

The First Percept is kept when you, the keeper of the percept, don’t kill and don’t request others to kill for you. That’s why Buddha did explicitly allow for meat consumption and declined mandatory vegetarianism idea even for the Sangha, not to mention the laypeople.


But vegetarianism/veganism requires only putting some other stuff in the cart when one goes shopping.

If one can do some good by choosing a colored box that says “chickpeas” instead of “chicken” at the store, why not do it? :slight_smile:

It’s hardly striving for perfection or a perfect world to go to a different section of the grocery store :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Agree. But what if your partner does the shopping?

with metta

“Darling, why don’t I do the shopping today and you just relax?” :innocent:


:slight_smile: I am detaching from this conversation, but this might be a helpful thought for some: presenting others’ words out of context does not aid understanding. It probably is not Right Speech.

with peace

1 Like

My appologies if I quoted you out of context. If I did, it was probably because I misunderstood the point you were making.

Peace :slight_smile:

1 Like

Your statement above shows the spirit of both precepts, imo. :slight_smile: TY for this example.

The training precept is to take no life; but caring for other beings’ lives and deaths is stimulated too, when you must consider, was this killed for me? Is it better to be vegan than vegetarian? How do I incorporate courtesy to hospitality into my practice? Perhaps the precept IS simple, take no life directly. Yet human minds are not comfortable with simple rules, so the precept opens a door in the mind, towards compassion, for all life, including one’s own. Perfectionism is a harsh burden; no matter how one eats, the precept is an achievable training exercise.

o my. Please forgive me if this open ended thinking and writing is annoying. Just a layperson here, and at times, a lil enthusiastic!


I do agree with a lot of what you are saying, but please keep in mind that industrial meat production did not exist at the time of the Buddha, and that people in general ate far less meat than they do today. Also, a monk who is fed by ordinary people who gain merit from donating food, accepts whatever he is given. With this as a foundation, some lay-Buddhists will eat whatever they are served at parties etc., but will not use their own money to purchase meat.

If you watch a movie like Earthlings, which deals with manmade animal suffering, it is hard to come away with the feeling that eating meat is ok. Is vegetarianism necessary for stream entry? I don’t think so, but I do think compassion increases on the road to, and as a result of walking into the stream, headed for the other shore. With this increase in compassion I find it unlikely that someone who is aware of human made animal suffering will not at least take steps towards reducing their misery. So I think the stream enterer will do something about her meat eating habits upon understanding the suffering it contributes to, even if she doesn’t become a fully fledged vegan.