A Buddhist Diet in London 6 December 2016
Food and practice around dietary requirements are common and important factors in every known religion. From what’s found in doctrines and texts – elaborate lists of foods that are forbidden, or permitted, through cult-offerings and sacrificing of food and drinks on altars, eating and drinking blessed food during liturgies, to periods of fast and feast – food and religion have often had an intense, complicated, and sometimes almost “love-hate” relationship.
For Buddhist faith, traditions and schools, this relationship is very significant and complicated, even without complex rules of, for example, what’s forbidden and when.
Buddhist Diets – A Historical View
The most common and simplified view on the Buddhist relation to food and diet is the view that a follower of any of the Buddhist schools is a vegetarian, if not vegan, as Buddhists are known to put emphasis on compassion towards living beings. While the latter is half of this sentence is definitely true, we don’t have any texts that would suggest that Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) established a practice of avoiding eating meat by lay believers. However, the most commonly quoted religious source by vegan or vegetarian Buddhists, is the first of five Buddhist precepts – ‘Not killing or causing harm to other living beings.’ As the London Buddhist Centre’s website explains it:
“This is the fundamental ethical principle for Buddhism, and all the other precepts are elaborations of this. The precept implies acting non-violently wherever possible, and many Buddhists are vegetarian for this reason. The positive counterpart of this precept is love.”
Those five precepts have not changed, but the different Buddhist traditions have shaped the Buddhist diet regulations through history.
One of the concepts related to the Buddhist life, and consequently the food and diet, is karma – there are consequences in a Buddhist’s life, or future lifetimes, of any actions. Acting against the precept of harming others will, logically, have negative consequences. Results of it are unknown, and may manifest in the immediate or very distant future, and can even determine the future lifetime. Thus, harming others – disrespecting the first precept – will have negative consequences. But this is not as straightforward as it looks. Schools and traditions interpreted this rule in different ways, and some believed that only a person who directly killed or harmed an animal, and those who sold meat, created bad karma, but there was a lesser impact on those who didn’t kill but ate meat. Thus, in Eastern Buddhist cultures, a butcher or a fishmonger were the worst professions one could choose, because of a person’s direct involvement in harming animals or selling their flesh. Others, however, believed that karma could not be divided amongst many, and every act – from killing an animal to eating its flesh – had the same negative consequences.
Vinaya Pitaka, a framework of rules and regulations for Buddhist monastic communities, is another point of reference, when it comes to the Buddhist diet. According to this ancient text, monks cannot eat meat, but it is not forbidden for the lay followers. One could however point the same text and observe that even though Vinaya is strict (monks had to watch out for any tiny organisms in their drinks or where they walked), monks obtained their food by begging, and therefore a monk could accept meat, if he was convinced that the animal was not killed and prepared specifically for him – what was more important here was the monk’s effort to obtain the vegetarian food.
With the spread of Mahayana Buddhism further East – to China, Korea and Japan – the relationship with food modified even more; monasteries became more sustainable, and monks could grow their own food. So it is due to the Mahayana traditions that the vegetarian diet eventually made its way into the culture of modern Buddhist lay persons and found its expression in its cuisine- this is exemplified by dishes such as Shojin Ryori that uses vegetables and tofu and was introduced in Japan together with Buddhism in the 6th century. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment, and ryori means “cooking.” It became even more popular with the establishment and spread of Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 13th century.
Buddhist Diets in London
With the spread of Buddhism to the West we can observe even more growing diversity. Many schools and traditions found their way to the West, and with migration eastern Buddhists brought their customs and beliefs. People born in different religious traditions who become attracted by Buddhist philosophy often adopt the views it brings. There is immense diversity among Buddhists that live in London – they all come from many different cultures, and walks of life, and it is increasingly hard to put them in one ‘basket’.
In their study from 2000, Kristin Steele and Stephanie Kaza, tried to show the correlation between Buddhist faith and adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, among Western Buddhists. They observed that vegetarianism can become a practice itself for many Buddhists – ”vegetarianism becomes a powerful tool for spiritual development, rather than moral obligation”.
While some traditions and schools in the West are strict on a vegetarian or vegan diet, some allow their followers and members to decide for themselves. Some – like Tibetan tradition – would even allow monks to eat meat. Following the points of Vinaya and minimising the suffering and possible negative karma, they would therefore allow eating the flesh of bigger animals (such as beef) rather than small animals, to avoid sacrificing many lives to sustain one and instead sacrifice one life to sustain many.
Nichiren Buddhism, established in 13th century Japan by a monk, Nichiren Daishonin, and one of the most westerly spread Japanese traditions, can provide another example. One Londoner I spoke to, James, is a Nichiren follower, and a member of lay Buddhist organisation SGI, and he believes there are no rules about lifestyle in Buddhism. He says: ”one of the things about this Buddhism is that Nichiren set out very few rules on how we have to live our lives, he ultimately just said that we should chant nam myoho renge kyo; not even how much we should chant. And certainly he did not say what or how we should eat. What this Buddhism does teach you is to be respectful for life, for example, each day we make a prayer for happiness of all living beings. And that has helped me to be more focused and be more respectful and allowed me to reflect.”
Ollie, who lives and works at the London Buddhist Centre and is training to join the Triratna Order, a western Buddhist Tradition established in the 1960s, puts it this way: “We welcome everyone here, at the centre – our centres are not temples that follow monastic rules. Once one becomes a mitra – a friend of the order – one is expected to move into a direction of respecting and adapting to the five precepts, and of course – in terms of diet – to the first precept, which means a move towards a vegetarian diet. Once one becomes a member of the order – they are definitely expected to respect the precepts and have a vegetarian diet.” Each of the Triratna Buddhist centres has its own administration and the rules around what can be served for a meal – “There is a café here, in our centre on Roman Road. It belongs to a privately owned chain, but when they signed a contract with us, the requirement was that they would serve only vegetarian food.”
“The retreat centres,”he continues “serve vegetarian food, and some will serve only vegan, but that depends on those who run it.”
A similar thing happens in Kwan Um Zen Centres. Bogumila Malinowska is the only teacher of this Zen school in the UK. She told me that in Zen centres only vegetarian food is served, but what disciples, or even teachers do outside, is their choice. ”There are some teachers that eat meat,” she says “and we cannot judge this, it is their decision and that’s that. More important than refusing to eat meat is to question: Why? Why would one eat meat, what is the reason for one to become vegetarian? This question itself can become a kong-an (a question or statement to meditate on, and test a student’s progress). My son became vegetarian when he was 10, but I did not want to put any pressure on him, I allowed him to eat meat.”
Another aspect of the food-religion relationship is ritual. The specific process of eating as well as special prayers or offerings, find their place in Buddhism, and Michael Ohlsson writing about the Buddhist diet, starts his article from this point. The Five Contemplations Performed While Eating is a recipe for a meditation that makes a Buddhist stop and think about the food they are eating: ”It is the first step in questioning what food is, why we eat it, where it comes from, and when and how we should eat it.”
Steele and Kaza observe that many Western Buddhists actually practice “gratitude or awareness during their meal.” They also observe that ”practitioners believe that food and eating are particular aspects of life that require an attitude of mindfulness and gratitude.”
“There is half a minute silence before each meal here in the London Buddhist Centre,” says Ollie, “but it does not mean that everyone is taking this time to reflect on the food they are about to eat – it’s an individual thing; some will simply sit in silence, and that’s fine too.”
For Kwan Um Zen Buddhists, the way of eating is so important and complicated, that Bogumila invited me to the London Zen Centre that she runs, to describe it and explain the ritual’s meaning. The practice of ritual and formal eating takes place during each weekly session in the Crouch End based Centre, and up to 3 times a day in various other centres during retreats.
Everything in the ritual has a meaning and importance. Napkins and sets of bowls come from a time when many monks travelled and carried all their possessions with them. During the ritual, water, food and tea are served, all in a very significant order, and the hierarchy of those who are served is respected, so that the most senior teacher is served first, and the most junior disciple last. Chukpi (a long stick) is struck against a ritual master’s palm, giving signal to begin or to end the ceremony, to begin and finish eating; everything has to be done in a particular order and within a limited time. “This ritual is so complicated,” says Bogumila, “that there is no time left for thinking about anything else, it requires one’s undivided attention. From the way we hold our bowl to be served, the position of a spoon in a bowl, the sequence of dishes served, to rinsing our bowls, even to the eating itself which must be done in absolute silence – all this lets us focus on the moment, on being here and now. This is the essence and meaning of Zen.” Each of the bowls is washed with tea, and the tea is then drunk with the leftover particles of food. It may seem dirty, but Bogumila explains that it’s important for the disciples to learn how many barriers are in our minds, how attached we are to the things that we like. At the end of the ritual clean water is used to rinse the bowls, and then collected and, in an act of compassion, given to “hungry ghosts” that gather around wherever water is disposed of. “The tradition says they cannot digest anything but pure water, so we give it to them, we share whatever we can with all the creatures in the world and beyond our world.”
According to Steele and Kaza, contemporary views expressed by many Buddhist teachers like Sulak Sivaraksa, or Zen priest Bodhin Kjolhede say that in the modern world, meat production is detrimental and ”animals are seen as another product”. People adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for many reasons including health, the environment, ethics, or politics. For some, which includes many Buddhists, this choice is based on faith or religion. In some cases, those reasons are connected, like for James, who is not a vegetarian but wants to cut back on meat: “I’ve recently cut beef and lamb meat out of my diet almost entirely and the reason I’ve done that isn’t because of the Buddhist rule, but because through my practice I’ve wanted to take greater action to protect the environment. And production of beef and lamb is damaging in terms of the carbon required and deforestation. But it is a decision I’ve made through my practice of chanting.”
Some Buddhists, like Bogumila, stopped eating meat even before practising Buddhism, some like James might enjoy their chicken breast from time to time, and for some like Ollie, being vegetarian is a consequence of adopting Buddhist faith and principles.
A growing number of, especially young, Londoners are taking up vegetarianism, for reasons including health or global warming, deforestation and environmental reasons in general. There are more organic shops, and vegetarian and vegan eateries that give alternatives to a traditional diet, and I believe that this new generation will also influence Buddhists to cut down on meat consumption. And with the still common view that Buddhists are predominantly vegetarian, popular websites such as “Eat like a Buddhist in 10 Easy Steps” or “Eating the Zen Way” could influence the diet of those Londoners not practising Buddhism. As Ohlssen writes:
”The Buddhist teachings and tradition provide important “food for thought” to all of us; thought that can at least be adopted metaphorically for today’s more secular and science-centred world.”