In the West, some people tend to lump all Buddhists together into a homogenous group that's not entirely based in reality. Given the Buddha's teachings against harming any sentient creature, some people assume that all Buddhists are pacifists and vegetarians who would never hurt a fly, let alone a cow or an enemy soldier. But that's not the case.
The Buddha himself rejected the notion that his monks should be vegetarians, even though it seemed to go against the core Buddhist teaching of "do no harm" (ahimsa). Traditionally, monks ate only what was given to them by lay members of the community, a practice that continues in many Theravada Buddhist monasteries. The Buddha taught that giving generously to monks was a great way to earn karmic merit. And if a monk refused to take a donation of meat, he was essentially blocking the giver from receiving blessings and potentially messing with his next life [source: Buswell and Lopez].
For that reason, both Theravada monks and lay Theravada followers are still allowed to eat meat if they choose. The monks are instructed to eat everything they are given, because it's a karmic help to the lay people. And the lay people are taught that it's OK to eat meat that's already been killed, because letting it go to waste would mean the animal's death was in vain. Personally hunting and killing an animal is still prohibited [source: Liusuwan].
In Mahayana Buddhism, however, the call to "do no harm" is extended to all sentient beings and neither monks nor lay people eat meat [source: Jaffe]. So if you thought that all Buddhists were vegetarians, you were half right!.
Buddhism and warfare is a trickier topic. The Buddha absolutely taught that violence and killing had no place in Buddhism, even in times of war, and great spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama have embraced non-violent resistance as the most effective way to fight violent oppression [source: BBC]. But that doesn't mean that a war has never been waged in the name of Buddhism.
In the past century alone, Tibetan monks took up arms against Chinese invaders in the 1950s. Zen Buddhist monks in Japan supported the brutal Japanese invasion of China during World War II. And tragically, in 2013 Buddhists in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Sri Lanka have committed atrocities against Muslim minorities in those countries, with one Burmese Buddhist monk comparing himself favorably to Osama bin Laden [source: Caryl].
Being human is complicated for people of all religious faiths. But just as no individual or religious group is perfect, all are deserving of forgiveness.
Learn more about Buddhism in "No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners: Clear Answers to Burning Questions About Core Buddhist Teachings" by Noah Rasheta. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.
Author's Note: 10 Questions About Buddhism
As a religion major in college, you'd think I would know more about Buddhism, but apparently the info I learned in that Intro to Buddhism class I took 20-(cough) years ago wore off a while ago. Like many Americans, I find Buddhist teachings at once comforting and scary. I have no problem agreeing that life would be much easier if we could free ourselves from greed, hate and other wrong-headed desires. But I also don't think that I'm ready to be reborn a couple of thousand times. Whether or not this life was a reward for past skillful actions, I feel like I've been dealt a pretty good hand. One lifetime is plenty for me, thanks.
Special thanks to Richard Jaffe, associate professor of Religious Studies at Duke University and author of the forthcoming book, "Seeking Sakyamuni: South Asia in the Formation of Modern Japanese Buddhism."
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- Jaffe, Richard. Emailed feedback on draft of article.
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