The Buddhist Diet
Part I

(Hinayana and Mahayana Diets)

The Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen

We may live without books--
What is knowledge but grieving.
We may live without hope--
What is hope, but deceiving.
We may live without love--
What is passion but pinning.
But where is the man
Who can live without dining?

This poem written by Owen Meredith is quite true to the animal-like common human beings. Diet is surely a very important necessity to all living humans but many persons in the multitude, while being certain to eat what they like, don't think about eating what is good for them. Not fully understanding the true meaning of the word, they seem to say:

"Diet is something to take the starch out of you." and Alexander Woollcott frankly states:

"All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening."

Another common expression is:

"`DIET' is a four-letter word."

In our age, however, "diet" becomes a very modernized term.

In the West, since 1400 A.D. the old meaning of diet was "course of living, way of living or thinking."--It is worthy to be noted.

As most Chinese Buddhists learned Confucianism when they were young, the diet of Confucius written in his Analects has been very good fundamental knowledge for the Buddhist diet.--Not only food, but also the manner of eating was mentioned here.

The Diet of Confucius is below:

1.He did not dislike to have his rice finely cleaned, nor to have his minced meat cut quite small.
2.He did not eat rice which had been injured by heat or damp and turned sour, nor fish or flesh that was gone.
3.He did not eat that which was discolored or that which was of a bad flavor, nor anything which was ill-cooked or not in season.
4.He did not eat meat which was not cut properly, nor that which was served without its proper sauce.
5.He would not allow a large quantity of meat to exceed the due proportion of rice.
6.He did not lay down a limit of wine for everybody, but he did not allow himself to be confused by it.
7.He did not partake of wine and dried meat bought in the market.
8.He was never without ginger when he ate, but he did not take too much of it as ginger has many advantages, but could also harm one's eyes.
9.He did not keep the flesh of the Prince's sacrifice which he received overnight.
10.He did not keep the flesh of his own family sacrifice over three days.
11.When eating, he did not converse.
12.Although his food might be coarse rice and vegetable soup, he would offer a little of it in a sacrifice with a grave and respectful air.
13.When the Prince sent him a gift of cooked meat, he would adjust his mat, taste it first, and then give it away to others.
14.When the Prince sent him a gift of undressed meat, he would have it cooked and offer it to the spirit of his ancestors.
15.When the Prince sent him a gift of a live animal, he would keep it alive.

I. The Hinayana Diet

There is a sutra titled the "Twelve Dhuta Sutra." It involves release from ties to clothing, food, and dwelling. Here I translate five things about diet below:

1. When a Bhikshu comes to a town for begging, he should control his six sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. He must not let them attach themselves to the six dusts: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and idea. He must not distinguish women from men nor gain from no-gain. His mind should be kept in equilibrium. Whether the food is good or bad, he should not be glad or weary. He should not ask for more or less. When he does not receive, he should think, "Even our Lord Gautama Buddha who left His palace and became a Bhikshu and came to the town for begging, sometimes got nothing, much the less, I'm so lacking in merits."

This is the Dharma of begging.

2. A Bhikshu should not be attached to the taste. Nor should he disregard any sentient being. He must have equal mind to pity every sentient being and should not choose only those rich persons. This is the importance of the method of begging door to door without discrimination.

3. A Bhikshu should have such a good thought: "Now, only for one meal shall I beg which still wastes my meditative time. Were I to beg again for snacks, for lunch, and for dinner, I would lose a lot of time! If I don't reduce my eating, I might lose half of my day to begging for food. I would not have enough time to meditate. I beg only to practice the Buddha Dharma--not for my body or life as pigs, dogs, and horses. I must stop all other eating and take only breakfast." It is the rule to beg for only one meal.

4. When one gets a meal, he should give one-third to a poor person and wish that he may never be greedy again. Then he should take the food to a silent place and put a little bit of it on a clean stone and leave it for birds or animals. He also should have good thoughts about that poor person eating one-third of the food and leave the rest for the bird or animal who will be satisfied.

Before eating, he should wash his hands. He should think that in his body there are eight myriad insects, "When I attain some realization of the Dharma, I shall again give alms of Dharma to them and they shall also partake of my attainment."

Suppose after this begging he meets no poor person, he should still keep one-third aside. In this way, he will have good health, make his body light, and food will digest easily. His meditation will be very good. It is the rule to restrain eating.

5. After one meal, a Bhikshu should not go searching for drinks, if he does, he will pursue a variety of drinks. He will not diligently practice the Buddha Dharma. It is like the horse who does not hold the bridle and seeks grass on two sides. He will not run the way of the goal. This is the reason for the rule to keep away any kind of drink after noon.

6. Buddha Gautama has shown his personality as a Bhikshu himself. Neither a vegetarian nor a carnivore. He is a beggar and has no right to choose. He taught his disciples with a diet of moderation which lays more stress on quantity of food rather than quality.

Just as his philosophy is the Middle Way, his Hinayana diet is Moderation. Moderation is the silken thread running through the pearl chain of all virtues. He who desires only what is enough is troubled neither by raging seas, nor hail-smitten vineyards, nor an unproductive farm. It is only the moderation that gives charm to life. Enough is aplenty, too much is pride.

If one keeps the principle of moderation in mind, even a little poison can be eaten. That is why some poisons can be used as medicine. But, if you take too much, even a tonic may trouble you.

Once I heard of a woman who was treated by a doctor with a diet of only grapefruit. The high acidity of such a diet could leach the sodium out of the liver! She eventually destroyed all her teeth.

I also heard of a woman who was very fond of eating salted melon seeds all day long. After some years, she got a disease in her stomach. Many doctors could not find out the cause and gave no effective treatment. One doctor asked her about what she ate--was there something she ate a lot of everyday. She told him about melon seeds and showed all the skins of them to the doctor. He took them all, added some medicine to it and cooked it all together. When she took the medicine, she was finally cured.

In Hinayana, all the monks live by begging and they have no right to choose their food. Therefore, they are not forbidden to take meat given to them by their believers. They should, however, not take meat which is impure. The way to distinguish pure and impure meat is explained below:

Pure meat is defined by the following circumstances:

1)The killing of the animal was not seen to be for the eater.
2)The killing of the animal was not heard to be for the eater.
3)The eater knows beyond doubt that the animal was not killed for him.
4)It has died a natural death.
5)It was the leftover of the beasts or big birds.
6)It was not killed by oneself.
7)It was dried by itself.
8)It has met death accidentally and has not been killed due to a previous promise.
9)It was killed previously without one's involvement.

In the Yogacaryabhumi Sastra, Maitreya, the next Buddha taught us about the Buddhist Diet:

There are six bad influences regarding food. The Hinayanist should think of:

1)Bad influences of impurity--When the food comes into the mouth through being bitten, masticated by teeth, soaked and spoiled by saliva, then it comes to the throat and stomach by which the beautiful foods become impure. Hence, one thinks the remaining foods should not be desired to be eaten any more.
2)Bad influences of transformation--After digesting all foods they join with the 36 impurities of our body and some become feces which, if one touches it, will only hate it.
3)Bad influences of gathering--When one likes some food, he has to work very hard to get it. If he cannot get it, he might be very sad.
4)Bad influences of protecting--When one has some food gathered, he has to protect it well. How can the food be protected from the thieves, robbers, and official robbers (nowadays by this we mean communists), fire, flood, and bad neighbors.
5)Bad influences of broken relative loves, family loves, and social loves--Many lovely relatives, partnerships, and friendships have been broken apart just because of food. Some even fight and die for it!
6)Bad influences of punishment--When one robs others' foods, he has to be punished with many kinds of instruments of tortures. (Besides the five ancient penalties of tattooing, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, castration, and death. There are many kinds of new cruel instruments created and used very often by Mao Tse Tung and his henchmen in those Labor Camps.)

In all the Buddhist Monasteries, they have in their public dining hall, a giant board on which is written five visualizations that one should follow and think of while eating:

1)Try to think of how much you have prayed for all the alms-giving benefactors. You should eat only what you deserve.
2)Try to think of yourself--how much merit or accomplishment have you accumulated? You should be shameful to eat the food if you are lazy and have not continuously meditated.
3)You must always treat the lust poison as one important poison among all the five poisons. Try to cut it off.
4)For the spiritual life and physical life, one eats just to support the body in order to practice the Buddha Dharma.
5)To get the realization of a Bodhisattva to help all sentient being, one eats food in limited quantity.

II. The Mahayana Diet

Mahayana lays most emphasis on the Great Compassion, even though it is still connected with the Dharma-Sunyata. Diet of carnivores surely causes killing of birds, animals, insects, fish, and even snakes. They especially call the following foods, robbed foods:

1) Eggs:Rob the offspring's life from its parents.
2) Honey:Rob the food of bees.
3) Milk:Rob the food of the offspring, food from their mother.

A Buddhist who eats only vegetables not only selfishly keeps his own health in excellent condition, but also keeps others' lives and food for their own benefits.

The religions aimed at heavens such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Shinto, and Taoism and all other religions other than Buddhism which alone is aimed not at heaven, but Nirvana, are the foundations of Buddhism! Some of them such as Islamics and Taoists eat meat, however, most of them are vegetarians.

Those religions have different names such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but they are based upon the same God Idea. Whether you call him Jehovah or Allah it is the same story of Jesus. This God had pointed out the food to Adam: "Behold," He said, "I have given you every herb-yielding seed, and every tree which bears the fruit of a tree-yielding seed: To you it shall be for food." (Gen. 1:29 ARV) Upon leaving Eden to gain his livelihood by tilling the earth under the course of sin, man received permission to eat also"the herb of the field." (Gen. 3:18) After every green thing had been destroyed by the great flood, God provided not flesh but manna--the bread of heaven, when he brought the Israelites out of Egypt. Until the settlement in Canaan, the Israelites were permitted the use of animal as food with the exception of the swine's flesh and some other animals, birds, and fish whose flesh was pronounced unclean. Also, their fat and blood were Strictly forbidden.

Furthermore, the animals are often transported long distances and subjected to great suffering before reaching a market. They are taken from the green pastures, and travel for weary miles over hot, dusty roads or crowded into filthy cars. Feverish and exhausted, and often deprived of food and water for many hours the poor creatures are driven to their death so that human beings may feast upon their carcasses.

In many places, fish have become so contaminated by the filth on which they feed that they have become a cause of disease. This is especially the case when the fish come in contact with the sewage of large cities. The fish that feed on the contents of the drains may pass into distant waters and may be caught where the water is pure and fresh. Thus, when used as food, they bring disease and death to those who do not suspect the danger. Many die of diseases wholly due to meat-eating, while this cause is never suspected.

Vegetarians should also know that most spices such as mustard, pepper, pickles, and other condiments of a like character irritate the stomach and make the blood feverish and impure. That was why Buddha forbade his disciples to take five forbidden pungent roots: garlic, three kinds of onions, and leeks. If eaten raw, they are said to cause irritability of temper. If eaten cooked, they act as an aphrodisiac. Moreover, the breath of the eater, while reading the sutra, would drive away the good spirits who come to him for protection.

Hence, the less exciting the food, the better. Not only for health, but also for meditation and concentration.

Some persons use tea or coffee to alert their sleepy minds when they are driving. But tired nerves need rest and quiet instead of stimulation and overwork. Nature needs time to recuperate her exhausted energies.

After meals, some people usually use tobacco of some kind. This weakens and clouds the brain.

With regard to fasting, Jainism which emphasizes Ahimsa, does this often. They even fast for 49 days. Some of them willing die before that date. Buddha does not follow it. Buddhist usually fast and take food every two days alternately. Although Tibetans have few vegetables, whenever they practice the rituals of Amitabha or Avalokitesvara, they fast one day and take a little fruit or vegetable the other day.

In Japan, the Mantra School of the lower three yogas are all forbidden to take meat.

The controversy between carnivores and vegetarians has raged for centuries and will, no doubt, continue. Buddhists of Mahayana have extolled vegetarianism on humanitarian grounds. They do not call those who still eat butter, cheese, eggs, and drink milk or use honey instead of sugar and five kinds of pungent roots as true vegetarians, but from the standpoint of science and nutrition, they are still on an excellent diet. However, one cannot live entirely on vegetables and still remain in a state of buoyant health. But this is not the exoteric Mahayana idea.

It is a common misconception that man cannot get strength and good health by obtaining protein from a diet consisting of only vegetables. If this were so, why can elephants who live only on trees and leaves grow enormous tusks from the calcium and protein of those leaves? The moose and elk grow huge antlers in just a few months each year, shedding them again in the winter--the moose lives on a diet of water plants and green leaves, the elk on leaves, twigs, and grass. They all are not carnivorous.

In Brahmajala Sutra, our Lord Guatama taught us not to be a Mamsabhakasana (meat-eating) person. It says: "One should not eat any kind of meat. If one eats meat, then the seed of great compassion in him will be cut. He will be disregarded by every sentient being."

In the Lankavatara Sutra Buddha Gautama gave us some reasons for forbidding meat-eating. I translate below:

1)Those animals have been our parents.
2)All kinds of animal meats mix together even with dogs.
3)The impure smells of animals are not good for eating.
4)Dogs usually bark at meat-eater.
5)Meat-eaters have no mercy.
6)Meat-eaters do not have a good reputation.
7)All incantations cannot function out.
8)It causes many animals to be killed.
9)God and good ghosts do not like meat-eaters.
10)Bad smells come from their mouths.
11)Meat-eaters have bad dreams.
12)Tigers follow their bad smell and kill them.
13)Meat-eaters have no limitation of gluttony.
14)Meat-eating cuts the renunciation of the practitioner.
15)Meat-eaters may sometimes eat one's own children of past lives.

Besides Buddha's teaching, there are many reasons for us to be a vegetarian. Also, many reasons have been found by scientists and scholars which should be noted below:

1) The foods of vegetarianism can build up more pure blood; but carnivores make the red corpuscles poisonous.

2) Those who usually take rice which contains acidity 30-fold more than calcium should take only vegetables or fruit, the contents of which are opposite to it, and they balance it.

3) If one takes too much meat and too few vegetables and mineral food, one's blood will contain more acidity and less calcium which make one's skin loose and become old. Those with more acidity in the blood bring about black spots on the skin. Surely, the ladies may not want to destroy their beauty.

4) By not eating adequate vegetables, calcium and acidity are lessened which also harms one's bones. Ladies' pelvises become easily broken, and old and young persons' legs break more easily as well.

5) When one always eats various meats at different national restaurants, the better the food he eats, the worse the smell he has. Especially his armpit odor becomes unbearable to himself or anybody close to him. It is written in the biography of Saint Milarepa that when he was at parinirvana, many angels came down to the world, but they stayed only in the sky. People of this world did earnestly beg them to land on this earth. They refused by saying, "You human beings have more or less some bad smell, we cannot bear it."

6) Persons of some countries are meek while other persons of another country are wild. They usually cannot live together in peace. When they have been examined, it happens that meek persons are vegetarians, but the wild ones are carnivorous.

7) To make our brains skillfully develop, one needs to eat many glutinous acids which may be found in beans, peanuts, and wheats. They are vegetarian food.

8) Vegetables can make our sleep sound, but not too long. While meat can make you sleep too long, but not sound. For those diligent persons they might prefer the former to the latter.

9) To get rid of too much fat, one should reduce calories.

Research has shown that blood cholesterol can be lowered more successfully if one does not take eggs, meats, seafood, and the organ meats such as brains, kidneys, and liver which are all high in cholesterol. This animal fat is not found in fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals, or nuts. That is why one who wishes to reduce his fat intake should be a vegetarian.

Scientists of old make the mistake of emphasizing that foods of nourishment should contain 137 grams albumin, 117 grams fat, 3521 grams carbide, and 3070 calories. This has been proven false.

10) In vegetarianism it is oneself who eats the food, but in the case of a carnivore, the food eats oneself! The good conscience of a meat-eater becomes angry. Many pages of war records occupied Indian history which was caused by the Muslims who eat a lot of beef daily. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, brandished a sword and in order to spread his religion killed those persons who did not believe him. Mao Tse Tung who has killed many Chinese and even his own followers was also found of beef and even ate it fried using pungent hot pepper which could make your face reddish and cause hypertension. He was eaten by those foods and now he is in hell to eat many of those kinds of punishments again.

11) Those who emphasize the carnivorous diet do so because the animal meat contains a lot of albumin. Actually, the word protein which is always mistaken as albumin is meant as the combination of elements and also meant "to take the first place." That is important nourishment we should take for our life. Protein contains the ten kinds of amino acids which our bodies need. But these ten kinds of amino acids are also contained in beans (calycine hispida) and sesame.

12) All the seeds of vegetables, such as lotus seeds which can be kept for two thousand years without being destroyed, are the most nutritious foods.

13) Most of the famous stars of this world who need their bodies to be beautiful and set the standard of a worldly elected beauty take vegetables; and the very well-known athletes and gymnasts also like to take vegetables and fruits. It is said that the Australian gymnast Mr. Russell is very fond of sesame which contains a large quantity of protein and more than twice the amount of calcium in milk, Vitamin B, and Vitamin E. One who eats meat needs two or five hours to digest, but it takes only 30 minutes for sesame to digest.

14) All the monks of Chinese Mahayana Schools seriously keep vegetarian rules and don't even drink milk from cows which they call a "robbed food." (It robs the food of the calf.) Instead, they take the milk made of beans. It contains a good quantity of fat, protein, and Vitamin B1 and its calcium content is greater than that of the milk of cows.

15) Meats do not contain iodine, but vegetables do. That is why the hair of a vegetarian will always stay lustrous. It grows and becomes white very slowly at the age of eighty. The hair of carnivores becomes white even in youth.

16) When meat becomes spoiled, one takes it and gets poisoned, but vegetables are never like this. Many American doctors have said the same thing--that fat may become poison. This means the fat of animals, but not the fat of plants.

17) The dangerous heart diseases are predominantly caused by cholesterol in one's blood which is manufactured by proteins and fats of animals but not those of plants. All the following foods have cholesterol which harms and clogs the blood vessels: egg yolk, liver, every kind of meat, cuttlefish, shark, eels, butter, cheese, carbicula, and oyster. They contain cholesterol in decreasing amount as listed above.

18) The vegetables collect nourishment from inorganic constituencies of the soil (earth element) in the presence of the water (water element). The roots of the plant are able to absorb the mineral element (earth element) found in the earth and circulate it to the leaves, where the energy of sunlight (fire element) transforms them into organic compounds (ether element) (air elements) containing nourishment of energy (inner air elements) for man. Hence, five principle elements are perfectly collected. A very good combination it is in itself. It is surely much better than any kind of meat.

19) Most mental diseases are caused by lack of the vitamins which are plentiful in vegetables, but not in meats. They may be listed below:

Vitamin B3 deficiency:

Insomnia, nervousness, irritability, confusion, apprehensiveness, depression, hallucinations.

Vitamin B12 deficiency:

Difficulty in concentration and remembering, stupor, severe agitation, manic or paranoid behavior.

Vitamin C deficiency:


However, one must remember that this is the opinion of Western Science. In actuality, the Law of Cause and Effect as followed by Buddhists dictates a person's life according to his mental state. The mind is always the Chief. Food is only one factor of the exterior result. Therefore, all roots of mental diseases can be found in one's own mind. Likewise, through one's mind, they may be cured. Thus, we cannot predict health solely through the quality or quantity of diet, but almost always the answer lies in the manner of diet: the mental state of the person so afflicted. When one understands that his mind is basically the ruler of the state of his being, then he may select foods that aid him along the lines he has chosen.

Whenever quarrels start to happen at the table one who is wise should leave his food in a pretext of something else to do and not continue to eat. That is why I have always stressed the "non-food" meaning of diet: a manner to live by. We should remember we are eating for living not living for eating.

On such an occasion, as a quarrel at the table, if you force yourself to eat, you will get stomach disease. Your appetite will be destroyed and when appetite is destroyed you can't eat food again, even if there are many vitamins and hormones--you just can't digest them. Your life will surely be shortened.

Our ancients had no fancy vitamin pills and no hormone pills, but they lived longer than we do.

Hence, when one's mind is narrow, selfish, pessimistic, and fearful of poison in food, there is no real diet to cure him. It is advisable if one remembers Mr. William Bullfein saying: "The first was called the Doctor of Diet, the second doctor, Quiet, the third doctor, Merryman."

20) Most of the physical diseases may be cured by vegetables but not meat. Some are listed below:

Brassica juncca
Cough and phlegm
Allium tuberasum Rottler
Piles, epistaxis, hemoptysis
Momordica charantia
To bring down heat or fever
Ammannia baccifera
Edible Seaweeds
Neck tumor, jumores
Spinacia oleracia
Epistaxis, constipation
Canarium album Raeusch
Thirst, poison
Porphyia tenera Kjellm
Pisum sativum L
Small pox

In short, every vegetable is an herb and can cure some disease depending upon the doctor's knowledge of how to utilize it, and how the people learn it and use it in certain cases at certain times.

Many fruits are naturally good medicine for health, but they should be taken from their own fields, not hot houses or greenhouses, and should be eaten in season and not at any other time.

Below are fruits and their seasons:


In China many famous monks and Buddhist scholars enjoy their extravagant expensive vegetarian chicken, fish, pigeon, and beef "meats" made from flours of gluten wheat, potato powder, and so on. Those false meats have the form, color, and use the same name as the animal meats. Sometimes they really taste similar to meat. Those experts who possess the special art of cooking meat-like vegetarian dishes charge a very high salary. Such a banquet is much more expensive than one using real meat.

In my humble opinion, it should not be eaten by the real vegetarians even if it does not use animal flesh. The one who eats them will lose his great compassion, and the conception which keeps a deep imagination and impression in his consciousness will create a bad influence. Also, by eating false meat, one does not vanquish the desire for meat. Just as in fire sacrifices, we offer some real foods and some others that are symbols of foods, still others are the visualizations of foods. As offerings, they all have the same function. We make sacrifices with real material offerings of money or bank notes, paper-made money, false gold, silver, or coins, and they do serve the function of making offerings. In Taoism, they usually make a big house with paper. The inside contains many rooms in which much beautiful furniture, many utensils, tools, restrooms, waiting rooms, bathing rooms, and a kitchen are included. It burns in just a few minutes but to mike it, took many months. It is also appreciated by dead spirits and ghosts. Some phantoms or demons make trouble for a person who has a disease; they ask for money and food through the patient's mouth. They will be satisfied with food and money made from paper (hell-bank notes).

In Buddhist philosophy, in the "Only Idealism School," they emphasize that even the worldly real material things are completely made from our own consciousnesses. Whenever and whichever you eat, if you have the conception of even false meat, you are carnivorous, and not vegetarian. Hence, false meat should be forbidden as well as the real meats.

[Home][Back to main list][Back to Chenian][Go to Dr. Lin's works]