Thich Nhat Hanh Talks About Veganism

Thich Nhat Hanh was asked “Why vegan rather than just vegetarian?”

He answered:

“We don’t want to eat eggs, and drink cow’s milk, and eat cheese anymore because raising cows and raising chickens creates a lot of suffering.

If you have seen the suffering of the chicken, the suffering of the cows, you would not like to eat chicken, eat eggs, drink milk, or eat cheese anymore. It seems the system has been contaminated.

So to be vegan is not perfect but it helps to reduce the suffering of animals.

There are films made about the suffering of animals. If you have watched these films you will see. We should eat and drink in such a way that preserves compassion in our heat. We should consume in a way that helps to reduce the suffering of living beings and that way we can preserve compassion in our heart.

A person who does not have much compassion in his heart cannot be a happy person anymore. And that is why I think everyone has to learn how to reduce the eating of meat and the drinking of alcohol. “

Author: Bite-Size Dhamma

I'm a Buddhist layperson, trying to live well and skilfully with compassion, generosity, and discernment. I work in the field of housing law and homelessness casework. I have a beautiful kind wife, a very cute dog, and two loveable but surly cats.

16 thoughts on “Thich Nhat Hanh Talks About Veganism”

  1. Having a bit of a tricky time coming to terms with this one, as I am rather at odds with it and having a massive internal battle in my mind about it!

    So I have drastically cut down on my consumption of meat recently (first shaky steps towards vegetarianism) however when buying meat (which yes, I occasionally still do) I do try to opt for products which have caused less suffering for the animal where expense allows, and if expense will not allow avoid altogether.

    Whilst naturally I agree with Thich Nhat Hanh that in not causing the suffering of other living beings through consumption, we demonstrate compassion, I would also argue that humans, like any other animal, are biologically programmed to consume a certain amount of meat/animal produce, though I exclude milk products from this argument as I have mixed feelings about using the food intended for another animal’s babies (My original reason for cutting this out though was actually due to a suspect food intolerance to lactose- maybe the karmic effect of consuming cow’s milk?).

    Do you think it is possible therefore that you can eat in a way that is consistent with Buddhist views on compassion towards living creatures, but opting for choices on the market which reduce suffering of animals? What I am talking about here is simply just opting to eat animals that lead happy, free-range lives, aren’t pumped with hormones/ chemicals to fatten them up, and given quick, painless deaths. I personally find vegan diets impractical at times (ie, eating with my family and certain social events/ lack of choices when not preparing my own meals), but do strive to avoid animal products where possible. Side note- these are pretty lame excuses!

    As far as I am aware, even among various Buddhist circles the views on meat consumption vary, some opting to continue consuming meat as it is ‘the natural order’ whilst others argue, as per this post, that we should show compassion towards all living creatures.

    Anyway, back to the original point about having a compassionate heart in this matter, I find it difficult to know where to draw the line on the suffering of animals. I know people who follow vegan diets, but may have knowingly or unknowingly caused animals suffering by buying products which causes plastic to wind up in the ocean and caused suffering to sea creatures, use of cosmetics containing animal products, wearing leather shoes (yes really!) , attending fireworks displays, by driving a car up a highway where the road may intersect with habitats and wildlife. Unless we resort to Jainism, I expect it is likely that no matter what our diet, we cause suffering to other living creatures.

    Maybe in time I will come around to this way of thinking and switch to veganism, as it does also make logical sense whilst being generally better for animals and the environment (after all, living things aren’t just humans, animals and insects) but a plethora of biomes and eco-systems which need our protection, but until this becomes completely practicable for me (I also have a suspect wheat intolerance so I would be cutting my food choices down more dramatically still). Anyway Bite-Size Dhamma, keep posting, I am enjoying these edible chunks of wisdom! Best wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for comment. It’s a large, thoughtful comment and lots to cover so I’ll try my best to respond fully. πŸ™‚

      I should say first that I’m not a Dhamma teacher, I’m just a lay Buddhist trying to do my best with life!

      First I’ll address what you said about opting for free range and freedom food products. The problem with this is that even going that animal may have had a better life than some, you are still financially supporting an industry that kills an incredible amount of sentient beings. For example, free range eggs. The hens lead better than ever age lives, yes, but they are still sent to slaughter when their egg production slows down around age 4. A chickens life naturally is as much as 20 years. You may also already know that almost all male chicks are killed a few days after birth because they are unable to lay eggs. So you can see the death and suffering involved in even RPSCA inspected Freedom Food eggs is very high.

      Another thing to consider is the ages chickens, cows, and lambs are slaughtered at. They are the equivalent of human children in most cases. When we think of a human child, it’s hard to think of a scenario where an unnecessary death could be considered “humane”.

      Next, your comment on different views on meat eating for Buddhism. You are right that many Buddhists eat meat. Monks are not allowed to kill the animal themselves, and a lay person should not kill sentient beings either if they are abiding by the precepts. But if they were to be given meat on an alms round then they will eat it even if they don’t want to. It’s considered rude to reject alms.

      From a Buddhist perspective, there is no specific guidance regarding eating or not eating meat. There is no precept for this, although there is of course the precept to regain from killing sentient beings (so in theory if everyone is the world followed the precepts there would be no meat? I’m not sure). There is only one sutta I can think of where the Buddha mentions that it is more ideal to abstain from meat, but the Buddha did eat meat if it was given to him.

      Ultimately, any precept or guidance given by the Buddha is purely aimed at guiding you to a state of mind that allows for peace, wisdom and happiness to arise. States of mind where ignorance, clinging, delusion, and aversion arise will keep you from the Path.

      For example, it is difficult to live with a peaceful heart if you steal things. You may have subconscious guilt, shame, or fear of being caught, or fear of loss of reputation). But a person who steals may suppress this and be largely unaware. Their mind will be unknown to them because they cannot face it. They are aversive and deluded. They don’t know themselves.

      Someone who works at a slaughter house is likely to be far from their compassion. It is buried deep in their heart to allow them to complete their tasks without upset. But that lack of compassion is not only stopping them from loving other sentient beings, but from loving themselves fully. A heart in a bad state like that can’t be fully open to love.

      So ultimately, it’s your decision based on what gives you peace of mind and what troubles you. Meditate on it, get to know your mind, play with ideas. If you find something bothers you and prevents your mind from deep peace then it may be in your best interest to explore ways to make it better. In some cases it may be coming to terms with it. In other cases it may be abstaining, even if just to explore it further.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I realised that I missed one point that you made. You mentioned about biological programming and humans’ natural tendency towards eating meat.

      Remember that we are also biologically programmed to crave constantly – a compulsion designed to drive survival in animals. Without this, the animal could just give up on life. Natural selection has meant that we are the descendants of those that craved pleasure and comfort the hardest, and avoided displeasure and danger the best.

      However despite this being biologically programmed, it causes suffering and the Buddha wants us to see through it an rise above it.

      A more mundane example might be that we are biologically programmed to hurt each other when we are threatened. Also for survival. But this does not mean it is acceptable behaviour.

      This is called naturalistic fallacy – a logical error wherein we say “it is natural so it is right”. It would be like someone trying to claim that getting a 12 year old girl pregnant was ok because she has begun to bleed and nature is suggesting she is ready to bear children. This may have been the case in our ancient history but society has long moved beyond this, knowing now that 12 is too young – just a child who has not yet developed mentally or physically.

      If society has now moved to a point where we can physically sustain ourselves without killing huge numbers of animals, maybe we should.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You raise some excellent points and Wow! Thank you for taking the time to write such a long, thoughtful and well-articulated responses to my comment. As I say, whilst I do try to take care to reduce suffering as and how I can (this has for the most part given me peace of mind for most of my adult life, and to be honest I had a brief spout of vegetarianism as an adolescent), my primary focus has generally been on the environment, after all if we look after the environment then hopefully it will look after us and all other Earthly creatures.
        Whilst I mostly agree with your answer, I would also be interested to know your thoughts on consumption of plant crops where many pesticides are used (sorry not trying to be a nitpicker- it’s more a poke at how we farm in the modern world!) Should hardcore vegans be looking to only consume products where pesticides haven’t been used? After all, the clue is in the name and they are designed to deter (by death) much smaller sentient beings from the non-sentient crops that vegans restrict themselves to. Like I said in my original comment, so many of our activities have variable lines to draw, but if we are practicing Buddha’s teachings to avoid karmic effects, whether in this life or the next, I feel it is, if only on an intellectual level, important to explore every avenue in these matters. If however we are practicing Buddhism on a more ‘peace of mind’ level then I guess time will tell how comfortable I am continuing my consumption of meat. Thank you also for bringing naturalistic fallacy to my attention. It actually isn’t something I have previously considered so I might keep a bookmark on this page to refer back to at a later date! Again, many thanks for all your time and explanations, I really appreciate it πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re very welcome, but it’s only the opinion of someone with much to learn! You will make your own decisions.

        It’s not nitpicking, it’s simply curiosity and a challenging mind. Something that should serve you well if directed correctly! πŸ™‚

        I’ve had the same thoughts over the years. Pesticides mean death on a fairly large scale. I think this might be one of the reasons Thich Nhat Hanh stated veganism is not perfect. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to be 100% vegan. But the vegan philosophy is to live in a way that reduces suffering as much as is possible and practicable. In the case of pesticides, opting for organic will be all you can practically do. But then people will argue it’s too expensive!! πŸ™‚

        It’s not a perfect solution, but it helps a little I believe. And if it comes from a place of compassion and good intentions then you are already generating good kamma and developing good mind-states.

        Just as you are thinking about living in an environmentally friendly way. This is good kamma. (Although you may wish to research how terrible industry farming is for the environment).

        We can only do our best, and what feels right to us. Baby steps towards living skilfully.

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      3. Well, yes, it was the things I read up for work actually that made me question the farming industry as a pollutant, so again, that was my motivation for reducing animal products (I now drink nut/ soya/ coconut milk), rarely touch eggs, but have a real weakness for cheese! Anyway, I think so far we have come to many of the same conclusions, I am probably just several years (or books) behind you, and though you may only consider it your opinion, I still believe we can learn from one another’s opinions! You also learn better from teaching, and you have taught me this evening, so you are a several steps ahead already :).

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Cheese! Yes, we all have a weakness for cheese I think. Definitely the trickiest thing to give up.

        I’m glad you feel like I’ve taught you something. I’m flattered, thank you. We all have something we can teach others I guess, just as there’s always something to learn from everyone.

        Take care! Hope to speak to you again! πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As a vegetarian (by choice) for the past forty years (a little girl wilfully refused to eat fish and meat, one fine day), really loved this post as well the comments. Thank you for taking the time to elaborate in such a patient and compassionate manner.

    I have considered becoming a vegan many times, but have not succeeded. For me, the stumbling block is tea with milk- the classic wake up drink.

    Wonderful wisdom- thanks again, both to you and Olliestales!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome Sylvia! Thank you for your comment. πŸ™‚

      Your comment reminds me of something I heard once. Someone said to another, “I couldn’t go vegan because I love cheese so much” and the other replied “Then why not go vegan except for cheese? It’s still something.”

      Be well. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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