In western countries vegetarianism has recently increased in popularity and this has led to some questioning about bhikkhus and meat eating. (In less materially developed countries the question is more about what, if anything, is there to eat?)
The question of monks eating meat is an old one that was originally raised by the renegade monk Ven. Devadatta. He asked the Buddha to prohibit bhikkhus from eating fish and flesh in what seems was a ploy to take over the leadership of the Sangha. (The stricter ascetic tactic.) The Buddha had already made a strict rule for both bhikkhus and lay people about not taking life (see Killing.) so He did not agree to Ven. Devadattas new formulation.
The Buddha did allow bhikkhus to eat meat and fish1 except under the following circumstances:
If a bhikkhu sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it.2
If a bhikkhu is given meat on alms round and he has no knowledge about how the animal died3 he has to receive it with attentiveness. (See the Sekhiya Trainings.) He should be grateful and recollect that the food he is given is what enables him to continue to live the bhikkhu life, and that as a mendicant he is not in a position to choose what he gets. If he later comes to know the family and they ask him about Dhamma, he will be able to explain the precept about not killing. This may cause them to reflect on their attitude to meat eating.
An individual lay person can choose whether to be a vegetarian. Problems usually arise only when vegetarians want to impose their choice on others, and as meal times are normally a family or shared affair this can create tensions and misunderstandings.
An individual bhikkhu who lives on alms food cannot make such choices. Often the donors are unknown — perhaps not even Buddhist, or just starting to find out about Dhamma — and to refuse their generosity may so offend them that they never have anything to do with Dhamma again.
Finally it comes down to the lay people who go to the market to buy food to give to the bhikkhus. If they are vegetarian themselves or like to give vegetarian food, then the bhikkhu should receive that food with appreciation — especially if it means that fewer animals are being slaughtered. Nevertheless, it should not become a political issue where other people are attacked for their behavior.
"There are approximately 26 references to the eating of meat by bhikkhus and bhikkhuniis (and 4 to meat broth), 10 of these are in reference to the five kinds of staple food (bhojana). Many of these references are quite incidental, for example, a chief minister offers each of 1250 bhikkhus a bowl of meat (Vin.I,222), a bhikkhu steals a bowlful of meat during a famine (Vin.III,59) and bhikkhus eat the remains of a lions kill (Vin.III,80). One of these references concerns the Buddhas refusal to forbid the eating of fish and meat as proposed by the schismatic Bhikkhu Devadatta (Vin.II,197; III,172). The Buddha rather reiterated his position that fish and meat were pure if not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed for a bhikkhu. It thus seems certain that meat eating was common in the Buddhas time and only later, with the growth of the Mahayana schools, became prohibited.
A study of the allowance to eat meat pure in the three respects in other Vinaya recensions shows that, despite minor differences in defining terms, there is not "any material difference in the meaning and scope of the rule." It has been suggested that the development of vegetarianism amongst certain Mahayanists may have close connexions to the theory of the tathaagatagarbha..." (HS ch.9)
However, another commentator notes that Tibetan Buddhists — who also follow the Mahayana (and the tathaagatagarbha teachings) — do eat meat. He suggests that not eating meat came more from the Taoist influence in China.2.
This exception was made when the newly converted (from the Jains) General Siha ordered that a meal for the Lord Buddha and his monks be prepared for the next day with meat from the market. The Jains then started to shout and complain all over town in an attempt to discredit the Buddha.
The bhikkhu should also not eat raw or undercooked meat, or the flesh of elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, hyenas or, of course, human flesh.3.
"The flesh of animals which have been slaughtered to sell as meat for the people, however, is called flesh which exists already. [It] has been slaughtered for their meat to be used for food by one person or by a group of people, apart from fellow Dhamma friends, or specially for the butcher himself... If people cook such meat and offer it to a bhikkhu, [it] will not be an offence to accept and eat it." (EV,II,pp.131-133)