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The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. Monks in ancient India were expected to receive all of their food by begging and to have little or no control over their diet.
During the Buddha's time, there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. In fact, at one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions.
There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard or elephant meat. Monks are also prohibited from consuming meat if the monk witnessed the animal's death or knows that it was killed specifically for him. This rule was applied to commercial purchase of meat in the case of a general who sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. Therefore, eating commercially purchased meat is not prohibited.
On the other hand, certain Mahayana sutras make a stronger argument against eating meat. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion". A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism. Several other Mahayana Vyana also prohibit consumption of meat.
In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat, while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat.
In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetable nutrition was historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvastivada, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama has recently made several comments encouraging its adoption. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monks.