Q. Do you have to give up meat, alcohol, and sex to be a good Buddhist?
A. Not at all. Being a good Buddhist entails many things, especially the mindful practice of ethical morality, meditative awareness, and wisdom coupled with love and unselfishness. So meat, alcohol, and sex are not the top evils for Buddhists.
Since one of Buddhism’s principal tenets is compassion and nonviolence, cruelty to animals–and to all forms of life–is discouraged. In this light, vegetarianism, a common practice among many Buddhists, makes good sense; it is a way to practice nonviolence and lovingkindness as well as gain health benefits.
At the same time, there are plenty of meat-eating Buddhists in both Asia and the West. One prominent example is the Dalai Lama. In fact, most Tibetans and Japanese Buddhists eat meat. In a Buddhist scripture, the Sutta Nipata 245, the Buddha said: “Anger, arrogance, inflexibility, hostility, deception, envy, pride, conceit, bad company, these are impure foods, not meat.”
Regarding sex, which is a healthy part of human life, there are Buddhists–laymen and women as well as teachers and spiritual leaders–who are celibate. But celibacy and teetotaling are not required, except among the strictest of the traditional orders of renunciate monks and nuns. Of course, the misuse of alcohol and addictive sexual behavior are proscribed, since overdoing these things does not lead to a healthy spirituality, Buddhist or otherwise. As a rule of thumb, understand that any behavior harmful to oneself or another is a Buddhist no-no.
Buddhism is not about beliefs but about practice, not about what we think and believe, but what we do and how we live. One can be a genuine Buddhist without necessarily subscribing to a specific cosmology or any particular belief, including vegetarianism, reincarnation, or the existence of other worlds and lives.
A Buddhist practitioner generally follows what Buddha himself called The Middle Way, a wise, peaceable, and virtuous practice-path, free of extreme beliefs, dogma, and biases. Walking in the Buddha’s footsteps is about enjoying the fruits of awakened living in the here and now, not in another life.
Consistently striving to live a mindful life dedicated to spiritual awakening frees us from confusion and suffering and brings peace and joy into our lives–and into the lives of those around us. It is said that we meditate, chant, and pray by ourselves. But it is not just for ourselves that we progress.