One of the beautiful (and frustrating) things about Buddhist practice is that there aren't any hard and fast rules for practitioners to follow outside of the monastic order. In his wisdom, Buddha chose to give general guidelines (the precepts) and a tool (meditation) which allow us to make decisions for ourselves in terms of how best to walk the path. As a result, there are many debates within Buddhist circles that have literally been going on sense the founding of this tradition. "Should Buddhists eat meat" is one of those debates, and after 2,600 years I don't think a final answer will be found any time soon. However, it's a conversation that needs to be had. This is my contribution:
I ate meat for the first 30 years of my life, and I never really thought much of it. I liked cows, pigs, and chickens well enough, however, my brain never made the connection between what ended up on my plate and the animals I saw on TV. It wasn't until I took my first tentative steps on the Buddhist path that the suffering farmed animals endure became real. The process started when I was running late for meditation class one day, and I stopped at a steakhouse to pick up some food to go. It was common for students to gather and talk before services, so I went into the sitting area and began enjoying my meal. It wasn't long before one of the senior teachers came in and told me in a polite but firm tone that eating meat wasn't allowed in the Zen center. I didn't want to offend anyone, so I went out to my car and hastily finished my food there. But the experience made me ask a question that I'd never asked myself before, "Should I be eating meat?"
Out of curiosity, I jumped online and watched some (warning: graphic) videos on how factory farmed animals are treated. What I saw horrified me. But it didn't make me stop consuming animals. Instead, I compromised and vowed to only eat "humane" meat. I spent hours in the grocery store searching for cage-free and free-range products, and I called companies to ask questions about their animal welfare policies. What I found was disappointing. While humane meat is certainly a step up from factory-farmed meat, the animals still aren't treated well. For example, cage-free hens aren't allowed to go outside. And free-range animals don't spend their days out on a pasture, enjoying sunshine. More often than not, they're only given access to a dirt patch or a concrete floor surrounded by fencing.
During this time, the question I kept asking myself was, "What would Buddha do?" The historical Buddha consumed the flesh of animals, and he allowed his monks to do the same. The only restrictions that he placed on them was that they themselves could not kill the animal nor suspect that the animal had been killed specifically for them. But this needs to be placed in perspective. Buddha was a mendicant monk who lived during a time when starvation was a real threat. He ate one meal a day, owned almost no possessions, and only ate the food that was given to him by lay followers. By allowing his monastics to eat meat, Buddha wasn't dismissing the suffering of animals. Rather, he was creating a middle path which allowed his monastics to ensure their own survival while causing the least amount of suffering possible.
The Buddha's response to the question, "Should Buddhists eat meat?" was completely logical for the time in which he lived. But it doesn't translate into the modern era. Case in point, I'm not a mendicant monk. I'm an IT professional who lives in a house and buys his food at the grocery store. The closest I come to starvation is when I forget to go shopping. Eating meat isn't a question of survival for me, it's a question of preference. Furthermore, the medical community has published numerous papers stating that plant-based diets are healthy for human beings and reduce our risk of cancer, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes. If the Buddha were alive today, I have a hard time believing that he would be a meat-eater.
The more research I did, the more I realized that the dietary middle path had changed from the time of the Buddha. Eating a plant-based diet would allow me to meet all of my nutritional needs while eliminating the suffering of countless farmed animals. With this in mind I took the first steps towards a completely plant-based diet and became a lacto-ovo vegetarian.