The relationship between meat eating and Buddhism is a complex one which differs between traditions and is further complicated by the fact that Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have died from eating uncooked pork. Below I will consider some of the aspects of the relationship between Buddhism and meat eating and outline why the Zen tradition clearly and unequivocally insists that vegetarianism is superior to eating meat.
PRECEPT NOT TO KILL
The first precept corresponds to the Hindu and Jain concept of ahimsa, ‘no-injury’ and is generally regarded as the most important one. The spirit of the precept is expressed thus:
“Laying aside violence in respect of all beings, both which are still and those which move … he should not kill any living creature, nor cause to kill, nor approve of others killing” (sn 394)
This precept applies to all sentient beings since we all share the same cycle of rebirths and experience the same kind of suffering. In other words, all Buddhist lineages teach that that animal are capable of suffering and joy just as we are and therefore it follows that the first precept forbids a Buddhist for involvement in killing any sentient being.
On the face of it then Buddhists would not be able to do anything that will kill any animal and would automatically disapprove of anyone or anything that did kill any animal. This would mean, in essence, that Buddhists would not eat meat, wear leather or be involved in any process or material that involved the killing of animals. However, this is not what we find and the stories of the Pali-cannon report that Buddha set up a hierarchy of animals and instructed his followers to eat some types of meat as long as certain conditions were met while never eating other types and yet never refuse any food that was given.
This contradictory state of affairs was arrived at by taking the varied recorded teachings of the Pali-cannon the Buddha was meant to have taught at different times and places to different people. Some of the diverse dietary rules arrived at in this way are that some meats were banned altogether such as the flesh of elephants, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, panthers, bears and hyenas while allowing the eating of other meats only on the condition that the eater had not seen, heard, nor have any reason to suspect that the animal was killed or bought specifically for them and under these circumstances this was called ‘blameless’ meat (Majjhima, Anguttara Nikayas, and the Vinaya). In fact, Buddha was thought to have gone further than only allowing the so-called ‘blameless’ meat for monks but actually insisting that monks accept and eat all food offered from alms since it is important to be neither attracted nor averted by meat or to deny the foods donor of their karmic rewards.
Nevertheless, Buddha instructed his followers that being averted from the meat industry was acceptable insisting that that is wrong livelihood (AN 5:177) while actually refusing to allow his followers to be vegetarian when his cousin Devadatta suggested it (vin. II.171-2).
It is hard to see how this hotchpotch of rules make any sense at all as they seem contradictory in essence and function. For instance, one should eat some meats as a practice of being neither attached nor averted to it, but then some are always banned. Furthermore, Buddha seems to recognise that in many cases meat wouldn’t be ‘blameless’ but forbids his followers to seek a meat-free life. How then, can we understand how the Buddha set up a system with such hotchpotch of contradictory practices?
The first thing is to remember the Pali-cannon does not contain a divine revelation but at best the words of the Buddha who was usually solving problems on the fly. So, for example, when it is said he banned eating elephant it was because in those times elephant was under royal protection. Likewise, he suggested not eating tigers because they were dangerous and might kill you. It is hard to see how this ban would affect the offering of an elephant-burger to a 21st-century monk, and therefore quite clearly some or all of the rules need no longer apply.
The second thing to understand is that when the Buddha was talking to his monks he was talking to a small group of homeless mendicants like himself who begged for all their food and as the saying goes: “beggars can’t be choosers”. In a small group like this an injunction to accept only ‘blameless’ food made sense since a monk should focus on his or her meditation. It was only much later after the Buddha’s death that monks built monasteries and became integrated into society. Indeed, there have been times and places where Buddhists became powerful and influential and even became representatives of the state religion.
Once Buddhism grew into a large and powerful religion it would have been easy for monks that relied on begging to specify which kinds of food that they would like from lay donors. After all, every lay Buddhist should not kill an animal for food, or tell someone else to do it for them as this is breaking the first precept and therefore meat should be forbidden. How then, were the rules that were created to address the needs of a few homeless recluses begging for their food in a society they have no direct influence over be later justified and what is the justification for both monks and laypeople ignoring the first precept?
The answer to these questions depends on which school of Buddhism we are talking about. In the Theravada tradition they stuck to the strange and contradictory rules from the Pali-cannon described above. The Mahayana, on the other hand, took the first precept seriously and encouraged people to not eat meat to maximise compassion. In fact, in the Mahayana scriptures there is no reference to the ‘blamelessness’ concept and secondly, meat eating is very vigorously and unreservedly denounced and the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it is specifically rejected. Each school developed a theory or theories of ‘sentient-being’ that allowed them to either ignore the plight of animals or aim to protect them.
DID BUDDHA DIE FROM EATING UNCOOKED PORK?
The story of Buddha’s last meal is told in the Mahaaparinibbaana-sutta says, “At Paavaa, Budha stayed in the mango grove of Cunda. At Paavaa, Buddha stayed in the mango grove of Cundathe smith. There Cunda provided a meal with the excellent food, hard and soft, and a large amount of suukaramaddava. Before the meal Buddha said, ((Serve me, Cunda, with the suukaramaddava that you have prepared, and serve the order with the other hard and soft food.)) Cunda did so, and after the meal Buddha told him to throw the remainder of the suukaramaddava into a hole, as he saw no-one in the world who could digest it other than the Tathagata. The sharp sickness arose, with a flow of blood, and violent deadly pains, but Buddha mindful and conscious controlled them…and set out for Kusinaaraa”.
The word suukaramaddava occurs nowhere else and could mean several things (pig-pounded, trampled by pigs, or the soft parts of a pig) but it has traditionally been interpreted to mean some sort of pork. Therefore, tradition claims that the Buddha’s last meal and the thing that killed him was pork. However, we were not there. Moreover, there were no TV cameras or MP3 players recording the words of the Buddha. In fact, there was no effort to record exactly what was said and the words of any sutra were passed on orally for hundreds of years before being finally being written down. The first time they were written was in the Pali language. Pali itself doesn’t have its own script as it was originally a spoken language and what we know today as the Pali Canon was passed down orally for the first five hundred years after the Buddha’s death and, according to the Sinhalese chronicles, written down in the reign of King Vttagamini (last century B.C.E.) in Sri Lanka at the fourth Buddhist council.
Therefore, we can safely conclude that while the words in the sutras convey the general meaning of Buddha Sakyamuni they are not his exact words and deeds and are certainly not accurate in their historical content. With this in mind, I believe it is fruitless to study the exact words we find in the Nidana Vagga but look instead for the meaning. Studying any Sutra word for word would be like mistaking the finger pointing at the truth for the truth itself. With this in mind, it is pointless to look at this sutra and find out what the Buddha ate for his last meal because it is bound to be inaccurate as every storyteller would have added their own embellishments.
And, furthermore, the Chinese cannon that includes the Pali-cannon does not have the parts that have the Buddha saying meat eating is acceptable which at least offers the possibility that it was a post-hoc addition to justify practices found in South Asia and other sutras that originated from India (eg, the Nirvana and Lankavatara sutras) strongly talk against meat eating for not just monks for all people.
CAN MEAT EATING BE COMPASSIONATE?
As the Buddha was said to have eaten pork that naturally raises the question what was Buddha doing eating meat and how can Buddhism claim to be compassionate to animals? The answer to this depends on the tradition.
According to the Theravada tradition the Buddha and his followers did eat meat so long as certain conditions were met. These conditions were that a monk should not have seen, heard, nor have any reason to suspect that the meat was from an animal killed specifically for him. If these three conditions were met then the meat was said to be ‘blameless’(Majjhima and Anguttara Nikayas, and the Vinaya). There is also the notion from the Vinaya that meat and fish are ‘excellent food’ for those who are ill. Furthermore, the first monks did not build monasteries and were homeless mendicants like the Buddha himself who begged for all their food and even now most Theravada monks beg for their food and so can not choose what to eat.
The Mahayana tradition grew in a different situation and encourages people to not eat meat to maximise compassion. This difference arose once monks stopped getting their food from begging and could, therefore, choose what to eat. There is a twofold difference in attitude in the Mahayana scriptures – firstly, there is no reference to the ‘blamelessness’ concept and secondly, meat eating is very vigorously and unreservedly denounced and the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it is specifically rejected. Therefore Monks haven’t eaten meat and this practice has been sustained in Mahayana countries everywhere except modern Japan (where after the Menji restoration Monks started eating meat).
MEAT EATING IN THE MAHAYANA SCRIPTURES
One example of a Mahayana Sutra prohibiting meat eating is found in the Lankavatara sutra. The main points in this sutta against meat-eating are:
1. Present-day animals may have been one’s kin in the past.
2. One’s own parents and relatives may in a future life be born as an animal.
3. There is no logic in exempting the meat of some animals on customary grounds while not exempting all meat.
4. Meat is impure as it is always contaminated by body wastes.
5. The prospect of being killed spreads terror amongst animals.
6. All meat is nothing other than carrion (decaying flesh or like “road kill” in modern terms).
7. Meat eating makes the consumer to be cruel and sensual.
8. Man is not a carnivore by nature.
Furthermore, according to the Nirvana Sutra which gives the Buddha’s final teachings the Buddha insisted that his followers should not eat any kind of meat or fish and that even vegetarian food that has been touched by meat should be washed before being eaten. Also, it is not permissible for the monk or nun just to pick out the non-meat portions of a diet and leave the rest: the whole meal must be rejected.
MEAT EATING IN THE LAITY
Despite being heavily criticised Mahayana lay Buddhists often eat vegetarian diets only on vegetarian dates ( 齋期). For example, the celebration of the Kwan Seum’s birthday, enlightenment and leaving home days it is generally considered important not to eat meat.
In the past there were even attempts by various governments to enforce a limited type of veganism in the laity by enthusiastic supporters of Buddhism. For example, in 675 Japan’s Emperor Temmu banned the consumption of animal meat (horse, cattle, dogs, monkey and birds) and it is said that Japan was basically a vegetarian country until the middle of the nineteenth century when it was heavily influenced by Europe.
The relationship between meat eating and Buddhism is a complex one and differs between traditions and is further complicated by the fact that Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have died from eating uncooked pork. However, as I’ve argued above we can we can safely overlook the exact details of what Buddha Sakyamuni ate because it was five hundred years before anyone wrote down the stories of the Buddha and finally it is clear that the living Zen Buddhist tradition clearly and unequivocally insists that veganism is superior to meat eating.