Geshe Thubten Soepa.
Section One: Udamwara: Statements from the Sutra (1)
The Udamwara Lotus Flower. Protecting the Life of Helpless Beings. Statements from Sutra Relating to Eating Meat.
In Honour of Guru Shakyamuni
With faith in the teacher, the conqueror, who truly appeared,
directly perceived the ultimate mode of existence,
through meditation, exhausted the two obscurations
and turned the wheel of Dharma truthfully:
who am I to fathom or describe
your qualities of wisdom, love and power.
Yet if I were to express them in only four lines
it would be these:
Possessor of skilful means
who led even those full of hate like Angulimala,
those overcome by desire – the likes of Nanda,
and ignorant beings like Lamchung to arhatship.
Praise also to His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso,
who in our times, just like a second Buddha,
performs enormous deeds of love and peace1 —
to further your teachings and foster the roots of virtue2
of all the world’s beings—a life-protecting lord.
I have written down here, with reference to my sources, what the Buddha said about eating meat. It will surely raise the interest of those who have trust in valid teachings and their teacher. I intend to give some explanations of how eating meat is presented in the lesser and greater vehicles including tantra.
The great Indian scholar Shantideva wrote:
Even though they intend to give up suffering
they run into the arms of the causes of suffering.
Although they wish for happiness, out of ignorance,
they ruin their own happiness like a foe.
In full accordance with what is being expressed here, we clearly realise in our daily lives that all sentient beings from humans down to ants wish for happiness and try to avoid suffering. As this attitude, the desire to seek happiness and avoid suffering, is a quality of mind, it would seem evident that there are minds at work here. The continuum of all sentient beings is in fact endowed with a mind characterised by certain qualities. This mind constitutes the true basis for transformation into the omniscient truth dharmakaya and the cessation of the two types of obscuration, including their imprints left on the consciousness. However, as we ourselves and other sentient beings are under the influence of obscurations due to confusion and ignorance, we do not know how to create the correct causes for the happiness we all desire. Likewise, we do not know how to get rid of the causes of the suffering we wish to avoid. We can even recognise the truth of this at the manifest level of our experience. Therefore, it is imperative to look for correct methods that will bring about happiness, as well as correct methods for giving up suffering. In fact those methods consist in 1) learning about the two truths, 2) meditating on ultimate truth, thereby giving up the two obscurations, and, ultimately, 3) reaching buddhahood.
However, this is not the place to discuss the possibility of finding and applying such faultless methods by examining the words of the Buddha through listening, thinking, and meditating and developing the corresponding three types of wisdom. The words the Buddha addressed to the three types of disciples3 due to his limitless capacity of love and compassion and which were laid down in 84,000 heaps of teachings are vast and profound. They are the words of an authentic person who realized the ultimate nature of phenomena as they are, meditated on the path according to that ultimate nature and managed to completely give up the two kinds of obscurations. All I can hope to achieve here is a clarification of one important aspect of those teachings: Shakyamuni Buddha rejected the consumption of meat both in the words of the lesser and the great vehicles – both in sutra and tantra. In each case he presented different reasons and types of rejection laying particular emphasis on the object of rejection i.e. meat. However, the rejection of meat procured by means of killing innocent creatures with the specific intention of eating them is stated equally clearly in the Hinayana and Mahayana sutras as well as in the scriptures of tantra. I will present the reasons and sources systematically.
In the seventh chapter of the Angulimala Sutra, a Mahayana sutra as rare as the Udamwara flower4, Manjushri asks:
“Is it true that the buddhas do not eat meat due to Buddha nature?”5 The Buddha said: “It is exactly like that, Manjushri. In the sequence of lives during our beginningless and endless coming and going in samsara there is no being that has not been our mother, that has not been our sister. Even dogs have been our fathers before. The world of those lives is like a play6. Therefore, since our own flesh and that of others is the same flesh, the buddhas do not eat meat7. Furthermore, Manjushri, the sphere of all beings is the dharmadhatu. As this would constitute eating flesh of the same sphere, the buddhas do not eat meat.”
I should like to give a brief explanation of this sutra passage. We find three reasons here why buddhas do not eat meat. The first reason is expressed in terms of the Buddha’s affirmative answer to Manjushri’s questions as to whether this has to do with the fact that the Buddha nature8, characterised by the three natural features9, is present in the mental continuum of all beings. “It is exactly like that.” The second reason is this: As there is no single being that has not been our mother or father in this process of beginningless and endless coming and going in samsara, and as we ourselves and others are of the same flesh, the buddhas do not eat meat10. And the third reason: the sphere of all beings is the dharmadhatu11 and eating flesh of the same sphere is inappropriate. In this sutra eating meat is thus being rejected through reasoning.
However, eating meat is also rejected with reference to its disadvantages. Again in the Angulimala Sutra the Buddha says:
Purna12, beings that have previously been cats, constantly attached to eating meat, and beings that reject Buddha nature will all become rakshas13 resembling cats. In the future, too, beings that have taken the form of cat-like rakshas and find killing others and eating their meat irresistible, will be the same as beings that have turned away from Buddha nature.
Here eating meat is rejected with reference to disadvantages resulting from it. Some humans, just like cats, love killing for food and eating meat. How does this desire come about? It is the result of karmic imprints from previous lives where they did not acknowledge Buddha nature and act upon it. The karmic imprints bring about the desire to kill animals and eat their flesh in this life. If they fail to acknowledge Buddha nature yet again in the present life, they will accumulate more negative karma and thereby take unfortunate rebirths under conditions where they will experience more suffering. If you acknowledge Buddha nature, you will also respect the beings of all six realms and you will be incapable of eating their flesh. Otherwise you may kill and eat them and turn into a raksha in the future.
The Buddha said: “Angulimala, in countless lives, out of respect for the millions of living beings, I have given up fish, meat, fat, in fact any food associated with killing and have also caused beings to do the same. Due to this my body has become the excellent body of a buddha, characterised by the special marks. Angulimala, in countless lives I have caused millions of beings, gods and humans, to purify all the million mental afflictions. Due to that my body has become a body free from elaborations.”14
In this sutra, eating meat is thus rejected with reference to the corresponding benefits.
Moreover, in the Mahamegha Sutra (Great Cloud Sutra) the rejection of meat and alcohol is presented in the context of qualities characterising the meditative concentration of bodhisattvas on the tenth level:
The Bodhisattva Mahasattva Mahamegha (Essence of the Great Cloud) asked the Buddha: “Lord, I ask for the 400 gates of meditative concentration to be explained in detail by the exalted Tathagata.” The Buddha replied: “…Mahamegha, a bodhisattva mahasattva who has attained the concentration of the deep, calm ocean15 demonstrates the signs of obstacles in order for beings to renounce killing animals and eating their meat by appearing as a meat seller in places where pigs are sold. In order to bring beings to spiritual maturity he also appears as a beer drinker among beer sellers and in order to clearly show the disadvantages of drinking beer, he will even become chief among them and serve beer to beings without being attached to that activity.”
This sutra rejects meat and alcohol noting the qualities that a bodhisattva attains in the context of the 400 gates of concentration, achieving the meditation of the deep, calm ocean.
In the Hinayana sutras we also find quotations relating to our subject like the following passage from the latter part of Foundations of Medicine, a text contained in the Vinaya section of the Kangyur:
The Buddha was dwelling in a multi-storey building by the monkey pond at Vaisali. In Vaisali there lived a captain called Sengge and whenever the people living nearby brought him meat, he ate it. One day he learnt from the Buddha what is true, and he did not eat meat any more. Nevertheless meat was still brought to him but it was given to the bhikshus, and in fact the bhikshus did eat it. Now the tirthikas16 made remarks about this, made fun and clapped their hands: “Knowledgeable ones, captain Sengge does not eat the meat that has been prepared for him, so it is given to the bhikshus of the son of the Shakyas. And the bhikshus of the son of the Shakyas eat the meat that was meant for captain Sengge.” When they heard this loose talk the bhikshus asked the Buddha and the Buddha replied: “I have stated that meat which is not appropriate from the three points of view17 should not be eaten.”
Thus the Hinayana sutra containing the Vinaya text Foundations of Medicine also rejects meat, i.e. meat that is not appropriate for eating on three counts. Nowadays, unfortunately, some intelligent and not so intelligent commentators have made the presentation of purity according to the three aspects18, namely “not having seen, not having heard and not suspecting that a being has been killed for ones own consumption” into a rule which is as well-known as a famous quotations. As far as the presentation in the Vinaya sutra Foundations of Medicine is concerned, there can be no doubt that it is inappropriate to eat meat that has been killed for oneself. However, the fact that the Buddha, referring to meat meant for someone (i.e. captain Sengge) other than those who actually eat it (i.e. the “bhikshus of the son of the Shakyas”), states “that meat which is not appropriate from three points of view should not be eaten” shows very clearly that eating meat which has been killed for others is also not pure according to the three aspects or inappropriate for eating on the three counts. To good logicians this is clearly evident at closer examination.
The fact that the meat of an animal that has been slaughtered for oneself and the meat of an animal that has been slaughtered for others is equally impure according to the three aspects or equally inappropriate for eating on the three counts is thus made clear by the Vinaya sutra Foundations of Medicine. Relying on this sutra we can therefore see that it is unnecessary and pointless to take the statement from the extensive commentary on the Vinaya, “not having seen, not having heard and not suspecting” that a being “has been killed for ones own consumption” and make it suit our own interests in a narrow-minded fashion by drawing clever conclusions from it.
Similarly, the threefold rejection of meat as impure set out in the 14 major infractions and 25 rules of conduct of the Kalachakra system has to be applied to meat of animals that have been slaughtered for either oneself or others as impure according to those three aspects. The Kalachakra is a Dharma system comprising all the points of sutra and tantra in their entirety and is therefore in agreement with statements from the Vinaya.
Now, some sceptics may still be concerned about karmic consequences from eating any kind of meat, even for health reasons—for instance the meat of water buffaloes, sheep or goats that have died in accordance with the Dharma19. They may suggest that such meat should also be abandoned. The response to that would be that, from a Buddhist point of view, this position resembles Devadatta’s understanding of what constitutes renouncing meat as presented in his Five Instructions20.
According to the Vinaya Sutra fully ordained monks are allowed to eat meat as medicine when ill. This meat has to originate from an animal that has died from natural causes. In autumn, many monks used to get ill, so Ananda asked the Buddha what to do about it. The Buddha replied that four substances, including meat and alcohol, were permissible as medicine. The monks had to find meat that was pure in the three above respects and feed it to their ill companions. In case they were not able to eat it, they were blindfolded and spices were used to cover up the unpleasant taste. This tradition strongly suggests that at the time of the Buddha, fully-ordained monks did not normally eat meat, for otherwise such special measures would not have been necessary.
Furthermore, in the context of shramana21 Dharma practice exemplified by one of the main disciples of the Buddha, the Sthavira Mahakaskyapa, who did not eat meat and did not accumulate even the tiniest bit of wordly wealth, it says in the Angulimala Sutra:
Angulimala said: “Indra, you have strayed away from the teachings. In fact it is like this: he who abandoned jewels, pearls, lapis lazuli, gold, kunda stones and the like, 80,000 vases filled with jewels, grains of gold and other precious things, cast away priceless clothes as if they were drops of spittle, renunciate of the shramana Dharma, Sthavira Mahakasyapa, main follower of the Tathagata who took up residence in the forest and also upheld the conduct of physical restraint in accordance with the twelve qualities of ascetic practice—why did the great Sthavira (Maha)Kasyapa not wear precious clothing, why did he renounce his households and uphold the conduct of physical restraint purely, giving up foods like nectar and meat dishes?
He went from house to house and whenever the householders feigned stupidity and said: ‘We have nothing at all to spare, neither in front nor at the back nor on either side’ or berated him, he answered ‘May you be happy’ and returned with an easy mind. Likewise whenever they said ‘we have something for you’, the Sthavira answered without attachment ‘May you be happy’ and returned with an easy mind.
Now if through each of (Maha)Kasyapa’s own treasure vases future shramanas could have enjoyed food, drink and delicacies till the end of their lives, why did he not bequeath such enormous wealth to the Sangha? Giving up the sense of ‘mine’ and letting it go, making it the inexhaustible treasure of hungry ghosts, of those in need, of miserable ones and of beggars that is the Dharma of shramanas, Indra. Accumulating wealth if only the size of a sesame seed is not the Dharma of shramanas.
Who would deny—with this sutra in mind—that it would be appropriate for us who have renounced household life and taken vows of ordination, to look up to Sthavira Mahakasyapa as an unequalled model to be emulated? Although he owned the full gamut of worldly possessions, he gave up everything, realising that even the tiniest possession viewed as ‘one’s own’ is no Dharma of shramanas and renounced food from dead animals, thereby upholding the pure conduct of vegetarian discipline in accordance with the twelve qualities of ascetic practice! According to tradition, Kasyapa’s body is still hidden in a mountain recess in India. In the future, Buddha Maitreya will reveal the exact location and point him out as a model bhikshu. May we then have the good fortune to be reborn in India and come face to face with the great Kasyapa.
As far as the use of honey22, leather shoes, white conch shells (employed as ritual implements) and silk worms is concerned, we also have the telling response to a question by Manjushri. Since what matters within worldly things is a ‘reality of methods’, wearing leather shoes is appropriate if the buffalo whose skin was used to make them died in accordance with the Dharma23 and inappropriate if the leather has come from an animal that was killed. The use of honey, conch shells and silk is also said to be appropriate if the material was derived from animals that died in accordance with the Dharma i.e. that were not killed especially. In the Angulimala Sutra it says with regard to this point:
Manjushri asked: “Are not honey and conch shells and shoes and silk worms like the meat of the same sphere?” The Buddha answered: “Do not speak thus, Manjushri. Having given up all worldly bodies the buddhas are not dependent on material things and therefore do not need any substances of attachment. The reality of the world is the use of material things. Materials pass from one to the other as they are used—you should not use whatever materials are at hand indiscriminately. That which has been passed on but did not originate from a killing hand is fit for use.”
Manjushri asked: “If a shoemaker in the market has made leather shoes and offers them to the Tathagata, Arhat, perfectly enlightened Buddha, will he accept that which has passed through several hands?” Manjushri went on to ask: “If a buffalo has died in accordance with the Dharma and the owner has it skinned by a slaughterer, visits a shoemaker to have the leather fashioned into shoes and then gives them to someone following the rules of discipline would that be ‘something passed from one to the other’?” Thus he asked and the Buddha said: “If the buffalo died in accordance with the Dharma, and the owner has shoes made and gives them to someone following the rules of discipline, then they should be accepted. Would it be fitting for a monk not to accept them? This would show a lack of compassion and the rules of discipline would be harmed.”