Geshe Thubten Soepa.
Section One: Udamwara: Statements from the Sutra (2)
The Udamwara Lotus Flower. Protecting the Life of Helpless Beings. Statements from Sutra Relating to Eating Meat.
On this occasion, in the sutra, Manjushri asks the Buddha three questions: one about honey, conch shells, shoes and silk worms, one about a shoemaker offering shoes to the Buddha whose leather has passed through several hands so that the origin is not clear, and one about another person offering shoes made from the hide of a buffalo that died naturally. The first and the last questions are being answered, but not the middle one. There is no need for that, as the answer to the last question implies that it is inappropriate to accept the gift referred to in the middle question.
Some people who fail to distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions put forward the argument that if it is inappropriate to eat meat, it would be equally inappropriate to eat rice. However, this is not the same because to give up eating meat and reduce the number of animals being killed is an act that is well within the bounds of possibility. During the cultivation of rice and vegetables there is no intention to kill beings while planting the seedlings, irrigating the fields etc. However, since there is no way of preventing insects being killed unintentionally – as this is not currently within the bounds of possibility – it is still not the same as killing on purpose. The answer to a question posed by Manjushri may serve to clear up any doubts on the part of those critics who, based on this kind of comparison, conclude that one would consequently have to do the impossible. In the Arya Angulimala Sutra Manjushri asks whether or not it is appropriate to dig up the soil and sand, till fields and cook one’s food because of unclean water. The answer is as follows: Manjushri says:
“Digging and tilling is not appropriate. Food that has been cooked because the water was contaminated should not be accepted –in this situation, monks have to act accordingly.” Thereupon the Buddha said: “That is what is called the worldly view. If there are upasakas25, stick to clean water and food. Wherever there are upasakas, there should be no digging and tilling. Where there are no upasakas, what should even buddhas do there? There are also creatures in the grass, as well as in the water and in the air. If it were like this, would there not be negative karmic effects from altogether pure actions? The question as to how you purify something that cannot be completely pure while living in the world and without giving up the samsaric body is a futile question.”
The main significance of this sutra passage is that if there is a chance of giving up harming other beings, you should always make use of it. On the other hand, actions committed where there is no such possibility are not altogether free from negative karmic consequences, but, due to the absence of harmful intent, those consequences are far weaker.
To further clarify this point: one may well wonder whether predators such as tigers, lions or crocodiles live on something free of negativity. In the above quotation the Buddha suggests that this question is purely speculative. As long as those animals have their predator bodies they cannot but eat meat. With such bodies it is impossible to avoid killing. As they cannot help eating meat, the question arises whether, in this context, eating meat is indeed a negative action. The answer is: yes. Whoever kills or harms other living beings commits a negative action.
However, there are varying degrees of negativity. The force of a negative action is determined by the motivation or intention and the awareness of the one committing it–whether that agent knows the action is bad. Lions and tigers are not aware that killing prey and eating meat is bad, so the degree of negativity is less.
As they have a strong habit of killing and eating meat they cannot possibly rid themselves of negativities in their present lives. Due to their bodies, there is no way for them to overcome negativities in their present lives, however, they may overcome them in future lives. Likewise, we find it very difficult, at present, to perform any pure actions because of our bodies which are the result of karma and afflictions. So it becomes all the more evident that we need to strive for methods to attain the eighth bodhisattva level–to achieve the vajra body which exists uncontaminated by any harmful action.
In the Lankavatara Sutra meat is rejected from three points of view, i.e. 1) impurity, 2) the fact that the animals from whom the meat has been procured used to be our fathers and mothers in earlier lives, and 3) the fear that all living beings share of being killed:
Since it used to be our dear ones
since it is mixed with what’s base and impure–
a mess that has evolved from blood–
as everyone is scared by killing
yogis always give up meat […26]
and drinks27 inducing inattention…
The Lankavatara Sutra also denounces the disadvantages of excess and overstatement of the advantages of eating. It says:
From eating inattention is born,
from inattention concepts are born,
from concepts desirous attachment is born,
desirous attachment dulls the mind,
Through dullness attachment to being is born–
and you will not break free from samsara.
In the same sutra, eating meat is also rejected with reference to unpleasant effects on future lives:
Killing beings for profit’s sake,
trading possessions to purchase meat–
those with the karma of these two evils
wail and lament as they fall after death.
There may be no sense of causing to kill–
still the meat is not pure in three ways,
as there’s no action without a cause–28
that is why yogis give it up.
All the Buddha Bhagavans,
denounce it in all ten directions:
One devours the other, falling
among the predators after death,
always born among the lowly,
smelly ones and idiots,
frequently among the outlaws:
hunters, butchers, cannibals
and among ghosts in human form,
among the various eaters of meat: as
in the wombs of cat rakshasas.
In the Elephant and the Great Cloud,
in the Angulimala Sutra,
in the Lankavatara Sutra,
I’ve strongly rejected eating meat.29
buddhas, bodhisattvas and the
shravakas revile it all and
those who impudently eat meat
will always be reborn as fools.30
Before I taught you to abandon
meat that was seen, heard or suspected…31
Thinkers failing to understand this
are born in places where meat is consumed.32
The arya path of liberation
is thus veiled through the fault of attachment.
Meat, alcohol, onions and garlic cause
obstacles on the arya path.
In the future proponents of ignorance,
mitigate eating meat and claim:
” As meat is appropriate, free from evil,
the buddhas have permitted it.”
Food should be viewed like medicine: accordingly
yogis well versed in the Dharma eat
the gifts from their alms-round regretful as if
it were the meat of their own dear sons.
Whoever is steeped in compassion feels
that sorrow–thus have I explained.
Others33 will always dwell in the company
of wild beast such as tigers and wolves.
Whenever meat is eaten, beings are
terrified and that is why yogis,
out of compassion do not eat it.
Eating meat lacks compassion and wisdom,34
it means turning away from freedom,35
it goes against the aryas’ victory banners,36
Therefore eating meat is folly.
To be reborn in the houses of Brahmins,
or in places where yogis dwell,
in homes of families rich in wisdom–
those are results of abandoning meat.
This is written in the Lankavatara Sutra. Apparently, some people have misinterpreted this sutra to the effect that it is only directed to a certain assembly of raksha men and women and does not apply to the rest of us. However, this interpretation is quite untrustworthy. Any sensible person should be able to tell from the answers to Manjushri’s questions in the Angulimala Sutra and similar quotations, whether or not such arbitrary statements and distortions of Buddha’s valid words should be given credence.
Futhermore, everyone familiar with logic agrees that you would have to be someone like the great forerunners Nagarjuna and Asanga–foretold by the Buddha himself–to be able to tell definitive statements from interpretable ones by relying on the criteria of special intention, contextual necessity and contradiction with reality. It would take an expert authenticated by the Buddha himself to establish any intentions at variance with his literal statements, not some arbitrary sophist expounding all kinds of interpretations.
It is not up to us or biased scholars to settle how the Buddha’s teachings should be interpreted. Otherwise one might arrive at the above conclusion that eating meat has been prohibited only for rakshas. Also, if anyone were able to interpret the Buddha’s teachings correctly, there would have been no need for him to predict that Nagarjuna and Asanga in particular would elucidate his teachings correctly. The above prediction from the Lankavatara Sutra already anticipates this:
In the future proponents of ignorance
mitigate eating meat and claim:
“As meat is appropriate, free from evil,
the buddhas have permitted it.”
Although it is unlikely
that Dharma talk by fishermen37 like myself
can bring about any benefit, nevertheless,
how could the words of the Tathagata
fail to bring about benefit?
—with these words of relief I shall sit back for a moment now that the main body of this text is completed.
I would like to add a point His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, made at the Kalachakra initiation in Mundgod suggesting that in the past, at the time of the Great Dharma kings of Tibet, eating meat was also rejected. He said the old edicts of the Dharma kings were quite clear on this: “The monks shall learn the behaviour of the pundits and the great abbot (Shantarakshita): drinking alcohol, eating meat and the like are inappropriate.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama also said: “None of the visitors coming to Bodhgaya from all over the world offer alcohol and meat, it is only the Tibetan pilgrims that spread out their pieces of meat and liquor saying ‘we are doing our offering ceremony’—I do not think this is nice, I have often said that. I also do not like the fact that during the big assemblies at the major monasteries platters full of meat are set up with the words ‘we have performed an offering ceremony’. I have said again and again that it is better to set up substances like nectar pills, blessed water or black tea. And if some people claim that, according to anuttarayoga tantra, you have to take meat, the only reason that may be quoted in support of this claim is the statement about the acceptance of the five kinds of meat and the five kinds of nectar. There is no other reason. Quite apart from the fact that this refers to a very high level of realisation,38 if indeed you postulate the need for eating meat based on the statement about accepting the five kinds of meat and the five kinds of nectar, then you should be consistent and insist on the need for eating horse meat, dog meat as well as human flesh, drinking urine and eating feces.”39
At the time I noted down the Dalai Lama’s words precisely: Once we accept the statement about the five kinds of meat and nectar, the claim that we must eat meat would clearly and logically imply that we must eat dog meat and human flesh, too.
The main point of the sutras quoted here is to demonstrate that the Buddhist Dharma is a teaching of non-violence. As this fundamental principle, i.e. not to harm, constitutes the core and root of the Buddhist teachings, it is important to apply and implement it. It is good to rely on statements by the Buddha when it comes to deciding what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. Is the main point of the teaching of non-harmfulness not lost, if you try and substantiate your own desires with tortuous arguments, carelessly eating the meat of killed animals?
The Buddha drew a distinction between actions that are “unwholesome by nature” and actions that are “unwholesome because of vows”. As far as the latter are concerned he made certain modifications taking differences in time and place into account. For instance, he rejected daily baths for monks in some countries, but permitted them in hot countries. Likewise, he generally prohibited touching women under the influence of attachment, making nevertheless clear that, under a number of circumstances, it would be correct and necessary to touch them—for instance when a woman is in danger of drowning and has to be pulled out of the water. While allowing for such modifications considering a given situation in the context of actions “unwholesome because of vows”, there was no way a licence for actions “unwholesome by nature” such as killing and stealing could be given. The latter are harmful actions regardless of time and space and even a buddha cannot change harmful karma into wholesome karma. The aspect of non-violence in the teachings of the Buddha is demonstrated by the unanimous rejection of harmful actions such as killing, stealing and the like in all the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana scriptures and therefore I rejoice in the fact that all the successors of the Buddha in the traditions of Hinayana and Mahayana, of Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu and Nyingma continue to explain and practice this teaching in accordance with the fundamental idea of non-harmfulness.
Thus I have scooped a jug of the nectar of Buddha’s words from the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, from the Angulimala Sutra and other scriptures, on the issue of giving up and accepting meat, without exaggeration nor understatement, and I have embellished it with the fresh white lotus flower of statements by his Holiness the Dalai Lama. May this offering, too, become a cloud of offerings that pleases the buddhas.
One’s flesh and that of others are no different
But making a difference and eating it we have long roamed.40
The Buddha taught: everyone’s realm is the dharmadhatu
one must not eat the meat of one’s own realm.
Composed in the year 2620 after the Buddha’s birth, the year 1995 according to the Western calendar, with the wish to benefit by Geshe Thubten Soepa.
The above booklet about eating meat was read through, cover to cover, by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. He told me: “It is well written. It would be nice if more equally useful texts were written for people to read”. I cannot express how pleased I was at these words. I would like to complement my composition by a few questions and answers concerning the topic.
1. For example. love, compassion and non-violence.
2. Love, compassion and non-violence are those very roots of virtue.
3. With the dispositions of hearers, solitary realisers and buddhas.
4. A flower only found at the time a buddha is born.
5. Manjushri is actually asking two questions that may be paraphrased in these terms: 1) Why don’t you eat meat? 2) I think the reason may be that all sentient beings have Buddha nature – it that correct?.
6. For example, a play with changing parts. The main emphasis is on the impermanence and instability of life with its ever-changing relationships between sentient beings, not on the illusion-like nature of life.
7. The line of argument here is: 1) it is inappropriate to eat one’s own flesh 2) one’s own flesh and that of others is the same – therefore it is also inappropriate to eat the flesh of others.
8. All sentient beings have the potential to get rid of suffering. This is referred to as Buddha nature. It is the foundation for all good qualities such as compassion, love, and wisdom.
9. Buddha nature (tathagatagarbha) is attained by the power of reality. It stems from the mental continuum which goes on from one life to the next and constitutes the seed of unpolluted wisdom.
10. This second reason may be framed as a short dialogue: Q: Why don’t you eat your own flesh? A: Because it hurts. Q: If so, is it not the case that it will hurt other sentient beings, if you eat their flesh? A: Yes, it would. Q: Then how can it be proper to eat someone else’s flesh?
11. The dharmadhatu is the ultimate nature of mind, which is purity. The minds of buddhas and all sentient beings have this quality of natural purity. As all beings partake of this ultimate purity of mind, they all have the capacity to attain buddhahood.
12. Important monastic disciple of the Buddha, arhat of the Abhidharma tradition.
13. A kind of cannibal or blood-thirsty creature.
14. For example, a body which–unlike that of sentient beings–is not the result of afflictions and karma.
15. The concentration of the deep, calm ocean is one of 400 concentrations described in that sutra. Someone who has attained this level of concentration is able to engage in activities curbing the consumption of meat and alcohol. For the benefit of beings they will send out emanations discouraging others from killing animals, eating meat and drinking.
16. Followers of certain non-Buddhist philosophies.
17. In case one has seen or heard that the creature was killed to be eaten or if one suspects this to be the case.
18. The opposite of the above three aspects.
19. Without harm to oneself or others, which–in this case–implies that the animal has not been killed to be eaten and that its meat has no deleterious effects (on one’s health).
20. Devadatta stipulated that 1) milk, 2) meat, and 3) salt should not be eaten, that 4) monastic robes should not be patched together from bits and pieces and that 5) monasteries should not be located in remote places but close to lay communities. Generally speaking, Buddhists do not accept these rules as valid.
21. Spiritual practitioner, especially one having taken monastic vows.
22. Although bees are only killed accidentally in the process of getting at their honey, honey is usually included in lists of unwholesome animal products as it is the result of stealing something very precious from animals.
23. For example, not killed for the purpose of using its parts.
24. According to the rules of monastic discipline bhikshus are not allowed to cultivate crops.
25. Buddhist householder without monastic vows.
26. What was left out concerns the avoidance of onions and garlic.
27. The Tibetan sutra text reads chang which is barley beer, but also alcohol in general.
28. That is the meat does not go on sale without causes, i.e. without an animal being killed. That should be clear to the buyer.
29. In other words: the Buddha rejected eating meat before in the Elephant Sutra, the Great Cloud (Mahamegha) Sutra, as well as the Angulimala Sutra. On this occasion in the Lankavatara Sutra he is rejecting it yet again.
30. To be more precise: such a person accumulates the causes for being reborn as a fool in the future.
31. To have been obtained by means of killing animals.
32. Not only will they be reborn in a country where meat is consume–they do not avoid eating meat and will therefore be reborn as beings eating meat.
33. Other meat eaters.
34. For example, eating meat causes compassion and wisdom to decrease or degenerate.
35. Meaning the path to liberation will take longer.
36. Meaning the robes of ordination.
37. Fishermen kill animals for a living and are not in a very good position to teach anyone about the holy Dharma–neither am I.
38. In fact the ability to transmute them.
39. That is what the five kinds also refer to.
40. We have long been caught in samsara and failed to break free from it.