This recommendation is based on the firm insistence by the Buddha, in certain Mahayana sutras, that his followers should not eat meat or fish. [Eating often entails that someone kill, which is always condemned as harmful and bearing unwelcome results for all involved when such deeds ripen and their result is met with, which is often quite some time later.]
Interestingly, the accepted legend of the Buddha's premature passing says that he became sick after accepting an offering of tainted meat from his host Cunda the Blacksmith while traveling. (Some say pork possibly infected with trichinosis although -- as Wisdom Quarterly has gone to pains to clarify -- it was more likely food delightful to pigs, namely, tender but poisonous mushrooms).
Buddha with chief male disciples in Borobudur, Java, Indonesia on Vesak 2011 or 2555 Buddhist Era (PWBaker/Flickr).
The meaning of the relevant word to describe this tainted "food" is however contested: Mamsa is not the usual term for meat. The food was sukara-maddava, which translates as "pig's delight" and has been interpreted as meaning a kind of truffle, or mushroom delicacy, favored by pigs.
There is a divergence of views within Buddhism as to whether vegetarianism is necessary, with some schools of Buddhism rejecting it as an absolute requirement.
The first precept in Buddhism is usually translated as: I undertake the precept to refrain from taking life. Some Buddhists see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat meat (which almost always entails someone taking the life of a living being for the purpose of someone eating it, except in the case of eating roadkill or old animals that die of natural causes). Others argue that this is not necessarily the case.
Some Buddhists strongly oppose meat-eating on the basis of implicit scriptural injunctions against flesh-eating, issuing from the Buddha himself.
"Vegan" means not using any animal products and, done correctly, is the cleanest and healthiest diet of all.
In the Sukhamala Sutra (AN 3.38), the Buddha describes his family as being wealthy enough to provide non-vegetarian meals even to the servants. After becoming the Buddha, he accepted any food offered with respect as alms, including meat, which in India was very unlikely to be offered to a spiritual seeker.
But there is no reference to him ever eating meat during his seven years as an ascetic striving for enlightenment.
On one occasion, according to the texts, a general sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to offer it as a meal for the Buddha. The Buddha declined, declaring that meat should not be eaten under three circumstances:
* when one has (1) seen, (2) heard, or (3) suspects that a living being was purposely slaughtered for one to eat, it is not to be eaten. [To eat such flesh, some explain, would be to condone or implicitly approve of killing.]
[The Buddha:] "Jivaka, these are the three circumstances in which meat should not be eaten. Jivaka, I declare there are three circumstances in which meat can be eaten: when it is not seen or heard or suspected that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for one to eat."
This was laid down as an explicit rule for monastics. The question is, Who are animals in supermarkets killed for? They are killed for the purchaser/consumer, and that is not determined until one buys or consumes the slaughtered and butchered flesh.
But many lay Buddhists, particularly in the Theravada tradition, argue: "Those animals are not killed for anyone. They're just being killed. They're just there. I come by and I buy them." For whom are animals killed the next day, for certainly the butcher would stop killing if no one bought the flesh? When one person hires another person to kill someone (an animal in this case), two are guilty of one murder -- and the one who hired the other is more guilty than the killer.
Valuing life, wise and agnostic Einstein was a vegetarian.
In this particular sutra, the Buddha instructs a monk or nun to accept, without any discrimination, whatever food is offered as alms with goodwill, including meat. One would not, however, consume it.
In the Vanijja Sutra, the Buddha declares that the meat trade (ranching, butchering, dealing in meat) is a wrong means of livelihood: "Monks, lay followers should not engage in five types of business: (1) trade in weapons, (2) trade in human beings, (3) trade in meat, (4) trade in intoxicants, or (5) trade in poisons [such as pesticides]. These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in."
In the Nirvana sutra, a Mahayana scripture purporting to give the Buddha's final teachings, he insists that his followers should not eat any kind of meat or fish. Even vegetarian food that has touched meat should be washed before being eaten. Also it is not permissible for a Buddhist monastic to pick out the non-meat portions of a meal and leave the rest; the whole meat-tainted meal must be rejected.
Eating meat versus killing Life is destroyed when farmers plough the ground or when food or, during cooking, when insects are caught in the fire. Consequently, some ascetic Jain sources advocate avoidance of activities that are seen to have a more direct connection to killing, including all farming and eating of food, meat, and root vegetables, which results in indirect destruction of animal and plant life. Some "enlightened" Jain monastics, most of whom are nuns, go so far as to practice "self-termination" by self-starvation.
But in Buddhism, it is recognized that existence, by nature, is the cause of direct or indirect suffering and death (samsara). One should certainly avoid gluttony and greedy consumption, which harms oneself and others, while maintaining the healthiest diet and lifestyle possible.
What is most important is leading a life conducive to attaining enlightenment or making the most good karma, which benefits one for a long, long time in the course of endless rebirths.
In the Pali canon, which all Buddhist schools generally consider to be authentic, the Buddha, when asked, refused to institute vegetarianism as an absolute monastic code. [He refused because it was proposed by a scandalous monk, Devadatta (the Buddhist Judas figure), seeking to create a schism in the monastic community by claiming greater purity than the Buddha offered. The Buddha may have had another motive to reject such a strict injunction: His followers would have already known that meat-eating is not wholesome or healthy or generally practiced by spiritual seekers, and to have prohibited would have limited the universal appeal of the Dharma, which is about a lot more than diet.]
Mahayana Buddhism argues that if one pursues the path of the bodhisattva [someone vowing to become a buddha rather than an arhat], one should avoid meat-eating to cultivate compassion for all living beings who suffer and out of compassion for one's own health.
Similarly, in the older Theravada Buddhist school, avoiding meat-eating for the purpose of cultivation of loving-kindness (metta) is also seen to be in accord with the Buddha-Dharma.
In most Buddhist schools, one may adopt vegetarianism if one wishes, but it is never considered appropriate to attack or berate someone else for eating meat.
In Chinese Mahayana, vegetarianism is seen as a prerequisite for pursuing the grand path of the bodhisattva. In this case, one is not simply intent on gaining enlightenment and liberation but on making sure others are freed.
This means one must first become a buddha to actually help "save" them. But long before one helps save them in an ultimate sense (by reaching enlightenment and nirvana), one can help by easing their suffering.
The case for vegetarianism is made more forcefully, often to the extent of accusing those who willfully or carelessly eat meat as lacking compassion.
Chinese Mahayanists do not accept the Pali sutras as definitive when they conflict with later Mahayana sutras [which were not the work of the historical Buddha but people]. Consequently, some do not accept that Gautama Buddha ever ate meat or permitted eating it. This is in accordance with the famous Mahayana Lankavatara sutra.
In the Pali canon, however, the Buddha declared that monastics living on alms accepting meat without preference and without asking or hinting that they want it is karma neutral for them. It is not karma neutral for those who kill or offer animal flesh they paid someone else to kill.
Shakyamuni Buddha Tibetan-style (wn.com)
As stated, the Buddha explicitly refused to institute vegetarianism in the monastic order. Theravada commentaries explain that the Buddha was making a distinction between the direct destruction of life and eating of already dead meat. Moreover, they point out that cultivation of vegetables also involves proxy killing.
In fact, any act of buying or consuming can be to some extent a cause of some degree of proxy killing [as when a henchman-butcher kills because a Godfather pays him to. One does not kill directly but pays a butcher to kill, and both take on unprofitable karma as a result. When it comes to fruition, which may be in that life, the next life, or in any future life even thousands of years later, both suffer severely. So it is said one should neither kill nor encourage others to kill, neither break the Five Precepts nor encourage anyone to break them].
The Buddha advised his followers to avoid gluttony [a kind of kamesu-micchacara or harmful indulgence of the senses epitomized by sexual misconduct], or any other act of craving which leads to over consumption and harm to others. Meat-eating is a terrible thing for environmental reasons that go beyond the murder of animals and the ruin of ranchers, butchers, and flesh traders.
Certain Mahayana sutras do present the Buddha as very vigorously and unreservedly denouncing the eating of meat, mainly on the grounds that such an act is linked to the spreading of fear among sentient beings. (Allegedly, living animals and spirits sense the odor of death that lingers about the meat-eater and consequently fear for their own lives. Flesh-eating is a common practice of ogres or yakkhas, starving scavenger ghosts or pretas, nagas or cruel reptilians, not humans). Eating flesh violates the bodhisattva's fundamental vow to cultivate universal compassion.
Moreover according to the Buddha, in the Angulimaliya Sutra, since all beings share the same dhatu (elemental, spiritual principle, or essence) and are intimately related to one another, killing and eating other sentient creatures is tantamount to a form of self-killing and cannibalism.
The [Mahayana] sutras which inveigh against meat-eating include the Nirvana sutra, the Shurangama sutra, the Brahmajala sutra, the Angulimaliya sutra, the Mahamegha sutra, and the Lankavatara sutra, as well as the Buddha's comments on the negative karmic effects of meat consumption in the Karma sutra.
In the Mahayana version of the "Great Nirvana discourse" (Mahaparinirvana sutra), which presents itself as the final elucidating and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha on the very eve of his final passing. There the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great kindness," adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals found already dead of natural causes) is prohibited by him.
He specifically rejects the idea that monastics who go out for alms and receive meat as charity from a donor should eat it: "it should be rejected... I say that even meat, fish, wild game, dried hooves, and scraps of meat left over by others constitutes an infraction... I teach the harm arising from meat-eating."
The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monastics will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and falsely claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, but he does not.
A long passage in the Lankavatara sutra shows the Buddha speaking out very forcefully against meat consumption, unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a bodhisattva should be striving to cultivate.
In several other Mahayana scriptures (e.g., the Mahayana Rebirth Tale or Jatakas), the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.
In Tibetan Buddhism, a strong emphasis was placed on the number of esoteric sutras that were transmitted from Northern India. In these sutras, it is clearly stated that the practice of Vajrayana [Tibetan Mahayana, the lightning vehicle] would make vegetarianism unnecessary.
A number of tantric texts frequently recommend alcohol and meat, though not all take such passages literally. Many traditions of the Ganachakra, which is a type of Pancha-makara Puja [Five M's Ritual: meat is mas, fish is matsaya, wine is mada, sex is matihun, and shunning bad company is mudra] prescribe the offering and ingestion of meat and alcohol.
Buddhist views today
In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and the island of Sri Lanka, monastics are allowed by the Disciplinary Rules (vinaya) to accept almost any food that is offered to them including cooked meat -- unless they suspect that animal corpse was slaughtered specifically for them. (There are prohibited animals, such as tigers and bears and elephants, and prohibitions against accepting uncooked foods, along with other minor rules that are interpreted differently).
In China, Korea, and Vietnam, monastics are expected to give up meat-eating. In Taiwan, Buddhist monks, nuns, and most lay followers eat no animal products or fetid (strong smelling) vegetables -- traditionally garlic, asafoetida, shallots, leeks, and mountain onions -- although in modern times this rule is often interpreted to include other vegetables of the onion genus as well as coriander.
This is called Su vegetarianism. In Japan, some clergy practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery. But otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetables have historically been very scarce, the adopted Disciplinary Rules come from the defunct Sarvastivada school, vegetarianism is very rare.
But the Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can. Chatral Rinpoche in particular has stated that anyone who wishes to be his student must be vegetarian.
In the end, what can be collectively said is that it should be left to the sensibilities, aesthetics, environment, and thinking of the individual. Karma means one is responsible for one's own actions and choices. So readers should use their own conscience as a guide and do what they wish to do.
The attempt of SoulCurryMagazine.com and Wisdom Quarterly is to provide information in general and specifically from a Buddhist perspective.
by Soul Curry Magazine
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