Meat in the Buddhist Tradition

Now I would like to examine different Buddhist attitudes to vegetarianism. The simplistic picture – Hinayanists (Theravadins) eat meat and Mahayanists don’t – does not reflect reality. Although the Theravada interpretation of the Pali Tipitaka does not require vegetarianism, many Sri Lankans do not eat meat. Many will eat fish but not meat and many others will shun beef while eating other types of meat. The Loveda Sangarava, composed in the 15th century and widely popular in Sri Lanka ever since, strongly advocates vegetarianism. Verse 50 says; “Those who eat meat, without regard for right and wrong and relishing its taste, are acting unwisely. They will never escape the evil results of those deeds. So give up this attachment to the taste of meat from today forever more.” Vegetarianism is uncommon in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Some Mahayana texts advocate vegetarianism, although only a few, but all Chinese and Korean monks and nuns and the more devout lay people are usually strictly vegetarian. Many other Chinese and Korean lay people will be vegetarian at least on certain holy days. Vajrayana texts do not advocate abstaining from meat, indeed some specifically endorse and even encourage it. Vegetarianism is rare in Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia and also in Japan.

There are three Theravadin justifications for eating meat. We have already discussed the “I didn’t see, hear or suspect that the animal was killed for me so I’m off the hook” argument. The next common justification for meat eating, that it does not create negative kamma, is indicative of Theravada’s tendency towards narrowness and self-absorption. In a survey I did of 16 Theravadin books and articles on vegetarianism or sections from Theravadin books discussing the subject, this was the only argument used – that the person who eats the meat does not create any bad kamma for himself or herself.

In fact, I have yet to find any Theravadin discourse on the vegetarian/meat eating debate which includes some discussion the effect that eating meat has on other beings, i.e. the animals being killed. Some Theravadins are like the man who walks past someone whose life is in mortal danger without helping them. When asked why he didn’t help he says; “There is no penalty for not helping so why should I?” For some people loving concern for others as described in the Metta Sutta and elsewhere, is too often left out of the equation. Perhaps too much of the focus is on the self.

The other common Theravadin justification for meat eating goes like this. “Monks get what they need by begging and should eat whatever they are given without picking and choosing.” Like a few other claims of Theravada, this explanation of the theory bears little resemblance to the reality. The reality is that monks nearly always get exactly what they want. When the average monk wants something he simply buys it himself or when one of his supporters asks him what he needs he replies; “I need A, B and C.” The more strict monks will resort to hints, a slightly changed expression or insinuations. Either way, lay people are more than happy to provide monks with all their needs and most of their wants as well, and if a monk wanted a vegetarian diet he would get it without any difficulty at all.

Another weakness in this argument is that it only relates to a tiny percentage of all Theravadins, i.e. monks. All too often Theravada discourse focuses on issues that are relevant to or are the concern of monks, leaving out the other 99% of people. What about lay people to whom neither this argument or the “I didn’t see, hear or suspect” argument would be relevant? They don’t go begging and they are free to make choices about what they eat! Why can’t they be encouraged to be vegetarian? And if they were vegetarian they would offer vegetarian food to monks.

Recently a slightly more sophisticated argument has been used to justify meat eating in Theravada. The argument goes like this. Whether or not you eat meat, animals will be killed – to clear forests for agricultural land, by spraying crops to protect them from insect pests, by damming rivers to generate electricity and by many other ways. Even when we drive our car insects are squashed against the windscreen and larger animals are killed as we drive past. (Dhammavuddha Thera, The Buddha’s View on Meat Eating, 2008). All this is undoubtedly true.

However, such an argument embodies a narrow, disengaged and one-dimensional perspective rather typical of some Theravadin thinking. It is equivalent to saying; “People are going to die of cancer anyway so why bother discouraging smoking?” “People are going to be killed in accidents no matter what you do so why bother enacting safety regulations?” “Even though we have serious penalties for murder people still kill each other so what’s the point in criminalizing murder?”

Even though a humane society knows there will always be deaths from cancer, accidents, murder and other causes, it still considers it worthwhile to try to minimize such deaths. It cannot regulate or protect its citizens from every possible life-threatening situation but where it is feasible it does so and many lives are saved as a result. Being vegetarian will not stop animals being killed but it is one step I can take, a very simple step, a step that costs me nothing, which will diminish at least some of the great suffering in the world and my complicity in it.

Vajrayana (I will use the term Tibetan Buddhism from now on) is another matter. Most Tibetan Buddhists – living Buddhas, manifestations of Manjusri, rimpoches and tulkus included, don’t just eat meat, they consume it with gusto. When I read works on Tibetan Buddhism I find the subject of compassion is nearly always mentioned somewhere; and so it should be. As if to emphasize compassion’s central position in Tibetan Buddhism, it is usually referred to not just as compassion but as ‘great compassion’ (maha karuna).

Numerous ancient and modern commentaries on the Bodhicariyavatara linger with tear-jerking emotion on Santideva’s aspiration to willingly give his life for others. The practice of “exchanging self with others” (paratma parivartana) forms an important element within the practices of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. I won’t labor the point because I think you can see where this is going. Is there not a serious contradiction between the Tibetan Buddhist strong and persistent emphasis on compassion and the fact that they eat meat? I think there is. So Tibetan Buddhism may not be narrow and self-centered but it could be argued that it is hypocritical and inconsistent concerning meat eating.

Some years ago when I was staying at Bodh Gaya, the Dalai Lama was due in a few days to give some talks and the town was filling up with Tibetans. A friend and I decided to get out of town for the duration to avoid the crowds. As we drove to Gaya we found the road blocked by a herd of a hundred or so buffaloes and goats being driven forward by several cowherds. Our driver hooted the horn, inched the car through the animals and when we got to one of the cowherds asked him where he was going with such a large number of animals. “To Bodh Gaya. They’re for the lamas”, he replied. One would think that the least they could do is abstain from meat while they are at such a sacred place receiving teachings that almost certainly included calls to have maha karuna for all beings. But no. The rimpoches must have their meat.

Related to all this is a rather shameful hypocrisy that prevailed and indeed continues to linger in nearly all Buddhist lands, whether they be Theravada, Mahayana or Tibetan Buddhist. Butchers, leather-workers, hunters, fishermen and fowlers in Buddhist countries provided the community with various animal products including meat but were marginalized for doing so. Coastal-living fishermen in Sri Lanka were shunned by the majority and no monks ministered to their spiritual needs because they killed fish. Consequently these people were easily converted to Catholicism when the Portuguese arrived.

Interestingly, soldiers, whose job was to kill humans, were never similarly ostracized. In Japan the burakumin were and still are treated as outcastes because they did slaughtering and other ‘unclean’ tasks. In Tibet a group of people called the ragyapa were likewise despised because they made their living as slaughter men and tanners. They were relegated to the outskirts of towns where they lived in the most miserable conditions. I will stand being corrected here but I think ragyapa were not even allowed into temples. Even coracle men were likewise despised because their crafts were made of leather. Heinrich Harrer, the German explorer who spent many years in Tibet, has some interesting comments on how the monastic hierarchy made these peoples’ lives difficult while benefiting from their services.

Pious Burmese would never slaughter a large animal (cow or buffalo) but they think that killing small ones like fish, ducks or chickens is okay or that it only creates a manageable amount of negative vipaka. They are happy to let the Muslims provide them with their beef and mutton and despise them for doing so. So it would seem that meat eating is an issue that all Buddhist schools and communities are yet to intelligently, consistently and compassionately come to terms with.