Years ago, I wrote a book about the merit of being vegetarian and the faults of eating meat or being non-vegetarian. Our talk today is based on part of that book. With regard to the Buddhist views on being vegetarian and non-vegetarian, here is what the book said:
"According to the Hinayana tradition, one is allowed to eat only the âthree kinds of clean flesh.â Other kinds of meat are strictly forbidden. Now in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, the Sangha still upholds this practice. They think that not eating meat at all is to follow the decree of Devadatta. And the practice of eating the three kinds of clean flesh is rather in keeping with the precepts taught by the Buddha in the Theravadin Vinaya.
Within Mahayana, Chinese Buddhism has long maintained the fine tradition of vegetarianism. At present, the majority of Chinese Buddhists are vegetarian. They mainly abide by the teachings in two Mahayana sutras: the Lankavatara Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra. In a way, being vegetarian also exemplifies the Mahayana spirit of compassion."
However, there has been much misunderstanding about Tibetan Buddhism on this subject. Although it is groundless, many people think that meat eating is condoned by Tibetan Buddhism. These days even the monastics and lay followers of the exoteric schools also presume that Vajrayana practitioners can eat meat. This conclusion has been drawn based on the simple observation that in Tibet, where Vajrayana Buddhism thrives, most of the ordained and the lay followers do eat meat (this is not really so, which will be discussed later.)
Vajrayana Buddhism was developed in two stages: the First and the Second Propagation periods. The period of the First Propagation refers to Nyingmapa whose central teaching is Dzogchen, or Great Perfection. The tantras of Great Perfection specify clearly that no meat eating be allowed. The period of the Second Propagation refers to Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa and all the other schools of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet except Nyingmapa. Of all the tantras of this period, the most important and pivotal is the Kalachakra Tantra. Both the Tantra and its annotations specify very clearly that meat eating is not allowed. All these point to the fact that Mahayana Buddhism, be it exoteric or esoteric, is against eating meat.
In that case, why are meat and alcohol present in ganachakra? Actually, ganachakra is not at all like an ordinary eating and drinking spree. Following is further explanation on this.
If Mahayana Buddhism is against eating meat, why do some Tibetan practitioners eat meat? It is not because the scriptures gave them permission to do so, but for other reasons. As you all know, most of the Tibetan Plateau is unsuitable for growing vegetables and rice. In the areas where it is possible to grow crops, the yield is very low. And lacking sufficient transport facilities makes it difficult to have contact with the outside world. Especially in the pastoral areas, there is only tsampa (roasted ground barley) if people do not eat meat.
In earlier times, due to the scarce availability of transportation, it was almost impossible for nomads to have contact with people outside of Tibet. Even within Tibet, people kept rather infrequent contact with one another. For example, some pastoral and agricultural areas in Qinghai were hundreds of miles apart. People there could only rely on horses and yaks to reach one another. The journey was treacherous and offered no guarantee of a safe return.
Therefore, those in the pastoral areas had no choice but to eat meat because of the environment they were in. Although Mahayana teachings strictly prescribe vegetarianism and Tibetan practitioners also knew that eating meat is wrong and not in accord with the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, they still could not be vegetarian for the reasons described above. So they ended up eating meat, but only the three kinds of clean meat, never the unclean ones.
Nevertheless, those people do not represent Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhism, or the Tibetan Sangha. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few vegetarians among practitioners in Tibet. One example is Shargapa, author of DzogchenâThe Fluttering Great Hawk, and also a great practitioner. Another is Tulku Pema Dunde of Xinlong, a realized master who attained the rainbow body. His was no ordinary attainment as no trace of his physical body was found after he passed away. These masters used to eat meat, but they later vowed to stop forever.
Other examples include Toga Rinpoche who was the master of H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, and Patrul Rinpocheâs guru who was a disciple of Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa. These and many other eminent practitioners all pledged to be vegetarian. While it is a fact that some practitioners in Tibet eat meat, it does not mean that all Tibetan practitioners do or that the scriptures condone this behavior. One cannot find anywhere in either the Mahayana sutras or the Vajrayana tantras that deem meat eating acceptable.
One thing does worry me though. Some practitioners from China who used to be vegetarian went to Tibet to study Vajrayana. Instead of learning the essence of Tibetan Buddhism, they adopted the bad habit of consuming meat, even to the point of being excessive sometimes. They believe this is the way of real Vajrayana, and that as a yogi of Vajrayana, eating meat is only right and natural.
There are some Chinese monastics who claim to be Vajrayana practitioners after returning to China from Tibet. Clad in the monastic robes, they buy lots of meat and alcohol for the ganachakra. After reading the relevant text for the occasion, they start to feast on the food and the alcohol. This is their idea of a ganachakra. Many ill-informed lay Buddhists also think that alcohol is the nectar of the gods, and that eating meat is not a problem. They even look down on those of the exoteric schools who still remain vegetarian. All of these views and attitudes are wrong and must be corrected.
But we still need valid proof to support the call for corrections. This we will discuss from the perspectives of the three vehicles: Hinayana and the exoteric schools of Mahayana and Vajrayana. Let us see how they treat the subject of meat eating.
THE HINAYANA STANDPOINT
According to the Theravadin Vinaya, during the time of the Buddha, there was a layperson, a village head, who had many hunters working as his subordinates. Before he was enlightened, the hunters used to offer him large amounts of meat from their hunt. After receiving some teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha, he eventually attained realization of the Hinayana path of seeing and stopped eating meat.
However, his subordinates continued to hunt and offer him meat. He would instead offer the meat to the monastics whenever they came begging for alms. Once the monastics ate the offered meat, some non-Buddhists then began to attack them by saying, âLaypersons would not eat that meat, but the disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha would. This is outrageous!â
On hearing this, some bhikshus, seeking the Buddhaâs advice, asked, âWhat should we do about these comments from others now that we are eating meat?â The Buddha then set the rule of eating only the three kinds of clean flesh of which some special requirements were also laid down. That is, the meat of snake, dog, horse and ox were not to be eaten even if they had met the standards of the three kinds of clean meat. Because Indians, during the time of the Buddha, considered the meat of these animals unclean like humanâs. To date, the Southern Buddhist tradition still upholds this rule.
If one was to practice only Hinayana and none of the exoteric or esoteric practices of Mahayana, eating the three kinds of clean flesh would not have violated the earliest teachings of the Buddha.
What are the definitions of the three kinds of clean meat? First, I did not see with my own eyes that the animal was killed for me; second, I did not hear from someone I trust that it was killed specifically for me; third, I myself have no doubt that it was not killed specially for me. For example, the meat sold at the market is for all meat eaters, not for me alone, so it is to be deemed clean meat or, when being the guest of a Tibetan house, the hosts would usually kill a sheep to honour their guest.
The Chinese would more likely want to kill chickens, fish, rabbits and the likes for the same occasion. These are not clean meat. The rule of Hinayana stipulates that only the three kinds of clean flesh are permitted for consumption; others are not.
THE MAHAYANA STANDPOINT
The Mahayana point of view is what we particularly want to focus on. Mahayana Buddhism does not tolerate the consumption of any kind of meat. Not only those that do not qualify as being clean but also meat from animals that died of illness.
Where can we find proof of this view in the Mahayana canon? Mainly the Lankavatara Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra. There are others, but these two provide the most explicit explanation.
The Lankavatara Sutra expounds the many faults of eating meat. We will only discuss the three major ones here.
The first is that all sentient beings have been parents to one another since beginningless time. As such, the animals that we eat today surely have once been our parents too. Eating this meat will be like eating the flesh of our own parents or children. It is therefore a wrong thing to do even from the mundane perspective, let alone the supramundane point of view.
Second, when animals see meat-eating people, they may seem a little scared. We know that animals in some ways are much more sensitive than humans. They know who are meat eaters and can differentiate the smell between a meat eater and a vegetarian. The Buddha said that when meat eaters approach animals, especially small animals, they may terrify the animals so much as to make them almost feel faint. It is the same as how a human would feel when seeing a Rakshasa, a demon also called âman-eaterâ. Consequently, from the perspective of benefiting sentient beings, those who claim to be bodhisattvas, who have taken the bodhisattva vows and are cultivating compassion definitely should not eat meat either.
The third is from the perspective of benefiting both self and others, an especially important point to note. If meat-eaters should be reborn in the animal realm, they would be carnivores for sure. It is because their predilection for meat in this life has left a strong habitual tendency of craving for meat in their alaya consciousness. When they take rebirth, the body may have changed, but the habitual tendencies still remain in the alaya consciousness. We can see that when this tendency is in force, some carnivores, just a few hours after being born, would hunt other small animals for food without ever being taught how.
Because they were meat-eaters in the past, the tendency to eat meat is very strong. Coupled with the fact that being animals now makes them unable to choose right from wrong, they cannot help killing for food again this time around. This is the most terrifying aspect.
As we all prefer to think of ourselves as dharma practitioners, perhaps we should just check how we have done so far with our own practice. Mahayana Buddhism has named five paths and ten bhumis (grounds). Where do we stand now?
Among the five paths, the paths of joining and of accumulation are practices for ordinary people. Even so, those two paths can gather significant merit already. The path of accumulation has three levels: superior, average and inferior. Not to mention the average and the inferior levels, even those practicing at the superior level may descend to the animal realm. It is because at this stage they are still susceptible to breaking the bodhisattva vows and the root precepts of Vajrayana. And when they do, they will definitely reincarnate in the three lower realms as karma never fails. If meat eaters were to end up in the hungry ghost or animal realm, they would most certainly be carnivores.
As for the path of joining, it is already quite an accomplishment for ordinary people to reach this stage in their spiritual practice. From the standpoint of Vajrayana, it means that oneâs practice of the development stage has reached a point where one can vividly visualize the yidam, the meditational deity, not just in oneâs mind but also in reality that is visible to the eyes. This applies to both the wrathful and the peaceful deities. And oneâs practice of the completion stage has unblocked all the inner channels and the flow of energies.
In terms of realization of emptiness, one has attained quite an advanced state that is only just short of having actualized Great Clear Light, that is, one has not yet quite arrived at the first bodhisattva bhumi, or the path of seeing. Even so, it is stated very clearly in the scriptures that if such a practitioner should violate the Vajrayana root precepts without repentance, he or she would still be reborn in the lower realms.
Are we now, including myself, on the path of accumulation, the path of joining, or not even on the path at all? The lowest level, or the first step, of the path of joining begins with uncontrived bodhicitta which arises only after we have the conviction to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Do we have uncontrived bodhicitta now? If not, we cannot be deemed having entered the gate of Mahayana Buddhism. In fact, we are no better than any other ordinary people, and are more than likely to cycle through the animal realm time and again, most possibly as carnivores.
Being humans now, we have the ability to discriminate right from wrong and to make choices. We are well aware of the faults related to eating meat and also cannot afford to eat meat. Yet we do not or are unwilling to make the right choice. If and when we do take rebirth as animals, we will: 1) want to eat meat and meat alone, regardless of how delicious fruit and vegetables may taste; 2) not know the faults of eating meat; 3) not have the ability to choose. There will be no way we can avoid being carnivores by then. If we choose to be meat eaters when we can be otherwise, being carnivores in the animal realm would just be a natural outcome.
The Buddha clearly told us that meat eaters would become carnivores such as lion, tiger, and leopard if they were to descend to the animal realm. This can be inferred through logic as well. In the animal realm, there are only two categories of food: meat or non-meat (vegetables, fruits and nuts). At that point, because of the deeply ingrained tendency to eat meat (habitual tendencies can wield great power), meat eaters will become carnivores who can only kill to survive. It is stated in the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra that there are three types of killingâkilling born of greed, ignorance and anger. To kill for food is one born of greed.
We have all watched on Animal World (film series) how many lives some carnivores need to eat within a 24-hour period. For example, the Blue Whale, the largest known animal species in the world, can eat up to four tons of krill each day during the feeding season. And these are just one dayâs provisions. A life eaten is a life taken and a negative karma fully committed. In its entire life, the Blue Whale never once would chant the Buddhaâs name or practice virtue. If it lives to be a hundred, it will have committed such negative karma for one hundred years. Can you imagine what will happen to it in its next life?
The Buddha told us in the Vinaya that life proceeds in four separate directions: from light to light, from light to darkness, from darkness to light, and from darkness to darkness. Through keeping on eating meat, oneâs life will be going from light to darkness. Of course, if one can avoid darkness through the practice of the Dharma, it will not be a cause for concern. But how sure are we of our practice?
We consider ourselves Buddhist practitioners, but to stop eating meat already seems to us too big a sacrifice to make. Is this what we mean by practicing Buddhism or being Mahayana practitioners? Do we really know how to choose right from wrong? Often enough our so-called Buddhist practice is being taken up under the condition that we make no sacrifices and suffer no loss to either our reputation or material possessions. However, this is not how we should follow the Buddha.
What loss is there being vegetarian? Just that we cannot eat meat, thatâs all. If we consider this a loss, even greater losses will be awaiting us in the future. Already we have a great variety of vegetables, fruits and grains readily available for our consumption. Why do we still need to eat the flesh of other beings?
Some people may think, âEven accomplished practitioners eat meat. Why canât we?â But should we compare ourselves with them? Have we attained comparable realization or capabilities? If the answer is yes, then go ahead and eat meat; if not, reconsider your action.
The ways those accomplished practitioners used to deliver sentient beings from samsara are sometimes beyond imagination. It is described in The Words of My Perfect Teacher that when Naropa found Tilopa, Tilopa was neither reading nor meditating, but eating fish. He had built a big fire and put a bucket of live fish beside it. He roasted and ate the fish one by one. For someone like Tilopa, the appearance of eating fish was in essence an act of delivering the fish from cyclic suffering. Eating, in Tilopaâs case, should not be interpreted purely in the literal sense of the word; whereas in our case, eating would simply be eating, not delivering anyone from any suffering. The two are completely different.
Moreover, whether a meat eater or a vegetarian will be reborn in the hell realm or in the Pure Land really does not concern us at all as we will not be reborn with them. One only reaps what one sows. Sowing the seeds of virtue begets virtuous fruit, while the seeds of non-virtue produce the bitter fruit of suffering. In general, no matter what other practitioners want to eat, meat or no meat, we should just check ourselves if we have attained the same accomplishment as those respectable masters. Comparison with others is really nothing but a futile exercise.
The third fault related to meat eating is the most dreadful and also the reason why I became vegetarian. I used to eat meat. My thinking went like this: I am an ordinary person who has not even started the path of accumulation, but have received many Buddhist teachings and am fully aware that meat eaters will cycle through the six realms. Surely, the animal realm will be unavoidable. At that point, eating meat and taking lives will invariably be the norm.
Consequently, many lives may be taken in just one day resulting in continuous rebirth in the lower realms for eons to come. Now one may consider not eating meat a kind of sacrifice when in fact it constitutes not one bit of sacrifice at all. If the aim is to strengthen the body, many things will suffice other than eating meat; the palate too can be easily taken care of. What I thought then was not that I did not like to, but dared not, eat meat. Hopefully, everyone would give some serious thought to this reasoning.
It would be best if one can be vegetarian for life. If it is too difficult to do now, try for as long as you can, say, one, two, three years or longer. If that is also not possible, one can set aside a certain time to be vegetarian, such as during the following four months of the Tibetan calendar:
1st month, 1st â 15th daysÂ (the most auspicious time of the year)
4th month, (Note: the 8th day is the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha)
6th month, (Note: the 4th day is Buddhaâs turning the wheel of the Dharma)
9th month, (Note: the 22nd day is Buddhaâs return from Land of the
Thirtyâthree Heavens after teaching his mother and other gods there).
If this is stillÂ not doable, just make the 10th, 15th, 29th and 30th of each month the days to be vegetarian. No matter how one chooses to do it, the most important is to pledge as follows: âDue to various reasons, I am not able to remain vegetarian for long, but I will hold firmly my promise to be vegetarian in these four days (or four months). May the merit of this promise help me refrain from eating any meat in all future lives.â
Nowadays, many people think that eating meat is manâs right and thus justified. But from a long-term perspective, the problem of meat eating is much more serious than others as it concerns matters of grave consequence, i.e. the possibility of being reborn as a carnivore. By then, one will have no choice but to take other beingsâ lives. Being vegetarian in most parts of the world is really quite easy as vegetables and other nutritious foods are in abundance. Today, even non-Buddhists are promoting vegetarianism. Why donât we Buddhists do the same?
Besides, the Chinese Buddhistsâ fine tradition of upholding vegetarianism can also be preserved and advanced with our help.
At the time when I was still eating meat, I would stop whenever I went to the Han Chinese regions because of the easy access to, and abundance of, vegetables there. I found no reason to eat meat at all. If there is concern for insufficient nutrition, dietary supplements are always available. Therefore, I hope everyone will make an effort to be vegetarian whenever possible.
Buddhist practice is something that should be undertaken step by step. As ordinary people, we cannot hope to reach a certain stage in our practice, say, accomplishing the path of accumulation, in an instant or an hour. So, the right thing to do is to proceed step by step so that liberation may eventually be attained.
Above are some of the reasons stated in the Lankavatara Sutra. How does the Nirvana Sutra deal with this subject?
As the Buddha was entering nirvana, he laid down another precept. He said, âWhen I was propagating the teachings of Sravakayana (early school of Buddhism), eating the three kinds of clean flesh was allowed. But from now on, eating meat of any kind should be banned for practitioners of all schools.â Since then, bhikshus and bhikshunis of Hinayana tradition have not been allowed to eat the three kinds of clean flesh either.
Notwithstanding, exception is allowed. If someone is gravely ill and, by doctorâs order, he or she must eat meat or else may die. And if this personâs death will cost the benefits to sentient beings and the spreading of the Dharma because no other person can give the same teachings, provide guidance and so on, then the patient is allowed to take meat as medicine. At this point, meat is no longer deemed ordinary food.
Clearly, Mahayana does not allow meat eating. Not only the three kinds of clean flesh but also all other kinds of meat are forbidden, including those from animals that have been killed for human consumption and those which died of natural causes. This is the view of the Nirvana Sutra.
A disciple also asked the Buddha, âHow come the three kinds of clean flesh were allowed during the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, but not now?â The Buddha replied, âPrecepts are like stairs going up one step at a time. During that time, some people who had the chance and the capacity to learn Buddhism came for the teaching. Asking them not to eat any meat right away, which they were unable to comply with, would have created obstacles to their practice.â So, out of compassion, the Buddha initially permitted them to eat the three kinds of clean flesh. Afterwards, through gradual guidance, they were led to quit meat altogether.
THE VAJRAYANA STANDPOINT
In Vajrayana, especially stated in the stanzas of the Kalachakra Tantra, it is very wrong to eat meat. Karma of many people sharing the meat of one animal is grave enough. Karma of one person consuming many small animals is much, much worse. For example, processed meats like sausage, hot dogs, luncheon meat, etc. are very often made from the meat and organs of various animals. Eating these kinds of meat would produce tremendous negative karma, tantamount to the one committed by eating many lives. It is Vajrayanaâs view that all Mahayana practitioners must refrain from eating any kind of meat.
Many people have questioned, âAccording to the Buddhist doctrine, it is wrong to eat meat and drink alcohol. But isnât it true that Vajrayana practitioners have been taught to regard and accept alcohol and meat as the sacramental substances of samaya?â In that context, of course one should accept them, but the key is how to accept them. Suppose there is a strong poison that can easily kill any ordinary people who take it. However, a practitioner, through nothing but the power of practice, not only survives the poison but also sustains no residual effect. In this case, if oneâs practice has afforded this level of capabilities, taking alcohol, meat, or tea would not make any difference.
But for us ordinary people, it does make a difference and thus we are advised against taking meat and alcohol. In Vajrayana, the proper way for ordinary people to accept the sacramental substances of samaya is through visualization practice, not to actually eat meat or drink alcohol.
What then should we do about the meat and alcohol offered in the ganachakra? If we refuse totally, we will break the vows associated with the 14 Root Downfalls of Vajrayana. Instead, we can partake of a tiny bit of meat, the size of a flyâs leg. This way, it neither means eating meat in the conventional sense nor rejecting the sacramental substance of samaya from the perspective of Vajrayana. As for alcohol, we can just dab a little with the ring finger on the lips. Acting this way will prevent us from breaking the samaya of Vajrayana or the vows of bodhisattva and pratimoksha; all three will be kept intact.
If you are given a big piece of meat during the ganachakra, just take a piece no larger than the size of a flyâs leg and give the rest back. If too much alcohol is poured into your palm (of course, tell them beforehand not to pour so much), just dab a little on your lips with a finger and dispose of the rest. Never allow yourself to freely chew down on chunks of meat or gulp down alcohol.
Furthermore, it is stated very clearly in the Great Perfection that the meat to be offered for the ganachakra cannot be from animals that were killed and sold in the market for human consumption as those are considered unclean. Instead, one should use the meat of animals that have died of natural causes like disease, fire, earthquake, lightning strike, etc. Only these kinds of meat are deemed clean and suitable for the ganachakra.
According to the Mahayana teachings, the distinction between clean and unclean meat is this: the meat of animals killed for human consumption is unclean; those from animals died of natural causes are clean. Still, partaking of âcleanâ meat is not allowed. This is the view commonly held by both exoteric and esoteric Buddhism. And we should always be mindful of the proper way to prepare for the ganachakra by using only clean meat.
Vajrayana also holds that the butcher and the person buying the meat are equally guilty of killing lives. It is the same logic as paying the workers to repair a stupa whereby in our minds we would gather all the merit since the money is from us. Likewise, the animals are not killed by us personally but the butchers. Nevertheless, it is primarily due to our need to consume meat that drives the butchers to kill. In other words, we pay the butchers to kill. One may argue, âWe never asked them to kill.â But will the butchers kill if they do not expect to be paid? Normally, the relationship between the butchers and the animals is not one of hate.
The animals have never hurt these people nor broken any law. Money is no doubt the ultimate motive, and it comes from us. We can be said to be the instigators of the killing. If there is merit to be had in paying workers to repair a stupa, by the same token there are faults in paying others to kill. This is the view of Vajrayana, but it also makes a lot of sense even from an ordinary personâs point of view.
The situation has now gone from bad to worse thanks to the highly developed transportation system which has enabled many slaughterhouses to export all kinds of meat every day. For example, fish caught at sea can be transported by plane to almost any destination right away. Nowadays, some of the slaughterhouses do not just cater to one village, one city or one country, but to all meat eaters all over the world. In other words, they kill for the sake of meat eaters worldwide. It is no longer like the old days when the only buyers of a village slaughterhouse were the village people.
In our world today, innumerable lives are killed every day for meat eaters. Who are the meat eaters? We should know that some of us belong to that group. This means slaughterhouses in many countries are presently killing tens of thousands of animals for our sake. It is a terrifying spectacle indeed, as is said in the scriptures as well.
On the surface, it seems that eating meat should not cause much concern. But that is not the case after careful consideration. It in fact hurts oneself as well as other beings. With this in mind, we must resolve to do right for all concerned.
Although Vajrayana requires its practitioners to accept five meats and five nectars as part of the practice, beginners must stay away from them and use instead visualization or some herbal medicine as substitutes. If not, plainly eating meat and drinking alcohol will create huge demonic obstacles to oneâs practice. What does demonic obstacle mean? On hearing this term, many people instantly picture a human or non-human being with eyes, ears, multiple heads and hands. These are actually just petty demons. The king of demons that would obstruct our practice is nothing other than the habit of eating meat. Such is the view of Vajrayana. So who says that eating meat is permissible within Vajrayana?
Depending on each personâs own condition and capacity, all of us should at least try to be vegetarian from now on. The length of time to be vegetarian is a personal decision, but the longer the better. Our motivation though should be different from that of the non-Buddhists whose primary concerns are mostly health related rather than considerations for future lives or compassion for other sentient beings. We will not only stop eating meat but should also vow not to eat meat ever again.Â Without the vow, simply to stop eating meat would not be deemed a virtuous deed on its own. The vow should go like this, âBy the merit of quitting meat now, may I never eat meat again in all future lives.
If I were to be reborn as an animal, I would hope to be a herbivore, never a carnivore.â With this, even if we should end up in the animal realm, we would not eat meat and not hurt any beings, including ourselves.
Most of the monastics in China have long kept the tradition of being vegetarian. We rejoice in their virtue and praise their upholding the tradition. Hopefully, both the lay and the ordained practitioners of Vajrayana will also carry on this good practice.