Finding a Path at the Crossroads of Meat Eating and Vegetarianism

Note: I submitted this manuscript on 20 October 2014 as my second essay to Professor Guang Xing of the University of Hong Kong, Centre of Buddhist Studies, for the BSTC6058 (Buddhism and Society) course, which I took as a cross-institutional elective for my PhD in Communication and Film Studies programme at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Introduction

Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha (563–483 B. C.) in India about 2,500 years ago (Cheng 2003, 19). During this time – India in the sixth century B. C. – ritual sacrifices that involved the taking of life were practiced (Horner 1967, 2). Two religious systems that flourished during these times, Jainism and Buddhism, took a firm stance “against the prevalence of practices which deprived creatures of life” (Horner 1967, 2). Protection of life lies at the core of the teachings of the Buddha. It occupies the first among five precepts that are considered binding on all who call themselves Buddhists: “1. Not to take the life of any living being; 2. Not to take what is not given; 3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct; 4. Abstaining from wrong speech; 5. Abstaining from intoxicants” (Dahlke et al. 1975, 3). The notion of non-harming or non-injury, or ahimsā had already existed before the time of the Buddha; indeed, its emergence in India, is, historically speaking, not clear and “its origin cannot be attributed to a definite date or to any particular teacher, social reformer or law-giver” (Horner 1967, 2). Yet, despite the precept against killing and the teachings against animal sacrifices, “the evil persisted for some two-hundred and fifty years at least after the Buddha’s lifetime” (Horner 1967, 3) until Emperor Asoka, in 234 B. C., declared his Pillar Edict V, which laid down an elaborate code of regulations restricting the slaughter and mutilation of animals throughout the empire; here, “the broad principles of Buddhist teaching on compassion to all that live and breathe here find concrete, detailed and definite expression” (Horner 1967, 3). Thus, the practice of performing animal sacrifices became significantly lessened. Other forms of violence against animals, however, still persist. Horner comments on Buddha’s success in this regard:

In one respect, he was not unsuccessful: he was instrumental in bringing about a decrease in the popularity of great animal sacrifices. But in the three other ways – that is, in warfare, agriculture and the eating of meat, with their attendant trades in hunting, trapping and butchery, it may be said that he met with only limited success.

(Horner 1967, 4)

This essay, which focuses on the practice of meat eating, explores the Buddhist attitude towards animals. It first describes the relationship between humans and animals in Buddhist cosmology and discusses its implications on the practices of meat eating and vegetarianism.

Humans and Animals

Buddhism does not see humans “as a special creation by ‘God’ or as having been given either ‘dominion’ or ‘stewardship’ over animals etc.” (Harvey 2000, 150) unlike other religions that regard “man as a special creation, the only being with a ‘soul’ and therefore the only one capable of noble and disinterested action” (Story 1964, 2). Indeed, according to Buddhist teachings, humans belong to just one of five groups of sentient beings in samsara (the cycle of rebirth), as identified in the following types of rebirth: gods, humans, animals, ghosts and hell-beings. The universe, therefore, “was not brought into existence solely for man, his convenience and enjoyment. The place man occupies in it is one he has created for himself, and he has to share it with other beings, all of them motivated by their own laws of being (dhammatā) and will to live” (Story 1964, 3).

Humans, according to Buddhist thought, have a “greater freedom and capacity for understanding than animals and greater motivation for spiritual progress than gods” (Harvey 2000, 150). But being sentient beings, animals also have “the ability to experience and to suffer, and the related ability, in this or a future life, to transcend suffering by attaining enlightenment” (Harvey 2000, 151). Some scholars add and the dimension of virtue in the sentience of animals. Story, referring to an article on evolutionary ethics by the naturalist Sir John Arthur Thomson, echoes the latter’s finding that “animals may not be ethical, but they are often virtuous” (1964, 2), and explicates:

Ethical conduct is that which follows a code of moral values and is aware, to some extent, of an intelligible principle underlying them. It is the result of a course of training in social values, many of which are artificial in the sense that they have no connection with any standards but the purely relative and adventitious ones that govern communal life. Virtue, on the other hand, is rooted more deeply. It expresses itself in instinctive and unanalysable conduct; its values are personal and seem to flow from levels of awareness that behavioristic soundings cannot plumb. This is the source from which spring ethically uncalled-for acts of kindness, self-abnegation and heroism, prompted by a primal and spontaneous urge of love … It is not an ethical sense that makes a female animal defend her young with her life, or a dog remain with its unconscious master in a burning house rather than to save itself.

(Story 1964, 2)

Indeed, humans are “superior” primarily in terms of their capacities for conscious moral action and spiritual development, but “the natural expression of such ‘superiority’ is not an exploitative attitude, but one of kindness to lesser beings” (Harvey 2000, 151). The Buddhist ideal for humanity’s relationship “with animals, plants and the landscape is one of harmonious co-operation” (Harvey 2000, 156). Further, Story avows that Buddhism takes into full account “the animal’s latent capacity for affection, heroism and self-sacrifice” and continues, “There is in Buddhism more sense of kinship with the animal world, a more intimate feeling of community with all that lives, than is found in Western religious thought” (Story 1964, 3).

Meat Eating

It is “quite surprising that vegetarianism is not more widespread among Buddhists than it is, given Buddhist teachings” (Harvey 2000, 159), particularly on the first precept and compassion. Harris affirms, “We would expect, for instance, that adherence to the first precept would entail the observance of a fully vegetarian diet” (Harris 2000, 115). Stewart, however, observes, “It is now well understood that under Buddhist monastic legislation meat-eating is permitted and is in fact customary in many Buddhist countries” (2010, 101) and “monks are recorded to have done so often enough to give meat the appearance of having been a fairly constant article of their diet” (Horner 1967, 10). Why is this the case? Harris offers and explanation:

It seems that Buddhism from its inception, and contrary to the teachings of its rivals – the Jains – only regarded intentional killing as wrong. In general, then, only intentional acts may be judged karmically right or wrong in the Buddhist scheme of things. Bearing this in mind, the Buddha deemed it acceptable to receive meat from lay donors assuming only that the meat was pure in three respects, i.e., that a monk had neither heard or seen the slaughter, nor suspected that the animal had been killed on his behalf. This is the famous tikotiparisuddha rule.

(Harris 2000, 115)

Indeed, Buddha’s emphasis was on the avoidance of killing (Harvey 2000, 159), “the difference was made between oneself killing and oneself eating what another person had killed” (Horner 1967, 11); in fact, Harris states, “the Buddha himself accepted meat” (2000, 115). Following his teachings, the “monks did not, or should not themselves, actually take animal life. They did not acts as butchers; they did not fish, hunt or trap. All their food was provided for them by the laity” (Horner 1967, 11).

They were able to receive gifts of fish and meat provided that “they observed the restrictions and safeguards of not receiving more food than their one begging bowl could hold, of not eating more than once a day, or establishing that the fish and meat was “pure,” and that it was not the meat of certain prohibited animals” (Horner 1967, 11), namely elephants, horses, dogs, and serpents. Horner clarifies, “But the reasons for this ban do not in the least imply that for monks or laity meat-eating was thought to be wrong in itself. Elephants and horses are attributes or royalty; dogs and serpents are revolting and disgusting, while to eat any of the wild animals mentioned, including again the serpent, might involve the monks in personal danger” (Horner 1967, 10). Horner continues to discuss the practical aspect of the practice of receiving meat:

Moreover, the Buddha advocated an adequate diet for his monks, and was as opposed to fasting and bodily mortification as he was to greed and luxury, for he saw in these no trite way to achieve the highest goal, paramattha. Since cereals, in particular rice, with some meat, fish, fruit and dairy products formed the staple foods of the population, these were most likely to have been bestowed by them upon monks. (Horner 1967, 11) … To have rejected an offering of food would moreover have opened the door to picking and choosing, not only between what went into the begging bowl, but between the houses visited on the almsround. This in its turn would have prevented some of the laity from setting up merit, and it would have given a handle to greedy and gluttonous monks to indulge their tastes and preferences.

(Horner 1967, 11-12)

Harvey emphasizes, “It is notable that the Buddha actually resisted an attempt to make vegetarianism compulsory for monks” (2000, 160). Stewart offers two possible explanations for this, one stemming from an outside and the other, a threat from an inside. The first explanation is related to the Jains, who were “keen vegetarians and this in fact defined part of their fundamental doctrine. It can be hypothesized that one of the reasons that the Buddha rejected vegetarianism is because it would have made Buddhism appear to be a derivative of Jainism rather than being a religious movement in its own right, one very different from Jainism metaphysically” (Stewart 2010, 127). Harvey affirms this “link between vegetarianism and extreme asceticism” (Harvey 2000, 160), from which Buddha veered away. The second explanation, related to the problem of Jain dietary practices, is the “second issue of the schism orchestrated by the deviant monk Devadatta. The introduction of vegetarianism by Devadatta might have contributed to a break in the sangha that could have led to the ruin of Buddhism (Stewart 2010, 127).

Vegetarianism

Bryne critically notes, “Although the Buddha rejected the extreme practices of the Jains in their efforts to protect life, it is clear that high regard for life is a central pillar of Buddhism” (Bryne 2006, 119). Stewart adds, “Nevertheless, there remains a prima facie case that the good Buddhist still ought to be a vegetarian. This prima facie case follows from arguments in the canonical literature against the killing of animals” (Stewart 2010, 101). Outside India, it is in Eastern Buddhism (e.g., China, Korea, and Japan), Harvey affirms, “that Buddhist arguments for vegetarianism have had a notable effect. Emperor Wu, in 511, included a ban on meat eating among other animal-protecting legislation. This helped lead to the virtual end of meat eating by Chinese Buddhists, and the virtual end of meat eating in Chinese monasteries and temples (Welch, 1967: 365)” (Harvey 2000, 164). Only in certain Mahayana (Eastern Buddhism) texts is vegetarianism advocated (Harvey 2000, 159); indeed, “Mahayana emphasis on compassion seems to have been a key factor” (Harvey 2000, 163).

In contemporary Japan, “There is a memorial service conducted by Japanese restaurant owners and customers that atones for taking the life of eels. The service is not about stopping the killing of eels, simply acknowledging that the eater exists in relation to the eel, and the taking of life is ‘an act of moral gravity’ (Curtin 1999, 128)” (Bryne 2006, 122). In modern-day China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, fangsheng, which “literally means ‘releasing lives,’ but specifically referred to the practice of releasing animals from captivity or rescuing them from death” (Smith 1999, 51) – popularized “during the period of the Tang dynasty (618-907) until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)” (Shiu & Stokes 2008, 185) – is still practiced, as an “explicit theme of demonstrating and cultivating compassion for other forms of living beings” (Shiu & Stokes 2008, 186).

Stewart argues, “Buddhist canonical texts seem to affirm that notion that we should not harm or kill animals. Does this mean that we should not eat them either?” (2010, 101). Horner further asserts, “Although the eating of meat by laity and monks alike is tacitly condoned, the bloody trades, which bring animals to destruction for this purpose, by no means escape condemnation” (Horner 1967, 11). Also drawing on Buddhist texts, Horner affirms, “similar painful consequences for their cruel deeds here are also ascribed to animal-tamers, slanderers, frauds, adulterers and fortune-tellers. It is therefore impossible to say that slayers of animals, although considered as wrong-doers and liable to very uncomfortable rebirth, were worse thought of than the other wrong-doers here named” (Horner 1967, 11). Stewart adds, “This rejection of violence and killing seems to stem from the view that such actions will lead to suffering both for the individual acted upon – the victim – and for the aggressor (SN 12.41 578)” (Stewart 2010, 102), and formulates an argument against meat eating:

1. The animal slaughter trade causes suffering in two ways: (a) it torments the animal, and (b) it torments the tradeperson.
2. It is the duty of a good Buddhist to encourage others to abandon trades like animal slaughter, that lead to this kind of suffering.
3. The consumption of meat obtained from a slaughterer encourages the practice of animal slaughter.
4. Conclusion: Therefore it follows that the good Buddhist has a duty to avoid supporting such occupations by not consuming meat obtained from animal killing.

(Stewart 2010, 108)

Finding a Path

Bryne avows, “Buddhism does not stipulate social or religious rules. Nor does it demand a particular creed. It simply offers a ‘way’ for individuals to perceive, understand, and take responsibility for themselves, and ultimately for others” (2006, 117). How does a human find his or her path in the crossroads of meat eating and vegetarianism, for example as regards the idea that “In general, it is seen as preferable to eat the meat of an animal which is less intelligent, and/or smaller than the opposite” (Harvey 2000, 161) … It is seen as least bad to eat fish, an unintelligent form of life that needs little effort to kill … The excuse is sometimes made that they are not killed, but just die when taken out of the water.” (162)? The person is empowered to choose and to take responsibility, as Bryne declares, “When it comes to other ‘lower order’ species, their views may not be so clear cut. What does seem clear from scripture, from history, and from the internal logic of the Buddhist idea of karma is that the individual is encouraged to find their own position, rather than rely on blind faith in the precepts. The individual is the final arbiter of right and wrong, since it is only he or she who can take responsibility and accept the karma of the action” (Bryne 2006, 122).

Indeed, practicing Buddhism is an adventure into one’s own capacity for having compassion for all sentient beings. It fosters development not by instilling fear of punishment or eternal damnation, but by rewarding the sentient being with the possibility of enlightenment, whether in this lifetime or the next – or the next, until we finally come to terms with our own hearts that do not really belong to each of us, but to all.

References

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  • Story, Francis. 1964. “The Place of Animals in Buddhism.” Buddhist Publication Society. Kandy & Buddhist Publication Society (1964) and BPS Online Edition (2009). Accessed December 7, 2014. http://www.bps.lk/olib/bl/bl023.pdf.
  • Welch, H. 1967. The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
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