Meat Eating Part I

I recently heard about Australia banning exports of live cattle to Indonesia over concerns that Indonesian meat producers were being unusually cruel to the animals in the slaughterhouse. Al-Jazeera has a brief report here:

After watching this it occurred to me that if some brave soul out there had not taped these abuses and submitted it to the media, the common consumer would be completely unaware this is happening. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is often seen in a negative light by common consumers for their aggressive tactics in promoting veganism. Whether you appreciate their methods or not, they still bring to light a lot of undocumented cases of animal cruelty and present it uncensored to the world. I personally appreciate what they do. They are primarily concerned with animal welfare and make many efforts to confront cruelty.

The reality of meat consumption in our modern day is that meat is produced in an industrialized fashion. Industrialized meat production in a capitalist system seeks to maximize profits and minimizes expenses, so the welfare of animals is not a concern in such a model. If it was not for the efforts of animal welfare advocates the situation would be even worse than it presently is. This is why I commend the efforts of those who film these atrocities and bring them to light.

One might wonder where vegetarianism fits in with Buddhism? There is no answer that all Buddhist traditions would find suitable.

The Śrāvakayāna school of Theravada, which takes the Pāli Nikāya as its canon, asserts that the Buddha ate meat and did not forbid the consumption of it. Venerable Dhammika addresses this question in his work Good Question Good Answer:

QUESTION: Buddhists should be vegetarians, shouldn't they?
Not necessarily. The Buddha was not a vegetarian, he did not teach his disciples to be vegetarian and even today there many good Buddhists who are not vegetarians. In the Buddhist scriptures it says;
Being rough, pitiless, back-biting, harming one’s friends, being heartless, arrogant and greedythis makes one impure, not the eating of meat.
Being of immoral conduct, refusing to repay debts,
cheating in business, causing divisions amongst people - this makes one impure, not the eating of meat.’ Sn.246-7

However, in the Mahāyāna canon we find scriptures where the Buddha forbids the consumption of meat. One such scripture is the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra where the whole sixteenth chapter is dedicated to explaining why the Bodhisattva aspirant should not eat meat. Consider the following quote:

《入楞伽經》卷8〈16 遮食肉品〉:「佛告大慧:「夫食肉者有無量過,諸菩薩摩訶薩修大慈悲不得食肉,食與不食功德罪過我說少分,汝今諦聽。大慧!我觀眾生從無始來食肉習故,貪著肉味更相殺害,遠離賢聖受生死苦;捨肉味者聞正法味,於菩薩地如實修行速得阿耨多羅三藐三菩提,復令眾生入於聲聞辟支佛地止息之處,息已令入如來之地。大慧!如是等利慈心為本,食肉之人斷大慈種,云何當得如是大利?是故,大慧!我觀眾生輪迴六道,同在生死共相生育,迭為父母兄弟姊妹,若男若女中表內外六親眷屬,或生餘道善道惡道常為眷屬,以是因緣我觀眾生更相噉肉無非親者,由貪肉味迭互相噉,常生害心增長苦業流轉生死不得出離。」」(CBETA, T16, no. 671, p. 561, b8-23)

The Buddha told Mahāmati, "Meat eating has countless offences. Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas practise great compassion and cannot eat meat. I will speak of eating [meat], not eating [meat], the merits and the offences. You now must listen well.

Mahāmati! I see that because of the habits of sentient beings from the beginningless past to eat meat that they crave the flavour of meat and mutually kill and harm one another. They are far departed from the wise and holy, and experience the suffering of saṃsāra. Those who reject the flavour of meat hear of the flavour of the true true dharma and properly practise through the grounds of the Bodhisattva to quickly attain unexcelled perfect enlightenment [anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi]. One also makes sentient beings enter the grounds of the Śrāvaka and Pratyekabuddha - a place of rest, whereupon resting they enter the ground of the Tathāgata.

Mahāmati! These benefits have at their foundation the mind of compassion. The person who eats meat severs the seed of grat compassion. How does one attain these great benefits? It is thus, Mahāmati, that I see sentient beings being born in the six paths through cyclic existence. Together within saṃsāra they give birth and nurture each other, alternating as father, mother, elder brother, younger brother, elder sister and younger sister. They may be male or they may be female and born as kinsmen, or they may be born in other paths including good paths and evil paths. They are frequently relatives. With these relations I see that the meat mutually consumed by sentient beings are all of one's relatives. It is due to craving meat that they alternate in consuming one another. They constantly give rise to a mind of harm, increasing the karma of their suffering and being unable to escape from the stream of life and death."

The entirely of this chapter in English is available here.

Similar thoughts are echoed in another scripture prominent in East Asia the Brahma Net Sūtra where it is explained that the Bodhisattva does not consume meat as a precept.

《梵網經》卷2:「若佛子。故食肉一切肉不得食。斷大慈悲性種子。一切眾生見而捨去。是故一切菩薩不得食一切眾生肉。食肉得無量罪。若故食者。犯輕垢罪。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1005, b10-13)

"If one be a son of the Buddha (buddha-putra), one must not intentionally eat any meat as it severs the innate seed of great compassion. Sentient beings will see [a meat eater] and flee. It is for this reason that all Bodhisattvas must not eat the meat of any sentient being. There are immeasurable transgressions when one eats meat. If one intentionally eats [meat], one violates a minor defiling transgression."

The two aforementioned scriptures were especially prevalent and well-read in East Asia. This includes both Chan and Japanese Zen. Unfortunately, nowadays the latter pays lip service to vegetarianism. Monasteries are supposed to be vegetarian in principle, but in truth they are not. One source told me that at Eihei-ji, the head temple of Soto Zen in Japan, people will smuggle in McDonalds to their friends inside the monastery and bribe the doormen in the back with some of the food.

While modern day Japan, including Japanese Buddhism, has largely abandoned their vegetarian culture which was was widespread until at least the late 19th century, vegetarianism is still widely a common lifestyle in Taiwan where orthodox traditions of Buddhism thrive. Taiwanese Buddhists are quite adept at cooking without meat and anywhere on the island you can find a vegetarian restaurant. Korean Buddhist monastics likewise are vegetarian, though meat consumption in the country is rapidly rising due to economic development and the infiltration of western consumer culture. Buddhist monastic communities in China and elsewhere like in Singapore and Malaysia still maintain vegetarianism.

It is worth noting that Tsem Tulku Rinpoche in Malaysia, a monk from the Tibetan Gelug-pa tradition, actively advocates vegetarianism through his organization Kechara House. Take a look at his blog entry here for example.

In Tibetan history there is one famous yogi named Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol (1781-1851) who advocated abstaining from meat consumption. We have the good fortunate to have access to his writings in translation. See here. His verses are quite graphic:

All of you who eat this baneful food,
The flesh and blood of beings once your parents,
Will take rebirth in Screaming and the other burning hells,
There to bake and boil.

Tibetan Buddhism has recently shifted towards vegetarianism in a strong way in recent decades. One of the most notable figures to go vegetarian is the Karmapa XVII, H.H. Orgyen Trinle Dorje who decreed that no Kagyu-pa monastery will prepare meat in its kitchens and is quite firm on matters related to Kagyu-pa members consuming meat. For details see here. For a further list of major Tibetan teachers advocating vegetarianism look here.

I noticed in my travels throughout India and Nepal that Tibetan restaurants catered to both meat eaters and vegetarians. I think part of this has to do with catering to tourists, but I suspect a lot of modern Tibetans, perhaps in particular those in largely Hindu communities, are starting to lean towards vegetarianism for the reasons outlined by numerous teachers.

Setting aside scriptures, I think it goes without saying that abstaining from consuming meat is ethically sound both in terms of concerns for animal welfare and the environment. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report, to produce 1 kilogram of beef requires 11 kilograms of grain. Pork requires 7 kilograms. Chicken requires 4 kilograms. One can imagine that such quantities of grain could be better spent preventing hunger in the world rather than providing cheap hamburgers at fast food restaurants, but moreover such vast production of grain to produce meat means more fossil fuels being burned to fuel the industrial machine which is wrecking our global environment. From an environmentalist perspective it is best to not contribute to the dirty business of meat production.

Some years ago I used to eat meat and after being presented with some of the arguments above and seeing a number of videos released by PETA, I decided it was unacceptable to eat meat. For the sake of animals I made a vow never to eat meat ever again. I gave it up and have never regretted that decision. After a short while I found the smell of meat revolting. In a country like Japan where vegetarianism is seldom understood, it can be difficult, but compassion overrides any desire for social conformity. Some of my Japanese friends have said they would like to give up meat, but given that the culture here does not really allow for individuals to give up all meat and fish, they are unable. One risks being a social pariah, unemployed and socially handicapped should one seek such "special treatment". I get away with it because I am a foreigner and nobody expects anything from me.

I will continue this discussion of meat eating in a future entry. I would like to explore some of the historical commentary literature of the past which examined this issue as well as the permissibility of eggs and dairy.

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