Historically dietary prohibitions have played a key function in most Buddhist traditions. Traditionally, monks and nuns have been expected to refrain from eating after their midday meal and even then there are rules against eating more than one serving or stashing away food for the next day. Vegetarianism, which I have touched on elsewhere on this blog (see Part I here), has also been a noteworthy development in East Asian Mahāyāna. However, long before such developments there were prohibitions on the consumption of meat and even certain kinds of fruit as well.
It might surprise some to know that there were prohibitions against eating certain kinds of fruit. The Buddha is recorded in the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya laying down the prohibition as follows:
《摩訶僧祇律》卷20：「食墟邏果。迦比哆果。比邏婆果。拘陀羅果。此諸果食者令人醉。食者越毘尼罪。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 387, b18-20)Eating the kola (墟邏果), kapitthaka (迦比哆果), bilva (比邏婆果), and the kutumburu (拘陀羅果) - these fruits when eaten make a person intoxicated. Eating them is a Vinaya transgression.
The phonetic transliteration of Indic words in the Chinese translation, rather than translating them, indicates that possibly the translators Faxian 法顯 and Buddhabhadra were uncertain that such fruits existed in China. The Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya is incidentally thought by scholars to represent the most ancient Vinaya rendition available to us given its brevity and fewer rules compared those of other schools. An interesting article concerning this is Janice Nattier and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsāṃghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism,” History of Religions 16 (1977): 237-272 (available here).
The Vinaya literature also records that the Buddha did forbid the consumption of certain kinds of flesh. As it is relayed in the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya the Buddha forbid the consumption of the following meats:
《摩訶僧祇律》卷32：「一人肉。二龍肉。三象肉。四馬肉。五狗肉。六烏肉。七鷲鳥肉。八猪肉。九獼猴肉。十師子肉。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 487, a23-25)1. Human flesh.2. Serpent flesh.3. Elephant flesh.4. Horse flesh.5. Dog flesh.6. Crow flesh.7. Vulture flesh.8. Swine flesh.9. Monkey flesh.10. Lion flesh.
There were differing incidents which led to each being prohibited. Most prohibitions in the Vinaya were brought about due to an incident having occurred and a subsequent house rule being laid down against it. These eventually evolved into formal precepts and institutionalized vows which the ordained clergy were initiated into, though following all Vinaya rules has seldom proven realistic throughout history. Nevertheless, one thing to note is that they were originally just house rules for the community, which in their own context made sense at the time.
The prohibition against eating human flesh came about when a laywoman cut off her own flesh to give to a bhikṣu for its medicinal qualities, much to the later distress of her husband who fainted on seeing what she had done. Fortunately as the story goes, the bhikṣu used his concentrative power to make her wound quickly heal. When the Buddha found out about this he laid down the rule against eating human flesh. Whether this actually happened or not, this does at least tell us that in the Buddha's time in ancient India human flesh was thought to have medicinal qualities.
The prohibition against elephant meat is also intriguing as it reveals caste concerns. Again the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya records the incident as follows:
《摩訶僧祇律》卷32：「佛住王舍城。時瓶沙王象死。有諸小姓旃陀羅食肉。諸比丘亦有食者。時耆舊童子至佛所。頭面禮足却住一面白佛言。世尊瓶沙王象死。有諸小姓旃陀羅噉肉。諸比丘亦有噉者。比丘者出家人。人所敬重。唯願世尊。莫令食象肉。世尊為童子隨順說法示教利喜。頭面禮足而退。時世尊往至眾多比丘所。敷尼師檀坐。為諸比丘具說上事。佛言。從今已後不聽食象肉。乃至象髓亦不聽食。聽以象牙骨作鉢支衣細1結無罪。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 486, c27-p. 487, a7)The Buddha was residing in Rājagṛha. At that time the elephant of King Bimbisāra died. There were low caste caṇḍāla who ate the meat. There were also some bhikṣus who ate some. At that time some elders and youth went to the Buddha. They prostrated themselves at the feet of the Buddha and stood at one side addressing him, “World Honored One, the elephant of King Bimbisāra died. There have been low caste caṇḍālas who ate the meat. There were even bhikṣus who ate some. A bhikṣu is a renunciate. They are respected by people. We respectfully ask the World Honored One to not let them eat elephant meat. The World Honored One accordingly taught the Dharma, and taught on benefits and happiness. They prostrated themselves at his feet and departed. At that time the World Honored One went to the bhikṣus and laid out his sitting cloth before being seated. He explained the earlier incident to the bhikṣus. The Buddha said, “From now onward eating elephant meat is not permitted. Even eating elephant marrow is not permitted. It is permitted and there is no transgression if elephant tusks and bones are used to make bowl holders and clothes buttons.”
This is striking because it shows the Buddha as concerned about the general image of the community. Here it is not problematic that they ate part of the dead elephant, but simply that it was a base thing to do and clearly distressed some people. Clearly eating the flesh of a dead elephant with the low caste caṇḍāla was unseemly and drew criticism to the sangha. Here we might think this is attachment to forms, but the Buddha often displays in the Vinaya literature a practical approach to things. While the bhikṣu renunciates were not members of ordinary society, they still relied on ordinary people for their food, clothing and medicine, hence the general image of the community was important.
The prohibition against vulture meat is worth looking at here as well:
《摩訶僧祇律》卷32：「佛住舍衛城。時有比丘食鷲鳥肉。比丘近林中經行。有諸群鷲逐比丘鳴喚。諸比丘以是因緣往白世尊。乃至佛言。從今已後。不聽食鷲鳥肉。乃至鷲髓亦不聽食。若須翅翮外用者無罪。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 487, a19-23)The Buddha was residing in the city of Śrāvastī. At that time a bhikṣu ate the meat of a vulture (gṛdhra). He went travelling, walking along close to the forest and a flock of vultures followed him squawking. The bhikṣus went to the World Honored One [the Buddha] to ask the cause of this. The Buddha then said, “From now on I do not permit vulture meat to be consumed. Not even the marrow of a vulture is permitted to be consumed. If needing the wing for external purposes [a quill], then there is no transgression.
Here again it is not that eating the meat was inherently wrong, but simply that there was a past disturbance due to eating it and as such he laid down a rule against it.
The Vinaya literature actually does not promote vegetarianism at all. Early Buddhism and Śrāvakayāna schools do not appear to have felt it was important. One bhikkhu from Thailand once explained to me, “Eating meat is not the problem. It is desire for the meat that is the problem.” This kind of reasoning is of course valid and seems to have been the general idea in early Buddhism when it came to meat consumption, though at some point in India in later centuries meat eating became unseemly with Brahmins and many people adopted vegetarianism. There is Mahāyāna literature which appears and speaks of the ills of eating meat, such as the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra among others.
That the Vinaya does not demand vegetarianism while some sūtras do became an issue in China. This issue was raised for discussion during the reign of Liang Wudi 梁武帝 (r. 502–549), who drafted his formal prohibition forbidding the monastics from eating meat, which actually met with protest from the Buddhist monks given that they had already established themselves in living according to the Vinaya, which permits the consumption of meat under certain conditions. The response to this was as follows:
《廣弘明集》卷26：「律雖許噉三種淨肉。而意實欲永斷。何以知之。先明斷十種不淨肉。次令食三種淨肉。未令食九種淨肉。如此漸制。便是意欲永斷。」(CBETA, T52, no. 2103, p. 299, a23-26)
Although the Vinaya permits eating the three kinds of pure meat, the intent was actually to forever stop it. How do we know this? First it is clear that the ten kinds of impure meats were stopped. Next the three kinds of pure meat were allowed to be consumed. In the end2 the nine kinds of pure meats were permitted to be consumed. Like this there was gradual prohibition, the intent being to forever stop [meat eating].
The idea is that while the Vinaya literature does not speak of vegetarianism, the intent of the aforementioned prohibitions on certain kinds of meat were actually a gradual lead-up to the later full prohibitions as described in the Mahāyāna literature. The nine kinds of pure meat are additional stipulations which make meat eating all the more inconvenient (and perhaps undesirable), such as the animal having died on its own of natural causes.
This is problematic from the perspective of the modern scholar as the Mahāyāna literature is thought to have been penned down several centuries into the development of Buddhism in India. In other words, the historical Śākyamuni Buddha did not completely prohibit meat and encourage vegetarianism as seen in some Mahāyāna literature. Thus the Vinaya reflects his lack of vegetarianism. However, until such a perspective arouse in modern times generally all Mahāyānists accepted the Mahāyāna scriptures as being just as much buddhavacana (words of the Buddha) as the Āgamas and Nikāyas, hence they could not outright dismiss them.
Now the question arises: if scholars are saying that Śākyamuni Buddha did not in fact teach the Mahāyāna sūtras which prohibit meat consumption, are we not free to give up vegetarianism? I personally do not support such a position. I think the Mahāyāna sūtras have different aims in mind. I think they are the "words of a buddha" rather than being strictly speaking the words of the historical figure Śākyamuni Buddha, which in my mind makes them valid. If your aim is personal liberation, then perhaps the well-being of animals and butchers will not be so pressing, but if you are concerned about the welfare of all beings, human or otherwise, then there are many advantages to refraining from eating meat, and perhaps eggs and dairy as well in our present time.
I will discuss the matter of eggs and dairy in a future post.
1Read 細 as 紐.
2Read 未 as 末.