The topic of Buddhism and vegetarianism assumes importance because lakhs of people are Buddist in this country. We also have a large refugee population of Tibetans who not only have taken over the entire township of Dharmshala, but dominate the districts of Ladakh and have spread to Delhi, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and even parts of Kamataka. There are some more questions that I have answered below on this topic.
Given the overwhelming evidence in favour of vegetarianism, how come most Buddhists eat meat?
Buddhists who eat meat seek to justify it by creating an artificial distinction between killing an animal and eating its already dead meat. They hold that unless one actually kills an animal oneself (which seldom happens today) by eating meat one is not directly responsible for the animal’s death.
So is there an ethical link between the killing of an animal and the eating of its flesh? Is eating meat the same as killing an animal?
To say that eating an animal’s flesh has no ethical connection with the brutal act of killing it and the fear and terror experienced by it shows a thorough insensitivity to life and an incapacity to reason. Although one may not have killed the animal oneself, one is not freed from responsibility for the killing. A butcher kills an animal not for himself but for a consumer. And if one has become part of this market one is connected with the demand to which the butcher responds. There is a very definite relationship between the meat-eater and the brutal act of killing, between one’s desire to taste flesh and the actual pain and suffering undergone by animals.
Since a non-vegetarian does not himself kill an animal, how is he any different from the vegetarian because the latter’s vegetables come from the farmer ploughing his fields (thus killing many creatures) and spraying the crop (again killing many creatures)?
This is clearly a guilty-conscience argument and one easily dismissed. Firstly, vegetables are not farmed with the intent to kill nor do vegetarians feast on the flesh of creatures involuntarily destroyed in the process of farming; however, with meat there is intent to kill. The animal has to be slaughtered to obtain its meat. Besides, let us look at the scales involved. Meat-eaters are not only responsible for killing the animal, but also for all the creatures killed in fodder crop farming. Since a meat animal eats 10 times the amount of any vegetarian, a meat eater is responsible for taking 10 times more lives than any vegetarian.
Besides non-vegetarians do not subsist on meat alone, they too consume grain and vegetables. Therefore they are equally responsible for the lives of creatures taken in crop farming in addition to those lost in fodder farming and meat production. Non-vegetarians might claim this is only a matter of degree. Precisely, because if the degree of suffering and killing were not material, Hitler would be considered no worse than any common single-time murderer. Their religion enjoins Buddhists to do the minimum harm and the maximum good towards all sentient beings. Given the enormous misery and death caused by meat, they must in all consciousness opt for the kinder, wiser choice of vegetarianism.
Good qualities like understanding, patience, generosity and honesty and bad qualities like ignorance, pride, hypocrisy, jealousy and indifference do not depend on what one eats and therefore diet is not a significant factor in spiritual development.
Qualities do not exist merely in theory; they must be demonstrable in action. Killing animals to eat implies greed, ignorance, insensitivity, selfishness, hypocrisy and violence. Therefore meat cultivates and promotes bad qualities. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, is itself the practice of compassion, consideration, generosity, honesty and understanding and thereby promotes spiritual development.
Was vegetarianism ever widespread amongst Bhuddists?
Yes. Buddhists gradually came to feel uncomfortable about meat eating. The oldest written records which reflect the Buddha’s teaching — the Ashoka edicts — show the Buddhist King Ashoka to be equally concerned with the welfare of his human subjects as the kingdom’s animals. Hunting and fishing were prohibited, no animals were killed in his kitchens, and the killing of animals for food was restricted elsewhere in his kingdom. Indeed, he even established medical services for animals. By the beginning of the Christian era meat-eating had become unacceptable, particularly amongst the followers of the Mahayana Bhuddists. In China, Emperor Wudi of the Liang Dynasty embraced the true Buddhist path. Subsequently, Buddhists were prohibited from killing animals and adopted a vegetarian diet of fruit, nuts, lentils and cereals.
Today it is often said that Mahayanists are vegetarian and Theravadins are not. Why the difference?
Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types: Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. The Theravada school, whose name means “Doctrine of the Elders”, bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon. This is considered to be the oldest of the surviving Buddhist canons, and its sutras are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. It comes from the early time when Buddhist monks placed more emphasis on overcoming desires and thereby did not concern themselves excessively with such aspects as food. They wandered from village to village, eating whatever food they got as alms. As a result Theravadins have no dietary restrictions although it is not uncommon to find monks and lay people in Sri Lanka who are strict vegetarians. Others abstain from meat whilst eating fish. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to as Hinayana or “lesser vehicle”.
The Mahāyāna, or “Great Vehicle” branch, emphasises universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the Bodhisattva. With the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism there was a perceptible change in the attitude of the Buddhists towards meat eating as it came into direct conflict with the idea of non injury to living creatures. Though Mahayana Buddhism accepts Theravadan sutras as valid, in their own Mahayana sutras, the account of Buddha eating meat is absent. Secondly, at the time when Mahayana Buddhism was formulating its own monastery rules, monks and nuns no longer received their food by begging. Instead, they lived in monasteries where food was brought to them from the outside lay community. So if meat was offered, it was specifically killed and prepared for monks, which violates Buddha’s rule. Thirdly, Mahayana Buddhists placed great emphasis on the Bodhisattva way where the cultivation of compassion is the central focus of the practice. In Mahaparinirvana, it is stated that “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion”.
The followers of Mahayana Buddhism questioned how a Bodhisattva who wished to treat all living beings as though they were he could relish eating the flesh of any living being. They declared that men should feel affinity with all living beings, as if they were their own kin and refrain from eating meat.
The Lankavatara Sutra openly criticised the meat eating habits of the Theravada School and concluded thus, “All meat eating in any form or manner and in any circumstances is prohibited unconditionally and once and for all.”
(To be continued)