Ahimsa and Vegetarianism
[This is one chapter from my unpublished book on ahimsa. Written in 1983
but still relevant.]
Ahimsa means non-harm and is a philosophy of non-violence that originated in India thousands of years ago. Perhaps the most important part of Ahimsa is vegetarianism.
One Theravada Buddhist text speaks of all the Ahimsa religions except the Theravada as advocating vegetarianism. The Pythagoreans of 600BC Greece derived many of their theories from India. The Pythagoreans were vegetarian for moral reasons: based on the theory of the rebirth of all life. This would suggest that Ahimsa in India of that period was also vegetarian.
AJIVIKA. The Ajivikas were said, by Buddhists and Jains, to be vegetarian. The only knowledge we have of the Ajivikas is via the scriptures of other religions.
HINDU. Not all Hindus follow the path of Ahimsa. Those who do, interpret the
rule of Ahimsa that, “One may not kill; cause others to kill; or consent to
killing,” as meaning they must be vegetarian in order to practise Ahimsa. All
are regarded as killers who consent to killing; who kill; who work on the body;
who buy or sell the meat; who purify the meat; who serve the meat, and who eat
Many Hindus practise a corruption of Ahimsa known as Social or Vedic Ahimsa, which allows eating meat and killing under certain conditions. And so, Ahimsa tends to be practised according to ones caste; stage in life; sect; guru, and region of birth.
Carnivorous animals are placed lower than Herbivorous animals on the Hindu ladder of rebirths ascending towards God. (This view has also influenced Theravada, even though a hierarchy theory of beings seems to me to be against the first principals of Buddhism.)
Today, a large minority of Hindus are vegetarian.
JAIN. The early scriptures of the Svetambara Jains allow meat eating (although a few scholars translate the scriptures giving a vegetarian bias). Said to be based on the words of Mahavira (600BC) the words were not written down until centuries later (450BC is one estimate). The Digambara Jains believe that the scriptures of Mahavira are lost and accept only the writings of certain religious commentators on Mahavira.
The Svetambara scriptures say that no living beings can be taken as food, but meat can be eaten under certain conditions. A monk on an alms round will accept meat if it has not been especially prepared for him (whatever food he suspects of being impure -that is, containing life -he may not eat). He may not take meat if it has too many bones in it, as there will be food he will waste.
A monk can ask for meat if he is ill.
Many foods can not be eaten because they contain minute living beings. For example, monks will only accept water from an alms giver if the water has been heated by the almsgiver to kill all life in it (the monk believes that no bad Karma accrues to him as he did not do the killing).
One Svetambara text says that Mahavira ate the flesh of cat and wild cock, though this is disputed by todays Jain scholars.
Jains hold knowledge to be of two different types. The first is knowledge based on scriptures; perception, and how one sees the world. The second is the pure knowledge of the soul.
The Digambara Jains seem to have always disallowed meat eating.
By the 11 th century AD, vegetarianism was approved of by all Digambara and most Svetambara. Vegetarianism is obligatory for Digambara, but is only regarded as one of a number of voluntary vows that a Svetambara may take. Veganism (abstinence from the use of all animal products) is also approved of by both sects.
Meat is prohibited / disapproved of, for the following reasons:
1. Meat is an aphrodisiac.
2. In the earliest Svetambara scriptures, monks do not seem to accept Karmic responsibility for: being involved in a chain of slaughter: butcher to customer to alms taker. The idea was that others should be allowed to commit bad Karmic acts so that one may profit from them with no bad Karma accruing to oneself.
By the 11th century however, Jain authors were claiming that bad Karma accrues to he who kills animals; or buys meat; or sells meat; or cooks meat; or carves meat; or gives meat; or eats, or praises the eating of meat.
3. Eating meat is a sin against Compassion.
4. To eat meat is to be taught by one’s baser qualities.
5. The most commonly found reason is that, minute creatures would be consumed along with the meat.
6. Animal products are stolen goods. The slaughtered animal did not choose to be slaughtered and have its limbs given to the meat eater.
7. Meat eating is liable to turn one towards alcohol and other vices.
8. Meat, alcohol, honey, and fig fruits are all used by those who make sacrifices and offerings to the spirits of their ancestors, to fertility spirits, and to God. To oppose this practise, meat, alcohol, honey, and fig fruits are forbidden to be used in any manner.
Today in India, almost all Jains are vegetarian.
BUDDHIST. From the teachings of the man who became known as the “Buddha”, many different sects arose. Some became extinct and some changed. One changed to become the Theravada: translates as “Way of the Elders”.
The teaching of the Theravada were translated and passed down by word of mouth, until written down centuries later. There are contradictions and they appear to be the work of different people.
The final version we have today does allow meat eating for a monk under certain conditions. He should not eat meat if it is seen, heard, or suspected that an animal was killed on purpose for that monk.
Some Buddhists eat “Buddhist Eggs”. These are eggs that have been pre-cracked. The reasoning behind this is that killing may be done when eggs are cracked, and that bad Karma will affect only the person who cracks the egg and not the person who eats the egg.
Certain foods may not be eaten: human, elephant, horse, dog, serpents, and many hunted animals like lions and tigers. The reason they were not to be eaten was, that the unconverted would not become Buddhists if they knew such foods were eaten by monks.
A monk may ask for meat if he is ill. This is the only occasion on which he may eat raw meat.
It is said that killing, cheating, anger, envy, injury, cruelty … all defile one. But not so the eating of meat.
Another reason sometimes given for eating meat, is that one would offend by refusing. And, that the supreme virtue is abiding in friendliness. Yet, in a different text, the Buddha allows monks to be vegetarian, which contradicts the rule of not refusing any food. Surely offence arises from the ignorance of the almsgiver and not from the Ahimsa of the alms taker. Many have been offended by the Buddha’s words. When one does not join in being cruel, surely he who is cruel will be offended?
I believe that the evidence is that Theravada Buddhists should be vegetarian. I will now present some of that evidence (perhaps I should add, that I am a Theravada Buddhist who is vegan because of my religion).
In addition to accidental errors in scriptures, monks may have changed the wording of certain passages nearer to how they thought the correct wording should be. So, meat eating monks may well have entered the passages which allow meat eating. Some of these passages are almost identical with early Svetambara scriptures. I believe that the first Buddhists were vegetarian. But, over the centuries, Svetambara thought influenced the “meat eaters”. As happens today, exploiters will always seek excuses for their cruelty. I don’t think that is too harsh a thing to say.
One text which says that, “Monks may not eat meat if there are any grounds of suspicion or evidence of eyes or ears that the meat is specifically prepared for that particular monk,” is unclear if it is the special preparation or the meat which is banned. My belief is that the Buddha’s words may have been, “Food may not be eaten if there is any evidence of eyes or ears that the food contains any meat.”
As the scriptures are today, it is an offence for a monk to ask for and eat meat, fish, or dairy products, unless it is as a medicine. It is an offence to kill; to cause suffering; to offer a monk meat specially prepared for him; to be a butcher; to trade in meat, or to trade in living beings. I would interpret trading in meat as buying any animal product from anyone.
The Buddha is said to have died after eating a certain food. The food is variously translated as “pig flesh”, or “food trampled by pigs”, or “food eaten by pigs”. This strange story proves nothing either way.
I feel that the best way to decide if the Buddha was vegetarian, is to look at the main principles of Buddhism.
The first principle in Buddhism, is that of not killing any being. Killing is defined as killing; or causing others to kill, or approving of killing. All beings have an equal right to experience a pain free life. Beings have no unchanging self, and so to work towards Nirvana is to live a life of Ahimsa. One does good to all beings: one works for the Nirvana of all beings.
To my mind, the scriptures of Theravada and the principles expressed in Theravada scriptures both advocate vegetarianism.
The monk who eats meat argues that no bad Karmic effects result from the eating of meat as the monk did not kill, or ask to be killed, any creature. But I shall show that there is a dependent chain of suffering arising from the monk’s bad intentions.
1. Monks eat meat and preach that no bad Karma is involved.
The alms taker”(monk) offers his bowl to the almsgiver. They both know that the alms taker will eat meat and vegetables, and so he is given meat and vegetables.
The alms taker knowingly eats meat and vegetables from the almsgiver, knowing that the almsgiver will obtain more meat and vegetables to replace them (for the almsgiver and the alms taker).
This causes the meat trader (who sells extra meat to the almsgiver) to cause the slaughterer to kill extra animals, and in turn causes the farmer to breed more animals for slaughter. Thus, many extra animals suffer and die: this caused (knowingly and deliberately) by the act of offering a bowl to the almsgiver and eating the meat obtained.
The result is bad Karma by the false preacher; by the alms taker; by the almsgiver; by the meat trader; by the slaughterer, and by the farmer. The conclusion that I draw from this dependent chain, is that mental intention to profit by causing exploitation of another results in bad Karma by all involved (all except the animal which has suffered and died as a result of meat eating and the preaching of meat eating) .
One may avoid arguments against sophistry and simply say that it is obvious that eating meat causes more animals to be slaughtered. Arguing that no bad Karma is involved is like a murderer saying that it was his bullet that was the murderer, and that no blame attaches to him. In a Theravada prediction of the future, it is said that humans will stop killing and live on roots and fruits from the jungle.
Jain scriptures report that in the time of the Buddha, monks adhered to Ahimsa
(lay people also seem to have followed Ahimsa) but later, became lax. Buddhist
influence in ancient India varied, but it was usually strongly pro-vegetarian
(Theravada and Mahayana). In the counties which Buddhism spread to,
vegetarianism varied according to period and region. The Theravada Emperor of
India (Asoka) was strongly pro-vegetarian. He also passed laws to protect
animals and employed doctors and vets (to help sick humans and animals) all over
India. Various other Theravada Kings of India and Ceylon passed laws which put a
total ban on all meat eating. We know that Devadatta (an enlightened Buddhist
living at the same time as the Buddha) led a large group which was strictly
vegetarian. Devadatta had Royal influence and the group lasted for at least a thousand years. Devadatta said that he adhered to the teachings of the Buddha.
Vegetarian vows may once have been obligatory for Theravada monks, as there are voluntary vows of vegetarianism which exist today in scriptures. But they are now in disuse, as are many other vows.
Today, some Theravada .communities and monasteries are vegetarian. Many monks who eat meat, do so feeling they commit bad Karma. There have been boycotts of butcher’s shops in some areas. These boycotts being organised by local monks. Saving animals from slaughter; from butchers … is actively practised by the laity, monks, and the Government of Theravada Burma (or had been, in the recent past).
To the argument (in scripture) that one should eat meat because one should show no preference for any food, well, this is contradicted by the scripture which prohibits one from eating certain forms of animal flesh e.g. dog, horse …
Meat is also considered so dangerous as an inducer of sensual passions that monks do not eat any meal after noon (in case meat is part of the food).
There are two lines of thought in Theravada as regards the intentional killing of animals. The most common idea; the most ancient; the most fundamental idea in scriptures, is that it is wrong to intentionally kill any animal: an equal degree of himsa to the victim and bad Karmic effects to the killer apply, whatever the animal killed. Every animal should have an equal chance to live and choose Nirvana.
Unfortunately, some Buddhists chose to pursue the counterproductive path of making up graded lists of animals according to how much bad Karma they thought would be involved if one intentionally kills them. Various schemes of reason are used. Some ingenious and some illogical, but all “wrong”, as:
there are not predetermined degrees of intention to harm which accord to each species; size; physical development; and similarity to man of each animal killed by man.
It is as if one were to enter into philosophical debates over the relative degree of “wrong” involved in chopping off someone’s finger as opposed to their toe.
This process has gone so far, that it has (totally against fundamental Buddhist principles) graded man in a separate higher list. And then subgraded him according to virtuosity.
The end result of the grading system is that many monks interpret the grading as if creatures at the bottom of the list can be slaughtered with impunity.
Most of the foregoing arguments relate to whether monks
and nuns may eat left over potions of meat from a donors dinner (meat specially prepared for the monk carries demerit, even though this is common). It is clear that the lay person buying one’s own food may not buy and eat meat.
To labour the point, a Theravada lay person should be a vegetarian. One could also argue for veganism. However, most Theravada lay people eat meat.
There are two schools of thought in Buddhism: Mahayana, which does not accept that the Buddha was
simply a man who found freedom by the effort of his mind alone (Mahayana includes many groups which preach freedom through devotion and faith) and Hinayana, which preaches a moral code: originally based on Ahimsa.
Some Mahayana scriptures go back to a period as early as the Theravada scriptures. Most Mahayana texts argue strongly for vegetarianism. Veganism is also approved of. As is, the active liberation of suffering creatures.
Theravada is the largest surviving sect of the “Hinayana”. The Mahayana covers a host of sects which attribute special significance to different Mahayana texts.
In some Mahayana countries (at certain festivals) animals are purchased from butchers and fishmongers and set free This is good for the individual creature set free but encourages the butcher to buy more animals to replace them. The butcher has also made money which he may use to expand his enterprise. Indeed, the practise has become so corrupted, that people go out before the festivals and trap birds which they can then sell to be liberated. Perhaps at one time the animals were set free without being purchased. Sometimes fish from the sea are released in the river and die.
In China, until quite recently, Buddhists organised vegetarian leaflettings which included quotes from scriptures. The Emperor Wu (511 A.D.) proclaimed the abolition of meat from his kingdom.
Even though Mahayana scriptures speak in favour of vegetarianism (and Ahimsa) only a minority of adherents are vegetarian. One of the strongest Buddhist sects against meat eating is Zen (Zen is a Japanese word. Ch’an is the Chinese equivalent: both mean meditation). But even here, vegetarianism varies from monastery to monastery. In Zen, Vegetarianism is the dominant theme though.
Asceticism should not be confused with Ahimsa. Asceticism means, choosing to take on suffering. Ascetics may be vegetarian because they consider vegetarianism a denial of the delights of flesh eating. Buddhist are not ascetics, although they are often talked of as such.