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20th June 1999

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Buddhism and vegetarianism

Mahipali continues his series on vegetarianism with an aspect that has created a whole heap of controversey Buddhism and the vegetarian lifestyle.

The Buddha's teaching makes it clear that Buddhists can neither buy nor sell fleshBuddhism and vegetarianism: we are sailing into perilous seas and must look for a safe way to navigate. It was because he was mindful of this that Mahipali thought it prudent to begin the exploration of vegetarianism with a discussion of factory farming. There we saw how flesh foods reached our dinner plates; it is a story of immeasurable violence all the way, from the moment of birth of the farm animal to the moment of its death at the slaughterhouse. We can now ask: Is this compatible with the spirit of Buddhism, this eating of animals violently bred and slaughtered solely for our consumption? Can Buddhists be partners in these manifest crimes against other living beings?

The answer is so obvious that any further discussion would seem unnecessary. However, the realities of the Buddhist world tell a different story and that needs some explaining.

In Theravada Buddhist countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand) there is no clear and unbroken tradition of vegetarianism.

According to Theravada texts, the Buddha was once asked to lay down a rule to make vegetarianism mandatory for the Sangha. He is reported to have declined and to have stated that if a monk or nun is satisfied that the animal was not killed specifically for him or her, it was permissible to eat.

But now, we must not forget that monks are dependent on lay people for their requirements. It is apposite to consider if there are any teachings for lay people that may be relevant to the question of eating flesh foods and giving them to others.

It is most interesting that the Buddha's exhortations to the laity are definitely more specific. The lay code of conduct consists of the five precepts. By the first precept the Buddhist undertakes not to take life. The locus classicus for the clarification of the meaning of this and the other precepts is a discourse known as Dhammika Sutta found in the ancient text called Sutta Nipata. Here the Buddha says that the first precept means that one will not kill, not get others to kill, and not encourage it when others kill. In another context, the Buddha says that refraining from taking life also means that one will not praise or approve of killing. Then again there is the widespread teaching that trading in flesh is a negation of right livelihood. From these, it becomes very clear that the Buddhist can neither buy flesh nor sell it. If he does not do these, how can he consume flesh or offer it to members of the Sangha?

Yet again, there is the Buddhist teaching of loving kindness, most beautifully expressed in the famous Karaniya Metta Sutta. Here and in thousands of other contexts, the Buddha preaches compassion for all beings, compassion which is like a mother's protective love for her only child. That is for all Buddhists to observe, lay and ordained alike.

Finally, we must also note here a principle of utmost significance which the Buddha enunciated to an audience of lay people: No matter what the texts or teachers say, the wise must weigh the pros and cons and do what they are convinced is the right thing to do.

There is another significant fact that we must not overlook. While the Theravada texts speak of permissibility for monks to eat flesh under certain circumstances, some Mahayana texts categorically deny this and say that such flesh, not meant for consumption, is nowhere available. The implication is that it is absurd to ask the seller of flesh if it was killed for me or for my guests. It is meant for the consumer of flesh; if I am a consumer it is meant for me also. So in the Mahayana Buddhist lineage of China all monks and nuns are called upon to be vegetarian - a rule that has been scrupulously followed up to date. It is due to this that there is a rich and varied vegetarian cuisine in all the countries of East Asia where the Chinese Mahayana tradition is followed.

So now, where are we? Simply stated, can anyone buy or consume flesh without violating the principles mentioned above? Ipso facto, can anyone rightfully offer flesh to members of the Sangha? Mahipali has discussed this with many Buddhists, both monks and lay people. He has not yet met a single person who staunchly defended the non-vegetarian option. Given these principles, and given the brutalities which eating animals now entails, they all agreed that it is only vegetarianism that is really compatible with the spirit of Buddhism. Some even went so far as to say that even if the texts had advocated flesh eating (which of course is not the case), they would not do it because it is so obviously wrong and unnecessary to kill animals for our food.

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