This topic assumes importance because lakhs of people are Buddhist 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 and even part of Karnataka. There are some more questions that I have answered below on this topic
Q 1 Given the overwhelming evidence in favour of vegetarianism, how come most Buddhists eat meat?
Ans. Buddhists who eat meat seek to justify it by creating an artificial distinction between killings 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.
Q. 2 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?
Ans. 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 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.
Q. 3 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 plough his fields (thus killing many creatures) and spraying the crop (again killing many creatures)?
Ans. This is clearly a guilty-conscience argument and one easily dismissed. Firstly, vegetables are not farmed with the intent to kill nor do the vegetarian feast on the flesh of creatures involuntarily destroyed in the process of farming with meat; however, 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.
Q. 4 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.
Ans. 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.
Q. 5 Was vegetarianism ever widespread amongst Buddhists?
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. 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.
Q. 6 Today it is often said that Mahayanists are vegetarian and Theravadins are not. Why the difference?
Ans. 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, emphasizes 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 criticized 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."
Q. 7 So which of the contrasting food habits of these two schools better reflects the spirit of Buddhism?
Ans. Even an objective assessment would have to admit that the fundamental condition of begging alms that prevailed during the time of the Pali Canon allowing for the eating of meat, no longer exists. Since the condition that allowed meat to be considered ‘blameless’ does not apply, the practice of meat-eating must be considered guilty of violating Buddha’s rule and inconsistent with basic Buddhist philosophy.
Q. 8 What form of Buddhism do Tibetan monks follow?
Ans. Tibetan monks do not follow the Brahmajala Sutra but the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, which is much the same as its Theravadin counterpart. But their sutras are mainly Mahayana and, because they are followers of the compassionate Bodhisattva Ideal, one would expect Tibetan Buddhists and their European and American followers to practise vegetarianism. However, there are many who do not. Some years ago I asked a Tibetan lama why so many Tibetan Buddhists ate meat. He replied that it was a matter of what type of meditation practice one did. If one did a Mahayana practice such as the visualization of Avalokiteshvara or Tara then one should not eat meat as one had to remain 'pure'. But if one performed a Tantric practice, such as visualizing one of the wrathful deities, then the power of the practice purifies one--regardless of one's eating meat. This cannot serve as justification as the reason for refraining from eating meat is not to safeguard one's own purity' but to prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals. The former is more in the spirit of Hinduism, the latter that of Buddhism.
It is not as if there are no Tibetan injunctions to refrain from eating animal flesh. The 18th century Tibetan saint, Shabkar, spoke out strongly against meat. In The Life of Shabkar, the Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogi, he wrote: “Eating meat, at the cost of great suffering for animals, is unacceptable. If, bereft of compassion and wisdom, you eat meat; you have turned your back on liberation. The Buddha said, ‘the eating of meat annihilates the seed of compassion.’” Shabkar articulates the most sweeping indictments against meat-eating found in Tibetan literature.
Q. 10 So why then do Tibetan Monks eat meat?
Ans. The Tibetans say that the harsh, barren landscape made successful year-round agriculture impossible. This does not seem to be entirely accurate. Climatic conditions can never be made an excuse for eating meat for logically speaking, if the environment permits the survival of meat animals that are entirely vegetarian, it can certainly sustain a human vegetarian population. Besides after fleeing Tibet, many lamas went into exile in India. But even here they continue to eat meat—in spite of the predominantly vegetarian Indian culture that serves as their new home.
But perhaps the weakest defence offered by Tibetan lamas to justify their meat-eating is that although it was meritorious to stop eating meat if one could manage it, yet there was more important work to be done, like taming the mind and praying for the benefit of all sentient beings. And after all the important part was that they were praying for the liberation of all beings. Of course the inherent contradiction of praying for the benefit and liberation of sentient beings whilst feasting on their flesh seems to have entirely escaped them. It escapes me how a monk can be called a monk if he concentrates so much on the food that he wants to eat. How can he tame the mind when he cannot tame his stomach?
But worse even than simply eating animals, Tibetan monks have invented truly horrific ways of killing animals. In a cruel perversion of the Buddha’s edict, Tibetan monks in Ladakh tie the animal’s mouth, stuff up its nose and wait for it to die of suffocation so that it cannot be said to have been killed for meat. Similarly they throw tied up animals over the cliff only to cart up their bleeding carcasses. The logic is that they were killed by “gravity” or “lack of air” – not be killing! Tibetans in India are also deeply involved in the illegal wildlife trade – Tibet is full of leopard, tiger, and bear skins, all taken from India by them. The chiru trade for shahtoosh is run by them. Protecting beings should be second nature to Buddhists: it is appalling to find the Tibetan community in India so blatantly disrespectful of the tenets of their own religion and the laws of their host nation.
Q. 11 Each person has to make up his or her own mind. Some will accept one point of view and some another. Many Dalits have become Buddhists but they continue with meat-eating.
Ans. There can be little point in formulating any religious philosophy and tenets, if ultimately followers are going to follow their own convenience. You cannot be said to belong to a faith unless you adhere to its basic doctrine. No-one can deny that non-violence or non-injury to any living being is the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings. Therefore, in the present day when meat-eating is from choice not necessity or accident, there can be no justification for eating flesh. We can twist and turn texts to find support for our greed for meat but ultimately we cannot escape the essential truth. The economic machine which produces meat creates fear and suffering for a large number of animals. Buddhists certainly cannot contribute towards it continuance. Many Dalits become Buddhists in order to make a political statement against caste discrimination: few have been taught the essential nature of Buddhism.
- Maneka Gandhi