The Lankavatara Sutra is a Mahayana text that was (according to legend) spoken by Buddha or one of his disciples in Sri Lanka, and the text was composed some 2,000 years ago. That would make it one of the oldest Buddhist texts compiled and it could have some connection to the Theravada by the fact that Sri Lanka has always been a Theravada country from the time Ashoka sent his son who was a monk and his daughter who was a nun to Sri Lanka to teach Buddhism in the third century BCE.
The Eight Points of the Lankavatara Sutra
In the Mahayana sutras there is an even greater emphasis on the value of a vegetarian diet. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha states that he “does not permit the eating of meat and will not permit it” and he predicted that in the future there would be people who would twist his words to make it appear that he approved of meat eating.
In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha lists several reasons for not eating meat:
- Present-day animals may have been one's kin in the past.
- One's own parents and relatives may in a future life be born as an animal.
- There is no logic in exempting the meat of some animals on customary grounds while not exempting all meat.
- Meat is impure as it is always contaminated by body wastes.
- The prospect of being killed spreads terror amongst animals.
- All meat is nothing other than carrion (decaying flesh or like “road kill” in modern terms).
- Meat eating makes the consumer to be cruel and sensual.
- Man is not a carnivore by nature.
In this sutra the Buddha states: “There is no meat that is pure in three ways: not premeditated, not asked for, and not impelled; therefore refrain from eating meat.”
An indication that this sutra could be the direct words of the Buddha is the highly scientific and advanced nature of the statements in the Eight Points. For example, number three above: “There is no logic in exempting the meat of some animals on customary grounds while not exempting all meat.” This statement rings true to so many cultures, including most of the developed world. How often people cringe at the sight of people eating insects, turtles, or rats, but then sit down to eat a chicken or beef dinner. When you examine the logic, the food choices make no sense. They are all animals, if one looks gross or disgusting to eat, then the thought of eating any animal should look disgusting.
Another example is number eight: “Man is not a carnivore by nature.” As we have seen with many of the Buddha’s teachings, they are advanced, progressive, and ahead of his time. The Buddha knew that man is not suited for a meat-based diet. Modern medical science concurs with this finding. Heart disease, cancer, and many other illnesses have been linked to foods too high in animal protein and fat.
History provides more evidence that the Buddha was a vegetarian and advocated a vegetarian diet. In India at the time of the Buddha, the predominant religion was Hinduism. The Hindu Brahmins and priests often made animal sacrifices to the gods. The Buddha rejected animal sacrifices and the Hindus only stopped the use of sacrifices and adopted vegetarianism in large numbers after the time of the Buddha. The famous King Ashoka, of India converted to Buddhism, was a vegetarian, and was the first ruler to pass laws against animal cruelty. He erected many pillars honoring Buddhist teachings and there is much archeological evidence confirming Ashoka’s rule. King Ashoka lived and ruled during the third century before Christ, only a couple of hundred years after the Buddha. One of Ashoka’s edicts read:
“Progress of men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.”
When the Buddhist scriptures were written there was an obvious controversy (which continues to this day) about the consumption of meat. It appears that the monks who liked to eat meat put verses into the scriptures that seemed to allow meat eating. At the same time the vegetarian monks put verses in the scriptures which strictly forbade meat eating.
To accurately find out what the intention of the Buddha was we need to look at the basic teachings that all Buddhist clergy and Buddhist schools can agree on. If we ignore the Buddhist scripture references that seem to allow meat eating and also ignore the references which specifically forbid it, we can analyze what the Buddha really taught by focusing on his core teachings. The core teachings of the Buddha, accepted by all Buddhist schools, are found in the Eightfold Middle Path. Consider the following points:
- Right Action of the Eightfold Middle Path refers to “no killing or causing to kill.”
- The first precept is to not kill or cause to kill. The precepts are based on the Eightfold Middle Path, moral constituents.
- When a person buys meat at a grocery store, the meat is definitely going to be replaced by the grocer. The butcher will request another killed animal from the slaughterhouse.
- Right Understanding of the Eightfold Middle Path includes an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, which are based on cause and effect.
- Right Livelihood of the Eightfold Middle Path does not permit an occupation of killing animals or handling animal flesh, such as a butcher.
When you consider the above points, all drawn from the core teachings of the Buddha in the Eightfold Middle Path, it is very difficult to imagine that the Buddha would have condoned the eating of meat.
One of the arguments for meat eating is that the meat could be eaten if you do not do the killing or if the animal is not killed specifically for you. If it is okay to eat meat, but not do the killing, then why would the Buddha forbid a job that simply handles the flesh, such as a butcher? What if everyone were Buddhist? Who would do the dirty work of killing so that others could eat the meat without doing the killing? There is an obvious hypocrisy in the thinking that it is okay to eat meat if someone else does the killing.
Even if you accept the idea that it is okay to eat meat as long as you do not do the killing, that still does not explain why the Buddha specifically forbade the handling of animal flesh, even if it was killed by someone else. The Buddha also required the monks and nuns to carry a filter for their water. He did not want the monks and nuns to even accidentally eat an insect. If the Buddha was this concerned about the life of an insect, we can imagine the extent of the compassion toward a cow or pig.
Even if you still believe that it is okay to eat meat if you are a monk or nun and it is offered to you, then this still does not grant the right to lay people who must make the decisions on which types of food to purchase at the grocery stores. If you feel that lay people must be vegetarian and monks and nuns must accept whatever is offered to them (as most Buddhists believe) then the monastics become de facto vegetarians too, as they receive their foods from the vegetarian lay people.
The Buddha’s teachings are centered around cause and effect, including The Four Noble Truths with its answers to our everyday suffering and in his teachings on kamma and re-birth and Dependent Origination. The Buddha was like some kind of super scientist who deeply understood cause and effect in every facet of existence. To say that he would not understand the cause and effect relationship between meat eating and the killing of animals is unimaginable.
- Vegetarianism and Buddhism
- Diet of Buddha
- Food of enlightenment
- 3 fold rule
- Edicts of Ashoka
- Anguttara Nikaya 3.16