Saturday, September 5, 2015

Buddhist Vegetarianology

Recently in a conference in Düsseldorf, a colleague protested every time someone employed a term already used in some Western intellectual culture and context, to such an extent that one began to feel that Buddhist ideas should be transported in its target language without employing the target language at all. Or, one can only try to express Buddhist ideas in English, for example, by leaving all the technical terms in its source language (e.g. Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan) un-translated. Or, as I often do for the sheer fun of it, create new terms. “Buddhist vegetarianology” is one such neologism. But in our digital age, one is bound to realize that whatever term one wishes to coin has already been coined by someone else although not in the same context that one prefers to employ. The term “vegetarianology” can already be found on the web though not in any standard literary or reference work. “Buddhist vegetarianology” is to be understood here as the “study of the idea of vegetarianism found in Buddhist literature and culture.” It would naturally also include the study of Buddhist attitude towards meat-eating. One the one hand, it is perhaps inappropriate for a non-vegetarian to talk about the topic of vegetarianism in Buddhism. On the other hand, I could still try to play the role of a śrāvaka who transmits the teachings of a bodhisattva. The analogy of a bodhisattva giving śrāvaka teachings would not work here. My interest here is in knowing the history of the idea of vegetarianism in Buddhism. Lambert Schmithausen has pursued in-depth studies on the topic from a historical-philological perspective and also, in my view, shown the possibility for contemporary Buddhists to make creative and innovative reorientation without having to deny the historical development of vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism in Buddhism. He is currently pursuing a major study on the topic. Anyone interested in the topic would greatly benefit from his hitherto pertinent and forthcoming publications. What follows is a small attempt to understand a fragment of the paper that he recently gave in Düsseldorf.

§1. The crux of the problem is that basically meat-eating is permissible for both ordained and lay Buddhists, whereas killing of animals, insofar as it is an unwholesome action, should be refrained by both ordained and lay Buddhists. The difficulty, in other words, is how to reconcile the permission of meat-eating and prohibition of (or abstention from) injuring sentient beings (ahiṁsā). Of the three kinds of Buddhists, it must have been the most difficult for Buddhists who were fishermen, hunters, butchers, and kings (like Aśoka) to eat meat and yet abstain from killing animals. For Buddhists who were merchants, artisans, and the like, it was possible to eat meat without having to kill an animal (i.e. by buying meat in the market). For ordained persons, it was much easier to eat meat (if offered as alms) without having to kill an animal. Initially (perhaps) both ordained Buddhists and Jain ascetics were supposed to live on the leftovers of meals of lay families. 

§2. Unlike Jain ascetics, Buddhist monks and nuns, however, were also permitted to accept food prepared specially for them and even accept invitations. This must have created a new difficulty. A Buddhist monk or nun could get indirectly involved in the killing if the animal was killed just him or her. Jains must have made this accusation against the Buddhist order. Thus in order to avoid a direct or close causal association with the act of killing and in order to avoid such an accusation by the Jains, ordained monks and nuns were permitted to accept meat (and fish) only if pure from three points of view (trikoipariśuddha: rnam gsum dag pa). 

§3. Meat-eating, in whatever form, had yet another difficulty. It did not conform the norms of asceticism inasmuch as meat and fish (like ghee, butter, milk, sesamum oil, honey, and molasses) were considered exquisite food and hence as luxury. Unlike non-Buddhist radical ascetics, who abstained from meat and fish as elements of severe austerities, Buddhists renunciants were permitted to accept any food and consume it in moderation, be it exquisite or frugal. Unless ill, they were not permitted to ask for exquisite food. For early Buddhism, the emphasis was not so much on external asceticism but rather on inner asceticism (as a kind of inner detachment). There are indications in early Buddhism that there has been certain shift in setting the degree of the stringency of asceticism. On the one hand, there has been a tendency of certain laxation in asceticism (e.g. invitations were acceptable and alms-tour reduced to optional). On the other hand, there was an opposite tendency of rigidization of asceticism (e.g. calling for a strict and obligatory adherence to severe practices). In the various versions of the Vinaya (except that of the Mahāsāṃghikas), there is a report of an attempt of categorical prohibition of meat and fish (and, in some sources, even ghee, milk and salt), which is, however, associated with Devadatta and explicitly rejected. According to one version of the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya, Devadatta calls for a ban on meat-eating not on the grounds of ascetism but on the grounds of ethicism (i.e. meat-eating presupposes the killing of animals). 

§4. Eating special kinds of meat (e.g. of human, dog, horse, elephant, snake, etc.) was problematic for reasons of tabooism or social in-acceptability, which could jeopardize the social prestige of the Buddhist order. 

§5. Eating special kinds of meat (e.g. of predators) and eating of meat and fish by certain monks such as those who practice in the cemeteries have been seen as problematic for security reasons and hence should be abstained for the sake of self-protection. 

§6. In short, in early Buddhism, there was no total prohibition of meat-eating for the ordained as well as lay persons. There were only certain restrictions, especially for ordained persons, mainly to anonymize and dissociate them from responsibility for the killing, to avoid loss of social prestige, and for self-protection. But there was a tendency to rigidify ascetism by calling for the prohibition of meat-eating and also on the ground of ethicism

§7. But there was also tendency of an idealization of a world or epoch without meat-eating, and thus, so to speak, towards vegetarianism. 

§8. Only one (and not even a strong) strand of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism calls for abstention from meat-eating. 

§9. Mahāyānic scriptures such as the Ratnameghasūtra, Hastikakṣyasūtra, Mahāmeghasūtra, Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra, Aṅgulimālīyasūtra, Laṅkāvatārasūtra, and the like are said to propose vegetarianism to varying degrees and with shared or specific arguments. On the one hand, one can find inauguration of new ideas in accordance with the fundamentals of Mahāyāna spirituality and on the other hand practical adaptations to social developments. This was considered necessary for the social reputation of the bodhisatvas and the Buddhist Order. Some of the arguments for total abstention from meat-eating found in these sources may be called “self-protection argument,” “altruism-argument” (DW), “all-beings-are-my-relatives argument” (LS), in which case meat-eating would amount to endo-cannibalism, tathāgatagarbha (or “one-and-same-element argument” (DW), in which case meat-eating would amount to autophagy,physical-social-impurity argument” (DW), “complicity-argument” (DW) or “consumer-argument” (LS), and so on. 

§10. Schmithausen has not dealt with the abstention of meat-eating in the Kriyā system of Mantrayāna. One possible implicit argument would be the “physical-impurity argument.” Meat-eating would render one impure and unfit as a recipient of the mundane and supra-mundane siddhis. 

§12. Vegetarianism has been propagated strongly by several past and present prominent Tibetan Buddhist masters, occasionally even to the detriment of the health of some nomadic people (e.g. pregnant women) in Tibet and in Tibetan cultural sphere. A systematic study of their arguments for the abstention of meat-eating would be worth a study. 

§13. Lastly a point from a certain Tibetan Buddhist (Tantric) perspective may be made. “Meat is eaten by one who has compassion. Alcohol is drunk by one who has Tantric commitment” (sha snying rje can gyis bza’ || chang dam tshig can gyis ’thung ||). So it is said. This might sound like an excuse for one’s greed. I have heard some Tibetan masters say that one may eat meat only if one can eat it as if one were forced to eat the meat of one’s only child. That is, with so much compassion and remorse, and with no greed or pleasure whatsoever. The bottom-line, for some Tibetan masters, would be, if you eat meat, eat it with compassion. If you abstain from it, do so out of compassion. An Atiyogin would, however, neither demand meat nor reject it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

My Short Experiment with Vegetarianism

Until high school, I never ate chicken and mutton (i.e. goat’s meat). This has partly to do with my direct witness of how some Indian teachers slaughtered goats or cocks or hens. Once they even demanded that I helped in the act. I refused and locked myself in in an empty classroom. Our family did eat dried beef, pork, and fish but often only on special occasions such as the New Year. We also used to eat meat of a cow, for example, that died a natural death. We never reared animals for meat. As children we were forbidden to mention the word “meat” in front of our domestic animals, especially cows. “Meat of killed animal” (bsad sha) used to be a taboo and meat of a just-killed animal even a greater taboo. Once my mother almost killed me for daring to eat sausage made from such a kind of meat. 

In the high school, I ate meat (probably buffalo meat) on Tuesdays and Fridays because the school provided it. As a monk in a Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary, I tried to be a vegetarian for a few months. In those days, monasteries and monks were very poor and resources very scarce. An ex-monk of Paṇ-chen-bla-ma cooked for the monks in the seminary. He used to smoke biḍī (a kind of cheap Indian cigarette). As a dGe-lugs ex-monk he had no sense of guilt in consuming the intoxicant. “The Buddha did not prohibit smoking,” he would say. “It was Slob-dpon Rin-po-che who did.”  He did not feel obliged to heed to the instructions of Slob-dpon Rin-po-che because, according to him, he had “women” (skye dman). He despised all bla mas who had “women.” He would show his little finger to vent his detestation for them. Dil-mgo-mkhyen-brtse Rin-po-che was no exception. He despised him too. He used to say that “a Bhutanese bla ma with woman scratched everything away from Pad-nor Rin-po-che and that monks were left with nothing to eat.” He was referring to the offerings Pad-nor Rin-po-che made after Dil-mgo-mkhyen-brtse Rin-po-che bestowed initiations and transmission of Mi-pham’s works. In order to tease him, I would tell him “Paṇ-chen Rin-po-che, too, had woman.” He would stand there fuming with biḍī and anger. He had tremendous respect for Pad-nor Rin-po-che not the least because he was a a fully-ordained Buddhist monk (bhikṣu: dge slong). So he volunteered to cook for Pad-nor Rin-po-che’s monks in the seminary. Of course, provisions were provided by Pad-nor Rin-po-che. Most monks dedicated to acquiring Dharmic knowledge were full of gratitude for receiving knowledge, accommodation, and food for free. Mi-la-ras-pa could have only dreamt of such a facility! Note that Mar-pa told him very sternly that he can expect from him either Dharma (chos) or food-and-clothes (lto gos) but not both! The cook turned out not to be the kindest person or the most competent cook on earth. The tea he would prepare would smell and look smoky. Its temperature would be either cold or lukewarm. The tea and the rice porridge he made would contain biḍī butts. Rice would often be half-cooked or burnt. The roasted maize-flour would be full of sands. Two monks were assigned to assist the cook for two weeks. If those two monks made better food or tea, he would become jealous. To spoil their work, he would, for example, even pour a bucket of cold water into a caldron of ready-to-eat rice porridge. To minimize the damage, the two monks had to somehow keep the cook happy. Only two things could make him happy. (a) Let him cook as he wished. (b) Buy him a bottle of ara (i.e. alcohol) and a packet of biḍī. Hardly anyone would complain. Even teachers would mix some sandy tsam pa with some lukewarm biḍī-smelling tea, turn into a brew and sip at it. If one slightly shook the dented steel-bowl with the concoction, one could hear the sound of sand-sediments rubbing against the steel. Only once I heard a senior teacher reprimand the cook saying the Rin-po-che is providing the provisions for the saṃgha and that these should by no means be wasted. Another teacher, however, would reprimand any monk who complained. “The door is open in both ways,” he would say. “Nobody invited you to come. If you are displeased, you may leave the seminary any time.” He was right. Some monks would leave; others would stay behind biting their lips and biting sandy tsam pas. I stayed. Occasionally there would be meat. If one is lucky one might be able to fish out a piece of meat or bone in the porridge or cabbage or potato dish. There would be no vegetarian alternative. Once I told the cook that I don’t eat meat. He told me that I should then only take the soup or put aside the meat pieces (in any). Under such circumstances, the only way one could be a vegetarian was to buy one’s own vegetarian food. I had no money and so vegetarianism was a luxury for me. So I relinquished my short-lived vegetarian diet. Since then I eat meat but I try not to eat meat so often. I know I have no other excuse for my meat-eating except my greed and my inability to relinquish “exquisite” food. I am often guilt-ridden for eating meat and have much respect for those who relinquish meat for whatever motives. One thing seems clear: If I had to kill an animal myself to obtain its meat for myself, perhaps I would never eat meat.

Apropos, I am tempted to share this story. It is said that once a
 German lady witnessed the Dalai Lama eating a piece of steak onboard a plane. She went up to him and said: “I thought Buddhists do not eat meat.” The Dalai Lama retorted: “Those are the good Buddhists.”