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 (trikoṭipariśuddha: 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.