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On Eating Meat

It is interesting that in this age of the computer there are, on websites around the Net on-going discussions as to whether or not one is required to be a vegetarian according to Buddhism.

This is a subject I mentioned in passing in The Pali Line, under Self-Discipline: Jagarianuyoga: Moderate Eating.

What is so interesting about the persistance of this debate is that it was a central issue in the debate between Devadata and the Buddha; surely the most notorious dispute in the whole of the Pali. The issue has been resolved in the Vinaya and in the Suttas with no possibility of confusion.[1]

Here is a Non-Vinaya discussion of the subject:


Jivaka: "This is what I have heard, revered sir: that they kill living creatures on purpose for the recluse Gotama, and that the recluse Gotama knowingly makes use of meat killed on purpose and specially provided for him. ... now are these quoting the Lord's own words ...?

Gotama: "Jivaka, those who speak thus ... these are not quoting my own words, but are misrepresenting me with what is not true, with what is not fact. I, Jivaka, say that in three cases meat may be used: if it is not seen, heard, suspected (to have been killed on purpose for a monk). In these three cases I, Jivaka, say that meat may be used.

As to this, Jivaka, a monk lives depending on a village or market town. He dwells having suffused the first quarter with a mind of friendliness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; just so above, below, across; he dwells having suffused the whole world everywhere, in every way, with a mind of friendliness that is far-reaching, wide-spread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence. A householder or a householder's son, having approached him, invites him to a meal on the morrow. The monk accepts, Jivaka, if he so desires. At the end of that night, having dressed in the early morning, taking his bowl and robe, he approaches the dwelling of that householder or householder's son; having approached, he sits down on the appointed seat, and the householder or householder's son waits on him with sumptuous almsfood. It does not occur to him: 'Indeed it is good that a householder or a householder's son waits on me with sumptuous almsfood. O may a householder or a householder's son also wait on me in the future with similar sumptuous almsfood' — this does not occur to him. He makes use of that almsfood without being ensnared, entranced or enthralled by it, but seeing the peril in it, wise as to the escape. What do you think about this, Jivaka? Is that monk at that time striving for the hurt of self or is he striving for the hurt of others or is he striving for the hurt of both?"

"Not this, revered sir."
"Is not that monk, at that time, Jivaka, eating food that is blameless?"
"Yes, revered sir. ..."

The same is repeated for compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. [My "Friendly Vibrations, Sympathetic Vibrations, Empathetic Vibrations, and Objective Detachment".]

"Jivaka, he who kills a living creature on purpose for a Tathāgata or a Tathāgata's disciple stores up much demerit in five ways: In that, when he speaks thus: 'Go and fetch such and such a living creature,' in this first way he stores up much demerit. In that, while this living creature is being fetched it experiences pain and distress ... In that, when he speaks thus: 'Go and kill that living creature' ... In that, if he proffers to a Tathāgata or a Tathāgata's disciple what is not allowable, in this fifth way he stores up much demerit. He who, Jivaka, kills a living creature on purpose for a Tathāgata or a Tathāgata's disciple stores up much demerit in these five ways."

The primary source of confusion with regard to this issue today has to do with a misunderstanding of Kamma. Kamma is a matter of the Intent behind the Actions of an Individual. There is no such thing as collective Kamma[3] and there is no such thing as consequential kamma.[4] Kamma is always and only the action and rebounding consequence of an intentional act by an individual.

A footnote in the Vinaya goes into some detail: "not seen means, having killed deer and fish for the benefit of the monks, their being caught was not seen; ... not suspected means, if the monks see men going from a village to the jungle with nets and snares in their hands; and if on the next day they receive fish and flesh with their alms in the village they suspect: "Was not this done for the benefit of the monks." They ask the men, who deny it, and say it was done for their own benefit ... everything is quite in order."

This means that there is no bad kamma connected with using meat from an animal that was killed by another individual if one had no part in that killing either through killing that animal one's self, instruction to another to kill, or by knowledge (or even suspicion) that the other individual killed that animal specifically for one.

The point of the example of the Bhikkhu going for a meal in the above sutta is to show an even subtler application: that where, because he has eaten allowable food at one meal, by any indication of a desire for a return invitation he would possibly be "requesting that an animal be killed specifically for him" (this being much more likely in the Buddha's time, where the Butcher was also the hunter and where to plan a meal ahead of time the houshoulder would have had to go to the Butcher and request meat for such and such a day).

Today eating or providing a Bhikkhu with meat purchased from a display in the butcher shop carries no bad kamma. Ordering a Thanksgiving Turkey in advance could be problematic: question the butcher: Does he order in advance of the killing? (There are some Turkey farms that kill and freeze their Turkeys as much as a Year ahead!) Ordering this season from a wholesaler that killed the bird in a previous season would carry no bad kamma. Or does your butcher order from the killer of the Turkey? Or does he place an order with a wholesaler who places an order with a slaughter house. If the butcher orders after the killing, there is no bad kamma, if it is the latter one is requesting that a Turkey be killed by ordering a turkey from such a butcher. Ordering a lobster to be cooked in a restaurant would be ordering that that lobster be killed and would carry with it bad kamma; ordering lobster tails would most likely be ordering lobster that had been previously killed and frozen and would not carry with it bad kamma.

This does not mean that one is prohibited from abstaining from eating meat if one so desires. However, a Bhikkhu living in a society where meat was regularly eaten would be causing an inconvenience to householders and be showing preferences with regard to his food, and be denying good kamma to his benefactor if he, on his begging rounds were to be picky and refuse to allow meat to be placed in the bowl.[5]

Additionally, this does not mean that if a layman feels that one might contribute to the lessening of the number of living creatures killed for food by abstaining from eating meat, that he should not do this. This would be making good kamma. Just keep in mind that there is a separation: one makes good kamma by such an abstention but there is no making bad kamma by not so abstaining.


[1] (He said.) For the full story see: PTS: Vinaya, I, 238, III, 172; The Book of the Discipline, I, pp 298 and surrounding.

[2] [MN 55]

[3] The idea of so-called "Collective Kamma" is that, for example, a heard of sheep is taken to the slaughter because the heard of sheep followed the shepard and the shepherd went out and killed all the foxes and wolves in the surrounding territory. The kamma of each individual sheep is its own, its fate was determined by its own previous actions, not by the actions of the shepherd.
It is highly unlikely that there ever could be the kammic situation where it might be said that 'the people of such and such a country' experienced the kammic consequences of their actions.'
An example might be where the government of a country made war on another country or committed genocide on a people and at a later time the people of that country suffered defeat at war or extermination. It is only in so far as these were the "same" people (Speaking conventionally. Those individualities identifying with the kamma of previously identified with actions) in the country who subscribed to and supported the initial action that they could be said to be experiencing kammic repercussion. And the kamma would still be individual. The fact that the individuals experienced the same fate together would be mere coincidence based on the idea that birds of a feather flock together.
This is the great danger of taking revenge and the endless back and forth of feuding individuals, families, clans, groups, countries; that is that revenge, even if it was taken on a guilty person, is always a new act of bad kamma. It is not possible for individuals to assume the role of kammic retribution. Although individuals may be and often are the implement of kammic forces, — "The Devil made me do it" — they are still responsible for the decision to go along with that force.
Social control or 'justice' is always bad kamma. The Buddha once stated that it was a rare king (president) that did not end up in Hell as a consequence of his occupation. That it is considered necessary to outlaw and punish certain behaviors in the face of individuals who are disruptive of society is an issue separate from kamma. Consequently individuals in a group subscribing to a given system of justice or social control, share the kammic repercussions. Still, this is not 'collective kamma.'

[4] Consequential Kamma is the idea that even though one eats meat that is not obtained improperly one nevertheless contributes to the demand for meat that prompts the butcher to kill so and so many living creatures in anticipation of a sale. This is a mistaken idea. The Butcher's speculation is his own intentional act of kamma. As long as one does not contribute directly to the demand by ordering in advance of the killing or accepting meat intentionally killed for one's own specific self, one is free of kamma.

[5] Just as a matter of personal experience, those Bhikkhus from countries where vegetarianism is practiced coming to this country to give opportunity to create good kamma here, should, for their own well being, gradually introduce themselves as far as possible to the habit of eating meat ... a sudden introduction of meat into the diet of a long-time vegetarian can be a miserable experience!




See Jataka Stories #246: Telovāda-Jātaka
A layman attempts to trap the Bodhisattva in an error by feeding him food with meat in it by this accusation:

"The wicked kills, and cooks, and gives to eat:
He is defiled with sin that takes such meat."

On hearing this, the Bodhisatta recited the second stanza:—

"The wicked may for gift slay wife or son,
Yet, if the holy eat, no sin is done."

Rouse footnotes: "Those who take life are in fault, but not the persons who eat the flesh; my priests have permission to eat whatever food it is customary to eat in any place or country, so that it be done without the indulgence of the appetite, or evil desire." Hardy, Manual, p. 327.

Ed. note: The rule is actually that if the bhikkhu suspects the meat to have been killed specifically for him, he should not eat. In the example in this story is it not clear as to whether or not it might have been possible for the Bodhisattva to have known this. Additionally, knowing by way of psychic knowledge does not count; in fact that imposes another, more complicated rule, that of not acting on the basis of psychic knowledge where it could be contstrued as boasting or bragging (To say: "I cannot eat this meat because I have psychic knowledge that it was killed specifically for me" would be bragging about one's psychic abilities). It's a matter of having been able to know from demonstrable clues.

See: MN 55.

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