Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom
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David's Book: Questions And Answers
[By Dr.David N. Snyder]Q. But monks are not supposed to request certain foods and are supposed to graciously
accept what is placed in the alms bowl. Is a vegetarian monk going to make a request for
vegetarian foods only?
A. Ven. Abhinaya, responds appropriately to this question in this way, ―Yes, it is good for
monks to refrain from being fussy and choosy, but if they were to request people to offer them
only meatless food, they would not be asking for themselves, but for the sake of the animals;
their asking would be altruistic instead of selfish. And it would benefit the people who offer as
well as the animals, for their offerings would involve less suffering and so would be more
meritorious. From every point-of-view, therefore – including health and economy –
vegetarianism is better.
An interesting fact is that this three-fold rule does not exist in the Mahayana version of the
sutras. The Mahayana sutras parallel much of the Pali Canon, including a version of the Pali
Vinaya (code of rules for monastics) and the Abhidhamma (scientific-psychological analysis),
but with the noted exception of no three-fold rule. It could be quite possible that the three-fold
rule was added later by some monks to justify the consumption of meat. In both the Theravada
Pali and the Mahayana Sanskrit traditions, the suttas remained oral for a few hundred years
before being written down. There are few, if any, Buddhists who claim that every word in the
suttas, Pali or Mahayana are the exact words of the Buddha.
In far more instances, we see the Buddha stating that no living being should be killed or caused
―For fear of causing terror to living beings, Mahamati, let the Bodhisattva who is disciplining
himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh.
The Buddha, Lankavatara Sutra
―The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion.
The Buddha, Mahaparinibbana SutraQ. The above quotes and most of the sutras that are pro-vegetarian are from the Mahayana
tradition and their scriptures. Are there any pro-vegetarian suttas in the Theravada Pali
A. The Pali Canon is permeated with suttas that also espouse the virtues of not killing or causing
―All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. When a man considers this, he does not kill
or cause to kill. All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he
does not kill or cause to kill.
―The worth of heart by amity reached, who kills not and does not cause to kill.‖
Anguttara Nikaya 8.1
―Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins, feeding on the food of the faithful, remain addicted to
the enjoyment of stored-up goods such as food, drink, clothing, carriages, beds, perfumes and
meat, the ascetic Gotama refrains from such enjoyment.‖
Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya
In one (Pali Canon) sutta, the Buddha gives 10 analogies to describe how bad attachment to
sense desires can be. He compares attachment to sense desires with ten really bad things.
This includes things such as a skeleton, a burning torch that is about to burn our hands, and a
poisonous snake. The final analogy the Buddha makes to describe something very bad, is that of
a slaughterhouse. He used the description of a slaughterhouse as one of the analogies to describe
something bad. (Majjhima Nikaya 22)
Also from the Canon, ―What is the one thing, O Gotama, whose killing you approve?‖ The
Buddha responds, ―Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly; having slain anger, one does not
sorrow.‖ Samyutta Nikaya 1.257-258 and also in Samyutta Nikaya 7.613-614 and Samyutta
Nikaya 11 In this statement, the Buddha says that the only thing worth killing is anger.
In the following verses, we find even more direct causal connections to refrain from meat eating
in the Theravada Pali Canon:
―Monks, one possessed of three qualities is put into Purgatory according to his actions. What
three? One is himself a taker of life, encourages another to do the same and approves thereof.
Monks, one possessed of three qualities is put into heaven according to his actions. What
three? He himself abstains from taking life, encourages another to so abstain, and approves of
Anguttara Nikaya, 3.16
―He himself abstains from the destruction of life, exhorts others to abstain from the
destruction of life, and speaks in praise of abstinence from the destruction of life.‖
Samyutta Nikaya 55.7
―He should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill.
Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.‖
Khuddaka Nikaya, Sutta Nipata, Dhammika Sutta
―Monks, possessing twenty qualities one is cast into purgatory . . . he takes life and
encourages another to do so . . .‖ Anguttara Nikaya 10. 211
―Monks, possessing thirty qualities one is cast into purgatory . . . he takes life himself,
encourages another to do so and approves of the killing . . .‖ Anguttara Nikaya 10. 212
―Monks, possessing of forty qualities one is cast into purgatory . . . he takes life himself,
encourages another to do so, approves of the killing, and speaks in praise of the killing . . .‖
Anguttara Nikaya 10. 213
The above quotes show that it is not just okay not to do the killing yourself, it is also
unacceptable to encourage another, approve of another‘s killing, or to speak in praise of it, such
as defending the eating of meat.
In numerous places in the Pali Canon, the Buddha or one of his chief disciples reports about
seeing ghostly type beings who are suffering as a ―skeleton‖ or a ―piece of flesh‖ or another
woeful existence and being tormented by crows and other animals. The Buddha reports that
these beings are suffering in these states because of a past life as a butcher of cattle or pigs or
sheep (Samyutta Nikaya 19.1, Vinaya, Suttavibhanga 3.105). Although they were doing the
actual killing, who would do the killing if everyone were Buddhist? Since there can be no
slaughterhouses if everyone were Buddhist, at the very least, vegetarianism can be seen as an
ideal to strive for.
In one (Pali Canon) sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 22, snake similie), the Buddha gives 10 analogies to
describe how bad attachment to sense desires can be. He compares attachment to sense desires
with ten really bad things. This includes things such as a skeleton, a burning torch that is about to
burn our hands, and a poisonous snake. The final analogy the Buddha makes to describe
something very bad, is that of a slaughterhouse. He used the description of a slaughterhouse as
one of the analogies to describe something bad.
The first precept in both the Mahayana and the Theravada is not to kill or cause to kill any living
being. The above quote from the Sutta Nipata clearly states not causing the killing of any being,
nor inciting another to do so. The Buddha, who was quite familiar with cause and effect (four
noble truths, dependent origination, among many other teachings) would not be blind to the
obvious effect of ordering or purchasing meat from a grocer or butcher.Q. What about verses in the Sutta Nipata that mention certain mental states as defilements
and not the eating of flesh?
A. In the Buddha‘s time in India there were many food fads. There is still some existing, not
only in India, but in other countries too. Some of these are that garlic is an aphrodisiac or that it
makes one stern and angry. Similar beliefs exist about onions and mushrooms. The Buddha was
referring to these fads and that it is not taking foods in a ritualistic way that purifies you or
makes you impure, what matters is the state of your mind and how you purify the mind. At that
time, there were also certain rituals and foods which were believed to make you pure or impure.
(Dhammika, 2007) Notice from the ending of those verses, the importance he made toward not
following ritualistic purification ceremonies:
―Neither the flesh of fish, nor fasting, nor nakedness, nor tonsure, nor matted hair, nor dirt, nor
rough skins, nor the worshipping of the fire, nor the many immortal penances in the world, nor
hymns, nor oblations, nor sacrifice, nor observance of the seasons, purify a mortal who has not
conquered his doubt. Khuddaka Nikaya, Sutta Nipata 2.11Q. If meat eating was not allowed why were there some verses prohibiting the eating of
certain animals, such as tigers, lions, and apes?
A. There are also suttas prohibiting the eating of human flesh or the intake of alcohol and
intoxicants. All of this shows that the three-fold rule has flaws in it. If the monastics are not
allowed to refuse any food, even if it is meat, then why would the flesh of some animals not be
allowed? Shouldn‘t the monastic also be required to take and eat the offered tiger flesh, human
flesh (if offered), or even alcohol? No monastic in the time of Buddha or today would accept
those offerings, which shows that monastics are allowed to refuse. There are also suttas which
state that food offerings even at the wrong time of day can be refused. So why is there this
conflict with many suttas and the one sutta which contains the three-fold rule?
The answer is found in research done by the Tibetan monk scholar, Shabkar. He did extensive
studies of the sutras and found that the misleading sutras indicate that the Buddha gradually
phased out the permission of meat eating. When the Buddha began teaching most of the people
followed some version of Hinduism and many of them still ate meat. The Buddha always
presented his teachings in the context of his audience, their intelligence and what they were
―… One of the greatest obstacles to the birth of bodhichitta in our minds is our craving for
meat. ―If there is no meat eater, there will be no animal killer … Shabkar Tsogdruk
Rangdrol (Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat)
This is further confirmed in Thich Nhat Hanh's translation/interpretation of what the Buddha said
on the three-fold rule in the Jivaka Sutta:
"People who understand the bhikkhus' vow of compassion offer only vegetarian food for the
monks. But sometimes a person only has food that has been prepared with meat. Also,
persons who have not had previous contact with the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha do not
know that the bhikkhus prefer vegetarian food. In such situations the bhikkhu accepts
whatever is offered to avoid offending the giver . . . Jivaka, some day all people will
understand that bhikkhus do not want animals to be killed. At that time, no one will offer
meat to the bhikkhus, and the bhikkhus will be able to eat only vegetarian food."
This translation/interpretation (Old Path White Clouds, 1991) of that Sutta shows that meat was
meant to be phased out. And we must remember that at the time of the Buddha there were not
very many Buddhists yet, so we could not expect the people offering the food to know the details
In the Buddha‘s teachings there is the important concept of ―skilful means which means using
the correct speech in the context of the place, timing, culture, and the audience.
―Skilful means (upaya kusula) is a teacher's willingness to adapt himself or herself to the
interests, needs and level of understanding of others in order to be able to successfully
communicate the Dhamma to them (Digha Nikaya 3.220, Theragatha 158). At its best, skilful
means is a type of flexibility and sympathy. The Buddha said he would adapt his speech and even
his appearance to be better able to teach the Dhamma to different types of people:
'I remember well many assemblies of patricians, priests, householders, ascetics, and gods . . .
that I have attended. Before I sat with them, spoke to them or joined their conversation, I
adopted their appearance and their speech whatever it might be and then I instructed them in
Dhamma' (Digha Nikaya 2.109).
The Buddha told his monks and nuns that when teaching Dhamma in foreign parts they should
adopt the language of the people they were living with (Majjhima Nikaya 3.235). (Dhammika,2007)
--------------to be continued---------------yawares
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