Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom
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[By Dr. David N. Snyder]Q. What about evolution? Does not evolution show that all animals must kill and eat as
members of the food chain?
A. Some people argue that we as humans should be eating at the top of the food chain, like other
large animals or because of our ―superiority.‖ However, if we are truly superior to other animals
we do not need to show it by being the greatest inflictors of violence.
Rather, it is better to show moral superiority by being the most compassionate. Not all large or
intelligent animals eat at the top of the food chain. For example, elephants, rhinos, some whales,
and gorillas are all very large, very strong, and very intelligent animals which eat at the bottom
of the food chain. Some whales have a sort of filter at their mouths which catch tiny plankton for
their meals. You need a microscope to view plankton.
Because of our close connection to animals biologically (evolution) and spiritually in the re-birth
process, the Buddha was opposed to violence towards animals. An understanding and acceptance
of the theory of evolution is important because without that acceptance there is a perception of a
great separation between humans and animals which simply is not true.
As time goes on, people will realize that it is not even just a biological connection. If we are
animals as evolution shows us, then animals must also have a soul if humans do (or Buddhanature
or capacity for enlightenment or any other spiritual terminology). There is no way around
it since we all evolved from the same source.Q. Devadatta, who was a monk and the cousin of the Buddha, made a list of suggestions
which the Buddha refused to make mandatory. The list by Devadatta included a list of
ascetic type practices, including: (1) that monks should dwell all their lives in the forest, (2)
that they should accept no invitations to meals, but live entirely on alms obtained by
begging, (3) that they should wear only robes made of discarded rags and accept no robes
from the laity, (4) that they should dwell at the foot of a tree and not under a roof, (5) that
they should abstain completely from fish and flesh, even if it died naturally. Since the
Buddha refused to accept this list, isn’t he saying that meat eating is allowed?
A. Some teachers point out that the Buddha rejected this list by Devadatta and did not make it a
requirement. But what these teachers fail to recognize is the Buddha allowed monks to follow the
rules or suggestions by Devadatta, if they wanted to. It was not forbidden to follow the list, if a
monk or nun wanted to. The refusal of the Buddha to accept the complete list also does not mean
that he disagreed with everything in the list.
The Buddha actually spoke in praise of a monk who was well-disciplined and wore worn-out
rags. This proves that the Buddha did not reject certain items in the list, just the list as a whole:
―You are old now, Kassapa, and those worn-out hempen rag-robes must be burdensome for
you. Kassapa responds, For a long time, venerable sir, I have been a forest dweller and have
spoken in praise of forest dwelling; I have been an alms food eater and have spoken in praise
of eating almsfood; I have been a rag-robe wearer and have spoken in praise of wearing ragrobes.
I see a pleasant dwelling in this very life, and I have compassion for later generations,
thinking, may those of later generations follow my example! For when they hear, the
enlightened disciples of the Buddha were for a long time forest dwellers, were energetic and
spoke in praise of arousing energy, then they will practice accordingly and that will lead to
their welfare and happiness for a long time. The Buddha responds, Good, good, Kassapa!
You are practicing for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the
world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans. Therefore, Kassapa, wear
worn-out hempen rag-robes, walk for alms, and dwell in the forest.
Samyutta Nikaya 16.5
In the above discourse, the Buddha approves of Kassapa, the forest dweller, choosing to eat only
alms food (not by invitation to lay peoples‘ homes) and of wearing rag-robes; two items on
Devadatta‘s list that was rejected.
In another discourse, the Buddha says, ―I do not say householder, that all asceticism should be
practiced; nor do I say of all asceticism that it should not be practiced.
Anguttara Nikaya 10.94
In the above quotes, we see that the Buddha does accept the practice of some ascetic practices
and he goes on to say that those practices which are wholesome are acceptable and good. So
even if we say that vegetarianism is an extreme practice or even an ascetic practice, it can still be
acceptable as it is certainly wholesome to keep with the first precept of not killing or causing to
kill.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:
1. Present-day animals may have been one's kin in the past.
2. One's own parents and relatives may in a future life be born as an animal.
3. There is no logic in exempting the meat of some animals on customary grounds while not
exempting all meat.
4. Meat is impure as it is always contaminated by body wastes.
5. The prospect of being killed spreads terror amongst animals.
6. All meat is nothing other than carrion (decaying flesh or like ―road kill in modern terms).
7. Meat eating makes the consumer to be cruel and sensual.
8. 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.The Lankavatara sutra
The Lankavatara sutra was written some 2,000 years ago and although it is a Mahayana sutra, it
could be one of the oldest sutras or discourses of the Buddha. This is because this sutra is called
Lankavatara because it includes the discourses the Buddha gave (according to legend) while he
visited Sri Lanka. Even if it is not directly from the Buddha, it is certainly from his followers
who were monks and nuns. Historically we know that most of the first Buddhists outside of
India went to Sri Lanka. Mahinda and Sanghamitta, were the children of Ashoka and brought
Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE, only a couple of hundred years after the
parinibbana of Buddha. Today Sri Lanka remains a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country.
The other indication that this sutra includes 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.The human animal is not suited for meat, flesh type foods. Vegetarian animals do not have
claws whereas carnivores do. Vegetarian animals perspire through the skin whereas carnivores
perspire through the tongue. Vegetarians do not have large front teeth, but have molars for
grinding their food. Vegetarian animals have intestines which are ten to twelve times the
length of their bodies whereas carnivores have intestines that are only three times the length of
their bodies. Carnivores have strong stomach acids to digest meat whereas vegetarian animals
have weaker acids.In the above comparison of physiological differences between vegetarian animals and carnivores
(meat-eating), the human animal matches perfectly with the description of a vegetarian animal.
Another quick comparison you can check out for yourself is to look at your pet cat or dog if you
have one. If you do not have one you can watch a friend‘s cat or dog. Watch how a cat or dog
(carnivores) eat. Carnivores bite into their food and chew it just enough to make a piece for
them to swallow whole. They do not move their lower jaw side-to-side, in fact they can not.
Now watch how you eat your food. Do you swallow large parts of food whole? Can you move
your lower jaw back and forth (side-to-side), like other vegetarian animals?Some people have noted that humans do not have claws and large canines because we use our
intelligence to make tools which do the killing. This is true, humans did develop tools with
their heightened intelligence and made killing easier. But the original humans ate only
vegetarian foods. This has been scientifically shown through analysis of the fossil records of
their teeth and bone wear. Humans later started to kill and eat meat, but their biological
evolution (physiology) never caught up with their thirst for meat (cultural evolution) and it
shows in the damages it does in terms of heart disease and other problems.Speaking of intelligence, we can use it by rising above base animal instincts of kill or be killed.
We do not need meat for survival like traditional people living solely by nature‘s laws, such as
the Eskimos, or like a pride of lions. We can rise above animals and show moral superiority by
being vegetarian, if we so choose. It is no wonder that the greatest geniuses of all time were all
vegetarian, including but not limited to: Plato, Pythagoras, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin
Franklin, Charles Darwin, Gandhi, and Einstein.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.
―These great sacrifices, fraught with violence, do not bring great fruit. The great seers of right
conduct do not attend that sacrifice where goats, sheep, and cattle of various kinds are slain.
Samyutta Nikaya 3.393-394Once there was a Brahmin who was planning a large sacrifice which consisted of 3,500 animals
of cattle and goats. The Buddha explains to him that a bloodless sacrifice is much better, such as
giving gifts of generosity and practicing the precepts. He explains about a king who practices
sacrifices of generosity for his people and how ―in this sacrifice, Brahmin, no bulls were slain,
no goats, or sheep, no cocks and pigs, nor were various living beings subject to slaughter.
Digha Nikaya 5.18The 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. (Dhammika, Edicts of Ashoka)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 be continued----------yawares
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