Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More on Vegetarianism...and the Lankavatara Sutra

I'd been going through the Lankavatara Sutra, dealing with a hiatus to deal with a death in the family, and various work related things, but the recent posts on vegetarianism made me remember that the Lankavatara Sutra, Chapter 8, is all about not eating meat.

How can a Buddhist not eat meat when it clearly, clearly says:

Said the Blessed One: Then, Mahāmati, listen well and reflect well within yourself...

Certainly, Blessed One; said Mahāmati the Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva and gave ear to the Blessed One.

The Blessed One said this to him: For innumerable reasons, Mahāmati, the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, is not to eat any meat; I will explain them: Mahāmati, in this long course of transmigration here, there is not one living being that, having assumed the form of a living being, has not been your mother, or father, or brother, or sister, or son, or daughter, or the one or the other, in various degrees of kinship; and when acquiring another form of life may live as a beast, as a domestic animal, as a bird, or as a womb-born, or as something standing in some relationship to you; [this being so] how can the Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva who desires to approach all living beings as if they were himself and to practise the Buddha-truths, eat the flesh of any living being that is of the same nature as himself? Even, Mahāmati, the Rakshasa, listening to the Tathagata's discourse on the highest essence of the Dharma, attained the notion of protecting [Buddhism], and, feeling pity, refrains from eating flesh; how much more those who love the Dharma! Thus, Mahāmati, wherever there is the evolution of living beings, let people cherish the thought of kinship with them, and, thinking that all beings are [to be loved as if they were] an only child, let them refrain from eating meat. So with Bodhisattvas whose nature is compassion, [the eating of] meat is to be avoided by him. Even in exceptional cases, it is not [compassionate] of a Bodhisattva of good standing to eat meat. The flesh of a dog, an ass, a buffalo, a horse, a bull, or man, or any other [being], Mahāmati, that is not generally eaten by people, is sold on the roadside as mutton for the sake of money; and therefore, Mahāmati, the Bodhisattva should not eat meat.

For the sake of love of purity, Mahāmati, the Bodhisattva should refrain from eating flesh which is born of semen, blood, etc. For fear of causing terror to living beings, Mahāmati, let the Bodhisattva who is disciplining himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh. To illustrate, Mahāmati: When a dog sees, even from a distance, a hunter, a pariah, a fisherman, etc., whose desires are for meat-eating, he is terrified with fear, thinking, "They are death-dealers, they will even kill me." In the same way, Mahāmati, even those minute animals that are living in the air, on earth, and in water, seeing meat-eaters at a distance, will perceive in them, by their keen sense of smell, the odour of the Rakshasa and will run away from such people as quickly as possible; for they are to them the threat of death. For this reason, Mahāmati, let the Bodhisattva, who is disciplining himself, to abide in great compassion, because of its terrifying living beings, refrain from eating meat. Mahāmati, meat which is liked by unwise people is full of bad smell and its eating gives one a bad reputation which turns wise people away; let the Bodhisattva refrain from eating meat. The food of the wise, Mahāmati, is what is eaten by the Rishis; it does not consist of meat and blood. Therefore, Mahāmati, let the Bodhisattva refrain from eating meat.

In order to guard the minds of all people, Mahāmati, let the Bodhisattva whose nature is holy and who is desirous of avoiding censure on the teaching of the Buddha, refrain from eating meat. For instance, Mahāmati, there are some in the world who speak ill of the teaching of the Buddha; [they would say,] "Why are those who are living the life of a Śramaṇa or a Brahmin reject such food as was enjoyed by the ancient Rishis, and like the carnivorous animals, living in the air, on earth, or in the water? Why do they go wandering about in the world thoroughly terrifying living beings, disregarding the life of a Śramaṇa and destroying the vow of a Brahmin? There is no Dharma, no discipline in them." There are many such adverse-minded people who thus speak ill of the teaching of the Buddha. For this reason, Mahāmati, in order to guard the minds of all people, let the Bodhisattva whose nature is full of pity and who is desirous of avoiding censure on the teaching of the Buddha, refrain from eating meat.

Mahāmati, there is generally an offensive odour to a corpse, which goes against nature; therefore, let the Bodhisattva refrain from eating meat. Mahāmati, when flesh is burned, whether it be that of a dead man or of some other living creature, there is no distinction in the odour. When flesh of either kind is burned, the odour emitted is equally noxious. Therefore, Mahāmati, let the Bodhisattva, who is ever desirous of purity in his discipline, wholly refrain from eating meat.

Pretty obvious that the writers of this did not want aspirants to eat meat.

There is a kinship with all living things, let there be no mistake about that.

But... it's more complicated than Gary Steiner's vegan views published in the NY Times on Nov. 22.
Some letter writers seem to have echoed some of my sentiments in response, I'd also note.

I'd like to make a few other brief points:

  • This part of the sutra, as the editor/translator noted, and as can be easily seen by appeal to the lengths and styles in subject matter, is clearly a later addition. It is indisputable that at the time the Lankavatara Sutra was written, vegetarian, eating meat was not a paramount concern of the writer(s). It was about as prominent on their radar as gayness and abortion were with Jesus Christ.

  • Now admittedly, someone who was vegetarian did later add this stuff.

  • But...then...I must go to more fundamental issues in Buddhism, as I see it: what do my senses, knowledge, science tell me?

    • Humans clearly evolved as omnivores. This is not something that would have been obvious to the author of this chapter.

    • Humans clearly must carefully consider the effect on the environment of all their actions. That means whether or not eating meat is prohibited by one's self or not, what is not optional is careful consideration of the environmental effects of eating (or not eating) meat.

    • The conundra of an absolutist vegetarian position might boggle the mind. If all animal life is precious, what are we to do with carnivores? Kill them? Let them die by keeping them from their prey so the prey over-reproduce and lead to havoc on their ecosystem? And then there are animals that depend on carnivorousness for their very survival: should we make tapeworms extinct? (HT: PZ Myers) Why not? Aren't they our kin too? (And make no mistake about it, they are.)
    • Finally, to rephrase points made previously, the effects of not eating meat may be worse than eating meat. We know from experiences with wolves in the Western US that removal of predators has dramatic adverse consequences on many many species. The prey may be eaten, but other life forms depend on the predator eating his prey (and not just the predator species.

This is why, I think, many meat eaters don't like it when vegetarians get in their faces, so to speak.

The moral issues are actually more complex than would be made by many vegetarian activists.

What is very, very important for all of us is to reduce our footprint on the planet, and to be mindful of our effect on all living beings.

Happy Thanksgiving.


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