Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Vegetarianism (1)

(For an uplifting, inspirational, insightful and informative talk on the moral need for vegetarianism, please listen to Dr. Will Tuttle (who trained as a Zen monk in Korea) on: 

For Will's own website, please go to:  Will's own piano compositions - played by himself - also provide a fine way of offering up gratitude and thanks to the Buddha as part of Buddha veneration practice.

Additionally, I strongly recommend Dr. Will Tuttle's 2018 book, Buddhism and Veganism, which comprises chapters by various authors (one by myself!) on veganism/vegetarianism. It is an inspiring volume and well worth having.

Also, for a splendid website run by André Kalden,
devoted to vegetarianism and Buddhism and with useful quotations from both sutras and Tantras, please go to: ).

The Nirvana Sutra insists on vegetarianism.  The Buddha declares that eating meat "cuts off the seed of Great Kindness" and that meat and fish should never be eaten by his followers. Another scripture of the Buddha's -  the Lankavatara Sutra -  also inveighs against meat-eating in even more forceful terms. Here is the English version of the relevant lengthy chapter from that sutra by William Bagley, plus his excellent commentary:

A Retranslation of the Eighth Chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra and Commentary

Through Tenabah, copyright 2005




            A retranslation is a revision of an earlier translation.  It is sometimes made by comparing several translations and doing language studies on the meaning of key words and passages.  Usually some poetic license occurs, in the sense that, rather than translate or interpret something for literal accuracy, the rendering attempts to convey the inner sense of the passage in more readable language.  Sometimes, too, older sutras have parts that have been lost or obscured over time.  They are usually included for the sake of historical accuracy and no one knows for sure what was originally meant, though many educated guesses can be made.  A retranslation, focusing more on making the translation readable, flowing, and devotional, interprets and translates those passages in a way that makes sense to those reading it and in some sense sacrifices some accuracy.  Quite often in Buddhist history such retranslations must have been made, because when various versions of the sutras are compared they are different enough so that only one can be the “true original”.  There is some question if there even was a true original, since some sutras were oral traditions long before they were written down and the variations deviated from each other rather early.  Unlike the prophetic traditions which have their scriptures claim to be the voice of an authoritarian god, Buddhism is a religion of seers.  While prophets claim to speak for a god, seers report what their intuitive awareness picks up about reality.  When the god is considered infallible, the scriptures are not deeply questioned in regards to their truth.  But seers have human fallibility and occasionally certain views are further refined over time.  This aspect of Buddhism has allowed it to evolve over the centuries.


            I have relied much on the translation of the Lankavatara Sutra by D T Suzuki (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Hensley 1978).  I have eliminated some but not all of the language redundancies in order to make the text more readable.  I have made different choices in terms of how to translate certain key words.  I have mainly used American words have become the usual translations for Buddhist technical terms.  This will make it easier to link the themes discussed here with other Buddhist writings.  I have streamlined much of the awkward English, breaking up many larger sentences into smaller ones.  I have also occasionally eliminated some small phrases that did not add clarity to what was spoken about.  I have also kept a few outdated passages because they give a clue to when the Sutra was written.  I have also, as much as possible, translated the passages in a gender balanced way.


            The commentary illuminates some passages that show that the Lankavatara Sutra was a later Sutra.  It mentions several other Sutras and therefore must have come historically after those were created.  It also mentions Sutras and an issue mentioned in other Sutras, and therefore comes from a time period when oral traditions were put down in writing.  Many of issues Buddha responds to seem relevant to wandering yogis.  There are some criticisms of other Sutras and a disclaimer that the Buddha wrote them.  This also dates the Sutra.  This particular chapter seems to be about setting the record straight about the issue of vegetarianism.  Mahamati must have communicated to the Buddha in a visionary state or must have gone to meet Buddha at Mount of the Holy Vulture to get information from the Buddha to make this issue clear.


Text and Commentary


1.      Then the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Mahamati asked the Blessed One in verse and made a request:

2.      “Please tell me, Blessed One, Tathagata, Arhat, Completely Enlightened One regarding the merit or demerit of animal flesh eating so that I and other Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas of the present and the future may teach the Dharma to those under the influence of habit energy coming from previous existences as carnivores, who strongly crave to eat animal flesh, and thereby help them to abandon their craving to eat animal flesh.

3.      “These animal flesh eaters may then be able abandon their desire to experience the taste sensation of animal flesh and be able to have the Dharma become their food and enjoyment, and also learn to regard all sentient beings as if they were their only child and thereby cherish all sentient beings with great compassion.

4.      “Through cherishing them with great compassion, they will discipline themselves to move through all the Bodhisattva stages and quickly awaken to supreme perfect enlightenment.

5.      “By learning to cherish animals with great compassion, learning not to kill them and eat them, may even those presently on the path stages of Sravakas and Pretyakabuddhas can eventually become the most advanced Tathagatas.


            The verses of Mahamati are really a summary of all themes that the Buddha will speak about.  There are some interesting subtleties of understanding expressed in these apparently simple and devotional words.  One is that Mahamati does acknowledge previous existences of human beings as carnivores and gives this as the reason why humans crave animal flesh.  Although he is referring to previous incarnations of individuals, there is also a sense that the evolutionary ancestors of humankind in general had a history of animal flesh eating and therefore still crave to eat animal flesh.  It is considered “habit energy” to want to crave animal flesh.  Whatever the reasons why this habit appeared, it is considered something worth abandoning in order to progress towards enlightenment.


            In Mahayana Buddhism, the driving force of the enlightenment process is “mahakaruna” or “great compassion”.  It is meant to be toward all sentient beings and animals are included within range of this compassion.  Compassion cannot be limited to only the human species, or only to one human racial subgroup, or only to friends and family.  In Buddhism, compassion even extends to hungry ghosts, demons, gods, and asuras.


            Even though the path of the Sravakas and Pretyakabuddhas does not emphasize mahakaruna as much as the Mahayana Buddhist path, Mahamati is still concerned for them and has compassion for them.  He does not want people on these paths to be karmaically hindered in their progress through animal flesh eating.  By his concern, he implies that compassion for animals, not killing them, and not eating them, is an essential part of the motivating force that allows one to become completely enlightened.


            Sravakas are pathwalkers who learn mainly through hearing the Dharma teachings and reach a degree of enlightenment through understanding the truth that has been realized by a teacher.  A person reaches Sravaka enlightenment by listening to a Dharma teacher until something clicks inside, restlessness drops away, and you feel inner peace.  This enlightenment tends to not be completely stable, because it is still dependant on words and therefore can get challenged by alternate views which can create confusion.  Through exploring such doubts, asking questions to Dharma teachers, and pondering the answers in his or her experience, this enlightenment can deepen.


            Pretyakabuddhas are pathwalkers who learn mainly through solitary meditation practice.  Their realization tends to be deeper than Sravakas, because the mental fluctuations are calmed more directly and the realization of the truth comes from the depths of their meditative experience.  Yet Pretyakabuddhas are often shaken in their realization when they leave their solitary retreat to connect with people in the world.  The harshness the faults of others can still disturb them and require them to recenter within themselves through more meditation.


            The Mahayana Buddhist path emphasizes great compassion and therefore can stay within the world and not be disturbed by the negativity, greed, and delusions of the world.  Through loving service to the evolution of humankind into complete enlightenment, great compassion can overlook the faults and violence of sentient beings and even use those woundings and irritations as a source of spiritual growth.  Because the weaknesses and negativity of sentient beings challenges the inner peace of a world server, the Bodhisattva develops a deeper nonattachment and a more unshakable peace.


            Mahamati calls the paths of Sravakas and Pretyakabuddhas to be “stages” meaning that he believes that they will eventually become Bodhisattvas who are pathwalkers on the Mahayana Buddhist path.  Even Bodhisattvas can be seen as a stage prior to Vajrayana Buddhist path which uses special skillful means and advanced methods to accelerate the enlightenment process so that it might be completed in one lifetime.


            By calling the main motivation for animal flesh eating to be “habit energy” (vashana), Mahamati points to animal flesh eating as being unnecessary for the further survival and evolution of the human species.  As certain passages unfold, Buddha implies that one can have a body which may even be predisposed to eating animal flesh and that this kind of body can mutate through intention motivated by great compassion.  This may be an important point to consider, since many diet teachers point to features like animal flesh eating enzymes and blood types related to carnivorous ancestors as an attempt to prove that we should be animal flesh eaters.  But just as the intention to eat animal flesh can create enzymes to break down animal flesh and the action of eating animal flesh can create a historical pattern within a certain blood type, we can also depart from our past patterns, both individually and as a species, and not be bound to our previous patterns.


6.      “Blessed One, even worldly philosophers and teachers from other spiritual traditions who are attached to the dualism of being and nonbeing, to nihilism, or to eternalism, will still prohibit animal flesh eating and will themselves refrain from eating animal flesh.

7.      “How much more should the World Teacher, who cultivates the one taste of mercy and who is fully enlightened, prohibit the eating of animal flesh both for himself and for others?

8.      “O Blessed One who has great compassion for the entire world, who regards all sentient beings as his only child, and who is sensitive to the sufferings of all sentient beings, please teach us about the merit and demerit of animal flesh eating so that I and other Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas may teach the Dharma to others.”


            Mahamati goes on to point out that even many world philosophers and teachers from other spiritual traditions who are still attached to limited views still realize the ethical ideal of refraining from killing and eating animals and therefore he expects that the Buddha, who is a world teacher and one who turns the wheel of the Dharma, should not teach anything less than what others have realized.


            Mahamati uses an interesting phrase when he says, “the one taste of mercy”.  It echoes a teaching of the Buddha where he says, “My entire Dharma is permeated by one taste and this taste is freedom”.  Mahamati shares that the entire Dharma is also permeated by the one taste of great compassion.  The “one taste” points to the metaphor of an ocean.  No matter where you taste the ocean it is always salty.  All the Buddhist ethical ideals are based on great compassion and are really applications of this enlightened sentiment to situations we find in the world.  Because this sentiment is part of enlightenment, it suggests an integral connection between the highest enlightenment and the not eating of animal flesh.


9.      Said the Blessed One, “I will share with you, Mahamati, listen well and reflect within yourself.”

10.  “Certainly, Blessed One,” said Mahamati, the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva, and he gave ear to the Blessed One.


            Although these passages seem like an introduction, it is not merely a literary lead in to the discourse of the Buddha.  Many titles are given to the Buddha in the first ten verses.  The term “Blessed One” is the most used and refers to a simple calm happiness which life seems to support with synchronicities and needs being met.  He also has the role of a World Teacher and needs to set into motion the teachings and ideals that humans will find worth emulating so that spiritual evolution can continue.  He is also called an Arhat or worthy one.  This means that he worked to earn his blessed state and therefore can teach others how to do the same.  He does not teach mere theory, but what has worked for him and what has been proven in his life.  He is also called Completely Enlightened which suggests that there are degrees of enlightenment and that his has matured to completion and is therefore without defect.  He is also called a Tathagata.  This term is less clear what it means, but points to a “suchness” beyond what the intellect can grasp.  It implies, too, that he is simply what he is, beyond all mental interpretations and judgments.  Whatever the Buddha is, it is an actual mutation and not merely a person who behaves better or who has a different set of thoughts about life.  Whatever Buddha is, it is sensed by such advanced souls as Mahamati and therefore they are inspired to learn from him.  They feel a respect and devotion to the Buddha because of what he is.  This devotion is a factor in their own enlightenment process.


            The Buddha invites Mahamati to enter into deep listening and reflection.  Mahamati agrees and intentionally directs his listening to the Buddha in this mode.  This kind of deep listening comes from meditation practice and a mental silence that can feel what is said with a silent awareness.  No analytical thought activity or mental commentary is reacting to what is said.  The ordinary chattering mind which usually reacts to what is said with attachment, indifference, or resistance becomes silent.  A deep desire to know, a willingness to be changed through listening, an innate curiosity which wants to know the truth, and an innocence which does not presume in advance what the truth is comes forward when there is deep listening.  Part of this is intending to listen, conjuring this state, and focusing on being attentive to the Buddha.  The other part is “reflection” and means that the listener is following what is said inside his or her own present experience, verifying what is said with intuitive feeling and direct seeing.  This is different from merely memorizing the words and merely decoding what the words mean.  The words are used as a mirror to feel what is true directly, immediately, and intuitively.


11.  The Blessed One shared this with him, “For innumerable reasons, Mahamati, the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, is not to eat any animal flesh.

12.  “I will explain the reasons:  Mahamati, in the long course of transmigration, all sentient beings have been our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, and we have felt many different kinds and degrees of kinship with each and every one of them.

13.  “These sentient beings have been beasts, domestic animals, birds, and humans in different lifetimes and have often been related to us in someway.

14.  “This being the case, how can the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva who desires to respect all sentient beings as he or she would respect himself or herself and who is committed to devotedly practicing the Dharma eat the flesh of any sentient being whose nature is the same as himself or herself?


            Here Buddha goes further than Mahamati.  Whereas Mahamati sees that the karmaic demerit of animal flesh eating hinders the enlightenment process and that animal flesh eating does not develop the compassion of a Bodhisattva to the degree that we treat all sentient beings as if they were our only child, the Buddha points out that all sentient beings have actually been, in many lifetimes, closely related to us, and that we are literally eating friends and relatives that we have had in our past lifetimes.  The Buddha also imbeds the “golden rule” to treat others as we want to be treated.  Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and many other religions, the golden rule is applied to all sentient beings, rather than only to human beings.


15.  “Even, Mahamati, the Rakashasa, when they listened to a discourse on the highest essence of the Dharma by the Tathagata, were inspired to protect Buddhism.  Through this they had awakened to the feeling of compassion, became sensitive to the sorrows of sentient beings, and therefore chose to refrain from eating animal flesh.  How much more should human beings who love the Dharma do the same!

16.  “Thus, Mahamati, whenever and wherever there is evolution among sentient beings, let people cherish the thought of kinship with them, and holding the thought intention of treating them as if they were our only child, and therefore refrain from eating their flesh.

17.  “So much for more should Bodhisattvas, who are committed to being compassionate towards all sentient beings, and whose inner nature is compassion itself, choose to refrain from eating animal flesh.

18.  “For a Bodhisattva to keep good integrity with the Dharma, he or she should not make any exceptions to the eating of animal flesh.  He or she is not to eat the flesh of dogs, donkeys, buffalos, horses, bulls, humans, or any other sentient being whether or not such flesh in generally eaten by some humans in some culture or society.

19.  “Nor should a Bodhisattva eat flesh sold by others for monetary profit.


            The Buddha starts to develop the theme of great compassion and points out that even the Rakashasa, a race of flesh eating demons, when they heard the Dharma, were inspired to give up their habitual diet.  Although this historical argument may sound strange to American ears, it shows how large the worldview of Mahayana Buddhism is.  The Buddha is indirectly pointing out how attached some humans are to their animal flesh eating.  He points to the irony that even flesh eating demons have realized the necessity to stop eating human and animal flesh before many humans have. And even the irony that they also see the connection of refraining from eating animal and human flesh with the Buddha Dharma.  He also brings in the Rakashasa to bring in some relativity.  We would not want our flesh to be eaten by these demons.  Therefore in some sense we stand in the same relationship to these demons as animals stand in relationship to us.


            Up to this point in the discourse, the Buddha and Mahamati have bundled killing and eating of animals as one kind of karma.  The Buddha is now emphasizing that there are no exceptions as to which animals should or should not be eaten, they are all meant to not be eaten.  This is different, again, from many other religions which prohibit the eating of some animals but not others.  The foundation for this nondistinction is the one taste of mercy which radiates compassion on all sentient beings.  The Buddha goes further so say that if someone kills animals, cooks them, and sells their flesh as food for us, that we are still not meant to eat animal flesh.  Even though we do not have the karma of killing an animal, we are rewarding someone for killing an animal so that he or she is encouraged to kill more animals for profit.  This shows that the Buddha was sensitive to social injustice and did not want to encourage social institutions which supported the killing and eating of animals.


20.  “For the sake of the love of purity, Mahamati, the Bodhisattva should refrain from eating flesh which is born of semen and blood.  For fear of causing terror to sentient beings, let the Bodhisattva discipline himself or herself to attain compassion and refrain from eating animal flesh.

21.  “To illustrate, Mahamati:  When a dog sees, even from a distance, a hunter, a sociopath, or a fisherperson, who desires to eat animal flesh, he or she is terrified with fear, thinking, “They are death dealers and will kill even me.”  In the same way, even small animals who live in the air, on earth, or in the water, seeing animal flesh eaters at a distance, will notice them, by their keen sense of smell, the odor of the Rakashasa and will run away from such people as quickly as possible, because they carry the threat of death.

22.  “For this reason, let the Bodhisattva abide in great compassion, and because of the odor that exudes from the skin of animal flesh eaters and because such an odor causes terror, a form of suffering, among sentient beings, he or she should refrain from eating animal flesh.

23.  “Mahamati, animal flesh which is liked by the unwise is full of bad smell and gives one a bad reputation which turns wise people away.

24.  “The food of the wise, which is eaten by Rishis, does not consist of animal flesh or blood.  Therefore let the Bodhisattva refrain from eating animal flesh.


            The Buddha further develops the vegetarian theme and touches upon some Hindu lore.  According to one Hindu story, hinted in the above passage, humans learned to eat animal flesh from demons.  When people do eat animal flesh, their sweat smells differently and this scent can be picked up by many animals.  This is why many hunters and carnivores will stalk animals by approaching them from downwind so their scent does not give notice to the animals that they are near.  The Buddha affirms that animals do think and feel similar to how we think and feel.  They experience terror when they smell a killer come towards them and human hunters are killers to them.  Since terror is a form of suffering and a life in terror is painful to live, encouraging animals to be afraid is very much against having compassion for animals and very much against the Bodhisattva ideal of ending sorrow and the causes of sorrow for all sentient beings.


            The Buddha points to the chemical changes which are produced by animal flesh eating and how it causes terror in animals and bad odor that repels spiritually oriented people.  The odor signals that such a person is a killer of animals even to spiritually sensitive people.  The odor weakens the reputation of such a person among those spiritually sensitive people.  The Rishis were ancient Hindu sages and represent spiritually sensitive people who, although not Buddhists, were respected by Buddhists.  The Lankavatara Sutra seems to have a peaceful and accepting view of Hinduism implied in its message.  The Sutra seems to have a continuum of people at different stages of spiritual evolution.  Vegetarian Rishis are considered wise people and respected for their attainment.  In several passages of other Sutras, the Buddha indicates that some Hindus had attained enlightenment and that many were reborn in the heaven worlds.


            The passages about the chemical changes which are produced by eating animal flesh is important for later themes, because the Buddha will suggest not eating animals which have been accidentally killed, parallel to the road kills that happen in modern times.  This is because of these chemical changes are still produced and because of how one still terrorizes animals through smelling like a killer to them.  There is also the implication that, because a person may develop the smell of a Rakashasa, he or she may become one, given enough persistence in the direction of animal flesh eating, and even going to the point where a person might even crave human flesh as well.


            The theme that a Bodhisattva should refrain from eating animal flesh and therefore not produce an odor that through sweating that terrifies other animals is important because a Bodhisattva has made six vows.  One is to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.  Two is to eradicate all personal karma completely.  Three is to master all the Dharma teachings.  Four is to transcend the duality of nirvana and samsara.  Five is to have compassion on all sentient beings.  Six is to dedicate oneself to the liberation of all sentient beings.  Because these vows apply to all sentient beings, not killing animals, not eating them, and not terrifying them is a logical extension of those vows.