Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Vegetarianism (2)

25.  “In order to guard the minds of all people, Mahamati, let the Bodhisattva whose nature is holy and who wishes to avoid unnecessary criticism of the Buddha Dharma, refrain from eating animal flesh.

26.  “For instance, Mahamati, there are some who speak ill of the Buddha Dharma and say, “Why are those who are living the life of Sramana or Brahmin reject the diet of the ancient Rishis and choose to live like carnivores who fly in the sky, live in the water, or move on the earth?  Why do they wander the Earth thoroughly terrifying sentient beings, disregarding the life of a Sramana and destroying the vows of a Brahmin?  There is no Dharma and no discipline in them.”  There are many adverse minded people who speak ill of the Buddha Dharma in this manner.

27.  “For this reason, Mahamati, in order to guard the minds of all people, let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is full of compassion, who is sensitive to the sorrows of sentient beings, avoid unnecessary criticism of the Buddha Dharma and therefore refrain from animal flesh eating.


            In the above passages, the Buddha develops a theme further by looking at the how the reputation of the Buddha Dharma suffers when practitioners do not live up to certain compassionate ideals.  When people see people who are reputed to live holy lives not living up to certain compassionate ideals, then they will either feel critical of the Buddha Dharma and feel it is a lesser ideal than another religion or they will feel justified in following a lesser ideal and thus perpetuate the suffering of animals by killing them and eating them.  Whatever reasons, for instance, the present Dalai Lama has for still eating animal flesh, even though he has demonstrated nobility, compassion, and idealism in many other areas of concern, he has also been used an example of an animal flesh eating Buddhist and has therefore allowed people to justify their own animal flesh eating habits rather than transcend them [In fairness, however, one needs to add that the Dalai Lama has frequently spoken out with great enthusiasm in favour of vegetarianism and does always advocate it when asked about this topic. -  Dr. Tony Page].


            The above passages refer specifically to how Hinduism would disrespect the Buddha Dharma because it would fall short of one of its time held ideals.  Out of all the religions of the world, Hinduism has been the most consistently vegetarian.  The above passages are an indirect argument against many Buddhists who believe that Buddha did eat animal flesh.  If he had eaten animal flesh, then he would have been disrespected in India.  As a result of his own consistency in this regard, many Hindus consider the Buddha to be an enlightened being, consider him to have been a vegetarian, and have been able to learn from the Buddha Dharma and to incorporate much of what he said into their teachings.


28.  “Mahamati, there is a generally offensive odor to a corpse which feels unnatural, therefore let the Bodhisattva refrain from animal flesh eating.  When flesh is burned, whether of a dead human, animal, or any sentient being, the odor is the same.  When any flesh is burned, the odor smells foul.  Therefore, the Bodhisattva who wishes to keep his or her discipline pure should refrain from eating animal flesh.


            This passage again takes the previous themes and goes deeper.  When people eat animal flesh, it does not merely cause them to have a smell that makes animals run away in terror and does not merely give Buddhism a bad reputation among the Hindus and the people of other religions.  It also causes them to carry corpses inside their own bodies.  People then carry the smell of death inside them.  Here the word “pure” has the implication of pure in terms of consistency of discipline and also the implication that the body itself will feel purer inside if it does not carry the “smell of death” within itself.  The Buddha will now go on to develop this theme even further, by illuminating the more spiritual and deep karmaic results of having eaten animal flesh.


29.  “Mahamati, when sons and daughters of good family, wishing the exercise themselves in various disciplines such as the attainment of a compassionate heart, reciting a magical formula, perfecting magical knowledge, or journeying deeper into Mahayana Buddhist teachings, should go to a cemetery, into a wilderness retreat, or travel near a place where demons visit, or when they sit to do meditation practice, they are hindered because of their eating of animal flesh, and are less able to gain magical powers, be healed of illnesses, or even attain liberation itself.  The Bodhisattva, seeing how animal flesh eating weakens the ability to gain magical powers, the ability to heal oneself and others, and even the ability to become liberated, and also remembering his or her wish to help save sentient beings and heal himself or herself, should therefore refrain from eating animal flesh.


            The Buddha indirectly talks about the spiritual vibration of an animal flesh eater.  It is implied in how one is carrying corpse energy within oneself.  There is then a subtle weakening of the ability to perform magical rites and to attain magical powers.  The vibration attracts demons to oneself on the principle of “like attracts like” and allows them to affect one more.  Although this is a subtle point and harder to prove, one can experiment with diet and feel this vibrational change.  Plants are considered to have physical and etheric bodies, while animals have a physical, etheric, and astral body.  Because the third body is composed of emotional matter, the vibration of animal flesh carries the baser emotions of the animal world which are more survival oriented, territorial, and primitive.  It also carries the vibration of the death of the animal which can have a lot of anger, rage, confusion, sorrow, and terror floating in its emotional energy and hormonal blood chemistry.  It can pull the vibrations of humans downward when they are aspiring to rise to nobler sentiments, to have less fear, and to have greater compassion.  Eating only plants is lighter food and nourishes the basic lifeforce without having denser emotional energies permeating them.  It is considered possible to spiritually evolve as an animal flesh eater, but it takes a little more work, since the animal flesh energy needs to be transmuted.  When we are struggling with similar emotions from our own animal nature, such food tends to reinforce our weaknesses and slow us down.  The Buddha will develop this theme of “corpse energy” even further in this Sutra.


30.  “When even looking at outer forms stimulates a craving for tasting the delicious flavor of animal flesh, let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is sympathetic compassion and who regards all sentient beings as if they were his or her only child, totally refrain from eating animal flesh.


            The Lankavatara Sutra seems to repeat many themes but each repetition is somewhat different in sometimes subtle ways.  Here “outer forms” means sense objects which combine with our sense organs to stimulate sense consciousness and thereby creates our sensory experience.  This stimulation in turn activates our samskaras, our latent habitual tendencies, and brings up a craving to eat animal flesh.  The above passage is about the sixth precept of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is “Right Application” or “Gentle Correction”, and the seventh precept of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is “Right Mindfulness”.  There is also an application of analyzing the Twelve Nidanas, the twelve critical and mutually influencing factors in the chain reaction of sorrow which is at root of our habit energy and our karma.  The key word is “totally”.  What this means is that we need to cut the craving for animal flesh right at the root.  When we notice that a craving has arisen within us, we need to look at the entire pattern of activation with mindfulness, and not even mentally feed our attachments.  The repetition and reminder that the Bodhisattva is compassionate and wishes to treat all sentient beings as if they were his or her only child is part of this “analytical contemplation”.  We are meant to remember why we are choosing to let go of craving animal flesh.


            This passage brings up an important Buddhist theme which is the interdependence of the five skandhas of consciousness, thought, emotion, sensation, and body.  Our emotional experience of compassion can deepen through right mindfulness, right intention, and right thinking.  Since even our bodies are involved in this kind of interdependence, we can eventually mutate our bodies to the point where the cravings completely end and also to the point where our digestive and energy systems can completely operate on plant food alone without feeling deprived in any way.


31.  “Recognizing the mouth will produce a foul odor, even while living this life, let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, totally refrain from animal flesh eating.  Those who eat animal flesh sleep uneasily and when they awaken in the morning are distressed.  They dream of disturbing events that make their hair stand on end.  They are left alone in empty huts.  They live a solitary life.  Their spirits are seized by demons.  Frequently they are struck with terror.  They tremble without knowing why.  There is no order to their eating.  They are never satisfied.  Their diet is not attuned to what is appropriate in taste, digestion, and nourishment.  Their intestines are filled with worms and other impure creatures.  They harbor the causes of leprosy.  They cease to believe that they can become free from all diseases and do not have a clear aversion towards all the causes of diseases.


            This passage talks about how it is compassionate towards oneself to not eat animal flesh.  The passage goes into the many ill effects of animal flesh eating.  The “foul odor” refers back to the smell of corpses.  Because animals have an astral or emotional body, while plants only have physical and energy bodies, we actually eat the emotionality of the animals.  Since animals, especially hunted ones, live in fear, we will sleep more uneasily and have more frightening dreams.  We may not even know why we dream those dreams, because we took them in from the outside.  Being “seized by demons” comes from our attunement and alignment with the hell realms where animal and human flesh is eaten.  Unlike the Christian idea of hell, which is related to being sent somewhere because of the judgment of a personal authoritarian god, the Buddhist hell is related to karma, or causes and conditions which produce effects.  According to Buddhist and Hindu legend, demons were the first to eat both human and animal flesh, and it was they that taught humans how to do the same.  When we copy characteristics of a realm, then we attune and align with its energy.  We open ourselves up to be influenced by such realms.  The hell realm is a place of perpetual warfare and conflict.  It is a place where anger issues are processed.  The intense burning up of adrenal hormones creates a stronger craving for proteins and therefore the temptation to eat animal flesh is increased.  Because of such intense cravings, there is no sense of balance and appropriateness in the diet and cravings are never satisfied.


            The passage goes into rather gory detail about what happens in the intestinal track.  Although the passage may seem extreme, the observations are true and can be verified.  If you place some uncooked animal flesh on a kitchen counter, in about twenty four hours it will be squirming with maggots.  The creatures called “flies” are meant to lay eggs on corpses and use them for food, and animal flesh is corpse flesh.  Plants have a different cellular structure and do not live and die like animals.  They are not yet individual sentient beings and therefore they are not part of the transmigration of sentient beings through the six worlds.  With many plants, the leaves are harvested and the plant can remain alive after harvesting.  The action of artfully harvesting some plants can actually improve the health of a plant, particularly when the lower leaves are pruned first.  A plant can also be cut into two and both sections can become full plants in their own right with proper care.  With animals, they must be killed to be eaten and chopping off a limb does not help them.


            Cooking animal flesh does at least partly sterilize the food and some of these concerns may be partly obsolete.  But there is still the development of an acidic internal environment and the attraction of bacteria that thrives in this kind of environment and which is not beneficial to our health.  Inspite of cooking doing some sterilization, some bacteria are very immune to attempts to kill them off and survive anyway.  Since animals and humans are very similar physiologically, many illnesses are transmitted from animals to humans and visa versa.  Since conventional medicine assumes that animal flesh eating is normal and okay to do, there has not been extensive mapping of the cause and effect chains which link many diseases to animal flesh eating.  Yet there are many individual reports which seem to add up to an extensive connection.  Many animal flesh eating religious cultures have had prohibitions against the eating of certain animals.  They may have linked these animals to specific diseases being transmitted to humans.  Many healers within those religious traditions have defended the prohibitions against eating certain animals with this kind of reasoning.


            Because we are eating corpses when we eat animal flesh, we will lose our clarity about what is healthy and what is not healthy.  We will tend to eat many things, like too much sugar, that we know is not healthy for us.  Energetically, there is a big difference between eating fresh plants, as in a salad, and eating cooked animal corpses.  When we honor our own health more deeply, then we start getting attuned to what is healthy and what is unhealthy.  We regain our healthy aversion towards all diseases and the causes of all diseases.  When we eat animal flesh, we may have accepted illness and death more than we may realize.  We have actually based our survival on the death of sentient beings.


32.  “When I teach to regard animal flesh eating as if it were the eating of an only child or as an intoxicant, how can I allow my disciples to eat food consisting of flesh and blood, which is gratifying to the unwise and which is shunned by the wise, which brings about much harm and keeps away many benefits?  Animal flesh eating was not part of the wisdom of the ancient Rishis and was not meant to be appropriate food for any human being.


            The phrase “intoxicant” refers to the fifth subprecept of fourth precept of the Noble Eightfold Path.  In this passage, the Buddha links the Mahayana motivation of compassion (treating animals as if they were our only child) with the basics of the Hinayana path.  The Buddha is showing that we are meant to keep to the basic precepts as we advance to higher and higher realizations.  The exact precept in question reads thus, “Not to intoxicate the body, but to keep the mind calm and clear”.  The passage is also clear that animal flesh eating is an addiction, since the fifth precept is traditionally about ending addictions to such things as drinking alcohol or taking any substance that hurts our mental clarity.  Therefore animal flesh is being considered as addiction that is meant to be overcome.  Like an addiction, we can get some level of good feeling from temporarily satisfying our craving, but the long term effects are unwholesome.  The Buddha one time shared that all obstacles are overcome by “wisely contemplating them and wisely abandoning them”.  This means that there is always a free choice element in each step along the path.  We are meant to wisely contemplate what we are doing and wisely abandon what is unwholesome.


            The basic points made so far can be summarized as follows:


(1)   Animals are sentient beings like humans, hungry ghosts, demons, asuras, and devas are therefore meant to be included in our “moral universe”.

(2)   The basic ethical precept within our compassion is to “treat others the way we wish to be treated” and therefore we do not eat animals.

(3)   Even for selfish reasons, there are ill effects of animal flesh eating.

(4)   Even for the animals that are not eaten, our odor changes so that we induce terror in them.

(5)   Animal flesh eating is an addiction or intoxicant that hurts our mental calm and clarity.


            The Buddha adds another reason which is less general than the above.  He wants those who take refuge in his teachings, his disciples, to refrain from animal flesh eating.  The way he talks in the above passages makes artful links to various aspects of his general teachings.  It is clear that he believes not eating animal flesh is part of following these teachings.


33.  “Now, Mahamati, the diet I have allowed for my disciples to take is satisfying to all wise people but is avoided by the unwise.  This diet produces many merits, keeps away many harmful effects, and was prescribed by the ancient Rishis.  It comprises rice, barley, wheat, kidney beans, beans, lentils, clarified butter, oil, honey, molasses, treacle, sugar cane, coarse sugar, and similar foods.  Food prepared with these ingredients is proper food.

34.  “Mahamati, there maybe irrational people, who under the influence of the habit energy of carnivorous races, who will strongly crave the taste of animal flesh.  The above mentioned diet is not prescribed for these people.

35.  “Mahamati, above mentioned diet is prescribed for those Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas, who have made offerings to the previous Buddhas, who have planted the roots of goodness, who are possessed of faith, who are devoid of prejudices, who are all males and females belonging to the Sakya family, who are sons and daughters of good families, who have no attachment to body, life, and property, who do not crave sweets, who choose to live a life without greed, who have the compassionate desire to cherish all sentient beings as much as themselves, and who loves all sentient beings as if they were his or her only child.


            The exact details of the diet recommended by the Buddha are not given and may be meant to be refined through mindfulness.  When we stop eating animal flesh and food cravings in general, then our bodies regain the sense of what is wholesome and appropriate for us, especially when we cut off the craving at its mental roots within us.  There is a general recommendation of an Aryurvedic diet, a dietary system common to both Hinduism and Buddhism.  The term “Ancient Rishis,” in this context, seems to refer to those who originally taught Aryurveda.  What is part of this system is a sense of balance and proportion in what we eat.  There are vegans in present time who have gone further to question the use of clarified butter and milk yogurt, which are still animal products and may sometimes be a subtle form of stealing.  Some have even questioned the use of honey, the harvesting of which may cause sorrow for the bees and may also be stealing from them.  In my own experience, I find that some clarified butter, honey, yogurt and maybe even a few fresh unfertilized eggs from free range chickens (as opposed to those chickens who are kept in cages in factory farms and who are suffering nearly all the time) may be good as part of a transition away from animal flesh eating, later to be abandoned when our inner sensitivity guides us further.  During this transition, however, a sense of balance and proportion is very important, since overconsumption of these foods can cause mucus congestion and result in ill heath.


            What is interesting in the above passages is that the Buddha does not prescribe the diet to anyone who is not part of the “Sakya family” and talks about “carnivorous races” whose addiction to eating animal flesh is so strong as to make them irrational.  This teaching is wise in that those who understand the simplicity of what Buddha is sharing will make the shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet.  But when people are under the influence of animal flesh craving, the teachings may not find a receptive place in them to hear what is said.  The Buddha suggests that we are not meant to try to teach people who are too attached to animal flesh eating.  This is wise advice in that our lives will be simpler and we will engage in fewer arguments with people.  When there is a strong attachment affecting the mind, then such arguments are generally very unproductive.  People may need to undergo a healing crisis or a change of heart before they are ready to take vegetarianism seriously.  There are times when the influence is weaker on people, like when they realize that a pet is very sensitive to what is going on and cares for beings in ways similar to humans, or sometimes even better (as when a pet dog sacrifices its life to save its human caretaker).  In times like these, sometimes a kind of fog lifts from the human conscience and there is a simple knowing that animals deserve to live and not suffer.  These are moments when the compassion of Buddha nature shines through the veils of obscuration, even beyond reasonings for and against eating animals.  When a person is present in those moments, they can understand what the Buddha is saying to them, because they own inner illumination is confirming this to them in their own feeling nature.


            There is also the suggestion that we become sensitive to how our previous membership in the “carnivorous races” may make animal flesh eating feel more acceptable than it really is.  When our bodies are used to a certain diet and we have inherited a long term karmaic and biological tendency from our ancestors, we are more able to be complacent about what we are doing.  It is a kind of unconsciousness that dulls us from feeling what we are doing when we are eating animal flesh and dulls us even from feeling what is happening inside us.


            Another point implied in the theme about our previous membership in “carnivorous races” is that we do have a past history and tendency to crave for and eat animal flesh within our generational karma.  There are some diet proponents in modern times who advocate that we should align with our past traditional diets or past evolutionary diets, to eat a certain way because of our blood type or gland type requires us to eat animal flesh. These diets are based on the logical fallacy that “what was should be” and assume that we cannot change our dietary orientation through compassion, skill, intention, sensitivity, and mindfulness.


            The Buddha taught that our life is composed of five interdependent, mutually influencing, and mutually modifying “skandhas” (consciousness, thought, emotion, sensation, and body).  From the long historical vantage point of the Buddha, the body changed into an animal flesh eating one and therefore can also change into vegetarian one.  The mechanism involved was how our skandhas help each other to change.  When we have a craving inside us, then our bodies mutate to help us fulfill our cravings.  Our bodies, to support animal flesh eating, will produce animal flesh specific enzymes to break down those tissues, increase the amount of acid produced in the stomach, and put more effort into eliminating the toxins produced by digesting animal flesh.  Sometimes these changes are too much for the body to handle at any given time.  Imbalances and illnesses can then happen.  Sometimes a person may feel somewhat weaker when becoming a vegetarian, even though many good changes are happening to them, because the body is in shock and is not used to processing the new diet.  This is why it may be wise to have some eggs and some dairy during the transition to a full vegan diet.  These are ways of getting some animal protein without killing any animals.  At some point the human body gains a “second wind” and finds it has transitioned to being fully able to utilize vegan food as its sole source of food.


            Besides the body adapting itself directly to new foods, the body also makes subtle changes when our emotional life radiates compassion and our mental life cultivates contemplative wisdom.  Our glands function differently when we are driven by our cravings and when we are motivated by altruistic compassion.  When we contemplate being compassionate towards animals, understand its logic, uproot any obscuring thoughts to our clarity about the issue, and intentionally commit to being vegan, then this new thought energy also changes how our bodies function.  Our skandhas are constantly influencing each other in this manner.


            This way of looking at our bodies is more dynamic than assuming that the body is a substantial thing with immutable characteristics.  The body is seen as an ever changing aspect of our total life which is influenced by other skandhas which are also changing.  The skandhas are always influencing each other moment to moment, influencing its material environment and being influenced by its material environment, and unfolding within universal law depending upon what we think, say, and do.  The body is more like a stream of sensory and motor states connected to a historical flow.  Moment to moment the body can be seen to undergo many changes.  It has been a zygote, a baby, a child, a teenager, a young adult, an aging adult, and a dying adult.  It has been energetic, tired, healthy, sick, alert, dull, clear, dull, heavy, light, small, big, youthful, and decaying.  Every mental and emotional state affects it and in turn it affects our mental and emotional states.


            The understanding of “dependant origination”, how causes and conditions create us and how we create causes and conditions is deeply foundational to what Buddha taught.  In some of the Theravadin sutras, the Buddha even implies that if anyone understood dependant origination from direct living experience, then they would understand his entire dharma.  Feeling the web of interdependence we always live within is considered the basis for having compassion for all sentient beings.  It allows us to feel our oneness and kinship with all of life.  Because this compassion emerges naturally when we feel the truth of interdependence and since compassion for all sentient beings is the basis for being vegetarian, then not eating animal flesh is in some sense more natural to our bodies.  Even though it has mutated into an animal flesh eating body, it has the capacity to return to being vegetarian again.  It has a cell memory of its earlier and healthier state within its long evolutionary history.


            Dependant origination allows us to understand how we can change into an eater of animal flesh and how we can change into a vegetarian.  We do not have to be limited by our past social and biological conditioning.  The second precept of Eightfold path is about “right intention” or “right commitment”.  We can, through thought intention supported by the other seven precepts, take responsibility for our lives, honor our conscience, change our karma, and become enlightened.  We are not doomed to repeat the past.  We always have enough free choice on the level of thought to introduce new influences into our karmaic pattern and change our lives for the better.  We do not have to assume that our blood type or our gland type determines how we must eat.  It only shows how our ancestors ate in the past and what they were used to eating.  In a similar manner, how we eat now will influence the kind of blood and glands that we pass on to our children.  The long earlobes that the Buddha is seen to have had are a sign of many generations of vegetarian eating, just as very short earlobes are a sign of many generations of animal flesh eating.


            The Long Life Empowerment in Tibetan Buddhism, involving invoking Amitayus Buddha, doing specific visualizations, chanting certain mantras, and doing certain rituals has been known to lengthen the life line in the palms.  Some people have felt their palms tingle with a specific sensation as their life lines extend.  In a similar manner, mental and emotional changes created through contemplation of compassion for animals and a commitment to not eat them can also shift how our bodies relate to our diets.  We can accelerate our mutation into a fully functional and effective vegetarian diet through this kind of intentional inner focus.


            There is a further point implied in these passages.  The decision to stop eating animal flesh is not meant to be taken in isolation from “taking refuge in the Dharma” and even undergoing initiation into Mahayana Buddhist practice.  The phrases “making offerings to the previous Buddhas” and “planting the roots of goodness” are a short hand for certain initiation processes.  When compassion is generated through specific initiations and cultivation practices, then due to the interdependence of thought, emotion, and body, our bodies will more rapidly change so that animal flesh cravings will no longer exist and so that we can more effectively digest plant foods.


            When we become members of the “Sakya family”, we are actually mutating our minds and bodies into a new race.  We no longer belong to the “carnivorous races”.  When the Lankavatara Sutra was written the theory of evolution and the science of biology did not exist.  The Buddha could not explain the spiritual life in terms of biological and evolutionary mutation, even though many teachings seem to imply that the Buddha underwent a radical shift in his biology.  He is said to have gained mastery over life span, had a completely balanced hormone system (as evidenced by the “32 marks” which are considered biological signs of his enlightenment and which show a balance of male testosterone and female estrogen and as well as possibly all hormonal and neurotransmitter chemical polarities), and had long earlobes (traditionally a sign of being a part of a family lineage of many generations of vegetarianism).


            The “Dharma matrix” is meant to support the renouncing of eating animal flesh and the cultivation of a vegetarian diet.  In many passages, there are applications of the basic teachings of the Buddha to this intention.  From the passage being presently considered, it is clear that the Buddha considered his overall teachings to be a support for being vegetarian and the ideal of being vegetarian as part of his teaching.  He further emphasizes that the practice of being vegetarian, although wise and possible in and of itself, is meant to be practiced within the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path and the Mahayana Buddhist vows.  Part of this is very practical, because Buddha seemed to know that going beyond the craving for animal flesh has its challenges.  He points out that the habit energy for craving animal flesh is within “the carnivorous races” (nearly all the races that form the human species) and therefore represents a biological karma that we inherit from our ancestors.  Since it is an addiction that we are literally born into when we incarnate into most human families and since all addictions are irrationally defended in countless ways, we will need to contemplate the habit energy at its depths within our subconscious mind and will need the support of the total Dharma to replace this motivation with a more altruistic compassion.  This explains why many people who try vegetarianism often do not continue beyond a certain point.