The Faults of Meat

1. Canonical Precedents: The Laṅkāvatāra and Mahāparinirvāna Sūtras

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1. Canonical Precedents: The Laṅkāvatāra and Mahāparinirvāna Sūtras

By Geoffrey Barstow

AS THE FOUNDER of the tradition, the Buddha himself holds a particular authority for Buddhist audiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that Buddhist authors frequently cite the words of the Buddha to support their positions. The Tibetan authors translated in this volume are no exception. Even a cursory reading reveals that the texts are full of quotations from canonical scriptures, including a wide variety of both sūtras and tantras.62 While these authors cited dozens of different canonical texts, two particular sūtras stand out, both for the frequency with which they appear and the impact their arguments had on the debates over meat eating in Tibet. These texts are the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra.

The importance of these two sūtras for Tibetan discussions of meat eating cannot be overstated. Quotations from one or both of these sūtras appear in seven of the ten texts translated in this volume, usually more than once. Further, in some cases these quotations are the only argument presented. In his Epistle Benefitting Students, for instance, Ngorchen Künga Sangpo’s entire discussion of meat eating in the Mahāyāna is comprised of a single long quotation from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. Nothing more, it seems, needs to be said. Beyond the quotations themselves, these sūtras provide the basic arguments picked up and used by later authors. They are both Mahāyāna texts grounded in the rhetoric of compassion, and both articulate a vision in which the person consuming meat bears moral responsibility for the death of the animal that provided it. Drawing on this vision, both texts also question the relevance of such non-Mahāyāna doctrines as the rule of threefold purity, asserting that32 this and other permissive attitudes toward meat found in the Vinaya do not apply in a Mahāyāna context. As the texts in this volume make clear, these basic arguments, first articulated in these sūtras, form the foundation of later Tibetan debates over meat.

Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra

Modern scholarship suggests that the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra was composed early in the first millennium CE, most likely during the third or fourth century.63 It is a member—though not a particularly early member—of the Mahāyāna movement, a shift that may have begun as early as the first century BCE and that emphasized compassion for others over the pursuit of personal liberation. Given these dates, scholars broadly agree that the text does not in fact contain the words of the Buddha himself, but that it most likely was the work of more than one later author, probably over several generations.

That said, for Tibetan scholars the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra was understood to be authentic teachings from the Buddha himself. It was included in the Kangyur, the Tibetan canon of texts said to have been spoken by the Buddha, and its status as a sūtra was never, to my knowledge, seriously questioned. Despite what we now know or guess about the circumstances of its composition, for the Tibetan authors included in this volume, the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra was buddhavacana, the authentic words of the Buddha.

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra takes the form of a series of dialogues between the Buddha and the bodhisattva Mahāmati.64 In each scene, Mahāmati asks a question and the Buddha answers it, first in an extended passage in prose and then in a verse summary. Most of these dialogues are focused on Buddhist philosophy, particularly the idea of “buddha nature.”65 It is these discussions33 that have given the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra its great fame, particularly in Zen and other East Asian forms of Buddhism. The extract translated here—chapter 7 of the Tibetan edition—eschews these metaphysical discussions in favor of a straightforward discussion of the ethics of meat eating. It begins with a lengthy request by Mahāmati, asking the Buddha to explain the faults of meat. The Buddha responds by presenting a number of reasons why meat should be avoided. These arguments approach the issue from a variety of perspectives, but at their core they present an ethic of compassion. Eating meat, the Buddha emphasizes over and over, harms animals and must therefore be relinquished. Compassionate bodhisattvas, he points out early on, see all creatures as no different from their own children, so how could they eat them?

It is noteworthy that the Buddha explicitly rejects the idea that eating meat is somehow distinct from the act of killing itself. Many Buddhists, both in India and later in Tibet, argued that it was acceptable to eat meat that they had purchased in the market, since they had neither personally killed the animal nor asked a butcher to kill a specific animal for them. The Buddha rejects this argument. “If someone gives up meat,” he tells Mahāmati, “then animals will not be killed. This is because innocent beings are usually killed for money; other reasons are rare.” Butchers do their work only because people buy meat. So eating meat, the Buddha argues, is economically connected to the act of killing, whether or not the eater has specifically requested that that particular animal be killed.

The prose body of this text concludes with an extended prophesy that future generations would forget his teachings on vegetarianism. “Mahāmati,” he warns, “in the future there will be stupid people who are ordained in my tradition, who call themselves ‘children of the Śākya,’ and who bear aloft the saffron victory banner, but whose minds are spoiled by wrong views. Their ego-clinging will be vast, and they will lust for the taste of meat. Speculating on subtle distinctions in the Vinaya rules, they will find all kinds of justifications for eating meat.” As the texts in this volume demonstrate, this prophesy was not wrong. Many Tibetans did, in fact, argue that eating meat was acceptable, often supporting their claims by pointing to the rule of threefold purity and other permissions found in the Vinaya. In response, those Tibetan authors sympathetic to vegetarianism could—and frequently did—point to this prophesy, suggesting that their interlocutors were not reading the Vinaya honestly but were simply trying to find ways to satisfy their own desire for meat.

Overall, it is not hyperbole to claim that no canonical sūtra or tantra has had a bigger impact on Tibetan views on meat eating than the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. It is cited repeatedly and extensively in most of the texts contained in34 this volume, as well as many other works on meat eating that are not included here. It provides a clear and unambiguous critique of meat eating, along with a nuanced defense of vegetarianism against a variety of objections, all backed by the authority of the Buddha himself.

Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra

Like the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra is a Mahāyāna text, likely composed in the first centuries CE. Again, however, this modern scholarly understanding differs significantly from how the text was understood by traditional Tibetans. In the perspective of the authors whose works are translated in this book, the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra was an authentic sūtra, recording the literal speech of the Buddha himself. It was therefore an authoritative—yet still interpretable—statement of the Buddha’s views.

Also like the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra largely focuses on philosophical ideas such as “buddha nature” and is of particular importance for Zen and other East Asian forms of Buddhism. It takes the form of a dialogue, this time between the Buddha and the bodhisattva Kāśyapa, and the discussion of meat eating and vegetarianism is only a small part of the larger text.

The anti-meat arguments found in the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra align well with those found in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, though they are significantly less extensive and varied. Perhaps the most important point raised in this text concerns the rule of threefold purity. This rule states that monks and nuns are allowed to eat meat as long as they are not personally responsible for the death of the animal. That is, they must not (1) have killed the animal themselves, (2) heard that the animal was killed specifically for them, or (3) even suspect that the animal might have been killed specifically for them. Like the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra but with more elaboration, the Buddha asserts in the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra that he made this rule only to make things easier for those of limited ability and self-control to nonetheless engage with Buddhism. “Kāśyapa,” he explains, “I taught that it was acceptable to eat meat that had been examined in the three ways as a skillful method so people could gradually cut it off entirely.” The rule of threefold purity, in this presentation, is merely a first step on the path to full vegetarianism.

The second half of the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra contains another extended prophesy. Much like the prophesy found in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, this prophesy claims that in future generations people will pervert the Buddha’s teachings. Driven by their desire for the taste of meat, the Buddha says, they will falsely claim that the Buddha ate meat and that he said it was appropriate for his monks to do likewise. “They may wear saffron robes,” he says, “but35 they will be just like hunters. They may walk slowly with downcast eyes, but this is only like a cat chasing a rat.”

Overall, then, the discussion of meat in the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra is strikingly consistent with the one found in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. In both texts the Buddha explains that he allowed meat with threefold purity in the past, but only as a method to ease entry onto the Buddhist path. From now on, both texts claim, meat is no longer allowed. Despite this clear prohibition, however, the Buddha predicts that future generations of monks will pervert these teachings, claiming that meat is allowed and even wholesome.

About the Translations

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra currently exists in a number of different languages and Buddhist canons. In addition to the Tibetan version, there are no less than three extant Chinese translations66 of the text as well as a Sanskrit edition.67 For this translation, I have relied on the Tibetan edition preserved in the Degé edition of the Kangyur.68 I chose this edition because it made sense to translate the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra from the version that would have been known to the Tibetan authors in this volume. There have also been several English translations of the full Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, most prominently including D. T. Suzuki’s classic translation from the Sanskrit69 and Red Pine’s translation from the Chinese (Red Pine relies primarily, but not exclusively, on Guṇabhadra’s Chinese translation).70 The Padmakara Translation Committee has also translated a version of this present chapter on meat eating in Food of Bodhisattvas, where it is quoted by Shabkar as part of his Wondrous Emanated Scripture.71 All of these editions have been open in front of me as I translated the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, and all have been useful when I confronted difficult passages or for suggesting particular phrasing. I am grateful to the work of all of these translators.

Like the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra currently exists in several editions and in several different canons.72 There is no complete extant36 Sanskrit edition, though there are several extant fragments. There are also three complete translations of the text into Chinese.73 More important for readers of this volume, there are two distinct translations of this text contained in the Tibetan Kangyur. The first is much longer, comprising two full volumes in the Degé Kangyur, and was translated by Jinamitra, Jñāgarbha, and Devacandra from the Chinese version originally translated from Sanskrit by Dharmakṣena. The other, much shorter version was translated directly from the Sanskrit by Wang Phan zhun, Gewé Lodrö, and Gyatso Dé.74 Both versions are found in the Denkarma catalog, so they must have been completed by the mid-ninth century.75 The version translated below comes from the longer version of the text, originally translated from Dharmakṣena’s Chinese.76 I have relied primarily on the version contained in the Degé Kangyur, for the same reason as outlined above. While I have translated the longer version of the text here, the Tibetan authors translated in other chapters of this volume also sometimes quoted the shorter version, originally translated directly from the Sanskrit. One significant result of this is that the passages quoted in these texts sometimes have no corresponding passage in the full translation found in this chapter. Despite these discrepancies, I have decided to translate the longer, more extensive version of the sūtra.

There have been several notable translations of the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra into English. Kosho Yamamoto has translated the full text of the so-called southern version of Dharmakṣena’s Chinese translation,77 while Mark Blum has so far completed one volume—including the relevant passage about vegetarianism—of a planned four-volume translation of the same text.78 As with the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Shabkar also cites the entirety of the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra’s discussion of meat in his Wondrous Emanated Scripture,79 drawing on the same, longer version of the sūtra that I translate here. Shabkar’s work, including his quotations from the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra, has been translated by the Padmakara Translation Committee in Food of Bodhisattvas. Again, my work here builds on these earlier translations.


As I have noted repeatedly, these two sūtras are cited extensively by later Tibetan authors. Those authors, however, did not always reproduce the source material with perfect accuracy. In fact, these Tibetan works are full of misspellings, misquotes, and sometimes outright mistakes. Karma Chakmé, for instance, twice attributes quotations from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra to an entirely different text, the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna Sūtra! Throughout this volume, I have tried to translate these quotations in a way that uses language consistent with my translations of the source sūtras (contained in this chapter) while also reflecting the misquotes and idiosyncrasies found in each text.

Finally, I wish to thank the many friends and colleagues who assisted with these translations. In particular, I want to express my gratitude to Anna Johnson and Jörg Heimbel, who offered valuable thoughts and insights on earlier versions, as well as Yangsi Rinpoché of Maitripa University and Khenpo Jorden of the International Buddhist Academy, both of whom generously helped me decipher difficult passages in these texts. Without their help, this translation would remain riddled with errors. Any errors that remain are of course my own.

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