Vegetarianism and Theravada Orthodoxy
(Everything you know about Buddhism is wrong)
Buddhism does have an ancient canon that can be treated as preserving (however imperfectly) the philosophy of the Buddha, and it is to that canon that questions of “What did the Buddha teach about ______?” should be directed. Unfortunately, the misconceptions about what the canon is (and isn’t) continue to hamper even the most straightforward of such questions (along with the habitual dishonesty of the small number of scholars who actually have access to that canon).
The question of “What did the Buddha say about Vegetarianism?” should be straightforward, but (for a long list of reasons discussed in this article) it isn’t. I would emphasize that the problem is not the ambiguity of the source texts themselves. As with the salience of Santa Claus to Christmas, the ambiguities have arisen from many successive centuries of new stories and new excuses arising. Unlike Christianity, however, the vast majority of people who are now offering new excuses (i.e., in the current generation) do not have the ability to read the Buddhist equivalent of the Old Testament. The blind are indeed leading the blind (both in robes, and without them).
A large part of the canon is concerned with monastic rules; it is very easy for readers (and preachers) to misrepresent how these apply (if at all) to the lives of laypeople, or to “society” in aggregate. They aren’t social rules; they aren’t laws meant to govern a kingdom; but, in fact, Buddhist kingdoms do have a long history of attempting to re-interpret monastic rules as the basis for secular law. It’s absurd to try to create divorce law out of a set of principles set down for celibates sharing property within a monastery; however, this type of absurdity was common (e.g., in pre-modern Burma) because of the assumption that the monastic rules represented a higher authority (that secular law could be compared to). In the contemporary context, the questions surrounding vegetarianism are especially absurd in this respect: rules that boil down to “beggars can’t be choosers” (and monks are indeed supposed to live as mendicants) don’t apply easily to the class of people who are supposed to be both donors and “choosers”. If we’re talking about laypeople, “vegetarianism” is a question of violence and non-violence applied to one’s own diet, one’s own shopping, and, possibly, the management of one’s own land or farm; this is an ethical category that doesn’t exist for monks, and inferences about it can’t easily be made from rules that governed monks’ acceptance (or rejection) of alms.
It is very easy for authors to misrepresent the source of their quotations (if they use quotations at all) partly because they can omit the audience addressed in the original source: was the Buddha setting down a rule for monks, or a platitude for laypeople? Is the source a sub-commentary to the vinaya (i.e., the monastic rules) written more than a thousand years after the Buddha died, or is it from the ancient dialogues that are as close as we’ll ever come to the recorded words of the Buddha? Is the source a philosophical dialogue in which all parties are very serious, or is it a jocular story that was written for the entertainment of children? The canon contains all of this diversity and more, and it is very easy to misrepresent a excerpt from one context as if it belonged to another.
What does the Buddha say about vegetarianism? The first part of the answer is that you need to know where to look (in the texts) for the answer, and, just as important, you need to be keenly aware of the excuses and misdirections that will distract you from what the texts say (and what they don’t say). The second part of the answer won’t be found in this article: anyone can work with the raw materials themselves and, in writing this blog, I am refusing the role of the guru (i.e., I’m not offering any easy answers, just answers).
It isn’t sufficient to cite “the Pali canon”, because the meaning of the word “canon” isn’t precise enough, and, believe it or not, the term allows quite a lot of ambiguity for scholars to deceive their readers. In my recent article (supposedly in print by now) “Problems of Canon and Reason” I provide a fairly lengthy explanation of what the historical segments of the canon really are (in contrast to misconceptions and some scholarly bafflegab) and I’ve proposed the term “the core canon”, to provide a rapid reference to a certain category of texts.
Anyone reading this (who hasn’t already seen the longer work that I’m alluding to, “Canon and Reason”) would be justifiably apprehensive for two reasons: (1) Why would we possibly need a new term to be coined? (2) Why should we trust your claims about historical layers of the text, when so many scholars lie about this very issue, as you yourself repeatedly complain (and warn the reader about) in your published work?
Of course, the answer to number 1 is partly just entailed by number 2: we need a new (and simple) term to clear away the confusion of a lot of junk scholarship, and intentionally-misleading bafflegab. The nature of the category I’ve created (with the term “the core canon”) is so simple that you can easily make up your own mind as to whether you find it credible or not (and, again, read “Canon and Reason” for details, whenever it shows up as a PDF on the internet —the published version on paper is probably hard to find outside of Taiwan). To simplify something that’s already simple: there has never been any question that the first four Nikāyas belong to a separate category of texts from the fifth (however, we have been lacking an English a name for that category).
It’s grossly dishonest for scholars to talk about the most ancient part of the canon as if it were identical to (or contiguous with) commentarial literature written 1000 years later, on the other side of the ocean that separates India from Sri Lanka; frankly, I think it’s dishonest to treat the Abhidhamma literature as if it belonged in the same category as the first four Nikāyas also. Within what is commonly called “the canon”, not everything is equally canonical, and this is not an alien, European perspective, but in fact one that was expressed by monks in antiquity (again, this is discussed at length in “Canon and Reason”). Philosophical dialogues of the Buddha (in the first four Nikāyas of the Sutta-pitaka) were not regarded as equivalent in religious authority to magical stories of the Buddha’s prior incarnations in the Jātakas —i.e., neither in the eyes of ancients nor of moderns— and the Jātakas are indeed a part of the fifth Nikāya.
This doesn’t mean that the Jātakas are of zero historical significance (quite the contrary), but it does mean that you have to be careful about lumping them into one category with all of the other Pali texts. The same could be said of post-canonical Pali literature, much of which is extremely historically significant (the vaṃsa literature, etc.) but cannot answer the question of “What did the Buddha teach about ______?” The texts reflect the assumptions of their respective eras of authorship, and the philosophies of their respective authors. Although there are exceptions, very often the authors did not intend for their works to be taken as “fraud” (e.g., many portions of the Abhidhamma were not written with any pretense of being the direct words of the Buddha, although myths were subsequently invented to sanctify them all wholesale, and this tendency was so strong that it is a wonder that we have any texts like the Milindapañha that openly admit themselves to be of separate, later authorship).
To find the answers to different types of questions we have to direct our attention to different textual sources (that are, indeed, written in different periods, and sometimes in different places, too). I’m also arguing (inconveniently) that we need to read long tracts of text before we come to our conclusions, and not short excerpts taken out of context.
Suppose we were to refer the question of vegetarianism to the Jātakas, what would we find? There was an interesting article written on this matter over one hundred years ago (we’re catching up with 1906 here):
E. Washburn Hopkins, “The Buddhistic Rule Against Eating Meat”, JAOS [Journal of the American Oriental Society], 1906, Vol. 27 part 2, p. 455–464.
Despite the title, what’s striking (and still useful) about this article is not what it says about the Vinaya rules, but what it says about Jātaka sources (surveyed by the author, starting on p. 461).
What that survey shows is that the authors of the Jātakas regarded meat-eating as normal: that doesn’t meant that it was morally good, and it doesn’t mean that the Buddha taught that it was morally good. Indeed, the scenes and dialogues that Hopkins surveys are not cases of the Buddha preaching about anything: they are simply the depiction of meat-eating in passing in the context of Buddhist religious literature. In some ways, evidence of this kind may be more important than statements of principle; in other ways, less so.
To offer an example: the Ucchaṅga Jātaka tells the story of a woman who is asked to choose between saving her son, her husband and her brother, if two of the three were to be executed. She chooses to save her brother, on the grounds that “the two others were replaceable” (Malalasekera, q.v. Ucchaṅga). Let us be very clear: this was a story written primarily for the purposes of entertainment, and nobody in their right mind would surmise that the Buddha set down as a rule/principle that that you ought to save your siblings and let your spouse and husband die in such circumstances. Such an attribution to the Buddha (or even to “Buddhism” more generally) would be absurd; and such absurdities are now normal, partly because of the over-arching misunderstanding of what the structure of the canon is, and where we need to look for the answers to various types of questions.
We should not assume that the authors contributing to this set of texts (the Jātakas) were keenly aware of what was said in another set of texts nor of how the two sets of texts might contradict one-another. There is no reason to suppose that the author of a story about the Buddha’s prior incarnation as a monkey would think, “I should first check this against the philosophical dialogues of the first four Nikāyas to ensure ideological consistency” —nor is there any reason to think this would really be possible in an era of palm-leaf manuscripts (when the only index was memorization). Further, if the purpose of the genre is not to set down the Buddha’s philosophy (nor rules of monastic conduct, nor rules of laypeople’s ethics) we should not look to it expecting this function: it’s the right place to seek the answers to certain types of questions (such as what “normal” society looked like in the era of the text’s authorship) and it is the wrong place to look for others.
This type of dysjuncture between textual sources is real, and it is saddening to me that many Buddhists want to deny it, to instead pretend that the whole of the extant literature is a homogenous whole (or that it forms a single diatribe). In many cases, it is a demonstrable fact that the authors of “Vinaya stories” (illustrating rules of monastic conduct) were not aware of the meaning of the rule that they were supposed to be illustrating. When I studied the grammar of Kaccāyana (a much shorter volume) I could even find such misunderstandings between historical layers of the text there (i.e., a rule written in one period would be exemplified, incorrectly, by a layer of text added by some other author, in some other generation, who didn’t quite understand the first author’s point).
I’m not sure that anyone knows how the story of Santa Claus (drinking Coca Cola on a rooftop) is supposed to relate to the core doctrines of Christianity; I’m pretty sure that nobody in ancient Palestine had ever seen a reindeer, nor that they had any concept of “the north pole”. The stage we have yet to advance to (in the western perception of Buddhist sources) is the detachment to say “So what?” when we encounter cleavages between texts that are of separate authorship and very separate thematic concern (sometimes separated by centuries, sometimes by continents, and so on). If we stop reading quotations out of context, and start reading whole texts, these dysjunctures simply become “normal”, because they are part of the structure of the canon itself.
Why is this so difficult? One reason is the countervailing belief in the omnipotence of the authors. I have met a PhD-wielding western academic who said with a straight face that she considered medieval Jātaka stories (that were written as original compositions in Thailand) to be authentic and accurate descriptions of historical events that transpired many centuries earlier in India, because she assumed that the authors had achieved omnipotence through meditation. I do not think that her published work states any such belief so openly. To be clear, the class of literature we’re talking about here is referred to as “apocryphal Jātakas”, but they are only “apocryphal” in the sense that they have no connection to ancient India, and are original works of fiction variously composed in Thailand, Burma, or elsewhere. Some of these works make no attempt to deceive their reader as to their place and era of their writing; others do.
If you really believe in the omnipotence of authorship, then you can never know what the Buddha said about vegetarianism, nor the answer to any such simple question: you’re stuck with the absurd assumption that stories intended as childrens’ entertainment in the Jātakas are just as authoritative as the philosophical dialogues of the core canon. Worse, you’re forced to treat the original source text as equally authoritative as its commentaries, written a thousand years later, by mere mortals who were struggling to interpret a language that was already ancient to them. If the authors of all eras are presumed to be omnipotent, then the textual sources of any one era can never make sense. This is a real bias and belief amongst modern interpreters, and I can honestly say that I have never heard it expressed openly by a person of Asian ethnicity (i.e., I have only observed it among westerners).
We can’t expect to find an accurate description of Santa’s reindeer in the Old Testament, and, vice-versa, we can’t expect the inventors of the myth of Santa Claus to know much about camels in ancient Palestine.
The misgivings that I have in writing about this subject aren’t at all the same as those expressed by some of my contemporaries (both secular and monastic, both in their publications and in private correspondence). Fundamentally, I’m uncomfortable with the distortion of ancient Buddhist sources to satisfy modern expectations; distortion of this kind often starts with the posing of the question itself and then proceeds through the selection of sources to suit the bias of the question.
If you’re asking about “ecology” (a modern concept) you’re not asking about the spirits of deceased ancestors inhabiting the trees (are you?). In the answers that modern scholars concoct to satisfy “leading questions” of this kind, you may have the misrepresentation of one thing as another, partly just to fulfill the criteria built into the question. Vaguely alluded to, badly translated, and indirectly quoted, the worship of ancestral spirits thus comes to misrepresented as bronze-age environmentalism, for the dubious benefit of a modern audience.
Although it’s strange to say, I think the problem is similar amongst those who are actively engaged in constructing a “scientistic Buddhism” (i.e., despite the supernatural material found throughout the texts) and amongst those who throw themselves into an uncritical belief in the supernatural. Both types engage with the history (or “the extant literature”) through the scraps of texts that reach them through the selective translation of their respective gurus. People don’t read Shakespeare this way, and they don’t see Shakespeare performed this way (not even in Japanese translation); and yet people form fixed opinions about the totality of Buddhist doctrine based on very short selections (often suffering from overly-vague translation) that some biased source had selected on their behalf. Even if you read a very sober and unbiased collection of philosophical quotations from Shakespeare you would have a very strange sense of what that literature is (and how it once existed for its own audience, in its own time) by relying upon such extracts. It would probably be possible to concoct a doctrine of “ecology” from the selective use of whatever Shakespeare said about forests and trees —especially if we translated it back and forth a few times. However, Shakespeare spoke English: the Buddha didn’t.
To draw an example from a very different discipline, I was reminded of this problem by the following comments in a recent issue of The Economist:
“[A disaster at N.A.S.A. in 2003 was in large part blamed on] the debris-assessment team’s presentation to higher-ups using Powerpoint Software. Information had been poorly condensed onto 28 slides. On one cluttered slide the words ‘significant’ and ‘significantly’ were used five times with a range of meanings from ‘detectable in a perhaps irrelevant calibration case study’ to ‘an amount of damage so that everyone dies’ […]”.*¹
Indeed, I’ve seen interpretations wherein five different concepts in Pali are all translated as “meditation” in English, with no definition of what the interpreter means by the English word, nor any justification for this concealment of real differences in the original Pali.
The article in The Economist then summarizes the thesis of a book by Edward Tufte titled The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: presentations of this kind present information as “verb-less phrases assembled into bogus bullet-point hierarchies”.*¹ I haven’t read Tufte’s work, but this reminded me immediately of the tendency that now dominates the English-language approach to Buddhism (and Buddhist philosophy especially).
I have many times encountered people who are willing to believe that Shakespeare stillpresents serious problems of interpretation for scholars to pore over, but who respond with real hostility at the suggestion that anything similar could be true of the most ancient texts of Buddhism. It is a matter of dogma, and the less people read of the content in its original context, the easier the dogma is to believe.
The nebulous “bullet-point hierarchy” of principles extracted from their original contexts (and cultures) can be made to say almost anything —and very often are so vague and poorly-phrased that they mean almost nothing. As with the powerpoint presentation (in the executive context), the very vagueness (and verblessness) of these sentence-fragments seems to instill a misleading sense of confidence in the reader, perhaps because the format defies the type of scrutiny applied to the normal use of language in dialogue. People who can read no language except English are very confident in telling me that I’m wrong about everything that I’ve seen in Pali, often citing their own reading of such short extracts (as “definitive”), whereas, from my perspective, the sources they rely upon are often of very dubious provenance, and are of equally dubious application to the concerns of the modern reader.
What do I mean by warning that a quotation may have “dubious application” to modern concerns? You are never going to find an ancient text that addresses our modern notion of “vegetarianism” for the same reasons that you’ll never find a text that addresses the modern notion of “ecology”, or, for that matter “abortion”. Meanwhile, to be sure, “Buddhism and Abortion” is a subject that fills publications (and perhaps pews) just as surely as “Buddhism and Vegetarianism” does. They’re modern questions, proceeding from very alien sets of cultural assumptions; the definition of the question itself may exclude some of the genuinely salient material in the canon.
This entails a mismatch with an ancient religion that considered it a good deed to wash-out a bowl in a pond, not because the bowl got cleaned, but because the dregs washed off the bowl would provide food for the creatures living in the pond. [A.N. vol. 1, BJT p. 288–290] This reflects a fundamentally different set of assumptions from a modern person who may become vegetarian for medicinal reasons, and, in fact, I would say it is also different from those who now adopt the diet for the sake of their “supernatural health” (i.e., for the sake of what is now meant by “good karma” in common parlance).
Either you’re willing to read the remnants of an ancient (and very alien) culture with an open mind, or you’re not. The taboo against cutting down trees for religious reasons cannot easily be equated with ecology; when the first European travelers reached Bangkok, they found that only men who were already convicted of serious crimes were willing to cut down large trees (but the cultural adaptation to this circumstance was, apparently, to employ convicts in so doing). Similar issues of mismatched expectations would arise if anyone were sincerely looking at passages on non-violence (in diet and deed) in the Pali canon.
Almost none of the current discourse surrounding the issue is sincere, and this insincerity is a deterrent for anyone who could contribute to the debate by digging up facts from ancient primary sources (myself included). If anyone were really looking to the ancient texts for dietary advice, they would eat a great deal more rice-gruel [粥] than they now do (see the first illustration). The vast majority seem to approach these texts (or, rather, short extracts from the texts) seeking only the affirmation for excuses they’ve already made for themselves; that is an aspect of human nature that most of us prefer to avoid confronting (in loved-ones or in strangers).
I write this article with resignation to the fact that nobody is going to start eating more rice-gruel just because I can produce an authentic quotation from the Buddha endorsing the stuff (and, in fact, I have never seen rice-gruel eaten in a monastery, but I have seen it served in restaurants, both rich and poor). Although the example may seem trivial to some of my readers, many of us need to look in the mirror and really consider how it is that we have come to regard such things as trivial. If you compare this situation to the attitudes toward dietary rules in Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, it might be worth pausing to consider why Buddhists are so flippant about these things. Whether it is thought of as a matter of diet or a matter of ethics, may I ask if there is any other religion that has so little sincere interest in bringing its practice into line with its principles? Does any other religion take its textual sources so lightly? Does anyone presume to have such strong views on Shakespeare without first reading his plays? I regard this all as a knot of a single string, although my reader may well complain that this is a series of unrelated questions.
Making excuses isn’t new: you can’t presume that you’re looking at a clear break between an “original doctrine” and a “later corruption” in looking at Buddhist philosophical sources. You also can’t assume that there was just one (univocal) teaching on an issue, nor that there was just one later adaptation or corruption of it.
I’m reminded somewhat of the situation with Chinese ceramics and metalware: it isn’t the case that a given cauldron can be simply judged against the two possibilities of either being authentically-ancient or else a modern fake. Rather, every given century produced imitations of the styles of earlier periods, and the craftsmen (in their given period) may not have regarded their own work as a fraud at all (but instead as an attempt to preserve or emulate an earlier tradition).
I once had an expert explain to me the difficulty this presented in the history of Chinese pictographs: a metal cauldron might have a seemingly-ancient inscription on the bottom, reflecting some effort made merely 500 years ago to imitate a style of 2000 years prior. This entails the study of a moderately-ancient idea of what something truly-ancient was supposed to look like, but it’s a tricky thing to authenticate each of the three periods involved. In this circumstance, even something apocryphal can provide useful historical information if it’s regarded for what it is (and, of course, it can be massively distorting if you presume it to be something it isn’t).
On the perennial issue of “the 12 links” I recently saw a hilarious comment from Robert E. Florida that makes precisely this mistake:
“From the very earliest days, the theory of co-conditioned causality, or pratītyasamutpāda, the teaching that every thing in the universe is interrelated with every other thing, was interpreted embryologically.” [p. 14 of Buddhism and Abortion, 1999, U. of Hawai’i Press]
Of course, this is so hilarious because Flordia is here presuming (without proving) that the modern, western interpretation is correct, whereas the “traditional interpretation” is false; if he were capable of reading the original text, he would see that there is absolutely nothing in it (i.e., not one word) “teaching that every thing in the universe is interrelated with every other thing”. On the contrary, there is a very good basis for that embryological interpretation, if anyone cares about the writ of what the text says and doesn’t say (a subject I’ve already written about at length). In the very next sentence, the R.E. Florida follows this up by invoking Vasubandhu (!) as an authority for his titular topic of “Abortion in Buddhist Thailand” (without one word to justify what influence Vasubandhu has ever had in the history of Theravāda Southeast Asia, nor explaining why the author has turned to a uniquely Mahayana source first and foremost). Given that this type of buffoonery is what passes for the highest level of academic expertise (on matters as contentious as the politics of abortion) there can be little wonder that the common run of Buddhists labor in ignorance.
Many of my own findings just deal with the “simple” contrast between modern misconceptions and ancient sources, but not all. My wildly unpopular essay on the physical appearance of the Buddha actually did trace the change through several periods of history, letting the reader see a succesion of stages whereby the description of the Buddha as a bald-shaven monk (indistinguishable from the other monks in his retinue) was transformed into an image of a magical figure, with a head of magical hair, and other supernatural features about his head. Methodologically, one of the lessons to be learned from that essay is that we can’t assume that authors in any given period of history were fascinated by (or even interested in) the texts produced before: the changing cult of the Buddha’s physical appearance both involved the writing of “new myths” (that we do indeed have evidence of) and also that people had limited interest in the contradiction between these new stories and the older ones.
This type of cultural change is possible partly because some matters of religion are taken less seriously than others by the adherents themselves. The changing assumptions about Santa Claus (gradually transforming the holiday of Christmas itself) are an example from the last century —and, today, only a small minority of Christians have responded to this with an attempt to expunge Santa Claus from their religion, while the great majority see no contradiction in it (or, at least, they do not take the contradiction very seriously). Similarly, there are small numbers of Buddhists who now insist on depicting the Buddha with a naturalistic bald-shaven head (including, in recent years, the leader of Taiwan’s Tzu Chi [慈濟基金會], who certainly didn’t get the idea from me: in an earlier period, she had the Buddha depicted with naturalistic hair [i.e., a contrast to the norm in a Sino-Mahayana context] and this can still be seen on the mosaic wall of the hospital she founded in Hualien, but she later moved on to depicting the Buddha as bald, most notably in the illustration of her own vision of the Buddha in her auto-hagiography; it would be interesting to know in what year she made the transition between the two).
The reality is that in 21st century Buddhism, we do have misconceptions that are as deep (and yet as shallow) as someone thinking that Santa Claus and Jesus-of-Nazareth are one and the same historical figure. The confusion between the Buddha and Bù-Dài (布袋) is a frequently-cited example.
An author who is certainly not a philologist made an interesting point on this subject that returns us to the major premise of this article. Tony Page (who?) pointed out the following about one of the most-commonly-cited sources in debates about vegetarianism:
“[Many people] claim that he said it was OK to eat flesh as long as you yourself have not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal was killed especially for you…
On the second point, if one reads the relevant Pali scripture carefully, one sees that the phrase ‘killed especially for oneself’ is not used by the Buddha. It is interpolated (in parentheses) by later commentators.” [The source is an online interview with an animal rights group.]
The crucial step here (from ignorance toward knowing something meaningful) is the willingness to recognize the difference between the original source text and “later interpolations”. This is a blindingly obvious point that was missed (or intentionally ignored?) in many works by supposed experts. I am aware that many readers will object at this very point, and insist that “it doesn’t matter” what the particular text says, as there are other texts wherein the Buddha himself eats meat; however, my point is that it does matter, and that all of us need to start from an appreciation of just how much it matters that we’re reading the original texts, in their original context. We can’t choose to ignore what the text actually says in one case, to then put emphasis on it in another.
It is even more difficult to remedy the self-selecting nature of the evidence gathered (and the evidence ignored) in putting together a picture of meat-eating and violence against animals in the core canon.
Are sermons that deal with killing insects (or not-killing insects) relevant or irrelevant to the question of killing pigs and cows in our own time and culture? Are sermons that describe refusing to kill rats in one’s own house (instead setting them outside in a box without harming them) relevant or irrelevant to such questions?
I have definitely seen some modern monks attempt to evade the whole issue by foisting the most irrelevant sources imaginable onto the question. One white, western monk insisted to me that all meat is just “form” in the same sense that a carrot is “form”; however, if this were actually a teaching of the Buddha, and not the invention of a modern, white monk, we would have some quotation from the Buddha saying something of the kind. On the one hand, we have many, many lectures from the Buddha about the nature of “form” (i.e., material reality and our perception of it), and, on the other hand, we have many lectures from the Buddha dealing with violence and non-violence (along with incidental reflections on the attitudes toward treatment of animals and insects, such as the aforementioned case of washing out your bowl in a pond, etc.). What is the link between the two, and how is it that a modern interpreter has found in one an excuse to ignore the other? None of this adds up to a doctrine that eating meat is equivalent to eating a carrot; none of it justifies paying money to someone to kill an animal as morally equivalent to paying money for a carrot. None of it excuses the baleful ignorance of monks who make a career of “teaching” texts that they have never studied in any form aside from short quotations (in English translation) that they have found on websites. The Buddha did not speak English, and he didn’t speak Thai, either.
I realize that many of my readers will regard these as unrelated questions and unrelated problems that I keep posing side-by-side, but to me they truly are a knot made of a single thread: nobody can answer the question of “What did the Buddha teach about vegetarianism?” for the same reasons that they cannot answer any other question in the form of “What did the Buddha teach about ______?”. I remember a detailed anecdote from a western traveler who decided to spend one summer going from temple to temple in Thailand, asking the same question everywhere he went: “What did the Buddha actually say about ‘there is no soul’?” Although this fellow could only communicate in English, he primarily visited the temples that are set up for foreigners, and he wrote to me to report afterward that none of the monks (out of several dozen) had been able to answer the question —although some referred him to other monks, and so on. When I related this anecdote to an ex-monk (of the Thai tradition) he did not believe it, and he insisted that all of those temples are full of monks that can deliver sermons on “no soul”. In reply, I pointed out that the question was not, “Can you give me a lecture on no soul”, but rather, “What did the Buddha actually say about this?” To answer the latter question is a very different matter.
The problem begins and ends with ignorance of the corpus of extant texts, and the excuses that I hear (both from monks and otherwise) for not being vegetarian remind me very much of the excuses that I hear for not studying the canon.
The most ludicruous calumny is committed against Ajahn Chah on this score: quotations from his lectures “Food for the Heart” are taken out of context as if they were a justification for voluntary ignorance. In the fourth chapter he remarks, “For the best practice, as I see it, it isn’t necessary to read many books. Take all the books and lock them away. Just read your own mind.” What is forgotten in reading such an excerpt is that the lecture was not given to laypeople, and definitely not western laypeople, but to Thai monks who had already completed many years of textual study, and, indeed, written examinations. This is obvious even in the next sentence of the quotation, “You have all been burying yourselves in books from the time you entered school. I think that now you have this opportunity and have the time, take the books, put them in a cupboard and lock the door. Just read your mind.” I do not think that anyone could read this set of lectures as a whole and think that Ajahn Chah was endorsing the notion that westerners who already live in ignorance should continue to live in ignorance (I say this explicitly because I have both heard and read Ajahn Chah cited as an authority to this effect). The same set of lectures contains numerous statements about the importance of textual scholarship, and the monks (addressed as the audience) are all presumed to be studiously preparing for Thailand’s system of exams throughout (some of the advice emphasizing practice is stated explicitly in terms of the monks’ need to recover from the distraction of having memorized and recited so much text for the exams, etc.). Somehow, this is put into the blender of post-Christian western assumptions (along with unexamined assumptions inherited from 1960s American Zen) and an anti-textual (and anti-intellectual) doctrine comes out of the mix.
On the one hand, westerners insist on “the letter of the law” when it suits them, and then, on the other hand, they ignore a huge volume of text (and philosophical text at that) when it contradicts them.
I’ve met people who labored in ignorance for 30 years, with some badly-translated scrap of text (most often downloaded from the internet) interpreted to the effect that one should just focus on “practice” (by which they mean a modern, western definition of “meditation”, regardless of what the texts may say); with this excuse established in their minds, they then go about preaching Buddhism without ever studying the texts. After 30 years of such “practice”, they’re as ignorant as I was more than ten years ago (they repeat the same lesson about “breathing meditation” that some other white person taught them in California, again and again, while neither learning anything nor teaching anything).
When I ask such people if they’ve ever considered what the Buddha’s opinion was about such preachers who teach the dharma without first studying it (syllable-by-syllable) they seem very much surprised to hear that we have such materials in the canon. Indeed, we do: there was a very real expectation that monks would memorize, recite and correctly interpret the Buddha’s teaching verbatim. The sequence of Bhaddekaratta suttas (MN no. 131–134) provides examples of this process, and also of the social expectations surrounding them: MN no. 133 (the maha-kaccāna-bhaddekaratta-suttanta) opens with the question of why the monk has not yet memorized the poem in question (the verb being dhāreti), and the sequence of these texts demonstrates that while more than one explanation of the poem was then current (and acceptable), all of the monks were expected to have the poem memorized verbatim, and also to be able to offer some explanation of the meaning.
In 2004, Alex Wynne drew attention to a scene in the Pāsādika suttanta (of the D.N.) that gives a sense of the social function of the monks gathering to memorize and recite the texts (again and again) to know both the meaning and also the precise writ of the text, letter-by-letter (byañjanena byañjanaŋ).*2 Although I differ with that article on some details, I think that Wynne makes fair and reasonable use of this passage to demonstrate that ancient Buddhism really was a cult of knowing and transmitting the Buddha’s teaching by memorizing it “to the letter”. I don’t know how it is that so many modern Buddhists have lost sight of this aspect of the tradition, but they seem to be very eager to cling to any theory (hung on any isolated quotation) that memorization doesn’t matter, that the precise wording doesn’t matter, or even that preserving the original language of the Buddha’s teachings doesn’t matter. All of this falls fairly neatly into the category of “the opposite of Buddhism”.
In one memorable passage, the Buddha compares the monks who do not learn the texts to mice that don’t even build their own burrows (quoted and cited in the final illustration); I infer that such mice live in a hole that others have dug out for them. At worst, such mice neither dig nor have such a home, as they have neither learning nor the ability to walk the road leading to the end of suffering. The canon is full of excoration of ignorance in general, and it is replete with of criticism of monks who don’t live up to the Buddha’s expectations in specific; this simply isn’t the side of the literature that white people seem to be quoting to one-another (perhaps because it makes them feel uncomfortable).
If anyone wanted to be a member of a religion that glamorized pious ignorance, let me tell you, Theravāda Buddhism is a poor choice (you might want to try almost any other organized religion instead). Nevertheless, I meet westerners again and again who insist on precisely this point: they insist that somehow learning is an obstacle to practice, and that whatever the Buddha may have taught (i.e., in some book they haven’t read) the point now is to have blind faith, deaf practice, and silent meditation. Theravāda Buddhism is built on a corpus of philosophical dialogues, but nothing could be more anathema than actually engaging in philosophical dialogue in the white, western version of Theravāda Buddhism.
I recall meeting a German man who had dedicated about 40 years of his life to Theravāda Buddhism, and who was then running some foundation (and he had some modest publications of his own); alas, he knew no language aside from German and English. I asked him simply, and with an open mind, if he had any questions about my research (really, I said nothing to provoke him: I told him that I was a Pali scholar, that I had been living in Laos for so many years, and then asked with a smile if he had any questions about my work). He became very agitated in responding to this (and, indeed, trembled visibly); he launched into a denunciation of textual research itself, and he tried to prove his point by claiming that the canon itself is “anti-intellectual” and that it wasn’t the intellectuals who attained nibbāna in the Buddha’s teaching. Although I was tempted to say then what I’ve said now (i.e., that this really isn’t the right religion for you if you’re looking for pious ignorance and blind obedience) but I instead responded by asking how he knew these things that he was telling me, as he had never read any of the texts himself, and was now attacking me for having dared to read them.
This fellow’s attitude is not uncommon, but it is normally a bit better concealed: it is the fragile and embittered result of a lifetime spent in worshipping and even preaching a religion that the adherents themselves don’t understand. Inevitably, such people attack me (even if I have said nothing controversial to them) because anything that I might say (and anything that I do know) will be a threat to their beliefs, and to their sense of their own religious authority. The world is full of meditation teachers who claim “30 years’ experience” but they have no more ability to know what the Buddha taught about meditation now than they did 30 years ago.
I’ve recently heard many of the excuses for meat-eating rehearsed and what struck me was the clear division between an insistence on knowing exactly what the Buddha taught on matters such as meditation, and a real willingness to engage in speculation (proceeding hypothetically from irrelevant sources) when it concerned a problem of daily life that might actually conflict with one’s own family, politics or culture.
If you live in the tropics, the refusal to kill mosquitoes and rats is a practice that interferes with daily life. Straining your water (through a sieve) to remove barely-visible insects before drinking is a practice that interferes with daily life. Technologically, there has never been any era of history in which vegetarianism was easier than our own; conversely, there has never been any age in which the consumption of meat has been so cheap, so mechanized, so far separated from the sight of the violence and the gore, and so easy for people to deceive themselves about.
As I’ve said before, making excuses isn’t new. I recall Alexandra David-Neel reporting that the Buddhists she met in India were quite willing to eat meat so long as the butcher was a member of a rival religion or a despised caste. We have a tradition of many centuries of Buddhists offering excuses along the lines of, “It’s okay to eat this meat, because the butcher is Muslim (and the ‘bad karma’ accrues to him, not me)”. We have to decide in our own century if we’re interested in just making more excuses, or if we’re interested in the actual teaching of the Buddha (as preserved, however imperfectly, in the Pali canon). It’s a decision that people are going to make individually; facts are powerless before opinion, as in the case of “the Buddha was Bald” before. I’m not motivated to muster and present the facts, because I’m aware that nobody wants to hear them.
It is indeed the case, as aforementioned, that meat-eating is described as a normal part of ancient Indian society in the Jātakas. It is also true that torture, execution and war are described as normal. Within the core canon, the number of descriptions of torture is somewhat amazing, and many of the descriptions are quite long and gory (I am thinking of torture carried out by kings in this world, but there are also descriptions of torture in hell, etc.). One of the simplest changes in perspective that has to come about from reading long, continuous works in Pali (i.e., not just excerpts) is the realization that what is described as “normal” is not endorsed by the Buddha as “good”. The Buddha does not give us any sense that in the future soliders will cease to be soldiers, nor that kings will cease to be kings, nor that governments will cease to murder and torture people; quite the opposite, all of these things are described (repeatedly) as inevitable and constant features of life on earth. Equally, the core canon is lacking in any sense of a “vegetarian society” of the future. It may be important to mention in this respect that while the whole canon is full of invective against the caste system there is absolutely no suggestion that India will ever have a future without caste (this, too, is inevitable and constant, even if “bad” in so many ways). Although a few of the suttas do describe a golden age of the past in which there were no crimes for kings to punish with torture and execution (and others describe the brahmins of the past as vegetarians, who refused to commit animal sacrifice, etc.) the whole tendency of the literature is to present society as something that is bad, but that extraordinary people can exempt themselves from (by becoming Buddhist monks). The notion that society can improve itself is alien to the purpose and perspective of the literature; perhaps the experience of wandering the countryside and preaching morality (without ever seeing public morals changed) formed and informed this perspective, and perhaps it is just a corollary of nirvana itself, as a practice that takes the individual away from society, leaving one transformed and the other unchanged.
1. This appears on page 10 of the separately-paginated supplement (titled “The Economist Technology Quarterly”) to the June 2nd–8th issue of 2012. As is generally the case, The Economist does not name the author(s).
2. Alex Wynne, 2004, J.I.A.B.S. (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies), Vol. 27, No. 1, p. 97–127.