The 8th Chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra
A Retranslation of the Eighth Chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra and Commentary
Through Tenabah, copyright 2005, 2009
A retranslation is a revision of an earlier translation. It is sometimes made by comparing several translations and doing language studies on the meaning of key words and passages. Usually some poetic license occurs, in the sense that, rather than translate or interpret something for literal accuracy, the rendering attempts to convey the inner sense of the passage in more readable language. Sometimes, too, older sutras have parts that have been lost or obscured over time. They are usually included for the sake of historical accuracy and no one knows for sure what was originally meant, though many educated guesses can be made. A retranslation, focusing more on making the translation readable, flowing, and devotional, interprets and translates those passages in a way that makes sense to those reading it and in some sense sacrifices some accuracy. Quite often in Buddhist history such retranslations must have been made, because when various versions of the sutras are compared they are different enough so that only one can be the “true original”. There is some question if there even was a true original, since some sutras were oral traditions long before they were written down and the variations deviated from each other rather early. Unlike the prophetic traditions which have their scriptures claim to be the voice of an authoritarian god, Buddhism is a religion of seers. While prophets claim to speak for a god, seers report what their intuitive awareness picks up about reality. When the god is considered infallible, the scriptures are not deeply questioned in regards to their truth. But seers have human fallibility and occasionally certain views are further refined over time. This aspect of Buddhism has allowed it to evolve over the centuries.
I have relied much on the translation of the Lankavatara Sutra by D T Suzuki (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Hensley 1978). I have eliminated some but not all of the language redundancies in order to make the text more readable. I have made different choices in terms of how to translate certain key words. I have mainly used American words which have become the usual translations for Buddhist technical terms. This will make it easier to link the themes discussed here with other Buddhist writings. I have streamlined much of the awkward English, breaking up many larger sentences into smaller ones. I have also occasionally eliminated some small phrases that did not add clarity to what was spoken about. I have also kept a few outdated passages because they give a clue to when the Sutra was written. I have also, as much as possible, translated the passages in a gender balanced way.
The commentary illuminates some passages that show that the Lankavatara Sutra was a later Sutra. It mentions several other Sutras and therefore must have come historically after those were created. It also mentions Sutras and issues mentioned in other Sutras, and therefore comes from a time period when oral traditions were put down in writing. Many of issues Buddha responds to seem relevant to wandering yogis. There are some criticisms of other Sutras and a disclaimer asserting that the Buddha did not write them. This also dates the Sutra. This particular chapter seems to be about setting the record straight about the issue of vegetarianism. Mahamati must have communicated to the Buddha in a visionary state or must have gone to meet Buddha at Mount of the Holy Vulture to get information from the Buddha to make this issue clear.
Text and Commentary
The verses of Mahamati are really a summary of all themes that the Buddha will speak about. There are some interesting subtleties of understanding expressed in these apparently simple and devotional words. One is that Mahamati does acknowledge previous existences of human beings as carnivores and gives this as the reason why humans crave animal flesh. Although he is referring to previous incarnations of individuals, there is also a sense that the evolutionary ancestors of humankind in general had a history of animal flesh eating and therefore still crave to eat animal flesh. It is considered “habit energy” to want to crave animal flesh. Whatever the reasons why this habit appeared, it is considered something worth abandoning in order to progress towards enlightenment.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the driving force of the enlightenment process is “mahakaruna” or “great compassion”. It is meant to be toward all sentient beings and animals are included within range of this compassion. Compassion cannot be limited to only the human species, or only to one human racial subgroup, or only to friends and family. In Buddhism, compassion even extends to hungry ghosts, demons, gods, and asuras.
Even though the path of the Sravakas and Pretyakabuddhas does not emphasize mahakaruna as much as the Mahayana Buddhist path, Mahamati is still concerned for them and has compassion for them. He does not want people on these paths to be karmaically hindered in their progress through animal flesh eating. By his concern, he implies that compassion for animals, not killing them, and not eating them, is an essential part of the motivating force that allows one to become completely enlightened.
Sravakas are pathwalkers who learn mainly through hearing the Dharma teachings and reach a degree of enlightenment through understanding the truth that has been realized by a teacher. A person reaches Sravaka enlightenment by listening to a Dharma teacher until something clicks inside, restlessness drops away, and you feel inner peace. This enlightenment tends to not be completely stable, because it is still dependent on words and therefore can get challenged by alternate views which can create confusion. Through exploring such doubts, asking questions to Dharma teachers, and pondering the answers in his or her experience, this enlightenment can deepen.
Pretyakabuddhas are pathwalkers who learn mainly through solitary meditation practice. Their realization tends to be deeper than Sravakas, because the mental fluctuations are calmed more directly and the realization of the truth comes from the depths of their meditative experience. Yet Pretyakabuddhas are often shaken in their realization when they leave their solitary retreat to connect with people in the world. The harshness of the faults of others can still disturb them and require them to recenter within themselves through more meditation.
The Mahayana Buddhist path emphasizes great compassion and therefore can stay within the world and not be disturbed by the negativity, greed, and delusions of the world. Through loving service to the evolution of humankind into complete enlightenment, great compassion can overlook the faults and violence of sentient beings and even use those woundings and irritations as a source of spiritual growth. Because the weaknesses and negativity of sentient beings challenges the inner peace of a world server, the Bodhisattva develops a deeper nonattachment and a more unshakable peace.
Mahamati calls the paths of Sravakas and Pretyakabuddhas to be “stages” meaning that he believes that they will eventually become Bodhisattvas who are pathwalkers on the Mahayana Buddhist path. Even Bodhisattvas can be seen as a stage prior to Vajrayana Buddhist path which uses special skillful means and advanced methods to accelerate the enlightenment process so that it might be completed in one lifetime.
By calling the main motivation for animal flesh eating to be “habit energy” (vashana), Mahamati points to animal flesh eating as being unnecessary for the further survival and evolution of the human species. As certain passages unfold, Buddha implies that one can have a body which may even be predisposed to eating animal flesh and that this kind of body can mutate through intention motivated by great compassion. This may be an important point to consider, since many diet teachers point to features like animal flesh eating enzymes and blood types related to carnivorous ancestors as an attempt to prove that we should be animal flesh eaters. But just as the intention to eat animal flesh can create enzymes to break down animal flesh and the action of eating animal flesh can create a historical pattern within a certain blood type, we can also depart from our past patterns, both individually and as a species, and not be bound to our previous patterns.
Mahamati goes on to point out that even many world philosophers and teachers from other spiritual traditions who are still attached to limited views still realize the ethical ideal of refraining from killing and eating animals and therefore he expects that the Buddha, who is a world teacher and one who turns the wheel of the Dharma, should not teach anything less than what others have realized.
Mahamati uses an interesting phrase when he says, “the one taste of mercy”. It echoes a teaching of the Buddha where he says, “My entire Dharma is permeated by one taste and this taste is freedom”. Mahamati shares that the entire Dharma is also permeated by the one taste of great compassion. The “one taste” points to the metaphor of an ocean. No matter where you taste the ocean it is always salty. All the Buddhist ethical ideals are based on great compassion and are really applications of this enlightened sentiment to situations we find in the world. Because this sentiment is part of enlightenment, it suggests an integral connection between the highest enlightenment and the not eating of animal flesh.
Although these passages seem like an introduction, it is not merely a literary lead in to the discourse of the Buddha. Many titles are given to the Buddha in the first ten verses. The term “Blessed One” is the most used and refers to a simple calm happiness which life seems to support with synchronicities and needs being met. He also has the role of a World Teacher and needs to set into motion the teachings and ideals that humans will find worth emulating so that spiritual evolution can continue. He is also called an Arhat or worthy one. This means that he worked to earn his blessed state and therefore can teach others how to do the same. He does not teach mere theory, but what has worked for him and what has been proven in his life. He is also called Completely Enlightened which suggests that there are degrees of enlightenment and that his has matured to completion and is therefore without defect. He is also called a Tathagata. This term is less clear in what it means, but points to a “suchness” beyond what the intellect can grasp. It implies, too, that he is simply what he is, beyond all mental interpretations and judgments. Whatever the Buddha is, it is an actual mutation and not merely a person who behaves better or who has a different set of thoughts about life. Whatever Buddha is, it is sensed by such advanced souls as Mahamati and therefore they are inspired to learn from him. They feel a respect and devotion to the Buddha because of what he is. This devotion is a factor in their own enlightenment process.
The Buddha invites Mahamati to enter into deep listening and reflection. Mahamati agrees and intentionally directs his listening to the Buddha in this mode. This kind of deep listening comes from meditation practice and a mental silence that can feel what is said with a silent awareness. No analytical thought activity or mental commentary is reacting to what is said. The ordinary chattering mind which usually reacts to what is said with attachment, indifference, or resistance becomes silent. A deep desire to know, a willingness to be changed through listening, an innate curiosity which wants to know the truth, and an innocence which does not presume in advance what the truth is comes forward when there is deep listening. Part of this is intending to listen, conjuring this state, and focusing on being attentive to the Buddha. The other part is “reflection” and means that the listener is following what is said inside his or her own present experience, verifying what is said with intuitive feeling and direct seeing. This is different from merely memorizing the words and merely decoding what the words mean. The words are used as a mirror to feel what is true directly, immediately, and intuitively.
Here Buddha goes further than Mahamati. Whereas Mahamati sees that the karmaic demerit of animal flesh eating hinders the enlightenment process and that animal flesh eating does not develop the compassion of a Bodhisattva to the degree that we treat all sentient beings as if they were our only child, the Buddha points out that all sentient beings have actually been, in many lifetimes, closely related to us, and that we are literally eating friends and relatives that we have had in our past lifetimes. The Buddha also imbeds the “golden rule” to treat others as we want to be treated. Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and many other religions, the golden rule is applied to all sentient beings, rather than only to human beings.
The Buddha starts to develop the theme of great compassion and points out that even the Rakashasa, a race of flesh eating demons, when they heard the Dharma, were inspired to give up their habitual diet. Although this historical argument may sound strange to American ears, it shows how large the worldview of Mahayana Buddhism is. The Buddha is indirectly pointing out how attached some humans are to their animal flesh eating. He points to the irony that even flesh eating demons have realized the necessity to stop eating human and animal flesh before many humans have. And even the irony that they also see the connection of refraining from eating animal and human flesh with the Buddha Dharma. He also brings in the Rakashasa to bring in some relativity. We would not want our flesh to be eaten by these demons. Therefore in some sense we stand in the same relationship to these demons as animals stand in relationship to us.
Up to this point in the discourse, the Buddha and Mahamati have bundled killing and eating of animals as one kind of karma. The Buddha is now emphasizing that there are no exceptions as to which animals should or should not be eaten, they are all meant to not be eaten. This is different, again, from many other religions which prohibit the eating of some animals but not others. The foundation for this nondistinction is the one taste of mercy which radiates compassion on all sentient beings. The Buddha goes further so say that if someone kills animals, cooks them, and sells their flesh as food for us, that we are still not meant to eat animal flesh. Even though we do not have the karma of killing an animal, we are rewarding someone for killing an animal so that he or she is encouraged to kill more animals for profit. This shows that the Buddha was sensitive to social injustice and did not want to encourage social institutions which supported the killing and eating of animals.
The Buddha further develops the vegetarian theme and touches upon some Hindu lore. According to one Hindu story, hinted in the above passage, humans learned to eat animal flesh from demons. When people do eat animal flesh, their sweat smells differently and this scent can be picked up by many animals. This is why many hunters and carnivores will stalk animals by approaching them from downwind so their scent does not give notice to the animals that they are near. The Buddha affirms that animals do think and feel similar to how we think and feel. They experience terror when they smell a killer come towards them and human hunters are killers to them. Since terror is a form of suffering and a life in terror is painful to live, encouraging animals to be afraid is very much against having compassion for animals and very much against the Bodhisattva ideal of ending sorrow and the causes of sorrow for all sentient beings.
The Buddha points to the chemical changes which are produced by animal flesh eating and how it causes terror in animals and bad odor that repels spiritually oriented people. The odor signals that such a person is a killer of animals even to spiritually sensitive people. The odor weakens the reputation of such a person among those spiritually sensitive people. The Rishis were ancient Hindu sages and represent spiritually sensitive people who, although not Buddhists, were respected by Buddhists. The Lankavatara Sutra seems to have a peaceful and accepting view of Hinduism implied in its message. The Sutra seems to have a continuum of people at different stages of spiritual evolution. Vegetarian Rishis are considered wise people and respected for their attainment. In several passages of other Sutras, the Buddha indicates that some Hindus had attained enlightenment and that many were reborn in the heaven worlds.
The passages about the chemical changes which are produced by eating animal flesh is important for later themes, because the Buddha will suggest not eating animals which have been accidentally killed, parallel to the road kills that happen in modern times. This is because of these chemical changes are still produced and because of how one still terrorizes animals through smelling like a killer to them. There is also the implication that, because a person may develop the smell of a Rakashasa, he or she may become one, given enough persistence in the direction of animal flesh eating, and even going to the point where a person might even crave human flesh as well.
The theme that a Bodhisattva should refrain from eating animal flesh and therefore not produce an odor that through sweating that terrifies other animals is important because a Bodhisattva has made six vows. One is to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Two is to eradicate all personal karma completely. Three is to master all the Dharma teachings. Four is to transcend the duality of nirvana and samsara. Five is to have compassion on all sentient beings. Six is to dedicate oneself to the liberation of all sentient beings. Because these vows apply to all sentient beings, not killing animals, not eating them, and not terrifying them is a logical extension of those vows.
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. To be fair, the Dalai Lama has taught that people should eat as little animal flesh as possible and he has, at least at one time, not eaten animal flesh on alternate days. Since he is nearing the end of his life, I have have heard some reports that he has become fully vegetarian again, but I have not been able to confirm these reports. He was vegetarian before but when he had a liver problem he let some doctors convince him to eat animal flesh. In a way, the Dalai Lama could be representing a transitional position that people may choose to pass through. That is, resolve to eat less and less animal flesh, and eventually not eat any animal flesh. It seems that in the early teachings of the Buddha there was a transitional period where practitioners were allowed to make this transition in steps and stages.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Buddhist literature often presupposes a wider history and chooses examples from this history to illustrate points. Some of these events may be considered mythical and were probably part of popular folklore, while others may have come from inner sight looking back at the psychic traces of the past. While this passage may seem like a simple morality play to illustrate the basic philosophical points already made, there is really more here than that. Because both animals and humans are biologically very much the same, both being sentient beings and both having bodies of flesh, and both having eyes, hears, tongues, noses, muscles, hearts, brains, and intestines, the craving for animal flesh can reach such an intensity that cannibalism can happen. While most animal flesh eaters usually draw the line at eating only specified animals, under extreme situations or under extreme inner craving, the motivation to eat animal flesh can cross yet another line of sensibility and become cannibalism.
This passage underlines the lack of fundamental difference between animal flesh eating and cannibalism, and how the craving for one can become a craving for the other. In nature, lions and tigers usually do not eat human beings, but when, out of some seeming necessity, they kill a human and eat a human, they then acquire the taste for human flesh and sometimes start to attack human villages for food. This shows that animal flesh eating can extend to human flesh eating by acquiring a taste. The difference here, in the story, is that the animal flesh craving has reached its “highest degree” and has become cannibalism or the eating of members of your own species. This means that there is only a difference in degree, rather than quality, in what is being done when one goes cannibalistic. The main difference between animal flesh eating and cannibalism, outwardly, is that you lose the company of friends and human society in general. When animals are eaten, a similar kinship may be lost with the animal society. It may take more work to gain the trust of an animal. The smell of death coming from the sweat glands and breath becomes a barrier.
Another case of cannibalism which has happened in modern times are those stories where a plane will crash land in a remote area where food is scarce and the survivors will start eating the human flesh of their fellow passengers. While such a survival strategy may be ethically justified if the bodies died during the crash and were not killed for food, it would be interesting to explore what emotional changes happened to the people who ate human flesh and how they looked at their fellow humans after having crossed this line. In a previous passage, where Buddha suggests not even eating road kills, it may be that in this extreme survival situation that one might be better off just accepting the karmaic fate of peacefully dying or trying another survival strategy, rather than eat human flesh. In one actual case, the ones that did not eat human flesh but immediately risked journeying the unknown landscape in hopes of finding help were the ones that did the best. What I have also learned from my diet studies is that, when you have been initiated into a raw food diet, you become more sensitized to what plant foods grow nearly everywhere and therefore may not see a need to choose between human flesh eating and survival.
This story is interesting because it shows how much the Buddha drew from Hindu folklore in order to illustrate his teaching points. In this story he shows the one of the mechanisms of karma. When we have addictive habit energy, then we will be karmaically compelled to assume a form which allows us to fulfill our cravings. Even though gods and goddesses do not eat animal flesh or even generally crave animal flesh, the karmaic trace or samskara for such a tendency can still exist within their subconscious mind and still cause them to have a lesser rebirth, or even a series of rebirths, into worlds with greater sorrow. Indra was fortunate that he had a friend who had altruistic compassion, skillful means, and magical powers to help save his friend. Even the powers and compassion of his friend were not enough. Vishvakarma had to invoke Shiva and arouse his compassion through his altruistic sacrifice in order to complete the rescue operation. In this story, Vishvakarma is a model for a Bodhisattva and King Shiva is a model for the power of the Buddha to rescue people from their karma. The difficulty Vishvakarma had in rescuing his friend hints at the challenges one may have in helping friends who still have animal flesh craving tendencies to free themselves from the karmaic patterns. Such tendencies can remain dormant in the subconscious mind, until stimulated by sense experience in ordinary life or in the bardo, and therefore may need to play out in another lifetime. We can avoid this if meditate deeply enough to uproot these tendencies from within ourselves at their very source without our subconscious minds. The warning is that even very capable advanced beings need to be mindful of what is inside them and what they bringing with them from lifetime to lifetime. It is clear from this story and the previous story that the Buddha feels that craving for animal flesh tends to pull one down to a state of greater sorrow and therefore should be avoided. The story illustrates that a single karmaic tendency can held in the subconscious mind. Such a single karmaic tendency can still be present even in very advanced beings and cause them to fall to a lesser state when the conditions are ripe. This point relates to the Bodhisattva vow to eradicate all karmaic traces from within him or her. It is an admonishment to not be complacent about this goal.
The Buddha gives yet another story to deepen and expand on the points already made. The story has to do with karma and transmigration. Birth in human form is considered a positive karmaic event and gives us the possibility of realizing enlightenment. While in theory any sentient being in any of the six realms of sorrow can strive for enlightenment, the lower realms do not have enough supportive conditions to make realization very easy. There is more sorrow in those realms and the beings are more preoccupied with their cravings, negativities, and delusions. The story is interesting because it shows how there is a conjunction of biologically inherited karma and individual past lifetime karma. It shows how the next generation carried the tendency even further and crossed over into human flesh eating and may eventually become Rakashasas. Because of free choice, we can turn our direction around at any time and follow the Dharma. We may have to struggle with our inherited tendencies. We can invoke the help of the Buddhas. But when an addiction to something is formed, we may experience some challenges trying to overcome it.
The story shows the logic of transmigration, reincarnation, habit energy, and karma. We will incarnate into a form and circumstance appropriate to our unsatisfied cravings. If a person is addicted to alcohol, he or she will tend to incarnate into a world where bars exist. But because addictions do not remain stationary, the craving can get stronger until we “cross threshold” and lose our ability to incarnate into human form. When this happens, the precious gift of a human birth and its support for becoming enlightened is lost. An unchecked and unremorseful tendency to eat animal flesh can lead to this. Perhaps this is why in Native American spirituality, after killing an animal, people did feel some remorse and did a ritual to appease the killed animal, and dedicated their own body to die and be eaten in the great circle of life. While this kind of ritual alone does not stop the karma from playing out, it does soften the habitual force of the karma and may stop the addiction from expanding further, and could even prevent rebirth into a more painful existence. Developing a conscience toward animals, feeling some remorse, stopping any killing of animals by oneself, and systematically reducing the amount of animal flesh that one eats, these can soften and eventually eradicate the craving for animal flesh and its attendant karmaic consequences.
The Buddha moves from looking at the behaviors and consequences of killing animals and eating animal flesh to looking at the emotional nature of those who kill and eat animals. He points to the motivation of arrogance where we feel we are so much superior to animals that we are not upset when they are hunted and killed, but are very upset if someone hunted and killed humans, especially those humans that we care about. Here the Buddha makes a link between arrogance and prejudice. He applies this psychological theme to the double standard that is placed on human life versus animal life. But this insight could also be applied to racism, sexism, and any other form of bias where some nonessential trait is used to deprive a sentient being of the right to live, to not be harmed, and to be free.
The Buddha then looks at the socially sanctioned slaughter of animals and points to the collective karma and the collective arrogance behind it. He shows how people have hardened their hearts to the plight of animals in much the same way as slave owners in the South were desensitized to the humanity and rights of black slaves. He points out that arrogance is then fueled by greed so that people who crave to make a profit can find support from these unjust social institutions. Here Buddha may seem very modern in his insights and very much like a social activist. Even though there is a stereotype that the Eastern religions are passive and introspective, while the Western religions are into social change, the Buddha was both introspective and outwardly very much a social reformer. He severely criticized the caste system in India, was an active proponent of belief that women and slaves could become enlightened and have a right to pursue enlightenment, and very much promoted nonviolent ways of ending conflicts and wars. There were religions which believed that women were inferior to men, could not become enlightened, and even taught women how to become men in the next lifetime so that they could become enlightened in the next lifetime. While some small pockets of this kind of belief still exist in India to this day, the constant preaching against this social prejudice by the Buddha for over 40 years helped to shift the patriarchal attitudes of India immensely.
The Buddha has a social activist awareness integrated into his understanding of the spiritual path. It is somewhat different from modern social activism in that Buddha founded his activism on the law of karma and also advocated peaceful methods of social reform. He mainly encouraged a greater compassion and deeper understanding through teaching the Dharma. One advantage of the law of karma is that he can point to even self interested reasons for not killing and eating animals. The less karma we create, the less we suffer. While this is not the altruistic compassion of a Bodhisattva, it is nevertheless possible motivation to encourage people to change. It can encourage a kind of “altruistic selfishness”. This can be further transcended in the level of enlightenment that transcends “self cherishing” and which completely abandons the fiction of a substantial personal self. This in turn prepares the ground for realizing the unity of our essential individuality with Buddha nature itself.
Having explored arrogance and greed in relation to killing and eating animals on a social level, he points to yet a third emotional characteristic of animal flesh eaters. When an injustice is constantly present, pervades society deeply, and is sanctioned by social traditions, then people become complacent in their attitudes and hardened in their hearts. The natural compassion that humans are meant to have towards sentient beings is dulled to the point where an animal facing death in terror and screaming for mercy does not arouse any sympathetic response within us. This natural emotion is sometimes dulled by emotional repressive or emotionally numbing drugs. The Buddha points out, from his expanded worldview which includes a vaster array of sentient beings than most humans are aware of, that such humans are becoming like the Rakashasas. If the karmaic accumulation continues beyond a certain point, it is possible to be reborn as one of these creatures and feel the fiery pains of their world. It is a harsher and crueler world that they live in and hence filled with more sorrow. Such beings even eat their own kind and hence there is less safety and more fear in their world. While such extreme karmaic consequences I feel are rare, it is possible for this to happen. Even if such extreme karmaic consequences do not happen, the less extreme karmaic consequences are worth avoiding. How we treat other sentient beings tends to come back to us in some form. We may switch roles with them in some other lifetime so that we may experience what it is like from their own side, our aging process may get more accelerated, we may experience a wider range of illnesses, or our ability to heal ourselves through pranic breathing may then be limited.
The Buddha points to a way to burn away the depths of such karmaic patterns in the above passage. Part of the way of liberation is through compassion. We are meant to become more sensitive and compassionate towards the sorrows of all sentient beings, not less. It is natural to experience some remorse, because of compassion, when we take part in the infliction of pain on any sentient being. This remorse can purify us from any karmaic tendencies that are still within us. When we numb ourselves so fully that this remorse cannot be felt, then we are in danger of experiencing the most extreme karmaic consequences of our actions. Our compassion filled conscience is therefore a protector and a guide for us. Our own illuminated conscience can inspire us to correct our thoughts, speech, and actions so that we create less sorrow for others and therefore experience less sorrow for ourselves. Such remorse is different from socially conditioned guilt. Remorse emerges from compassion and guides us to manifest the natural love that a Buddha has for all sentient beings. This kind of love is within all of us, because the seed of Buddha nature is within all of us. This is how vegetarianism links with enlightenment.
Here Buddha focuses on the future of rationalizations of a small exception that he may have once made to a follower of his. There was a devoted monk who was wandering in a town that did not know about the Buddhadharma. It was late at night and the monk had knocked on the door of someone who gave him some food to eat. He was delighted to get some food and went out of town to be alone to meditate. Because it was dark, he did not realize until later on that he was accidentally given some cooked animal flesh to eat. Since he was famished, since he was now far from the town, since he would now have to wake up and disturb people in the town to beg for food, since they would need to understand vegetarianism in a very late night conversation, and since the animal had already been unwittingly killed and prepared for food and placed in his bowl, he decided to eat the animal flesh. Because he was a dutiful monk, he went to the Buddha and asked if he did what was appropriate. He came with a willingness to examine his attitude, to repent of any wrong doing he may have engaged in, and to uproot any karmaic tendency he may have unwittingly planted in himself. The Buddha, who was very ethically precise and very compassionate, told the monk that he did not have to worry. The animal was not knowingly killed for his sake and he did not know enough of what he had been given to refuse it, since it was dark. He was starving and the animal was already dead, and the food would have been wasted if he would have thrown it away.
The Buddha clearly saw that the monk had the clear intention of being true to the vegetarian teachings of the Buddha but was in an unusual and extreme situation. Earlier on this in chapter, the Buddha even eliminates this kind of exception, because the craving for animal flesh could be strongly activated by the taste of animal flesh and would still create an odor through sweat that would still terrify sentient beings. But he allowed for such an exception for two reasons. One is that, it was after the fact, and the monk could, from this point on, be more careful to check what he is being given and more careful to not let himself be put in a situation where he would be starving so much. In short, it was a unusual situation which would be unlikely to happen again and the monk had the sincerity to not make it into an unwholesome habit. There was no need for the Buddha to belabor this point with a monk who had at least kept the spirit if not the letter of the precept. Two is that the Buddha was not into rigid views and was an exacting taskmaster. The event was innocent enough and could easily be forgiven.
Yet the Buddha was already seeing into the future and saw that such a provisional or situational teaching would cause people to rationalize their animal flesh eating. He decided that his final teaching must have no exceptions. The Eighth chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra is about setting the record straight.
There is some question whether or not this story about the monk who ate some animal flesh even happened. But even if it did happen, the story clearly affirms that the Buddha and the monk had already agreed on the general principle that animal flesh eating was not appropriate. They both wisely agreed to not let this unusual situation be a source of needless guilt, since it is clear that the monk had the strong intention to be consistent with the Dharma and even offered his situation to be examined by the Buddha to double check. Given what the Buddha has said in this Sutra, it is most likely that the Buddha told him both to not worry about it and to not do it again.
The Buddha uses this story as an example of how addiction to eating animal flesh can latch on to a seeming fact, distort it, and expand it to include less exceptional and less extreme situations such as having a habitual and daily diet that includes a large amount of animal flesh eating. There is clearly no support from the story to expand this very small exception into the very large exception that many Buddhist sects have done over the centuries. The Buddha, seeing into the future and prophesying how the craving for animal flesh would lead to such rationalizations and distortions of his teachings, has been very accurate about how much an addiction can warp our thinking processes and even turn things around into their opposite.
There are apparently even some lamas who assert that they are helping the animals they eat by eating them, because they form a “karmaic connection” with the animal that can be used to save them in another lifetime. Yet these lamas do not seem to eat humans to form a karmaic connection with them so that they can save them in another lifetime nor did the Buddha himself seem to use this method. The usual way of forming a positive karmaic connection to help someone is through kindness and generosity, through a giving and receiving, where energy is exchanged voluntarily between to two beings. This is sometimes done ritualistically through common practice, mantra chanting, or a common vow. Even if it were true that eating animal flesh created a useful karmaic connection, it seems that, given the many lifetimes where animals have already been killed, bought, sold, or eaten, there are enough connections with everyone already established. It seems, at best, that such negative karmaic connection is being transmuted into a positive one through compassion. But then why not directly manifest compassion towards animals in immediate present interactions with them? In this case, the act of not killing, not eating, not selling, and not buying animal flesh from those who kill and sell animals, would also create a positive karmaic connection with animals. This would be especially so when one has consciously and intentionally decided to do this out of compassion for animals and dedicated the merit of this action towards the liberation of all sentient beings. The Buddha, in this sutra, is emphasizing a positive karmaic connection that we already have with all sentient beings. He is emphasizing that we have already been mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, nephew, niece, aunt, uncle, grandfather, and grandmother, in a very literal reincarnational sense, with all sentient beings.
There are other lamas that teach that you need animal flesh food so that your nerves are strong enough to sustain Tantric energy practices. Once again Guatama, many Buddhist Tantric saints, and Hindu Kriya Yoga practitioners have moved very powerful energies through themselves without the “support” of eating animal flesh. A healthy Aryurvedic vegetarian diet seems very good support for the body and nerves, whereas “corpse eating” seems to weaken energy movement. This is also why some “Kundalini crisis centers” in modern times will even stop kundalini energy movement by having a person eat an animal flesh burger and fried potatoes when someone is freaking out over a spontaneous kundalini awakening (this is, once again, why the entire Dharma matrix is an important support for spiritual energy practice, including getting your diet aligned with your practice). This is why, out of the three poisons of the mind (craving, negativity, and delusion) which must be conquered in order to become enlightened, addictive craving is considered the most central. It leads to negativity when verbally and angrily defended before others and it leads to delusional rationalizations when mentally defended.
The Buddha is right about animal flesh eating being eventually added to lists of food appropriate for Dharma practitioners. There are Tibetan medical texts that even prescribe animal flesh for various ailments, Zen masters who have blessed whaling ships and even doctors who convinced the Dalai Lama to give up being vegetarian in order to get cured of an illness. There are some Theravadin Buddhists who believe that Buddha was not a vegetarian and even died of eating poisoned pork flesh. Such is the power of addiction and rationalization which many psychotherapists know from working with all kinds of addicts.
Concerning the story of his death, it seems that those who were addicted to eating animal flesh mistranslated the story of where Buddha ate some poisoned mushrooms called “Delight of Boar” and had assumed that the name of the mushroom was actually the name of an animal flesh dish. Yet I even question this story. The Buddha had the sensitivity to feel the vibrations of the mushrooms. He was eating his last meal with a friend who offered them. He was choosing to release his physical body which had already conquered aging and death within itself. Even if he ate poison, it would not have killed him. He was beyond this kind of karma. This is shown in the story where Devadatta tries to kill the Buddha by rolling a boulder towards him which magically splits into two so that both halves miss him. Buddhas, however, sometimes take on the karma of others in a process called “transfer of merit”. According to Avagosha, Buddha did this before he died in order to give strength to his followers. He took on the karmas that would have killed them so that they would have more time, good situations, and energy to practice. He then did phowa, consciousness transference, in order to eject his consciousness beyond his body as an example of his higher teachings. He had such mastery that when a late disciple came to him to ask some questions, he stops the process of phowa midstream, answers patiently answers the questions, and then returns back to his concentration to finish what he started.
The Buddha in these passages categorically denies the truth of many assertions made by many Buddhist teachers and Buddhist sects over the centuries. He asserts that these teachers are not yet free from addictive craving and are letting their addictions be rationalized and justified in their own minds, rather than working to overcome them. What is interesting is that he connects such addictions and rationalizations to attachment to a belief in a personal soul. This is a subtle point that the Buddha is making about addictive craving to animal flesh which links his vegetarian teachings with his teachings about the nonexistence of a personal self. The Buddha one time said that if the illusion of a personal self was not seen through, then there would be no freedom from sorrow. Quite logically, then, animal flesh eating and the uncompassionate insensitivity to animal sorrow that it implies, must have some trace of a belief in a personal self. The craving for animal flesh must be coming from some kind of cherishing of a false sense of self and must be reinforcing it in some way. This implies, too, that becoming vegetarian and not eating animal flesh must help to weaken the false sense of self and thereby assist liberation. This links to previous passages as to why the Buddha did not want any exceptions to eating animal flesh, because even when it is a relatively clean choice on purely ethical grounds, like accidentally eating animal flesh without realizing it has slipped into your food or eating an animal that was accidentally run over by a car, there is still the vibration of eating animal flesh and the taste of animal flesh which can still activate and feed the addictive craving. If this process is watched carefully, one can feel a kind of strengthening of a certain kind of feeling of self.
Although this subject is perhaps too big for a commentary mainly focused on why Buddha felt vegetarianism is ieportant, the abgve passages show how deeply interdependent the teachings of the Buddha were and still are. When our conscious presence is more established within us and we are able to watch thoughts, emotions, and sensation arise, abide, change, and pass away, we begin to see that what we thought was our self is really nonexistent. It is like realizing that the movie you are watch is really flashes of still pictures on a screen. When looked at deeply, we find not find a self within us. We see transitory thoughts, emotions, and sensations. We are meant to let them flow without clinging, resistance, or unconsciously acting them out.
If we are very sensitive to this flow, we will see that a feeling and belief in a self arises from these transitory patterns. It is mainly centered in the thought of “I, me, and mine” which is present in actual sentences that we are thinking as well as a subtle level of felt thought that clings to inner states, external relationships, and outer situations in order to build itself up and which feels hurt when its supports are diminished. Identifying with a craving and fulfilling a craving reinforces this illusion of self. It strengthens one set of inner conditions against another set of inner conditions. Craving strongly avoids some states which contradict the self and attaches to what affirms the self. This eventually becomes the arrogance that Buddha mentioned in some earlier passages. Arrogance is when we are so centered in this addiction based feeling of self that we do not consider others as even equal to ourselves, but instead consider them as things to build us up and as food to be eaten. This is how vegetarianism links to the very deepest teachings of the Buddha which relate to the realization of “no self” and the discovery of Buddha nature.
If we look into any craving we can uncover this feeling of self. If we sit in meditation long enough, we can see this phantom self arise, abide, and pass away. It is a transitory and everchanging complex of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, which is at least temporarily totally gone when we have moments of “bliss, clarity, and nonthought”. Yet we often fall under the trance of feeling this self to be both substantial, real, and truly who we are, even though the thoughts it expresses to affirm itself are contradictory and therefore without true unity. The thoughts which whirl around in our heads and think “I” are very fleeting and do not add up to any kind of self. The thoughts are rarely grounded in presence. They come out of a ground a conditioning within the subconscious mind. Looking within, we see thoughts reacting to thoughts. We follow this conditioning and act out all our karmas. The precepts restrain this process, while meditation uproots the deeper causes. With any addiction, we can look into the depths and uproot the deepest traces of karma. At the most subtle level, there is an illusory feeling of self which energizes the cravings, negativities, and confusions that we have. Releasing this feeling of self, by hearing these words deeply, by introspective meditation, by living in accord with the precepts, by initiations, by taking vows, by chanting mantras, and by living from compassion, we can cut through all our addictions and become thoroughly liberated.
The Buddha implies that if we accept the precept to not eat animal flesh and if we look at our craving for animal flesh very deeply, in the moment that we feel it, then even the most subtle levels of our addiction can be exposed with the light of the highest teachings that the Buddha gave. Through this, we can liberate ourselves.
Here the Buddha first illuminates a contradiction behind the Buddhists who rationalize eating animal flesh. He points out that if he did allow animal flesh eating for his followers that he would be teaching the same for those who were not his followers! He advocates that vegetarianism is generally good for everyone. Therefore those who follow him should be more, not less, committed to vegetarianism, since they would naturally believe in at least the basic teachings he left behind. In all his forty years of teaching in India, there is no record of him praising Hindus for eating animal flesh or condemning those who were vegetarian. Instead he lived a vegetarian life. He was social activist enough to make vegetarianism an issue if he were against it. But in every way, it was clear that he thought it was part of basic compassion to not kill and eat animals, and therefore even more important for Bodhisattvas who are learning to release the compassion of their Buddha nature and cherish all sentient beings as their only child or even as their very self. In fact, the Bodhisattvas, the followers of the Buddha, have vowed to do so. This theme was explored in another context earlier, but here it is brought up again within the context of how delusional our thinking becomes when we are influenced by an addiction.
In the next verse, Buddha, in his role as a world teacher, affirms that the precept about not eating animal flesh is a general and universal one that is meant to all sentient beings and not just his followers. This is because, having shown how karmaically unwholesome animal flesh eating is, everyone would benefit from this precept, even if they were not committed to a life of meditation, compassion, and nonattachment. The Buddha, however, further suggests that those who are more sensitive and more compassionate, those who are feeling the altruistic compassion of Mahayana Buddhism within themselves, or who at least mentally cherish such an ideal and feel its truth, need to keep this precept even more consistently than worldly humans or members of other religions. This is because the killing and eating of animals hurts the development of their compassionate nature and without this compassion they cannot become fully enlightened.
The Buddha introduces a new theme here as well. He teaches that his path is largely a path of discipline. There is a natural discipline within compassion and wisdom which grows on the path that the Buddha laid out. Enlightenment is attained through this kind of discipline. By introducing this theme in this chapter, he is linking discipline with altruistic compassion, with purification, with enlightenment, and even with peaceful social reform. Discipline, as purification, and as ethical idealism in practice, is part of Sila Parmita, the fourth parmita of the six parmitas at the heart of the Mahayana Buddhist path. It is the power that organizes our life. Once more Buddha links vegetarianism with his core teachings and shows how much it is interconnected with all the teachings which form the “dharma matrix”.
It seems that the Buddha is belaboring points already made, but he is actually reviewing them some in order to go even deeper with his teachings. The first verse mentioned above talks about “canonical texts” which shows that this Sutra is from a period of time when the Buddhist teachings were finally committed to writing. It suggests that whoever Mahamati is must have had a vision of the Buddha giving him these teachings. Part of the reason for these revealed teachings is to set the record clear about what the Buddha had taught about vegetarianism. It deals with issues and distortions regarding the ideal of vegetarianism which have already happened and which will happen more in the future. He is mainly concerned with dealing with these issues among his past, present, and future followers, but also in a more general way affirming that the idea of vegetarianism is worthy for all people to emulate and serves their happiness.
He further negates several versions of Buddhist teaching that are still present in many sects. Some affirm that animal flesh is prohibited in the early stages but not in the advanced stages of discipline. Some affirm that animal flesh is prohibited in the later stages, but is okay in the early stages. Others affirm that it is okay at any stage, but is not okay under certain conditions. The Buddha lumps all these complex teachings together and affirms that he did not teach any of those distinctions. He affirms that his disciples are not meant to eat any animal flesh at any stage and under any condition. He also affirms that even people who are not his followers are meant to embrace this simple and general ethical sentiment towards animals. This is clear from how the Buddha has developed his themes over this entire chapter. He is applying the logical conclusions from his themes to specific distortions of his teachings within many Buddhist sects.
He further emphasizes the importance of doing this, because without at least illuminating how strong an influence craving animal flesh is and prohibiting the eating of animal flesh, these karmaic tendencies will become activated, operate without the discipline of wise restraint weakening them, then grow stronger over time, and cause sorrow for sentient beings who eat sentient beings and cause sorrow for those sentient beings who are eaten by sentient beings. By teaching as he does here, he can set in motion a dharma influence which can eventually weaken and eradicate animal flesh eating and thereby serve the evolution and liberation of human beings and sentient beings in general.
He affirms that even the Sravaka disciples are meant to have dietary disciplines different than worldly people who indulge in food only because it tastes pleasant and do not generally care about the ethical consequences of eating animal flesh. All the disciples of the Buddha and followers of any wholesome path are meant to eat in such a manner to truly nourish themselves, heal themselves of illnesses, and give themselves the strength they need to meditate for long periods of time.
He further teaches that an enlightened being does not really live on food anymore, but gets nourishment from the Dharmakaya. By abiding in the Dharmakaya, the living body of truth that pervades the universe, we are freed from all compulsive desires and needs. We no longer abide in a karma created flesh body, but instead have a Dharma created light body. To crave to eat flesh in order to survive as a flesh body is a lesser state. It is more advanced to nourish oneself only on plant food and even more advanced to not need any food at all. He talks about the distinction between “abiding in flesh food” and “abiding in the Dharmakaya”. He talks about abandoning one for the sake of the other. In this sense, the idea of the Dharmakaya being food is meant to be literal and not a metaphor, just as eating animal flesh is also literal and not a metaphor. Although the stage where no food is needed except “abiding in the Dharmakaya” is a very advanced stage on the path, we can at least eat only vegetarian food until we reach this stage. We can also abide in meditation practice until it matures into abiding in the Dharmakaya in the fullest sense of the phrase and eventually find our need for food has lessened or dropped away. The Buddha further points out that, having attained this deep abiding in the Dharmakaya to the point where he does not need to eat any food (he may still eat vegetarian food out of freedom, as an example for his students, and just to blend into humanity), there is no temptation to eat animal flesh left and it would cause unnecessary pain for animals to do so. There is a clear suggestion that at his level of attainment that it would serve no purpose to eat animal flesh and not even be tempting in the least. This is why this set of passages closes with the idea that the Buddha taught or permitted animal flesh eating “has no foundation whatsoever”.
Here the Buddha signals he has completed what he has chosen to share about animal flesh eating. What follows is a summary of the main points. The style is like a review a good counselor gives after an interview is over. It is done to show what has been worked through and what has been accomplished.
This inclusion of onions, and, by reference to the passages it summarizes earlier, the allium family of vegetables, has puzzled some of my friends. They have wondered if it is an old obsolete tradition. The consensus has been to avoid using onions, garlic, and other members of the allium family except for medicinal reasons. However, when I was studying some of the Hindu Tantras, there was another reason mentioned. There are certain devas, a class of advanced spiritual beings, who are very sensitive to smells and who actually feed on perfumes or essential oil fragrances. These beneficial beings are repelled by the odor of carnivores, the odors of the allium family, and similar odors. Tastes and smells of food, in Aryurvedic medicine, need to be balanced and form a complete nutritional set. I have found that it is easier to not eat animal flesh if you also do not eat alliums and do not consume alcohol. I have observed that many of my near vegetarian friends will occasionally crave animal flesh near the time when they have consumed some alcohol. The Buddha, probably having been schooled in Hindu Aryurvedic thought, is sensitive to these kinds of connections.
In Buddhist understanding, human and animal births are womb births, where male white blood (semen) combines with female red blood (ovum). This is not quite modern science, but came from the observation that the sexual fluids of males is white and the fluids of women during their period is red. Even though science has advanced even in the East to see that zygote formation as the union of sperm and ovum, the belief that two liquid essences combine to produce an animal or human birth is still talked about, because of energetic and spiritual alchemical reasons. These sensitivities are part of the Tumo energy yogas of Tibet. The metaphors of white and red essences link with many visualization practices which have produced objectively measurable increases in external heat. It has been raised at times by 30 degrees or more. It may be the case of two valid perspectives related to two different contexts. There is some slightly new information in this passage that is not in the longer part of the teaching.
In this passage, the Buddha is giving advice to wandering ascetics about where and how to sleep. It seems that sesame oil may attract certain small animals that might be crushed if you roll around in your sleep. He also admonishes ascetics to not be extreme in their austerities by sleeping on beds designed to mortify the flesh. He cautions ascetics to be sensitive to when and where you set up your sleeping space so that they do not harm, kill, or terrify the small animals that may be dwelling nearby. Since modern culture has very few ascetics, this advice seems strange to us. Yet there are parallel practices that we can do. We can keep our sleeping space clear of small animals. We can make sure we get a comfortable regenerative sleep, rather than doing something less in service of our sleep needs. We can also design our dwellings so that animals are less likely to invade our space and cause us to be in conflict with them. This passage gives an idea who Mahamati may have been and the kind of lifestyle he may have had when he got his vision. If he was a wandering yogi, familiar with both Hindu and Buddhist systems of development, many of the passages and the issues raised therein would be relevant.
These two passages are summarizations of something within the longer discourse that the Buddha previously gave, but there is much which is also new here. The chains of cause and effect are mapped out in a more visible way. The Buddhist teaching of dependant origination implies that there is no single line of causation. In these passages, the Buddha shows how animal flesh eating causes arrogance and greed to appear, while in the previous passages, the Buddha shows how arrogance and greed lead to animal flesh eating. These passages are not contradictory, but show these factors arise in mutual dependence upon each other and strengthen the existence of each other. Weaken one and you weaken the other. Strengthen one and it is more difficult to free oneself from the others. This is why the Buddha recommended the eightfold path which undermines the basis of sorrow from several angles all at the same time. In these passages, the Buddha emphasizes how animal flesh eating is one of the factors which if attached to makes all the factors more difficult to transcend and how if animal flesh is not eaten, it helps all the factors be transcended more easily. Once again, the Buddha links the not eating of animal flesh with helping us liberate ourselves from the wheel of karmaic death and rebirth.
The Buddha revisits the theme of karmaic consequences. He talks about how those who buy animal flesh participate in the karma of killing the animal. He talks about how not heeding the precepts of Buddhist teaching is ignoring something that can stop karma from ripening and how the consequences are both in this life and the next life. The Buddha does affirm that there are hell worlds that one can fall into. Hell worlds are usually related to very heavy karmas like murdering someone and because, animals are sentient beings, killing an animal is ethically equivalent to murder. The screaming hells are really echoes of the screaming animals do when they struggle for their life. The law of karma is like the golden rule. The core ethical principle is to treat all sentient beings the way that we wish to be treated. The karmaic principle is that how we treat other sentient beings returns to us as something we experience. This is partly why one lama has said, “The happiness of other sentient beings is my happiness”.
Usually when karma is described in a Sutra, only a single line of causation is analyzed. Such karmaic destinies can be softened by many factors. Every kind thought, good deed, and loving emotional expression softens unwholesome karma. Our meditation practice, doing guru yoga, chanting for the blessings of higher beings, our study and teaching of Sutras, and any ritual empowerments that we receive also helps. There are other factors that also mitigate karma, like feeling remorse, seeing how we were in unconscious ignorance of what we were doing, and repenting so deeply about what we did that we completely burn away the karmaic traces within us. Our karmaic destiny is like a river formed by many influences and which creates our life moment to moment. Even if we enter a literal hell realm because of karma, our time in this realm is also determined by many factors. There was a story where a person fell into a hell realm and was tormented with the full awareness that it was how he treated others coming back to him. Then suddenly the movement of this karma ended and he was taken to heaven world. He was so surprised that he asked why. It was said to him that when Buddha walked through his village that he offered a single flower to the Buddha from the depths of his heart. This single act opened him up to receive enough blessing energy from the Buddha to have his karma softened and finally ended. The grisly details of the hell worlds may have been painted to emotionally impress and inspire people to do good deeds. But in modern times, what is important is to feel that the law of karma is precise, dependant on multiple converging causes mixing with each other, entirely fair, and supremely merciful when we change our heart about something we did.
In this summary, the Buddha continues the theme of karmaic consequences and the kinds of rebirth which are possible. The information is somewhat contradictory. In that sometimes the rebirth is into a hell world, sometimes into an animal world, and sometimes into a lower vibrational human life. This supports what was shared in the previous commentary passages that the factors that determine rebirth blend into each other and can have different outcomes. The details of how karma unfolds can be rather complex, but the general principles are simple enough to discern.
Here Buddha rejects the many seemingly Buddhist teachings that have rationalized and distorted the simple truth about vegetarianism. He affirms that the teaching about being vegetarian is found in many Sutras that he has expounded and not just one or two of them. He asserts that many rationalizations have been made by spiritually oriented people who are still under the influence of their addictions and admonishes people not to listen to them. He makes a prophecy that even later Buddhist sects will rationalize his teaching and even imagine that he ate animal flesh. What I find interesting is that the text uses the word “may” when predicting the future. Many Buddhas have had the power of prophecy and clearly what the Buddha predicts in this Sutra has come to pass. But the word “may” seems to acknowledge free choice and some chance to change the outcome of a prophecy. Our present actions can change the predicted outcomes of Buddhas even when they are accurate, since the future is also transitory, based on dependant origination, and subject to modification.
The sense of shame described above is about feeling our conscience. There is “toxic shame” which reinforces social conditioning and “organic shame” which inspires us to change our lives for the better. Heeding the Buddhas, feeling ashamed when we lose our inner sense of direction, allows us to self correct and to mature on the path. When we ignore the teachings of the Buddhas, do not contemplate them to see what their teachings could mean for us, or ignore the sensitivities that they wish to illuminate within us that we already have from our own compassion, then we disconnect from something within that can guide us away from unwholesome karmaic conditions in this lifetime and inferigr rebirths in the next lifetime. This compassionate conscience is a form of intelligence which must necessarily be dulled when people ignore how they feel and continue to eat animal flesh.
Here the Buddha ends his Sutra recitation. He adds one final theme which is that what he is sharing is not unique, but is something taught by all Buddhas in all worlds. All sentient beings are meant to live their own life, not be subject to harm from being killed and eaten, and are destined to eventually become enlightened. All sentient beings includes animals as well as humans, hungry ghosts, demons, asuras, and devas. We have probably been all these life forms at one time or another and those who are friends and family now were probably all these life forms as well. When we have eaten animal flesh we may have literally eaten our past or future family or friends. When we accord all sentient beings equal value, and therefore not kill and eat them, then what Buddha is sharing is that we merely follow the golden rule of treating others in the way we want to be treated. The karmaic consequences for not doing so are then merely us experiencing what we have done to others. The main difference, then, of how the Buddha sees the universe is that his compassion is wide enough to include all sentient beings, including animals, in his moral universe. Animal flesh eating humans usually only include other humans. Some even just include their own race or family. Still others include just themselves. Some may dimly acknowledge that their animal pets or certain animals that they have affection for deserve to be treated compassionately and therefore have an inner sentiment that can be logically extended to all other animals.
May this retranslation of the Sutra communicate the meaning of what the Buddha wished to share regarding the eating of animal flesh. I dedicate the merit of retranslating this chapter to the liberation of all sentient beings. Om Namo Amida Buddha Hreeh. Namaste.
A Retranslation and Commentary on the Vegetarian Section of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
Through Tenabah, copyright 2006
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra represents the last dharma teachings of the Buddha before he does phowa and releases his physical body. Because it is the very last discourse that he gives, it is considered his final and definitive teachings. He does away with all provisional or temporary teachings. Like the Lankavatara Sutra, he tries to set the record clear on the subject of vegetarianism. He emphasizes how vegetarianism is an expression of compassion. The metaphor of treating animals as if they were your only son is used. Since you would not eat the flesh of your only son, you also would not eat the flesh of animals.
The Lankavatara Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra are somewhat contradictory on a few minor points. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha claims to have never said that certain kinds of animal flesh eating were permitted. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha says that certain kinds of animal flesh eating were permitted only provisionally, in the early phases of training, until the complete dharma could be taught and clarified. The contradiction could be explained, in part, by a different audience. In the Lankavatara Sutra, Mahamati has deep affinity with the Hindu Rishis who were already vegetarian and would not need to have any provisional teachings to adjust them to the higher and more complete dharma of being vegetarian. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha seems to be clarifying teachings for people whose background is more in the Jain faith. In this group, there is a teaching about certain kinds of animal flesh being allowed and certain kinds of animal flesh not being allowed to be eaten. It seems that he gave the Jains some transition time in order to adapt a completely vegetarian diet. But now that he is releasing his body, the transition time is now over and he expects those who are his disciples to rise to the level of compassion that does not wish to kill and eat animals. Even with this minor contradiction, both the Lankavatara Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra are consistent about what the final definitive teaching of the Buddha is regarding the killing and eating of animals. Both of them advocate making no exceptions to the killing and eating of animals. Both of them also seem to agree that one should not buy animal flesh for others or oneself to eat, that one should not buy leather products, and that one should not transport animal flesh for others to use. I say, “seem to agree”, because the Lankavatara Sutra is more extensive in regards to its teachings on vegetarianism, whereas the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is more condensed and in a more summary form. Because of this, some of the things that the Lankavatara Sutra spells out in detail are only implied in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
The other minor contradiction is the dietary list of wholesome foods is somewhat different. I suspect that the Buddha may be addressing what is appropriate to a specific region and to people with a Jain background. The lack of consistency of what constitutes wholesome foods implies that we are meant to work this out for ourselves. My personal view is that having a vegan diet is more consistent with compassion for animals. I think this is especially true in our time period where eggs and dairy are factory farmed and the treatment of chickens and cows used can be very cruel. Our health sciences have advanced to deeply evaluate many dietary practices. The use of cane sugar and flour products has been seriously questioned because of their effect on our blood sugar levels. The overall intention of what Buddha is trying to teach is clear. It seems that he is less concerned with the exact details. What is interesting is that he praises Mahakasyapaika for getting his intention right from the very beginning of his dialogue with him.
This retranslation has the excellent work of Tony Page and Kosho Yamamoto behind it. They are responsible for making an English translation of the complete Mahaparinirvana Sutra available. I am retranslating some of the passages from their work in a manner consistent to what I have done with the Lankavatara Sutra.
Then Mahakasyapaikagotra asked, “In order to respect the inappropriateness of animal flesh eating, it seems that it would be wrong to give animal flesh food to those who do not want to eat it.”
The Buddha replied, “Excellent, noble son, you have understood my intention. A person who protects the Dharma should not offer animal flesh to those who do not want it. From this time on, I do not allow Sravakas to eat animal flesh. I have taught that the alms food that is from animal flesh should be treated as if it was the flesh of your son and therefore how could I allow the eating of animal flesh? What I have taught is that the eating of animal flesh obscures, dampens, and restricts the expression of great loving kindness.”
Mahakasyapaikagotra is asking if people who are giving alms to wandering monks and nuns should offer them cooked animal flesh. The Buddha praises him for getting the intent of what he is wishing to teach regarding the eating of animal flesh. The specific kind of alms giver in question is not just anyone, but those who have taken the triple refuge and become Buddhists. Because you make the Dharma your refuge, you are meant to protect the Dharma through your actions so that it can also be a refuge for others. Although monks and nuns are meant to refuse cooked animal flesh when offered to them, lay Buddhists who are giving alms to them are not meant to tempt them into violating the precepts by offering them cooked animal flesh.
The Buddha goes further by communicating that he does not want any Sravakas, lay disciples, to eat animal flesh. As will be developed later on, it seems he is addressing issues for Buddhist converts from Jain communities where Jain monks and nuns are allowed to eat some cooked animal flesh and where the habit of the community is to prepare this kind of food for them. It seems that Buddha in wanting his disciples to be more consistent in adhering to the precept about not killing and its extension to not killing and eating any animals.
The Buddha affirms that the motivation for not killing and eating animals is mahamaitri or great compassion. The Buddha affirms that the killing and eating of animals dampens, obscures, and restricts the expression of this great compassion. In one of the meditations practices of Buddhism, you visualize a radiant sun of compassion in your heart. You visualize the light radiating to family and friends, then to fellow humans, then to those who you have resentment towards, and then even to animals, hungry ghosts, and demons. When animals are killed and eaten, it dulls the rays of compassion we radiate towards them. This is something that can be verified by a subtle awareness that grows and deepens when we meditate. It is necessary to feel our heart chakra and its energies, moment by moment, in our daily life and in our periods of concentrated meditation. We need to be sensitive to when we close down our heart chakra, when we open our heart chakra, when we radiate its energy with reservations, when we radiate it without reservations (unconditionally), when its energy is vibrant and clear, and when it is dull and confused. When we are deeply tuned into the energies of the heart chakra, then we can verify whether or not the eating of animal flesh, dampens, obscures, or restricts the radiance of compassion. Some translations use the phrase “extinguishes compassion”. While this may be accurate in terms of translation, philosophically it feels less clear to me. Buddha nature is always compassionate and abides in all sentient beings. Therefore it is not possible to extinguish this compassion, except in the sense that we can obscure it from our conscious experience. I also feel that people who eat animal flesh still have the capacity to be compassionate in a restricted, more confused, and duller way. It is present in a smaller circle of relationships and has not really radiated outwards beyond the human species and possibly is really only alive within their family life and friendship life, and occasionally to strangers. I would say it is also “confused” in the sense that compassion is not always free flowing in most people. It is constantly turning itself on and off according to inconsistent circumstances for different kinds of reasons. It is also “dull” in the sense that it is mostly an unconscious and automatic reaction, rather than clearly, consciously, and spontaneously flowing out into the world.
What is interesting is that the term that the Lankavatara Sutra uses is karuna, while the term that the Mahaparinirvana Sutra uses is maitri. These terms reference the teaching of the Buddha on the Four Inexhaustible States, (1) loving kindness (maitri), (2) sympathetic compassion (karuna), (3) sympathetic joy (mudita), and (4) equanimity (upekkha). These states are considered inexhaustible, because they are meant to be motivational energies in all situations and are natural expressions of enlightened mind. Meditating on them and activating them is a positive way of relaxing into our true nature. Karuna emphasizes our ability to feel the sorrow of other sentient beings, not harming them, helping when possible, and therefore not contributing to their sorrow. Maitri or metta emphasizes being kind, treating someone well, caring for him or her, and being supportive. Karuna is compassionate sensitivity and maitri is compassionate kindness. Mudita is the ability to be happy when others are happy, something that humans often have when they see their pets happily playing. Upekkha is the ability to be at peace with what is arising, abiding, and passing away. It is the unconditionally loving side of compassion which can accept conditions as they are. It is founded on the wisdom that sees that everything is unfolding perfectly within universal law.
It is possible to feel how our treatment of animals and humans dulls the rays of compassion that are meant to radiate from our heart. If you are mindful, you can feel the fluctuations that happen as we feel different motivational impulses arise inside of us and as we identify with certain motivational impulses over others. When we act on certain impulses, we give greater power to the motivational energies behind them. If it is from unconscious conditioning and insensitive habits, then our energies are dulled. If it is from active hostility, then our energies become agitated. If it is from addictive craving, then our energies feel more helpless and compulsive. If we act from motivations arising from the four inexhaustible states, then our energies become more radiant, loving, and peaceful.
“Blessed One, why did you permit the eating of animal flesh that was blameless in three respects?”
“I allowed animal flesh eating that met with three conditions as a temporary measure in the early stages of training. This measure is now obsolete.”
The three conditions refer to an exception that the Buddha had made that many Buddhists still cling to. The conditions were that if a monk or nun was starving, if the person accidentally gives animal flesh not knowing that a monk or nun is vegetarian, and if the monk or nun did not discern until later than animal flesh was present and therefore could not have refused when it was offered. It is clear that this exception is a small one and was related to a monk who was begging late in the day. He did not notice that the patron had placed cooked animal flesh in his begging bowl, as it was already dark. When he sat down to eat later on in the evening, he noticed that the food had cooked animal flesh. He had a choice to throw away the food and therefore waste it, since the animal was already killed, or to eat the food and be more alert later on. He ate the food, but was disturbed enough to check in with what the Buddha thought. The Buddha had said it was okay under the conditions mentioned above.
It seems that this exception created an unnecessary level of complication. As people become more consistently vegetarian and deepen their meditation, they are more disturbed by ingesting animal flesh and feeling the emotional vibrations inside the animal flesh. Even when a person is able to transmute those vibrations, their sweat glands secrete odors that terrify animals. The Buddha therefore decided that this exception to the not eating of animal flesh was obsolete.
“Blessed One, you talked of the ninefold great benefit and the abandoning of the ten types of animal flesh, what was your intention in doing this?”
“I taught those things in order to restrict the eating of animal flesh. These teachings are now also obsolete.”
I am not familiar with this teaching, even though it is similar to some of the teachings in the Medicine Buddha Sutras where certain kinds of animal flesh are prohibited while others are even used as remedies. I suspect that these teaching were more relevant to converts from the Jain faith and represented a transitional step towards complete vegetarianism. In a similar manner, many people pass through a vegetarian diet that still has eggs and dairy on their way to a vegan diet that uses no animal products. The implication of these passages is that Buddha was willing to wean and tame the habits of people in stages, rather than require people to totally align with his precepts all at once. This is psychologically realistic. He is also declaring that the time has come to fully embrace the vegetarian ideal.
“Blessed One, what was your intention in teaching that animal flesh and fish are wholesome foods?”
“I did not say that animal flesh and fish are wholesome foods. I have said that cane sugar, winter rice, ordinary rice, wheat, barley, green lentils, black lentils, molasses, honey, ghee, milk, and sesame oil are wholesome foods. I have taught that various clothes for the body should be dyed colors that do not draw attention. Even more so, I have taught that attachment to the taste of eating animal flesh, which is undesirable and unattractive, and therefore even unworthy of attention, should be abandoned.”
Here the Buddha uses one of rules for monks as a metaphor to illuminate how unattractive the attachment to eating animal flesh should seem. He denies that he ever taught cooked animal flesh is wholesome food. Both the Bodhisattva who is asking the questions and the Buddha single out fish from the spectrum of different kinds of animal flesh and question whether or not this is an exception to the precept against eating cooked animal flesh. The Buddha affirms that it is not an exception. There are many who do make this exception and the term “pescavegetarian” has been coined to describe them. These are people who do not eat land animals, but make an exception for sea creatures. This diet is sometimes common in island cultures where food of any kind is sometimes more scarce.
What is interesting about this passage is that the Buddha asserts that cooked animal flesh is not wholesome food. This is different from merely saying it is uncompassionate to kill and eat animals. The Buddha questions the dietary value of eating cooked animal flesh as well. There are scientific dietary studies that have questioned the value of cooked animal flesh. The break down of animal flesh requires more work from the body to convert into energy and the process of breaking down animal flesh tends to produce more toxins and to acidify the bloodstream. This is partly why the urine of carnivores has strong odor. It seems more natural to eat plants, rather than animals. The Buddha is affirming that vegetarianism is both more wholesome and more ethical than eating cooked animal flesh.
“If this is so, does consuming the five milk products, sesame, sesame oil, sugar cane syrup, conch shell, silk, and other foods also violate the precepts?”
“Do not cling to the views of the Nirgranthas! The precepts that I teach are part of a specific training, path, and foundation, and therefore have a different intention behind them. Animal flesh eating should be abandoned even if it was considered blameless in three respects, even if it was not one of the ten prohibited kinds of animal flesh, and even if it is the animal flesh of a corpse.”
This passage clearly illuminates that the questions being raised do relate to Jain (the Nirgranthas) converts to Buddhism. The Buddha emphasizes that becoming a Buddhist involves commitment to a specific path, training, and foundation. On the Buddhist path, all killing and eating of animals is meant to be abandoned for the sake of great compassion. It seems that the Jains and the Hindus have different opinions about what is wholesome and what is unwholesome in regard to foods. The Buddha sidesteps those considerations by emphasizing compassion for animals over and above whether or not something is wholesome to eat for oneself. Although he previously declared that animal flesh eating is unwholesome, he puts this consideration into perspective. By sidestepping the issue of what is wholesome and unwholesome in regards to foods that are not from animals, the Buddha leaves the question of what is wholesome and unwholesome in the plant world open for further growth. The Buddha does not want to pronounce judgment on what is wholesome and what is unwholesome in the plant world. He does not want to make it an issue within his teachings. The implication is that people need to work this out for themselves.
The Buddha continues, saying, “Animals have a keen sense of smell and are terrorized by the odor of animal flesh eaters. Whether a carnivore is moving or resting, its sweat glands emanate a distinctive odor that animals can detect. Even if a person eats garlic or asafoetida, people around him or her will feel uncomfortable and less willing to socialize. Whether such a person in the company of fellow humans or among animals, his or her odor will let sentient beings know that he or she has eaten those herbs. In a similar manner, animals know if a person has eaten animal flesh by his or her distinctive smell and will then be afraid of dying at his or her hands. Where ever this person travels, animals of the waters, of the sky, or of the earth will all be frightened. They will believe that this person will kill them next. They may even faint and die from the terror of smelling the odor of the dead animal exuding from his or her skin. Because of these kinds of reasons, Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas will not eat animal flesh.”
The “smell of dead animals exuding from the skin of carnivores” is a common theme of the Lankavatara Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Humans have generally lost the keen sense of smell that animals have. Dogs are sometimes used by the police to track down the scent of a criminal. They can sniff some article of clothing and use the odor to track such a person down. If their smell is this keen, then they will be able to smell the sweat of a carnivore and know that a killer is nearby. Millions of years of evolution have made the sense of smell valuable. Humans have lost this keen sensitivity because our survival is now less dependent on our sense of smell. The odor is not merely repugnant. It is related to how animal flesh is broken down into toxins and acids in the body. It is literally the smell of death. The Buddha is only touching the surface of something much larger than the words can convey. The Lankavatara tries to go deeper and to develop this theme more, but words may have a limit. It is possible through empathetic compassion to feel into the consciousness of an animal and feel their experience, to feel how strongly the sense of smell shapes their experience, and to see how intimately the sense of smell brings some experience to them. Some humans have a parallel sensitivity to their romantic partners, smells arouse deep passions and signal a depth of intimacy, and when combined with taste can open up a deep biological connection with another being. Smells enter into us and become part of us. Some of the vestiges of our once powerful sense of smell are when a person vomits and the odor makes others want to vomit. The odor gets inside us in a way that merely seeing and hearing to do not. We instinctively want to move away or at least get the odor out of our bodies. We do not want to wash our bodies after seeing something unpleasant, but we do want to wash away an unpleasant odor.
In giving this kind of argument, the Buddha is inviting us into the world of the animals, to experience life through their own senses, to feel their emotions, to develop enough empathy to know that they wish for life as much as we do, and then to cultivate enough interspecies compassion to not want to kill and eat them.
The Buddha continues, “Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas may appear to be animal flesh eaters in order to interact comfortably with animal flesh eaters and eventually lead them to the Dharma. Such beings do not even eat ordinary wholesome food, how much more unlikely that they would eat cooked animal flesh!”
Here the Buddha gently cautions people to look beyond appearances. It may sometimes seem that Bodhisattvas may be eating animal flesh, but they are just blending in with people and forming a level of rapport with them in order to gently lead them to the Dharma. If you look carefully, they are not eating animal flesh. While Bodhisattvas may sometimes speak out against animal flesh eating when social reform is possible, they do not have an egoic need to call attention to themselves or to convince others. When I was visiting a bar where a friend was playing jazz, I would get a Cranberry Juice and club soda to sip all night. It would look like a wine spritzer. I did not stand out as someone who did not drink. It allowed me to blend in and be present with people. It did eventually lead to conversations about meditation, karma, and nonattachment. Some people may have assumed that I did drink alcohol because I did not call attention to myself in this way. Perhaps people had done this with the Buddha and may have assumed that he ate animal flesh merely because he knew how to peacefully blend in with others who were. It is likely that he is responding to the belief that some people apparently had that he had said that animal flesh and fish were wholesome foods, when he did not. They may have misinterpreted his silence or assumed he was an animal flesh eater by his association with animal flesh eaters.
The Buddha also mentions that Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas “do not even eat ordinary food”. There is a parallel passage in the Lankavatara Sutra about the Dharma being food for higher beings. There is some hint of higher levels of diet than merely eating from the list of wholesome foods that Buddha had mentioned earlier. It is possible that being vegan is implied, but I feel that this passage refers to the skillful use of herbs, alchemical substances, pranic breathing, pure energized water, chanting mantras to gather and concentrate energy, and directly feeding from emanations of pure dharmaic energy. This passage suggests that becoming vegetarian is at least one step closer to these higher modes of eating than eating cooked animal flesh.
The Buddha continues and says, “Noble son, many hundreds of years after I have released this body, no stream enterers, once returners, nonreturners, or arhats will be present. In the Dharma declining period, monks and nuns will still preserve the vinaya and Abhidharma, and perform many rituals. But they will be attached to their physical comfort, value eating various kinds of animal flesh, experience hormone imbalances, be afflicted with much hunger and thirst, wear strange clothing, have robes with color patches like those who take care of cows and birds, behave like cats, claim to be arhats, have many pains in their bodies, have bodies stained by feces and urine, who wear the clothes of sages, who wear the clothes of ascetic wanderers, who claim lesser writings to be the authentic Dharma, but who are not truly in accord with the complete and authentic Dharma.
“These people will corrupt what I have taught, established, and cultivated. They will modify the vinaya rules, the rituals, the behavioral precepts, and the authentic sayings that liberate one from improper attachments. They will select and recite passages according to their inclinations.
“There will appear false ascetics, claiming to be spiritual sons of Shakyamuni, and say, “According to our Vinaya rules, the Blessed One has said that eating alms of cooked animal flesh is acceptable”. They will create their own scriptures and contradict each other.
“There will also appear those who accept raw cereals, animal flesh, fish, do their own cooking and stock pile pots of sesame oil; who visit leather makers, parasol makers, and rulers. Those that I call true monks and nuns are those that abandon such tendancies.
The Buddha goes on to predict a period of time when the true Dharma gets corrupted. He gives a lot of general signs, but also the specific sign that those groups will all allow animal flesh eating within the rules for monks and nuns and will also consider as acceptable donations from lay followers of cooked foods containing animal flesh. Parallel to the Lankavatara Sutra, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra asserts that those who eat animal flesh will experience hormonal imbalances, have less peaceful sleep, and have less care concerning their appearance. While the list of effects of animal flesh eating is more extensive in the Lankavatara Sutra, the list presented in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra agrees with its general spirit. Some of the metaphors are dated and may be difficult to translate into metaphors relevant to our time period.
What the Buddha is asserting is that monks and nuns will not even go around begging as they used to, but stock pile food and cook it for themselves. They will use animal products like leather, have luxuries like parasols, and be patronized by rulers so that their moral stances may get compromised by local politics. Monks and nuns who abandon such practices are meant to remain a spiritual elite and who are not meant to have worldly attachments that affect their purity of focus. By renouncing those kinds of karmaic habits, they are meant to transform the world by preaching and example.
The Buddha asserts that the not killing and eating of animals is an integral part of his Dharma. It is this specific sign that “great compassion”, the driving force of Mahayana Buddhism, is lost when people violate this precept. The essence of this prophecy is that when people compromise on this precept, the other aspects of the Dharma are also weakened or corrupted to the point where the teachings cease to truly liberate.
Mahakasyapaika then asks, “Blessed One, what should monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, who depend on begging, when they travel to places where it has not been confirmed that the food is pure, when they discover that some animal flesh is found in their food?”
The Buddha answers, “Noble son, there is no violation of the Dharma if the vegetarian food is washed with water and then eaten. But if there is a large quantity of cooked animal flesh, then the food must be rejected. It is okay to eat vegetarian food from a bowl that touches a bowl containing animal flesh as long as the food is not mixed together. Eating animal flesh left over by others still violates the precept of not eating cooked animal flesh. Whether it is beef, fish, dried hooves, or scraps does not change this. I previously allowed exceptions according to the needs of various situations during the earlier phases of training. But now is the time to end these exceptions and to be consistent with complete abstaining from eating cooked animal flesh. I am giving a comprehensive teaching concerning the harmfulness of eating animal flesh. This is my final declaration before passing into Parinirvana.”
The last section concerns the practicality of keeping the diet pure when traveling to regions where animal flesh eating is practiced and where one is likely to eat in mixed company. Unlike some modern Buddhist teachings that say that it is okay to eat animal flesh when it is offered when you are a guest, you are still meant to refuse cooked animal flesh. There is sometimes social pressure to eat animal flesh in those circumstances. A person is meant to be firm in his or her resolve. It is done with the same clarity and resolve that one would have if someone tried to force you to eat the cooked flesh of a human relative. There is some concern when the vegetarian food is contaminated by cooked animal flesh. The Buddha makes some allowances for wandering monks and nuns so that they can eat with people who still eat cooked animal flesh. It is clear that the vibration of animal flesh and contamination of vegetarian food with dead animal substance is meant to be avoided and not eaten. This would imply, in the understanding of the Buddha, that cooked animal flesh is unwholesome for humans to eat.
Having explored the issues with Mahakasyapaika, the Buddha closes his discourse on the eating of cooked animal flesh. He asserts that the abstaining from eating cooked animal flesh is important, has no exceptions, helps cultivate great compassion, avoids unwholesome effects to the body, heart, and mind, and is an integral part of the genuine Dharma. The Buddha shares that he made some allowances in earlier stages of the training that were temporary and declares that all those allowances are now obsolete. The Buddha completes this discourse by declaring that it is his dying wish that the precept against eating animal flesh be honored. He says this to emphasize how important this precept is to him.
THE FIVE YAMAS AND FIVE NIYAMAS OF SPIRITUAL DIET
Through Tenabah, copyright 2006
The word “yama” in Sanskrit can be translated as “control”, “regulate”, or “observe”. As a root, it is found in the word “pranayama” which refers to methods of consciously breathing to generate, regulate, and circulate prana, life force energy, within the body. In another context, the yamas refer to precepts that one follows as part of the path of yoga and the niyamas refer to precepts that restrain one from doing things that are harmful. Patanjali has five observances and five restraints as part of the ethical foundation for his understanding of yoga.
I came to an understanding that a spiritual or regenerative vegan diet could be defined by five observances and five restraints. I came to the clarity that some of the difficulty some people had adopting a vegan diet had to do with animal flesh cravings partly balancing the effects of a sugar addiction.
When a body needs to find balance through food, it will crave something familiar that will bring itself closer into balance. Even if this balance is not perfect, it will crave in the direction of balance. It is possible to substitute what the body craves for with more wholesome vegan alternatives. This will eventually become the new “familiar” that the body guidance system will build around. The body needs to evolve into a vegan diet even though I feel it is a more natural and more ethically attuned diet. It needs to learn how to produce the necessary enzymes, hormones, and chemicals to make this diet work for itself.
THE FIVE NIYAMAS
THE FIVE YAMAS
The Yamas and Niyamas are stricter than necessary to err on the side of caution and to help pinpoint addictions. You may wish to add or subtract from this list as your experience teaches you what works for you. I came to the conclusion that garlic has too many benefits to not include. This is unlike the older dietary traditions. It seems garlic in large enough amounts causes a displeasing odor to many Asians and therefore it was considered something to be eliminated from the diet. Modern scientific research has shown garlic to give many healing benefits. Garlic is also an aphrodisiac and therefore may have been eliminated so that sexual passions are not unnecessarily stimulated. However, we are in the era of Tantra where passions are mindfully embraced and transmuted into creativity, compassion, and wisdom. In Taoist understanding, sexual passion is a sign of general good health. Even if one chooses to live a celibate life, it seems important to honor this energy, not repress it to the point where health is impaired, and to do kundalini yoga to redirect it towards our higher evolution. In terms of the odor, this is not an issue when garlic is properly blended in with other foods. There are also varieties of odor free garlic and also ways of aging and extracting garlic juice so that the odor is removed and the medicinal potency is concentrated (Kyolic). Garlic, along with Taheebo, is very good against internal yeast infections which are behind sugar issues.
What is recommended is to fast for two days on spring water with a few drops of lemon or lime juice, and a drop of stevia. If you are feeling too weak, then add some fresh green juice or fresh fruit juice in small amounts. Taking two days off the flow of your diet will signal to your body that you are changing your dietary habits. Then do two weeks on the Yamas and Niyamas mentioned above. From there, you may wish to add and subtract mindfully in order to get a feeling for what diet is wholesome, pleasant, and tolerable for you. Some people may have some addictions to work through and the advice mentioned above may be too much to integrate immediately. In this case, start on the sugar addiction before struggling with the others. If you must have some animal protein, get it from the eggs of free range chickens and from Salmon. Unlike other animals, Salmon is usually obtained from fish late in their life cycle, often when they are very old and near death. Eggs are relatively karma free, especially if some energetic agreement is made between the chickens and compassionate farmers. If the energy feels exploitive, then the eggs carry the karma of stealing, but even here it is a softer karma than killing. Most other animal meat is obtained from killing animals in their prime and thus killing them when half their natural lifespan is in front of them. There Salmon and eggs have milder karmas associated with them. If you overall intention is to eventually become vegan, your conscience towards animals has been awakened, and you inwardly agree that animals have a right to live, then this transitional karma will quickly burn away. You will naturally only use these products as your body feels you need them and quickly reach a point where you do not need them.
CAUTION AND DISCLAIMER
I have only given the barest of outlines here. Changing your diet for health and ethical reasons is a large undertaking. It is going beyond what I feel is a severe ethical numbness, insensitivity, and blindness that our culture has historically also had about the rights of other races, women, and children. You might meet people who will try to convince you using a thousand arguments that you are wrong in what you do or that you are self righteously judging them for their own usually unconscious and habitual dietary choices. Some will appeal to a seemingly higher spiritual teaching concerning transcending good and evil to a level of love, illumination, and freedom in order to justify their animal flesh eating diets. I actually do believe that we are meant to transcend good and evil to live in a higher mode of love and that when we do so we will spontaneously not wish to cause animals to suffer by hunting them down, killing them, and eating them. I also trust that all humans will eventually embrace the idea of being vegan as part of this evolution into a higher mode of love. When people arrive at this level of clarity within themselves is related to their overall commitment to grow, work through their inherited karmas, and attain enlightenment. With almost everyone, it does not happen all at once from one conversation. Therefore I would suggest having compassion for the carnivores, letting them live out their own karmaic journey, and trusting universal law to regulate their lives. They may need to incarnate as the animals they once hunted in order to feel both sides of their karmaic activity. We are here to learn what compassion is.
Because changing diet is a large undertaking, I recommend that people find guidance in how to transition to a vegan diet from skilled healers, workshops, and books on the subject. Take time to learn about diet, experiment with care, and become sensitive to your own challenges. You may have addictions to certain unwholesome foods. You may be disturbing the habit patterns of your primary relationships. You may have a health condition that requires some special attention and which may get shocked by the change. You may have many toxins already inside your system and moving into a vegan diet may cause some strong cleansing reactions.
I do not suggest merely will powering yourself through such changes, but to get some good knowledge and guidance about how to proceed. I would like to share that the process does not have to be painful or unpleasant. I would suggest taking the changes one at a time so that your body can integrate those changes easily. I took six months to transition to being vegetarian. I first stopped buying animal flesh at the grocery store, then I stopped buying it restaurants, then stopped eating it when people offered it to me, then I stopped eating it with my parents. I then repeated the cycle with fish. Later on I dropped all dairy except for soy cheese (which has casein, an animal product) and yogurt. Later on I dropped eggs. At this point my body regained its natural vegan wisdom and actually just threw up the eggs I was trying eat and clearly signaled its own readiness to let it go. I had accidentally not eaten eggs for a while. In a similar manner, I noticed that I had not eaten any soy cheese and yogurt for three months and simply decided to continue without them. At that point I was completely vegan. I do feel that chanting and invoking the blessing energy of Amida Buddha (Om Namo Amida Buddha Hreeh) helps to purify our dietary karmas. If our intention is clear, then we automatically enter into a working out phase where our karmaic habits will become limited, slow down, and eventually end. During this time, we will attract the knowledge and help that we need.
I would also recommend not trying to teach others, argue with others, or preach to others about vegetarianism until you have made a full transition. Engaging with others in this way will cause you to “lose force” in your own evolving practice. Simply state to others, when they ask, that you are choosing to be vegetarian. Answer them with answers that are short and to the point. If they argue with those answers, merely say nothing. If they say what you are doing is stupid, then merely say that they are entitled to their opinion. If they tell you to quit, then merely say you have just as much right to your diet as they have to theirs. If they ask you for your reasons, merely say it is because of compassion for animals. Only engage in a deeper conversation if you feel that they are open, humble, and respectful. If people are arguing, it could be their own conscience and knowing is surfacing from their own Buddha nature, and they are resisting what their own heart is sharing with them. Trust this deeper process inside them, rather than argue with their surface mind. You might lock into this place with them and help them to avoid what is surfacing from their own depths.
Food ties into many emotional processes, like the way approval is given and received, you will need to look at and move beyond your own approval issues. You may need to reframe the ways you give and receive approval from people you love who are not transitioning with you. Trust their own process and give them room to make their own discoveries. Please remember that when you are in your own transition that you are too new at being vegetarian to be completely convincing to others. Your own body is still learning what it means and only a body truth can completely convince others to change. Make a commitment to learn what you are learning for the sake of yourself and those you love. Do not teach anyone until you have integrated the teachings into your body. I did not teach anyone vegetarianism or even wished to teach it until I was vegan eight years after I started this journey. I did not teach veganism until much later, too, for the same reason.
FALL BACK POSITIONS
If you have clarity that animals deserve to have their lives cherished by not killing them and eating them (and, positively, allowing them to live the lives that they naturally wish to), then you are essentially vegetarian. For some people, this ethical and compassionate clarity is enough to shift their mind, heart, and body into being consistent vegetarians or vegans. For some people, they will not have any trouble shifting their diet over to being vegetarians or vegans. The mental clarity, spiritual compassion, and intentional commitment are enough to shift the way the body processes food so that it can align with this new ideal.
I have found, though, that many are not able to shift so easily. This is due to several factors. One is that, while the conscious mind may be clear about the ethical and spiritual ideal of vegetarianism, the subconscious mind still has doubts. These resistant thoughts take the form of samskaras within the subconscious mind. We may have had a strongly held attachment to eating animal flesh coming from early childhood, our family genetic lineages, or from previous lifetimes. As a result of these samskaras, our body may not shift over to eating vegetarian or vegan so easily. We may have to meditate deeply enough to get in touch with these samskaras, understand why and how they held in our consciousness, and learn to release them. Because these samskaras may represent genuine parts of ourselves that may not believe in vegetarianism or veganism, it may be necessary to review the compassionate reasons why we have chosen to be vegetarian or vegan and to see if these reasons still make sense to the new subself that is appearing within our meditation.
Two is that every diet has its own kind of balance. Merely removing the habit of eating animal flesh from our total approach to diet may cause some nutritional imbalances. Our bodies may not know how to fully digest vegetarian food to get total nutrition. We may not know how to cook this new kind of food or relate it to our needs. We may not know how to interpret our nutritional cravings within the context of being consistently vegetarian or vegan. Our metabolism and enzymes may need to change in stages to accommodate this new diet. Further, as we adopt this new and superior diet, we may experience cleansing reactions as our bodies purge the toxic build up from having eaten animal flesh for part of our lives. In Genesis, the original diet of Adam was vegan and humans had lifespans of 600 to 1000 years. When Noah becomes addicted to alcohol and adopts an animal flesh eating diet, the human lifespan is reduced to 40 to 80 years, with some rare individuals living near 200 years of age. Alcohol and animal flesh eating seem to be a balancing pair in terms of maintaining the acid to alkaline balance in the body. When we let go of eating animal flesh, it may require other changes in our diet.
In order to break down animal protein, the body must work much harder to get nutrition. The stomach HCL of carnivores in nature is about twice the HCL level of human beings. Their intestinal length is about half of what humans have. The reason why is because carnivores are designed to use strong acids to extract the food from animal flesh and to quickly expel the remaining animal matter before it becomes too toxic. Humans keep animal matter in their intestines for twice the time that most carnivores do and therefore experience more toxic side effects from eating animal flesh. It seems that humans were not designed to eat animal flesh, but could from time to time use animal flesh eating as a supplemental source of food when the primary source of food was hard to find in the environment. Humans have what evolutionary biologists call “vestigial carnivore teeth”. What this means is that our genetic past indicates carnivorous ancestors, but our present carnivore teeth are relatively useless in terms of the tearing of animal flesh required to really eat animals. This means that humans still have some capacity to digest animal flesh, but as a long term diet we would get too much toxins. Eventually these toxins cannot be expelled efficiently and get stored in various parts of the body. This is why Native Americans would do many things to balance their animal flesh eating. They would do sweat lodges, fasting, use cleansing herbs, and do rituals to appease the spirit of the animals that they hunted and killed. These approaches show that they had the beginnings of a vegetarian compassion towards animals and knew that they had to balance the effects of animal flesh eating. The Lakota Indians have a story that show remembrance of a time, before the Ice Age, where humans were vegetarian and how animal flesh eating was allowed during the Ice Age in order to keep the human species alive. When humans would each too animal flesh, the Deer Spirit would give humans rheumatism. The story may suggest that when humans started getting certain illnesses related to animal flesh eating and when there was again an abundance of vegetarian food on Earth again, it would be time to become vegetarian again. It seems that during the Ice Age a craving and attachment to animal flesh eating happened and humans did not heed the signal to change back.
When you become vegetarian, the body does start to cleanse itself of accumulated of toxic by products of animal flesh digestion, particularly more uric acid from trying to convert protein to usable energy. This can be a quiet or dramatic process depending on what kind of dietary history a person is evolving from. My advice is to take this transition in stages. If you feel that you cannot shift into total consistency with vegetarianism, take small steps. First, eat lower down the food chain. Cut down all animal flesh eating except chicken and fish. Then eliminate chicken. Then eliminate fish. Then eliminate eggs. Then eliminate dairy. If you crave some animal flesh, see if some salmon will satisfy it. Unlike many species, Salmon are usually killed late in their lifespan, as opposed to most animals which are killed in their prime. If you are going to eat some animal flesh, at least eat “free range” animals which are at least allowed to have a relatively happy life before getting killed as opposed to animals that must live under the stressful conditions of a factory farm. If you assume that your dollars are economic votes supporting certain practices, there is less sorrow created in the world if you do not support factory farms. While eating free range animals or salmon is not as karmaically pure as being vegan, it reduces the karma significantly and can be a transitional stage. If you have a wish to be aligned with vegetarian animal compassion and are sensitive to whether the cravings come from some biochemical need or from old habit, you will find that your nonvegetarian cravings will slowly disappear.
I would also recommend not shifting immediately from a vegetarian diet which still includes eggs and dairy to a vegan diet which does not. Again, some people can handle this immediate shift and do very well. For me, the transition from carnivore to vegetarian took six months and the transition from vegetarian to vegan took me eight years. At one point, I felt my body clearly not wanting eggs anymore. At another point, I had eliminated all dairy with the exception of some soy cheese with casein (a milk derivative) and some yogurt. I kept these two products for about half of the transitional four years. They were used in relatively small amounts and I stopped completely after I noticed that my body did not ask for them for about three months. In a sense, I became a vegan three months before I noticed I was a vegan.
There are, I feel, “adjustment cravings” where the body is between two ways of eating. It may need to revisit the older way of eating temporarily in order to manage its health the way it had been used to. A new diet requires a kind of biochemical relearning which is sometimes slow and sometimes fast. This is sometimes seen when people go to a foreign country and get sick on the food when they first experience it and then get used to it later. Just because one has cravings and gives into them does not mean that one has “failed”. I would simply recommend that people trust the larger process and trust that they will need less of the previous diet over time.
I found that my body has shifted very deeply in the near 33 years that I have been vegetarian and the near 25 years that I have been vegan. My diet is still evolving too. Early on, the smell of barbecued animal flesh would still feel tempting to me and cause me to experience a desire for the flavor of some animal flesh dish. At one point, I noticed that the smell of burnt animal flesh smelled like the burnt human flesh I one time smelled when passing by a burn patient at a hospital. It lost all its allure. There is a mystique around animal flesh eating, with all kinds of sauces, spices, garnishes, and, oddly enough, flavorful vegetables like onions, carrots, parsley, oregano, and garlic. Many of the spices are antioxidants which neutralize some of the toxins that come from animal flesh decaying or preservatives that slow down this decay. I sincerely feel that if each human had to hunt and kill their own animal flesh food that there would be a lot more vegetarians. It is no coincidence that in the millions of commercials I have seen advertising some burger or chicken nuggets that they never show any animal being killed.
There is one further factor which can make shifting to vegetarianism or veganism difficult. This is the social pressure from family and peers. This is something that alcoholics also often face when they are trying to quit their addiction. Many times friends will push you to go back to the very things you are trying to eliminate from your life. If you change your diet in order to have compassion for animals, then you may cause people to consider what they are doing to animals through their own diet. Even if you do say a single word to judge your friends, they will make the connection and feel judged anyway. Their own conscience may bother them as you expand your compassion to include animals and wants to express this compassion by not eating them. If you do express your views, the views may sound judgmental to your friends even if you share it in the kindest way possible and even if you do not require them to change. They may want to argue with you in order to feel better about what they are doing. In short, your view will challenge their way of life no matter how quiet you are about what you are doing.
In my early vegetarian days, I would only mention being vegetarian when it was absolutely necessary. I would gently turn down eating animal flesh without saying why unless a person asked why. Then the Buddhist precept about not lying would require me to say why. Even then I would say only the minimum required to answer their question, often just saying “yes” to whether or not I was vegetarian and leaving it at that. During this time, I had many people ridicule the diet, argue that it wrong, that I was putting myself in a strange kind of bondage, try to ram a burger in my face, try to slip animal flesh into my food knowing that it would violate my commitment, and even saying that my diet would make me sick, that I would not get enough vitamin B12, that I would not get enough protein, and that being vegetarian was not natural because our ancestors were carnivorous apes (though some feel that we descended from fruitarian guerillas).
I learned from this time period that I had to learn to gently stand my ground and affirm what I believed. I saw that I had to overcome a part of me that wished to conform to what people expected in order to get approval. I was surprised at how strong this karmaic habit was in me. I could feel the impulse to align with the wishes of those around me, to not stand out, to hide in conformity, and to not make waves. Looking back, it seemed related to having stern parents who expected conformity and who withdrew emotional affection whenever they were disobeyed. But during my transition, I knew that my love for animals was a stronger motivation than my need to conform to peer pressure.
I think that American culture needs to see its own racist roots and look at how it not only did not extend compassion beyond the human species, but also shrank compassion further by only fully giving individual rights to adult white heterosexual males. Women had to fight for their rights, blacks had to fight first to not be made into slaves and then to be acknowledged as having equal rights to whites, children were often not given much rights either and spanking with belts and sticks was often used by many parents. About three hundred to five hundred years ago, this culture also tried to wipe out the Native Americans, sometimes shooting them on site, killing women and children, trading blankets that were infected with small pox, and having them undergo forced relocations. Homosexuals were shot at on sight as late as the 1950s, still are not allowed to have legal marriages, and still are fired from jobs when they are found to be homosexuals. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement are still less than 100 years old, at least in the forms that we know them now. There are still many pockets of the resistance to the many reforms these movements represent. Movements honoring the rights of children and the rights of animals are still even younger than these.
The time scale of Buddhist thought is sometimes measured in long periods of kalpas and yugas. Buddhism as a religion is about 2,500 years old. From this perspective, a few hundred years is not that much time for social change to get integrated. We can learn from studying how the previous reform movements were resisted by the mainstream culture, what kinds of arguments they used to put down those who held reformist views, and what change eventually required. Early feminists were called “bitches”. People who were against blacks being slaves were often accused of being against the Bible, since Ham, one of the sons of Noah, was black and was cursed with slavery by god and the early Hebrews were allowed to have slaves (though if someone curses someone with something it usually means that such a condition is obviously not a good thing to give someone and should therefore not define normal treatment). Some states in America still legally required a wife to “perform her duty” (aka have sex with her husband) as late as even 50 years ago. Then there were semantic games played with the reforms, once the general idea was accepted. Many Christian churches say that they believe in male and female equality, but do not want to formalize it as a legal amendment, still want the male to be the “head of the household” and still do not have any women ministers.
When a person becomes vegetarian, he or she might encounter the social resistance and counterattack to the change such a view represents. The society will get offended if you make parallels with how animals are treated and how this treatment has been justified with how Blacks, Women, Native Americans, other races in general, and children have been treated and how this treatment has been justified. The Buddhist response to this kind of resistance is to gently speak the dharma, let people make up their own minds about the subject, be nonattached to the counter attack, and still have compassion towards those who hold opposing views. It may even take many lifetimes before people understand a single dharma precept and align with its intention. Buddhists are meant to have patience, endurance, and humility when meeting such resistance.
Inspite of the view that the Buddha was not interested in social change, he was an advocate of the ability and right of women to seek enlightenment, he was opposed to slavery, he was opposed to the caste system, he was opposed to warfare, he was opposed to economic exploitation, and he was opposed to the killing and eating of animals. He advocated a nonviolent revolution where people gradually shifted their consciousness about these things, inspired from the insights, moral sentiments, and compassion which arose in their meditation practice, from living the basic precepts, and in their hearing of dharma talks. He also taught people to be compassionate with themselves about their own process of change. He taught people to not be too strict with themselves and to not be too complacent with themselves either. His path was called the “middle way”, not too little discipline and not too much. Clear intention, simple human effort without strain, trusting the process, mindful presence, and gentle compassion would eventually burn away all unwholesome karma and create both inner and outer peace.