About the text
My Master’s thesis in Sanskrit was an intertextual study of this text, which forms the final chapter of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra – one of the key scriptures of the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism which in turn was an important influence on the Chan/Zen schools of China and Japan.
The Chapter on Meat-Eating argues strongly that a bodhisattva (the ideal Buddhist practitioner for the Mahāyāna) should abstain from eating meat. In doing so it not only argues against but flatly contradicts earlier Buddhist scriptures with which its audience would have been familiar. The Chapter on Meat-Eating is unusual for a Buddhist text in the strength of the rhetoric it employs against those who hold a different view. This suggests that at the time the text was composed, the debate around whether Buddhists were obliged to abstain from eating meat or not was a heated one. Indeed, the popularity of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra in China and Japan was a major factor in promoting vegetarianism in those societies – particularly amongst Buddhist monks and nuns.
For those interested in reading more, my thesis can be downloaded here.
The Chapter on Meat-Eating
A translation from Sanskrit of the Eighth Chapter of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Then, when the bodhisattva, the great being Mahāmati had questioned the Blessed One in verse, he again requested instruction from him: ‘Blessed One, Tathāgata, Arhat, Perfectly Awakened Buddha, teach me about the virtues and the faults that are associated with meat-eating. Then I and other bodhisattvas, great beings, will teach the Dharma now and in the future in order that living beings who are under the influence of the habitual energy of previous existences as beings who ate flesh and who are greedy for the pleasure that they get from meat, might rid themselves of their craving for its taste. Those living beings who enjoy eating flesh will abandon their craving for its taste, long for the taste of the food of the Dharma, and attain great love for each other, regarding all living beings with the same kind of affection as for their only child. Having attained this great love and practiced all of the stages of the bodhisattva path, they will quickly awaken to unsurpassed, perfect awakening or, having rested a while at the stage of a disciple or solitary buddha, they will approach the unsurpassed stage of a tathāgata. Blessed One, even non-Buddhists who proclaim a false Dharma, who are devoted to materialist doctrines, who put forth the positions of existence or non-existence, or who teach annihilationism or eternalism prohibit meat-eating and do not eat it themselves. Certainly then the Perfectly Awakened Buddha, the Lord of the World who has taught the one taste of compassion should do the same. Yet in your teaching you yourself eat meat, and do not prohibit meat-eating. It would be good if the Blessed One, who is filled with empathy for the whole world and who regards all living beings as being like his only child, the Greatly Compassionate One were, out of empathy, to teach me about the virtues and the faults that are associated with meat-eating. Then I and other bodhisattvas will be able to teach the Dharma to living beings like these.’
The Blessed One said, ‘Then, Mahāmati, listen well. Listen carefully and allow you mind to become absorbed by my words, and I will tell you.’
‘Excellent, Blessed One’, said the bodhisattva, the great being Mahāmati, and listened to the Blessed One.
The Blessed One said, ‘There are countless reasons, Mahāmati, why it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva to eat any kind of meat. I will explain them to you. In this world, Mahāmati, in the long course of saṃsāra, there is no living being who has obtained a physical form who has not been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, or had some other kind of family relationship to you. These beings are reborn in another state of existence, born from a womb as a wild animal, as livestock, or as a bird, or they are born as someone with whom you have a family relationship. How, then, can it be appropriate for a bodhisattva, a great being, to eat the meat of any kind of being, creature, or living thing whatsoever, when he wants to relate to all living beings as if they were part of himself, and wants to practise the Buddha-Dharma? Mahāmati, even rākṣasas become protectors, develop compassion, and give up eating meat when they hear the excellent nature of the Dharma of the tathāgatas. Certainly then, people who yearn for the Dharma will do the same. Therefore, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for any living beings anywhere in the cycle of rebirths who have any notion of family relationships to eat any kind of meat. This is so that they might cultivate a perception of all living beings as being like their only child. It is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva to eat any kind of meat. Even in exceptional circumstances, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a bodhisattva who is engaged in spiritual practice to eat any kind of meat. Meat from dogs, asses, buffalo, horses, oxen, human beings, and so forth are kinds of meat that are not eaten by ordinary people, but they are sold as suitable to eat by shepherds at the side of the road in order to make money. Therefore, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a bodhisattva to eat meat from anywhere at all.
‘It is not appropriate, Mahāmati, for a bodhisattva who loves purity to eat meat that comes from the union of semen and blood. It is not appropriate, Mahāmati, for a bodhisattva whose spiritual practice is to strive to develop love to eat meat, as this will cause living beings to shake in fear. For example, Mahāmati, when a dog sees a ḍomba, an outcaste, or a fisherman who desires to eat flesh – even from a distance – he will be gripped by fear and think, “These are accomplished killers. They will kill me too.” In the same way, Mahāmati, when other minute creatures of the air, the earth, or the water see a meat-eater – even from a distance – will, with their keen sense of smell, detect the scent of the rākṣasa, and quickly flee from such people, who may bring death. Therefore, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a bodhisattva whose spiritual practice is to dwell with great love to eat meat, because this will cause living beings to shake in fear. It is not appropriate, Mahāmati, for a bodhisattva to eat meat – which stinks and which is pleasing to ignoble people – because eating meat gives one a bad reputation, and because noble people abstain from it. Noble people, Mahāmati, do not offer bloody meat when they make offerings of food to the sages, and so it is certainly not appropriate for a bodhisattva to eat meat.
‘In order to protect the minds of a great many people, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva who wants to avoid the Buddha’s teaching being spoken ill of to eat meat. For example, Mahāmati, there are people in this world who speak ill of the Buddha’s teaching, saying “Why do these people who are supposedly living the life of a renunciant or a brahmin reject the food of the sages of old, and eat flesh like carnivorous animals with full bellies, terrifying minute creatures of the air, the earth, and the water, bringing terror to all about them as they wander through this world? These people destroy the renunciant life, they obliterate the brahmin life. There is neither Dharma nor discipline in them.” There are many kinds of people with a hostile attitude who speak ill of the Buddha’s teaching in this way. Therefore, Mahāmati, in order to protect the minds of a great many people, it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva who wants to avoid the Buddha’s teaching being spoken ill of to eat any kind of meat.
‘The stench of a dead body is universally considered to be disgusting. Therefore, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a bodhisattva to eat meat. When flesh is being burned, Mahāmati, whether it is the flesh of a dead person or of another kind of living being, there is no difference in the smell. Both kinds of flesh give off the same stench. Therefore, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a bodhisattva whose spiritual practice is to develop a love of purity to eat any kind of meat.
‘When sons and daughters of good family, Mahāmati, who have committed themselves to the Mahāyāna, spiritual practitioners engaged in spiritual practice, who dwell with love, who know incantations and wish to perform them, go forth to cremation grounds, to the forest wilderness, to far-off places, to places inhabited by demons, to a hut or some other place to meditate, they are hindered in accomplishing incantations and in attaining liberation. Thus, Mahāmati, seeing that it creates obstacles to all kinds of spiritual practice and accomplishment, it is not appropriate for a bodhisattva who desires to bring benefit to themselves and others to eat any kind of meat. Because perceiving physical forms brings about the desire to taste them, it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva who regards all beings as himself to eat any kind of meat. Reflecting that even the gods shun it, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva to eat any kind of meat. Reflecting that his mouth will emit the most terrible stench as long as he lives, Mahāmati, it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva to eat any kind of meat.
‘He sleeps uneasily, and he uneasy when he awakes. He has terrifying, hair-raising dreams filled with evil. Alone in an empty house, his dwelling is lonely, and demons seize his spirit. He may be struck by terror and begin to tremble at any time, for no reason. He does not know how much to eat. When he eats and drinks, he neither tastes properly, digests properly, nor feels properly satisfied. His intestines are filled with a great many worms and things which cause leprosy. He no longer even minds suffering frequently from disease. When I have taught my disciples to regard food as if it were the flesh of their own child, or as medicine, how can I approve of bloody meat as food for my disciples – meat which ignoble people serve and noble people abstain from, which is the cause of so many faults such as those I have described and removes so many virtues, which was not offered as food to the sages, and which is improper?
‘The food I approve of, Mahāmati, is that which all noble people serve and ignoble people abstain from, that which brings about many virtues and removes many faults, that which was offered as food to all the sages of old – that is to say: food prepared with rice, barley, wheat, black lentils, mung beans, lentils and so forth; ghee, oil, honey, treacle, molasses, sugar, sugar-cane juice and so forth; this is proper food. In the future, Mahāmati, certain deluded people following a variety of different kinds of discipline and teaching distorted views, under the influence of the habitual energy of previous existences as beings who ate flesh and entrenched in their desire for the taste of it, may not like this kind of food when it is offered to them. I say to you, Mahāmati, that such people have not served the victorious ones of the past and planted a great many roots of virtue. They do not possess faith, and are not free of distorted views. They are not sons or daughters of good family, and nor do they belong to the family of the Buddha. They are not free of attachment to body, life, or pleasure. They are not free of greedy desire for the taste of meat. They are not free of ardent craving. They are not compassionate. They have no desire to relate to all living beings as if they were part of themselves. They do not look upon all living beings with affection, as if each were their only child. They are not bodhisattvas. They are not great beings.
‘In the past, Mahāmati, in ancient times, there was a king by the name of Siṃhasaudāsa. Because of his overpowering attachment to eating meat and his extreme craving and fixated desire for its taste, he indulged himself to the extent that he even ate human flesh. As a result of this he was shunned by his friends, ministers, family, relations, and associates, as well as the people of the towns and the country. He had to give up his crown and his kingdom, and suffer great misfortune because of meat.
‘Even Indra, Mahāmati, who attained sovereignty over the gods, once had to take on the form of a hawk because of the habitual energy of a previous existence as a meat-eater. He attacked Viśvakarmā, who bore the form of a dove, and who placed himself in the balance. King Śibi felt empathy for the innocent dove, because of the great suffering it was being made to endure. If even Śakra, Mahāmati, who after many existences attained lordship over the gods, could bring affliction upon himself and others in this way, then certainly others can.
‘There was another king, Mahāmati, a lord of men whose horse carried him off into the forest. Wandering about, he had sex with with a lioness out of fear for his life. Because of their ancestry, the offspring they produced had spotted feet. Because of the evil habitual energy of previous existences as meat-eaters, the king’s children were meat-eaters, even after ascending to the throne. In this life, Mahāmati, they lived in a village with seven huts, and because of their overpowering attachment and devotion to their greed for great quantities of meat, they gave birth to terrible ḍākas and ḍākinīs who ate human flesh. In the cycle of birth, Mahāmati, being fixated on the taste of meat leads people to end up in the wombs of lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, hyenas, wildcats, jackals, and many other kinds of carnivorous animals. They will even fall into the wombs of the terrible rākṣasas, who are even more intent on eating flesh. For those who have fallen into such states of existence, it is difficult to attain birth as a human being, not to speak of Nirvāṇa. These, Mahāmati, are some of the faults associated with meat-eating, not to speak of the qualities which arise out of the distorted views of those who are devoted to eating meat. Ordinary immature people, Mahāmati, are not aware of these and other virtues and faults. It is in view of these and other virtues and faults, Mahāmati, that I say it is not appropriate for a compassionate bodhisattva to eat any kind of meat.
‘If no-one ate any kind of meat, Mahāmati, then there would be no killing in order to produce it. Innocent living beings, Mahāmati, are generally slain for profit and rarely for any other reason. The overpowering addiction to the taste of meat is so pernicious, Mahāmati, that people not only eat the flesh of living beings such as wild animals and birds, but even human flesh. Often, Mahāmati, deluded people who are afflicted by the desire for the taste of meat set up all kinds of nets and traps. Bird-catchers, shepherds, fishermen and so forth bring death to all kinds of innocent living beings of the air, the earth, and the water in order to make money. There are also those who have become like rākṣasas, Mahāmati, their minds hard and unfeeling, who no longer have any sense of disgust. They see living beings as something to be killed and eaten, and no sense of disgust arises in them.
‘Moreover, Mahāmati, it is not the case that meat is proper food and approved for my disciples when they have neither killed it themselves, nor had someone else kill it, nor intented for it to be killed for them. However, Mahāmati, in the future there will be deluded people who have gone forth into the homeless life under the auspices of my teaching, and who claim to be sons of the Śākyan, and who bear the banner of the yellow robe, but whose minds have been misled by false ideas, who follow a variety of different kinds of discipline and teach distorted views, who are burdened by belief in a real self, and who are fixated on their desire for the taste of meat. These people will tie themselves in rhetorical knots in order to defend meat-eating. They will think that false accusations of an unprecedented nature should be made against me, and on the basis of their erroneous thinking they will speak in order to achieve their ends. In order to achieve these ends they will say that the Blessed One has given his approval to meat as being proper food. They will say that even the Tathāgata ate it. However, Mahāmati, nowhere in any sūtra is it taught that meat should be served, that it is approved as an offering, or that it is proper food.
‘If I wanted to give my approval, Mahāmati, if I considered it to be proper food to serve to my disciples, I would not prohibit all kinds of meat as appropriate to eat for sons and daughters of good family who dwell with love, spiritual practitioners engaged in spiritual practice, who go forth to cremation grounds, who have committed themselves to the Mahāyāna – and I have prohibited it, so that they might cultivate a perception of all living beings as being like their only child. I have prohibited any kind of meat for sons and daughters of good family who long for the Dharma, who have committed themselves to any of the yānas, who go forth to cremation grounds or to the forest wilderness, who dwell with love, spiritual practitioners engaged in spiritual practice, no matter what their spiritual practice or accomplishment is, so that they might cultivate a perception of all living beings as being like their only child.
‘In certain places in the scriptures, precepts are arranged in successive order, linked to each other systematically like the steps of a ladder. Thus, with the rule of threefold purity having been laid down, meat which has not been killed specifically for one is not prohibited. That is the reason for the prohibition on ten kinds of meat. In this sūtra, however, any meat-eating of any kind, in any circumstances, by any means is prohibited. Therefore, Mahāmati, I have not approved of, do not approve of, and will not approve of anyone eating meat. I say, Mahāmati, that meat is not proper food for someone who has gone forth into the homeless life. Some, Mahāmati, will think that false accusations should be made against me, and they will say that even the Tathāgata ate meat. These and other deluded people Mahāmati, will be obstructed by the faults they have created by their own actions, and will spend a long time in states of existence which will have no meaning or benefit for them. My noble disciples, Mahāmati, do not even eat the food of ordinary people, and certainly not bloody meat, which is improper. My disciples, Mahāmati, as well as solitary buddhas and bodhisattvas – and so certainly the tathāgatas – eat the food of the Dharma, not food made of flesh. The tathāgatas, Mahāmati, have Dharma-bodies and they nourish themselves with the food of the Dharma. They do not have bodies of flesh and they do not nourish themselves with any kind of food made of flesh. They have expelled the habitual energy of the longing and the desire which maintain all states of existence. They have rid themselves of the habitual energy of all faults and defilements. They have the wisdom of completely liberated minds. They are all-knowing, all-seeing, and greatly compassionate, regarding all living beings as being like their only child. When I perceive all living beings as being like my only child, Mahāmati, how could I approve of my disciples eating the flesh of my own children, and how could I eat it myself? Mahāmati, there is no basis for the claim that I have approved of my disciples eating meat, or eaten it myself.’
The following words were then spoken:
1. ‘Intoxicants, meat, and onions are not to be eaten, Great Sage,
by bodhisattvas, great beings or by the radiant, heroic victorious ones.
2. ‘It is pleasing to ignoble people, emits a foul smell, gives one a bad reputation,
and is food for carnivorous beasts.
Therefore, Great Sage, you have proclaimed that it is not appropriate to eat meat.’
3. ‘Eating meat brings faults. Abstaining from it brings virtues.
You should understand, Mahāmati, the faults associated with eating meat.
4. ‘Because it represents a failure to honour one’s family connections,
because it is produced from the union of semen and blood,
because it causes living beings to shrink from one in fear,
the spiritual practitioner should avoid meat.
5. ‘The spiritual practitioner should always avoid all kinds of
meat, onions, and intoxicants, as well as leeks and garlic.
6. ‘He should avoid rubbing the body with oil and sleeping on a bed of nails.
When he is pierced, the living beings in the openings will be greatly afraid.
7. ‘Eating meat leads to arrogance, and arrogance brings about distorted perceptions.
Distorted perceptions lead to greed, and so one should not eat meat.
8. ‘Distorted perceptions lead to greed, and a mind filled with greed is deluded by it.
Being afflicted by delusions leads to birth, not to liberation.
9. ‘Living beings are killed for the sake of profit, and money is paid in exchange for meat.
Both of these evil acts bear fruit in the fires of hells such as Raurava.
10. ‘In terms of the Śākyan’s teaching, evil-minded people
who ignore the teachings of the Sage by eating meat
have dedicated themselves to the destruction of the two worlds.
11. ‘These who perform such evil actions go to the most terrible of the hells.
In fierce hells such as Raurava the actions of those who devour meat bear fruit.
12. ‘Meat which is pure in three respects – not prepared, not requested,
not invited – does not exist. Therefore, meat should not be eaten.
13. ‘A spiritual practitioner should not eat meat.
This is condemned by the buddhas, and by me.
Living beings who eat one another are reborn as carnivorous animals.
14. ‘One who eats meat smells foul, and is held in contempt.
He will be born with an impaired intellect in a familiy of outcastes, pukkasas or ḍombas.
15. ‘He will be born from the womb of a ḍākinī, into a family of meat-eaters.
This lowest of men will be born in the womb of a rākṣasī or a cat.
16. ‘I have rejected meat-eating in the Hastikakṣya, the Mahāmegha,
the Nirvāṇa, the Aṅgulimālika, and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.
17. ‘It is repudiated by buddhas, bodhisattvas, and disciples.
If one is so shameless as to eat meat, one will always be born with an impaired intellect.
18. ‘One who abstains from eating meat and so forth will thereby be born
in a family of brahmins or spiritual practitioners, with wisdom and wealth.
19. ‘Because one sees, hears, and suspects, one should abstain from all kinds of meat.
Sophists born into carnivorous families do not realise this.
20. ‘Just as greed is a hindrance to liberation, so too
meat, intoxicants and so forth are hindrances to liberation.
21. ‘In the future, deluded people may teach that meat-eating
is proper, blameless, and extolled by the buddhas.
22. ‘Meat should be regarded as being like medicine, or the flesh of one’s own child.
A spiritual practitioner should be averse to it when collecting alms, even in small quantities.
23. ‘For those who dwell with love, I have condemned any kind of meat-eating for all time.
Those who eat meat will be born alongside lions, tigers, wolves, and so forth.
24. ‘Therefore, it is not appropriate to eat meat, which causes people to shake in fear,
and is an obstacle to the Dharma, which leads to liberation.
Abstention from meat is the banner of the noble ones.’
This is the Chapter on Meat-Eating, the Eighth Chapter of the Laṅkāvarāra, which is the Heart of the Teachings of All the Buddhas.