The Excerpts 38: VINAYA - What the Buddha say about eating meat

by Ajahn Brahmavamso

Since the very beginning of Buddhism over 2500 years
ago, Buddhist monks and nuns have depended on
almsfood. They were, and still are, prohibited from
growing their own food, storing their own provisions
or cooking their own meals. Instead, every morning
they would make their day's meal out of whatever was
freely given to them by lay supporters. Whether it was
rich food or coarse food, delicious or awful tasting
it was to be accepted with gratitude and eaten
regarding it as medicine. The Buddha laid down several
rules forbidding monks from asking for the food that
they liked. As a result, they would receive just the
sort of meals that ordinary people ate - and that was
often meat.

Once, a rich and influential general by the name of
Siha (meaning 'Lion') went to visit the Buddha. Siha
had been a famous lay supporter of the Jain monks but
he was so impressed and inspired by the Teachings he
heard from the Buddha that he took refuge in the
Triple Gem (i.e. he became a Buddhist). General Siha
then invited the Buddha, together with the large
number of monks accompanying Him, to a meal at his
house in the city the following morning. In
preparation for the meal, Siha told one of his
servants to buy some meat from the market for the
feast. When the Jain monks heard of their erstwhile
patron's conversion to Buddhism and the meal that he
was preparing for the Buddha and the monks, they were
somewhat peeved:

"Now at the time many Niganthas (Jain monks), waving
their arms, were moaning from carriage road to
carriage road, from cross road to cross road in the
city: "Today a fat beast, killed by Siha the general,
is made into a meal for the recluse Gotama (the
Buddha), the recluse Gotama makes use of this meat
knowing that it was killed on purpose for him, that
the deed was done for his sake" [1].

Siha was making the ethical distinction between buying
meat already prepared for sale and ordering a certain
animal to be killed, a distinction which is not
obvious to many westerners but which recurs throughout
the Buddha's own teachings. Then, to clarify the
position on meat eating to the monks, the Buddha said:

"Monks, I allow you fish and meat that are quite pure
in three respects: if they are not seen, heard or
suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk.
But, you should not knowingly make use of meat killed
on purpose for you." [2]

There are many places in the Buddhist scriptures which
tell of the Buddha and his monks being offered meat
and eating it. One of the most interesting of these
passages occurs in the introductory story to a totally
unrelated rule (Nissaggiya Pacittiya 5) and the
observation that the meat is purely incidental to the
main theme of the story emphasizes the authenticity of
the passage:

Uppalavanna (meaning 'she of the lotus-like
complexion') was one of the two chief female disciples
of the Buddha. She was ordained as a nun while still a
young woman and soon became fully enlightened. As well
as being an arahant (enlightened) she also possessed
various psychic powers to the extent that the Buddha
declared her to be foremost among all the women in
this field. Once, while Uppalavanna was meditating
alone in the afternoon in the 'Blind-Men's Grove', a
secluded forest outside of the city of Savatthi, some
thieves passed by. The thieves had just stolen a cow,
butchered it and were escaping with the meat. Seeing
the composed and serene nun, the chief of the thieves
quickly put some of the meat in a leaf-bag and left it
for her. Uppalavanna picked up the meat and resolved
to give it to the Buddha. Early next morning, having
had the meat prepared, she rose into the air and flew
to where the Buddha was staying, in the Bamboo Grove
outside of Rajagaha, over 200 kilometres as the crow
(or nun?) flies! Though there is no specific mention
of the Buddha actually consuming this meat, obviously
a nun of such high attainments would certainly have
known what the Buddha ate.

However there are some meats which are specifically
prohibited for monks to eat: human meat, for obvious
reasons; meat from elephants and horses as these were
then considered royal animals; dog meat - as this was
considered by ordinary people to be disgusting; and
meat from snakes, lions, tigers, panthers, bears and
hyenas - because one who had just eaten the flesh of
such dangerous jungle animals was thought to give
forth such a smell as to draw forth revenge from the
same species!

Towards the end of the Buddha's life, his cousin
Devadatta attempted to usurp the leadership of the
Order of monks. In order to win support from other
monks, Devadatta tried to be more strict than the
Buddha and show Him up as indulgent. Devadatta
proposed to the Buddha that all the monks should
henceforth be vegetarians. The Buddha refused and
repeated once again the regulation that he had
established years before, that monks and nuns may eat
fish or meat as long as it is not from an animal whose
meat is specifically forbidden, and as long as they
had no reason to believe that the animal was
slaughtered specifically for them.

The Vinaya, then, is quite clear on this matter. Monks
and nuns may eat meat. Even the Buddha ate meat.
Unfortunately, meat eating is often seen by westerners
as an indulgence on the part of the monks. Nothing
could be further from the truth - I was a strict
vegetarian for three years before I became a monk. In
my first years as a monk in North-East Thailand, when
I bravely faced many a meal of sticky rice and boiled
frog (the whole body bones and all), or rubbery
snails, red-ant curry or fried grasshoppers - I would
have given ANYTHING to be a vegetarian again! On my
first Christmas in N.E. Thailand an American came to
visit the monastery a week or so before the 25th. It
seemed too good to be true, he had a turkey farm and
yes, he quickly understood how we lived and promised
us a turkey for Christmas. He said that he would
choose a nice fat one especially for us .... and my
heart sank. We cannot accept meat knowing it was
killed especially for monks. We refused his offer. So
I had to settle for part of the villager's meal -
frogs again.

Monks may not exercise choice when it comes to food
and that is much harder than being a vegetarian.
Nonetheless, we may encourage vegetarianism and if our
lay supporters brought only vegetarian food and no
meat, well...monks may not complain either! May you
take the hint and be kind to animals.

[1] Book of the Discipline, Vol. 4, p324
[2] ibid, p325

Ajahn Brahmavamso
(Newsletter, April-June 1990, Buddhist Society of
Western Australia.)