The reasons given for the consumption of meat and alcohol in Buddhist tantric rituals and in everyday life, and the reasons for prohibiting the consumption of meat and alcohol have always interested me. I’ve been involved in many discussions about these points and I have also witnessed numerous discussions of Western converts, especially about meat, sometimes involving such folklore arguments as “Tibetans must eat meat because they can’t grow vegetables in the mountains,” or “a yogi eats meat to make a connection to the animal in future lives,” sometimes more sophisticated arguments involving analyses of texts of all three vehicles of Buddhism. It turned out that Jigten Gönpo took a pretty clear position on these points, but more on that below. Let us first look at some general topics. 1
1. Is Buddhism “pro-vegetarianism”?
Debates between vegetarians (in their many forms) and meat eaters tend to get tangled up, especially within a frame such as Buddhist spirituality, in what seem to be moral issues, or in apologetics of the above mentioned type. I think it is save to say that if people should ever consider themselves pro-vegetarianism because they are Buddhists, then this is due to reasons that are perhaps quite different from the reasons put forward in discussions within a Western cultural frame. Let us briefly review the chief topics in all three vehicles of Buddhism.
1.1. The avoiding of direct harm to others
Numerous Tibetan texts state that the basis of self-liberation (pratimoksha) is “to avoid harming other sentient beings, together with the mental basis for that.” That, of course, includes the killing of animals, “even down to the tiniest insects.” Why should one avoid the killing of any being? Because the doctrine of karma informs us that killing any sentient being would entail negative karmic consequences that cause us to remain in samsara and to fall into the unpleasant animal or hell realms. It should be noted, however, that the Buddha did not teach an extreme form of asceticism, where even a harm involuntarily inflicted to a tiny insect would have a karmic consequence. According to the systematised presentations of the abhidharma, four aspects must be complete in order to cause karmic consequences to occur: (1) basis or object: one must have a clear perception of the ‘victim,’ that is, accidentally stepping on an insect or mistaking e.g. a small snake for a rope (and stepping on it) is not a problem. 2 (2) Intention: every karmically effective act must be preceded by a volition or intention. Without that, it is just an involuntary accident. (3) Preparation: this includes all the necessary activities of preparation up to the actual blow that kills the other sentient being. (4) Completion: to make an act complete in a karmic sense, one must recognise that one’s activity has led to the intended result—such as the death of the animal—and one has to feel a certain satisfaction about that. It is usually taught that if these four aspects are not complete, an act is more or less involuntary, accidental, or unconscious, and as a consequence there will be no or only a mild karmic retribution “as in a dream.”
Important for our discussion is that eating meat does not directly fulfil any of the above four aspects. By eating meat, one does not directly involve oneself in the killing of the animal—neither through perceiving the animal as such, forming the intention to kill it, carrying out the actual act, and feeling satisfied about it. This is, however, only so in the context of a consumer who buys “available meat” on the market. If, on the other hand, one instigates or even orders others to kill an animal, that is karmically speaking the same as doing the killing oneself. The Buddha has therefore carefully ruled that monks should not accept meat that was killed for their benefit, and that they should therefore inquire about the circumstances when being offered a meal that includes meat.
But not to be directly or indirectly involved in the killing is not the only reason why monks and nuns should distance themselves from the killer and the killing as far as possible. It is also the case that accepting meat that has been killed directly for one’s benefit wouldn’t fit well with the attitude of loving kindness that is to be cultivated. On the other hand, an ordained person has the important function to serve as a field of merit for lay people: the offering of food to the monks and nuns is the householders primary source of merit in early Buddhism. The ordained ones therefore must carefully balance out their avoidance of even very indirect involvement with killing and their important function as fields of merit for the householders.
In sum, those concerned with their own liberation can eat meat without obtaining the karmic consequences of killing, provided they only consume meat that was “already available.”
There were a number of taboo meats. These will also play a role in the ritual consumption of meat, such as elephant and horse meat that were taboo because of being symbols of royalty, dog and snake meat, which were taboo since these were seen as impure and revolting (Schmithausen 2005: 189). Prohibited was also the meat of the lion, tiger, leopard, bear and hyena. The reason was self protection: it was believed that these predators could smell if someone had eaten their kin and thus they would perhaps attack such a person (Harvey 2001: 159; McDermott 1989: 274). 3
1.2. The bodhisattva’s conflict with meat consumption
While among those, who sought to obtain liberation for themselves, the main problem of meat consumption was its proximity to the killing, which was circumnavigated by keeping a distance to the actual act of the killing, mahayana sutras such as the Lankavatara (p. 257, verse 12) deny that there is such a thing as ‘unproblematic meat.’ The verse states clearly that there never is ‘permitted’ or ‘pure meat.’ The argument that the buyer of the meat is not involved in the killing, because the meat is already available when he comes to the market, is not accepted anymore. The Lankavatara Sutra acknowledges explicitly that buying meat instigates killing:
If … meat would not be eaten by anybody, they [the butchers] would not destroy their [the animals’] cause of existence (nidanam). (LS 252,15-16) 4
Thus eating meat indirectly links up to the killing: buying the meat instigates the butcher to do his job.
But there are also other important ideas expressed now, for instance that the desire for the taste of meat is an addiction. And that, of course, is a direct cause for negative karma accumulated by the one who consumes the meat. Among the evil that ensues from that is birth among carnivorous animals such as lions, tigers, leopards, wolfs, hyenas, wild-cats, jackals and owls. Moreover, there is also the danger that one will be born from the wombs of awful demons, or from the womb of a female demon, such as a yakshasi, and into the tribe of meat-eaters (LS 252.5-10), and one is born ill smelling, contemptible, insane and so forth (LS 257-258, verse14). In short, it is clear that with such a rebirth it will be very difficult to return to human birth, let alone to a bodhisattva career.
The Lankavatara Sutra is also concerned with the fate of those who catch and slaughter fish and other animals, since to do that they must develop a certain cruelty and will therefore not be able to cultivate compassion (LS 252,16-253,9)—not to mention birth in hell as a retribution for the actual act of killing. The fate of these people, who are instigated to do what they do by those who buy and consume the meat, should concern the bodhisattva, because instead of being able to lead these people to awakening, they slip away into evil fates.
There are also two further spiritual concerns for the bodhisattva. First of all, eating meat contradicts their nature of compassion and loving kindness, because the beings are shaking with horror when they are about to be slaughtered, and also when they smell the bad smell of meat eaters (LS 246,11-13, 252,13-14 and 258, verse 23). Secondly, to eat the meat of other beings is to eat one’s former mothers (245,10-246,4), and also the future Buddhas, because one eats the bodily receptacle of the spiritual principle that is known in these sutras as ‘Buddhanature’ (tathagatagarbha). (Seyfort Ruegg 1980: 236).
In sum, according to these sutras, bodhisattvas must consider themselves linked up to the actual killing by eating meat, they will suffer severe consequences themselves, and they cause others to suffer by instigating them to continue their evil craft and trade. All those Tibetan lamas who gave up eating meat refer to one or several arguments given in these sutras for becoming vegetarians. 5
1.3. Meat and mantra
There is some evidence that the consumption of meat and alcohol was prohibited in lower tantras, such as in ‘action tantra.’ Jamgon Kongtrul reports that the Susiddhi Tantra teaches 18 pledges, of which the 10th says: “do not eat food that is not permitted,” and the great Drukpa Kagyü master Padma Karpo explains that these include meat and alcohol (Kongtrul 1998: 233, 461 n. 86). I have not seen any arguments for this prohibition (but I have also not extensively searched for them here). One might assume, though, that these prohibitions have to do with purity and proper discipline, because at the same time such texts also teach to wash oneself and keep clean, and not to use garlic, onions, radish, sour drinks and so forth.
On the other hand, it is well known that meat and alcohol is prescribed in the highest yoga tantras for certain ritual purposes. Many of these tantras mention for instance the necessity to consume the ‘five meats’ and ‘five nectars.’ It should be noted, however, that these are not the regular meats one can buy on the market, because they are exactly those above mentioned taboo foods, namely the meat of cow, dog, horse, elephant, and of human beings. The great Patrul Rinpoche says (p. 190): “These five kinds of meat are undefiled by harmful action because they are all creatures which are not killed for food.” That is to say that the five kinds of meat used in the rituals of the highest yoga tantras are to be gathered from animals and human beings that have died of natural causes. But not only that. The Samputa Tantra, for instance, which is an important tantra belonging to the cycle of Hevajra and Cakrasamvara, says: 6
Having drunk dog, donkey, camel, and elephant blood, one should regularly feed on their flesh. Human flesh smeared with the blood of all species of animals is beloved. Entirely vile meat full of millions of worms is divine. Meat rendered putrid by shit, seething with hundreds of maggots, mixed with dog and human vomit, with a coating of piss—mixed with shit it should be eaten by the yogin with gusto.
Wether such passages are to be read literally or not is not the point of our discussion here. But what is quite clear is that the meat mentioned here for consumption by the yogi is not procured by slaughtering a living being, and it is not meat that is normally eaten to allay one’s hunger for food. In a provisional sense, the flesh of animals who have died naturally might be consumed by the yogi “in order to shatter arrogance about one’s social status and personal pride” (Kongtrul, p. 255). This, however, only makes sense when one lives in a country (such as India), where the consumption of such foods is a taboo. If one would culturally translate such a praxis into the Western cultural sphere, where all kinds of meat and alcohol are publicly consumed, one would probably have to eat human flesh and drink excrements to achieve the same result of being seen (and seeing oneself) as an ‘impure’ outcast. Dharmashri (as quoted by Kongtrul) also mentions that in a definite (and thus not literal) sense ‘to eat meat and drink alcohol’ actually means to stabilise inner bliss etc. and thus refers to yogic practises (and not to eating and drinking), and Kongtrul adds that in reality such training is done on the forth level (bhumi) of the bodhisattvas.
Another interesting ritual aspect is the tantric offering of ‘red meat’ by placing it on the mandala or offering it to the wrathful Dharma protectors. In this context, Patrul Rinpoche refers to Dagpo Rinpoche (Gampopa), who said (p. 191):
Taking the still warm flesh and blood of a freshly slaughtered animal and placing it in the mandala would make all the wisdom deities faint. It is also said that offering to the wisdom deities the flesh and blood of a slaughtered animal is like murdering a child in front of its mother.
And Patrul Rinpoche continues:
If you perform rituals like the offering prayer to the protectors using only the flesh and blood of slain animals, it goes without saying that the wisdom deities and the protectors of the Buddha’s doctrine, who are all pure Bodhisattvas, will never accept those offerings of slaughtered beings laid out like meat on a butcher’s counter. They will not even come anywhere near. Instead, powerful evil spirits who like warm flesh and blood and are ever eager to do harm will gather round the offering and feast on it.
Finally it is often said that meat and alcohol are necessary substances to be consumed in a tarntric feast (Skr. ganacakra, Tib. tshogs ‘khor). In general, Jigten Sumgön says in a letter to all of his disciples (vol. 3, p. 377):
Om Svasti. The precious guru said: “I offer this to my disciples residing in all directions. If the ones who say that they are my disciples destroy the teachings by calling eating meat and drinking alcohol ‘tantric feast,’ I have no connection with them. They injure the precious teachings of the Buddha. Since that is not in accordance with the fourteen and fifteen pledges of secret mantra and their limbs, these [peoples’] pledges have been corrupted. They have deceived Phagmodrupa, the precious protector of the three worlds. Since that is not in accordance with [the guru’s] life of liberation, they slander those [noble] beings of the past. (…) Please take this to heart!”
And in another text (vol. 6, p. 132 f.) he does teach the preparation of the five meats and five nectars, but he says that this is done placing oneself first in the sameness of mahamudra, where all good, bad, clean, and filthy things are of one taste, without any deviation from that. Jigten Gönpo’s main thrust in his teachings on these matters has always been to present a single intention (dgongs gcig), emphasising the unity of the teachings, for instance when he said (5.24):
That which is virtue in the vinaya is virtue also in the mantra, and that which is non-virtue [in the vinaya] is non-virtue [also in the mantra].
This is in the commentaries explicitly explained in connection with the use of alcohol by tantric yogis. Dorje Sherab states in his commentary on this point (Sobisch 1998: 379 ff.):
Through the three syllables Om A Hum one transforms the colour [of alcohol] and [it is] like milk; one transforms the smell and taste and [it is] like salt-water; one transforms the potency and by merely drinking [this nectar] remaining free from intoxication and drunkenness [one is] able to realize the innate simultaneously arisen primordial wisdom. For example, the great brahmin [Saraha] resorted to the alcohol of the skull cup, and if something such as the arising [of] the realisation of the mind itself, [i.e.] mahamudra, occurs, [that] was taught [by the Buddha] as the pledge of mantra. If such [a thing] occurs, how could it be prohibited even in the vinaya and again for the non-tantric [mahayana] tradition? [It] is a great absolute permission!
Thus when the tantric adept is indeed able to transform the alcohol held in the receptacle of the skull cup into a blazing, whitish ambrosia whose consumption immediately awakens primordial wisdom, than he must drink it, whether he is an ordained monk or not. But if he is not able to do that, even if he is a yogi, he is not permitted to drink it—because it is alcohol, and not nectar. Dorje Sherab also points out that alcohol as such has never been taught in the tantras as nectar. Instead the tantras speak of excrement, urine, blood, semen, and human flesh (Kongtrul 472 n. 145) when they refer to the ‘five nectars.’ Thus Dorje Sherab explains that if one thinks that one has to use alcohol in a tantric feast …
… one [should] equalize [alcohol and excrements], and having mixed as much alcohol as one will drink with that great nectar [i.e. excrement], one should drink it. If one cannot bear that because of its stench, the nectar does not exist anywhere (…).
1 I would like to thank my student Louise Broskov Hansen for the many interesting discussions we’ve had during the fall semester of 2012. Many of the points mentioned here came up in our B.A. colloquium and have been incorporated into her thesis, which she defended successfully in January 2013. She has also provided all references to the Lankavatara Sutra.
2 Interestingly Jigten Gönpo points out in another context that such behaviour is not entirely without negative consequences, in so far as such ‘accidents’ are caused by a lack of awareness, which itself leads to negative consequences. These consequences, however, are not caused directly by the accidental deed, but by one’s lack of awareness.
3 I owe these references to Louise.
4 Translation from Sanskrit by Louise Boskov.
5 A small sample of famous vegetarians in Tibet that I came across in my readings includes Yang Gönpa, Jonang Dolpopa, Lama Zhang, Karmapa VII Chödrag Gyatsho, Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltshen, Patrul Rinpoche, and Jigten Gönpo.
6 This passage was published by Christian Wedemeyer in his new book Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism. I have not yet seen the actual print, but in a draft it appeared right at the beginning of the introduction.
Harvey, Peter (2001) An introduction to Buddhist Ethics; foundations, values and issues, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kongtrul, Jamgön (1998) Buddhist Ethics, Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications.
McDermott, James P. (1989) “Animals and humans in early Buddhism,” Indo-Iranian Journal 32, no. 4 (Oct.1989), 269-280.
Patrul Rinpoche (1998) The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Boston: Shambhala.
Schmithausen, Lambert (2005) “Meat-eating and nature: Buddhist perspectives,” Supplement to the Bulletin of the research institute of Bukkyo University.
Seyfort Ruegg, David (1980) “Ahimsa and Vegetarianism in the History of Buddhism,” Buddhist Studies in Honor of Walpola Rahula, London: Gordon Fraser, 234-241.
Sobisch, Jan-Ulrich (2002) Three-Vow Theories in Tibetan Buddhism: A Comparative Study of Major Traditions from the Twelfth Through Nineteenth Centuries, (Contributions to Tibetan Studies 1), Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.