Day 16: Vegetarianism in the Great Encampment and the Three-Fold Purity of Meat in the Vinaya

Day 16: Vegetarianism in the Great Encampment and the Three-Fold Purity of Meat in the Vinaya

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings:

Gyalwang Karmapa on The Life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje

March 12, 2021

After giving his auspicious greetings, His Holiness continued his presentation on the Great Encampment’s traditions and rules for not eating meat. In addition, His Holiness discussed how the Vinaya addresses meat consumption. 

Part 1: The Fourth Karmapa Rölpai Dorje prohibits meat and alcohol in the Great Encampment

Referencing the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje’s Great Rule Book for the Great Encampment, the Ornament of the World, His Holiness explained that the Fourth Karmapa Rölpai Dorje and successive Karmapa incarnations prohibited the consumption of meat and alcohol in the Great Encampment:

those who were included in the encampment could not have any meat —  not even the hair of a deer — or drink any alcohol, not even as much as the tip of a blade of grass. 

Similarly, Karma Könshön, who was one of the Fourth Karmapa’s direct disciples, wrote a namthar of Rölpai Dorje called Delighting the Scholars. In this text, he reported that Rölpai Dorje and his entourage lived off of the three “white foods”, and that if the bones of a slaughtered animal were found where masters and disciples had stayed, they would be reprimanded. Moreover, “not even the scent of alcohol was allowed to waft into the confines of the encampment. [Rölpai Dorje] brought everyone into pure conduct.” Another of Rölpai Dorje’s students, Tsurphu Kangpangpa, concurred. He said of his teacher: 

There was no way that even the tiniest amount of meat or the mere scent of alcohol could be in the encampment. His conduct was the perfection of purity and the power of his compassion extremely great.

Successive Karmapas upheld, preserved, and spread Rölpai Dorje’s tradition of vegetarianism. His Holiness believes that this prohibition on eating meat was a distinctive feature of the Great Encampment. In Karma Chakme’s The Words of Guru Pandita Jamyang from the North: The Faults of Meat and Distinguishing What is Allowed and Prohibited, it is written:

There were always 500 bhikshus with outer robes around Rölpai Dorje, and he perfected the example of not allowing meat, not even the hair of a deer, to come into his sight. From that time on, most of the dharma organizations founded by Lord Mikyö Dorje had strict rules against meat. At Nyinling Monastery, there was no rule against meat, but a separate soup with a vegetarian stock was made for the vegetarians. The Karmapa and Heart Sons only ate vegetarian food and never allowed meat in their sight. In ganachakras, the meat offering was eaten by everyone, and even the Karmapa and Heart Sons ate a small amount so as not to violate samaya. 

Rules against meat and alcohol consumption in the Great Encampment were clearly quite strict. Prohibitions included the slaughtering and butchering animals in or near the Encampment, and meat was not to be offered during regular pujas or during times of celebration such as Losar (Tibetan New Year). People who butchered animals or did not heed these rules could be expelled from the Encampment – which meant being expelled from the Karma Kagyu entirely – or demoted, depending on the severity of the wrongdoing committed. 

There were many reasons why meat was prohibited so strictly in the Encampment. However, the primary reason, His Holiness explained, was to prevent numerous sentient beings from being killed in order to feed the Encampment’s many people. If eating meat had been allowed, eating meat from animals that had died naturally was impractical due to the number of people living in the Encampment; you wouldn’t be able to wait until you had enough animal corpses to feed everyone. As a result, animals would have had to be killed. According to the Vinaya, this meat would be considered impure and there would be great harm from eating it. 

Part 2: Mikyö Dorje encourages all Tibetans to give up meat 

As His Holiness explained in a previous session, by Mikyö Dorje’s time, the Great Encampment had become much larger and more organized. After the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso passed away, many of the Great Encampment’s regulations were disregarded and many animals were offered, killed and eaten. The Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje, recognizing the difficulty and suffering this caused, reinstated the rule strictly prohibiting meat in the Great Encampment once he was old and influential enough to do so. In addition, many of the monasteries he founded adopted strict rules against eating meat and he started a movement promoting vegetarianism throughout Tibet. The Fifth Shamarpa’s Catalogue of Collected Works includes Mikyö Dorje’s Letter to my Defenseless Mothers Primarily in the Land of Snows, an announcement disseminated in Tibet about the inappropriateness of eating meat. Although His Holiness doesn’t have this text, he was able to ascertain Mikyö Dorje’s position on meat-eating from the title. His Holiness hopes one day we will be able to obtain a copy of the Letter to my Defenseless Mothers.

The Eighth Karmapa avoided going to regions for alms where large quantities of meat were eaten. From Sangye Paldrup’s commentary on the Autobiographical Verses “Good Deeds”:

No matter what region he traveled to, he skillfully prevented people from eating meat. In Kongpo, because of the region, he was unable to prevent it, and it was due to this that he did not go for alms in Kongpo, Mongol regions, or other regions where they only ate meat, it is said. 

We can see from his text Great Commentary on the Vinaya that Mikyö Dorje was quite insistent about not consuming meat or alcohol. In it he wrote:

Further, if you put meat, alcohol, and so forth into the Gutor and other certain kinds of torma, you are not taking me as a teacher. You are not appropriate to be my disciple. You are not taking me as a guru. 

In addition to meat and alcohol, there were eight impure things that must be given up upon ordination which Mikyö Dorje listed in his 100 Short Instructions. They are: armor, weapons, riding animals and pack animals, business including interest, crops and houses, and milking and animal husbandry. These were not new orders created by the Eighth Karmapa. Rather, Mikyö Dorje was citing Lord Gampopa. 

On a personal note, His Holiness has heard from many people, “the Karmapa said that if you don’t give up meat you’re not a Kagyupa”. His Holiness clarified that he doesn’t have the ability to tell or decide whether someone is a Kagyupa or not. The confusion may have arisen out of a talk he gave in 2004 where he quoted some of Mikyö Dorje’s texts concerning giving up meat. His Holiness pointed out that he was not the one making this statement but rather it was what previous Karmapas had instructed. 

His Holiness reminded listeners that being vegetarian in Mikyö Dorje’s time was quite challenging as there were not many foods one could eat. In an old book he had read that enumerated Tibetan foods, he said there were only about 100 foods named and over 90% of them were meat. His Holiness, born to a nomadic family, said that aside from meat, there was only butter, cheese, and tsampa to eat and milk to drink, and there were no vegetables. Consequently, great Tibetan masters of the past did not tell people to stop eating meat in particular. However, past Kagyu masters considered it to be very important and taught about the problems of and reasons for giving up the consumption of meat and alcohol. He would discuss this further tomorrow.

Part 3: Meat that is pure in the three ways

The Bhagavan Buddha paid great attention to food and the conduct of the monastic community, and gave them substantial advice. Some of his advice can be located in the Vinaya scriptures of different schools. With regards to today’s instructions on meat that is pure in the three ways, His Holiness referred primarily to quotations given from five of the 18 original schools of Buddhism, most of which he had translated from Chinese. The texts have slightly different explanations on determining which meat was pure or impure for whom ( bhikshus, bhikshunis, novices, or lay people). 

His Holiness started this portion of the teaching by reflecting on the earlier ascetic practices of Prince Siddhartha. At that time in India, many philosophical and religious traditions promoted practicing austerities, sometimes quite severe ones. These were very difficult for ordinary people to practice, but Prince Siddhartha did so for six years. He then had an experience where he realized that practicing austerities alone would not lead to enlightenment. The Bhagavan Buddha later taught to his monastics that they should neither have a lifestyle that is so severe it is unbearable, nor one that is so luxurious that one becomes careless. 

As food is a daily necessity, we have no choice but to eat. However, the Bhagavan Buddha established codes to encourage eating in moderation. Food should be thought of as medicine, and thus eating in an uncontrolled way was not considered acceptable. Monastics went on daily alms rounds and therefore had to rely on the food they were given. Although India, from ancient times until the present, has had a large number of vegetarians, there were some people who offered meat to the monks. The Bhagavan Buddha thought accepting alms from both the rich and the poor, who may or may not be vegetarian, would help monastics make connections with all levels of society. They would therefore have to accept offerings of meat at times. 

However, monastics were not to eat all of the meat given to them. Meat that was considered pure after examination could be eaten while impure meat could not. The Uttara Grantha Vinaya text of the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition found in Tibet lists several types of animals that one should not eat. They include consuming the meat, fat, and juices from different bird species such as owls, reptiles and amphibians such as toads, and carnivores such as lions, tigers, and bears. In addition, meat should not be raw or killed specifically for the particular recipient in question. 

The Bhagavan Buddha offered ways to determine whether the meat was pure in the three ways, and these teachings applied primarily to monastics and occasionally to lay people. Slight variations occurred between different Vinaya manuscripts and Buddhist schools, but they agreed that three types of meat should be avoided: by seeing, by hearing, or through suspicion. According to a Sri Lankan source brought to China in the fourth century, the Bhagavan Buddha explained the definition of impure meat to his bhikshus and bhikshunis:

Seeing means actually seeing the killing yourself. Hearing means hearing from a credible individual that it was killed for your sake. Suspicion means suspecting it was killed for your sake.

He gave them this teaching following a meal served by a man called Captain or General Lion, during which the monastics expressed doubts about eating the meat being offered. The Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition’s Vinaya Vastu, which is found in Tibet, recounts this story similarly and the meaning is the same, explained His Holiness. The Mahīśāsaka texts existing in China differ but slightly. The important thing, His Holiness noted, is that when monastics were offered meat on their alms round, they were to ask questions to the donor about what kind of meat it was and whether the animal was slaughtered for his or her sake. They were responsible for investigating and ascertaining whether that meat was appropriate for them to eat or not. According to His Holiness, if they were not careful, there would be the danger of animals being harmed for their sake.

In the Mahāsāṇghika Vinaya, the definition of what constituted impure meat was wider and it applied to both monastics and laypeople. This text, brought to China by a Chinese monk named Faxian (法顯) and translated with the Indian master Buddhabhadra, says that, regardless whether an animal is killed for a specific bhikshu or a layperson alike, no bhikshu, bhikshuni, novice, or layperson may consume that meat. In other words, if an animal was slaughtered for a bhikshu, bhiksunis and laypeople were also not allowed to eat it. Similarly, if an animal was killed for a layperson, it was impure and neither laypeople nor monastics could eat it.

The Tāmraśāṭīya scriptures, which were originally in Pali but have been translated by His Holiness from the Chinese, offer a detailed description of the three pure meats. The Tāmraśāṭīya is one of the 18 original schools of Buddhism, developed mostly in Sinhala (Sri Lanka), and is considered part of the Theravada tradition. Excerpts from its text called The Great Treasury of All Seen to Be Excellent (Samantapāsādikāwere read. In addition, His Holiness presented his translations of texts from the Daśa-bhāṇavāra-vinaya of the Sarvastivada tradition and the Dharmaguptika Vinaya, which had narrower definitions of the three-fold purity of meat. In their texts, impure meat also included meat from an animal that did not die naturally, from a butcher or from a household that killed for your sake, from a household that sold meat, or from an individual who acted on the ten nonvirtuous actions. To note, Tibetan and Chinese Vinaya practice came from the Sarvastivadan tradition, which in turn developed out of Theravada.

In brief, in all of the traditions of Vinaya, it is important for monastics and lay practitioners with householder vows to only eat meat that is pure in the three ways. This means not seeing, not hearing, and not having any suspicion or doubts that it was slaughtered for you. Moreover, for monastics, this means only eating meat that was offered (that is not ordered from the donor) and determined to be pure. Remembering that the Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptika Vinaya were quite strict, this could be difficult at times. Even if one’s stomach was burning with hunger, he or she was not to eat impure meat.

Tomorrow, His Holiness will continue by speaking about how meat was prohibited in the Mahayana. In addition, he will address the impact of eating meat on the environment and our health. He then mentioned his plan to begin summer teachings that will focus on tsokdra, the rituals and practices of the yidam deities. Because these will be related to Secret Mantra Practice, they will be open to monasteries and nunneries but closed to the general public.



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2021.03.12 Day 16: Vegetarianism in the Great Encampment and the Three-Fold Purity of Meat in the Vinaya