Is Eating Meat an Akusala Kamma (Immoral Deed)?

Published before October 23, 2015; revised October 19, 2016

Note added June 2, 2016: I decided to revise this post because I received comments from a few people who thought it could encourage people to eat meat. My intention was not that, but merely to point out that there are much worse things people ordinarily do even without thinking twice. It is best to avoid eating meat out of compassion for animals.

1. The Buddha spent a lot of his time dispelling “bamunu matha” or “superficial concepts about morality” adhered to by the vedic brahmins of that day.

  • It is unfortunate to see that many current “Buddhists” are practicing the same “bamunu matha“. We have gone a full circle and are back to status that the Buddha tried very hard to change.
  • The reason is that we humans have the tendency to judge everything by how we perceive them with our five physical senses, on outward appearances. There is more to nature than what we see (ditta), hear (suta), taste and smell (muta), and perceive (vinnata).  The whole point of the appearance of a Buddha in this world is to show us that the truth is much deeper, and we need to “see” with panna (wisdom). This will become clear as one learns Dhamma.
  • Thus the Buddha advised us to go beyond that and to “see the reality” by always paying attention to his “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu….”, or “”dhamma that has never been heard before…”. Therefore, let us analyze this matter using his “cause and effect” doctrine, and not the absolute, fatalistic doctrine of kamma; see, “What is Kamma? Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.
  • Thus, sometimes, the outward appearance of morality could be nothing but micca ditthi. Some people try to attain Nibbana by following rituals, and this is actually one micca ditthi one needs to get rid of (silabbata paramasa) before attaining the Sotapanna stage.
  • Misconception of categorizing “eating meat” as an akusala kamma is a micca ditthi too. Since there is ample evidence in the Tipitaka that the Buddha himself accepted meat prepared under certain conditions (see #9 below), are these people saying that the Buddha himself committed an akusala kamma?

2. Devadatta, who tried to kill the Buddha and thereby to “become a Buddha”, first tried to split the Buddha Säsana by proposing “five strict conditions for the bhikkhus to obey”. His intent was to show that he was “more moral” than the Buddha.

  • Devadatta demanded that the Buddha accede to the following five rules for the monks: they should dwell all their lives in the forest, live entirely on alms obtained by begging, wear only robes made of discarded rags, dwell at the foot of a tree, and abstain from eating meat.
  • The Buddha replied that Buddha Dhamma does not advocate a “path of rituals” (vatha). Instead one attains Nibbana by cleansing one’s mind and moral behavior follows automatically. This is what is mean by, “sanvarattena silan“, or “when one sees the futility of ‘san‘ via comprehension of anicca, dukkha, anatta, moral behavior or ‘sila‘ is realized automatically”; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
  • On the other hand, there are people who are genuinely repulsed by the thoughts of animals living under harsh conditions and being killed in animal farms and have voluntarily given up meat eating, and that is good. In fact, as one gains panna (wisdom), one’s craving for many sensually pleasurable things, not just meat, automatically diminishes.
  • The craving for excess sense pleasures diminish automatically when one starts feeling the niramisa sukha and realizes that that is much more calming and long lasting to the mind than any sense pleasure that is brief; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.
  • But the point is that panna (wisdom) comes through understanding the true nature, and not being persuaded via untruths.

3. In the Jivaka sutta, the Buddha states that bhikkhus can accept meat, ” when it is not seen or heard or suspected that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for that offering“. I also found out recently that the custom those days was to use “pavatta mänsa” for bhikkhus which means the meat was from animals killed by other animals in the forest (lions and tigers normally eat only parts of an animal and leave the rest which people then recover for food).

  • However, the Buddha  prohibited bhikkhus from eating the flesh of human, elephant, horse, dog, cat, lion, tiger, leopard, bear, hyenas. This was done for various reasons and the chief among them is that they are not suitable for human consumption.
  • Just like some vegetations are toxic, some meats can have harmful effects. Other than that, meat of a dead animal is no different from corn or wheat; they are all made out of satara maha bhuta: patavi, apo, tejo, vayo.
  • Once the mind leaves the physical body, the body becomes inert like a log. What is immoral is to end the life of a living being willfully or to aid in such acts; once that deed is done, what is left is no different than a log of wood.
  • However, this is not to say that the Buddha advocated eating meat. It is actually better for the body to eat less meat and more vegetables and fruits.  In general, we eat much more food than necessary, and that leads to many health problems starting with obesity.

4. The key point is that EATING MEAT or ANYTHING ELSE if done with greed, then that is an akusala kamma done with the mind: abhijja or strong greed.

5. Then there are people who say, “if we all eat meat, that encourages other people to operate animal farms and kill animals; therefore, we should not eat meat”. For those who are bothered by such thoughts, it is better not to eat meat for the peace of mind. I actually have cut down a lot just out of compassion. But we also need to examine the REASONS for some acts to be categorized as akusala kamma.

  • Don’t farmers use pesticides to kill uncountable number of living beings when they cultivate rice, wheat, vegetables, for our consumption? With the above logic, aren’t we encouraging farmers to kill all those insects by eating basically any food that we buy at the supermarket?
  • These are the true “musaväda” (“musa” means “incorrect” and “väda” means “debate”), i.e., trying to win an argument by using false premises. They appear to make sense on the surface, but when you examine carefully, they have no substance.
  • We have to be really careful about having such “micca ditthi“, because niyata micca ditthi can lead to rebirth in the apayas. There are many such false beliefs that appear “harmless” but count as micca ditthi (not knowing the true nature of things), and that is another reason why it has been hard for people to attain the Sotapanna stage.
  • The bottom line is that it is better not to eat meat especially if that bothers one’s conscience. But for those who don’t have that problem, there are probably other bad acts one needs to worry about first; see, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma“.

6. There will always be people who engage in immoral acts and make a livelihood from that. We cannot force others to be moral; we can only point out what is moral and what is immoral. It is up to each person to decide, and understand that, “what one sows, one will reap”.

    • As I mentioned before, there was a “pig butcher” Chunda Sukara, who ran his butcher shop right next to Veluwanaramaya, where the Buddha resided for many years. Even at the time of the Buddha some questioned why the Buddha did not try to “save him”. If he did that, Chunda Sukara would have generated hateful thoughts about the Buddha and would have ended up in an even worse apaya, as explained by the Buddha. Thus one needs to think deeper than just go by “outward appearances”.
    • On the other hand, we should point out the bad consequences of raising animals under unfathomably harsh conditions in animal farms, and killing animals with unimaginably cruel  ways (see #10 below). Even though animals have much lower levels of “consciousness”, they feel pain same as us. Still, we need to get rid of the “wrong sanna” that eating meat (which is like any other food made of the satara maha bhuta), is equivalent to eating “an animal”. Once the animal is dead, the dead body is inert; the gandhabba has left that “inert shell”; see, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“.
    • In Sri Lanka, and probably in many Buddhist countries, there are many movements to “rescue cows and other animals from the butcher”. They consider this act as an “abhaya dana“, which they interpret as “giving back the life or saving the life of that animal”.
  1. First, let us examine WHY a cow is born a cow in the first place. A cow is called a “harakä” in Sinhala, which comes from “hara” meaning “the essence or what is good”, and “” meaning “eat or destroy”. Thus one is born a cow due to a “cow sankhara“, i.e., one had done acts that led to hardships for people. We know many people who do immoral acts that destroy other human lives or at least lead to hardships for other people; those people are bound to be born cows, pigs, and other animals and “pay back those debts”.
  • Even though we may save the life of a cow by paying off the butcher, that cow will go through many such “cow lives” until the kammic energy of that “cow bhava” is spent and during that time will be subjected to numerous killings. This may sound harsh, but that is the reality.
  • Instead of “trying to save existing cows”, which is a futile task as we saw above, what we SHOULD do is to try to prevent even a single HUMAN from becoming a cow in future lives. Once one gets a “cow bhava” one will be born in that bhava multiple times; see, “Bhava and Jati – States of Existence and Births Therein“. What we can do is to try get as many people as possible to be EXPOSED to true Dhamma.
  • Thus even though we should not try to prevent people from rescuing such animals (saving a life is always good), we need to educate people about the misconceptions on relative merits of different deeds.

8. In that context, let us see what is really meant by “abhaya dana“. “Bhaya” means “fear” and “abhaya” means preventing one from a dreadful outcome; of course “däna” means “giving”. Thus “abhaya dana” means giving the gift of removing one’s fright.

  • One should be dreadful about the suffering one could undergo in the four apayas (four lowest realms of existence), animal realm being one. If one can motivate a single human to contemplate on that, that itself will be much more meritorious than “saving” millions cows; of course, as we saw above a “saved cow” is not truly saved; it will pay its debts somehow or other.
  • Yet, imagine the number of cow, pig, … lives that one could save if one can point another human being toward becoming a Sotapanna: that person will NEVER be born in any of the four apayas. That could be an uncountable number of lives saved by “saving a SINGLE human”. That is the true “abhaya dana“, and that may not even cost any money.

9.  The key point here is that a cow (or any other animal) cannot be “saved” by making it comprehend Dhamma. And, there is no way to “shorten the time of existence” or in this case the duration of the “cow bhava“. the It just has to wait until the kammic energy for that existence to run out through however many “cow lives”. 

  • But a human can comprehend Dhamma  and could change the type of existence, and say for example become a brahma. Furthermore, one could attain the Sotapanna stage and be freed from the apayas, and may even attain the Arahanthood stage.
  • So, there is a HUGE difference in saving an animal life versus a human life.
  • Still I am not discouraging anyone from saving an animal. I am just saying that there are better ways to utilize resources and try to help out humans. We never kill a bug or a fly that occasionally gets in our house. We have a “bug catcher cup” that we use to catch it and throw outside; trap the thing in the cup, slide a cardboard piece underneath slowly and carry to the door.

9. I need to also point out that the Buddha himself ate meat when offered under the conditions given in #3 above. In fact, the last meal of the Buddha was a “pork dish” which was especially made to alleviate the pain that the Buddha had with ulcer-like ailment.

  • In this context, let us discuss another misconception about that “last meal”. After the meal, the Buddha asked the remainder of the meal not be consumed by any human, and to be buried. Some say this was because of a “contamination problem with that meal” which led to a discomfort of the Buddha. If there was a problem with the dish, the Buddha would have seen it beforehand.
  • The reason that the Buddha asked the remainder of the meal to thrown away was simply because that meal was a special meal just like the first meal of milk rice offered to him at the time of the attainment of the Buddhahood. Such meals can be digested only by a Buddha. Devas and brahmas infuse highly potent nutrients into such meals; the Buddha was sustained for 7 weeks with that single meal of milk rice.

10. Finally, the suffering of the animals is real, and this is one form of sansaric suffering that the Buddha referred to. If you have nerves made out of steel, you can watch the gruesome acts that occur in some animal farms , see the full movie “Earthlings” (Warning: These scenes are highly disturbing to the mind; I watched only a few minutes):

  • We should not hesitate to point out the bad consequences of raising animals under unfathomably harsh conditions in animal farms, and killing animals in unimaginably cruel  ways.
  • As I pointed out above, animals are bound to “reap what they already sowed in their past lives”. Nature always finds a way to impart kamma vipaka. But the problem is that humans volunteer to carry out those punishments, and in turn, generate much future  suffering for themselves.
  • Thus the only tragic that CAN BE AVOIDED is the creation of similar outcomes (in future births) for current humans who engage in such activities.
  • In any case, we cannot force morality on others. We can only point out the dangers and help enact and enforce laws to forbid such unconscionable activities; such efforts have led to making cockfighting illegal in the United States.

Next, “Do Things Just Happen? – The Hidden Causes“, ..

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