Is Eating Meat an Akusala Kamma (Immoral Deed)?

Published before October 23, 2015; revised October 19, 2016, February 16, 2018; November 6,2022

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.

  • Unfortunately, many current “Buddhists” are practicing the same “bamunu matha.” We have gone a full circle and are back to the status that the Buddha tried very hard to change.
  • The reason is that we humans judge everything by how we perceive them with our five physical senses, on outward appearances. There is more to nature than what we see (diṭṭha), hear (suta), taste and smell (muta), and perceive (viññāta).  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 paññā (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? does Kamma determine Everything?“.
  • Thus, sometimes, the outward appearance of morality could be nothing but micchā diṭṭhi. Some people try to attain Nibbāna by following rituals, and this is one micchā diṭṭhi one needs to get rid of (silabbata paramasa) before attaining the Sotāpanna stage.
  • The misconception of categorizing “eating meat” as an akusala kamma is a micchā diṭṭhi too. Since there is ample evidence in the Tipiṭaka that the Buddha accepted meat prepared under certain conditions (see #9 below), are these people saying that the Buddha himself committed an akusala kamma?

2. In the “Āmagandha Sutta (Sutta Nipata 2.2)“, the Buddha explained to a brahmin why engaging in dasa akusala and NOT eating “properly prepared” meat is a duccarita (immoral deed). If one kills an animal to get the meat, it is not “properly prepared.”

Here is one verse from the English translation:

“Taking life, torture, mutilation too,
binding, stealing, telling lies, and fraud;
deceit, adultery, and studying crooked views:
this is immoral-stench, not the eating of meat”.

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

  • Devadatta demanded that the Buddha accedes 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” (vata). Instead, one attains Nibbāna by cleansing one’s mind, and moral behavior follows automatically. This is what is meant by “saṁvaraṭṭhena 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, some people 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, which is good. As one gains paññā (wisdom), one’s craving for many sensually pleasurable things, not just meat, automatically diminishes.
  • The craving for excess sense pleasures diminishes automatically when one starts feeling the nirāmisa sukha and realizes that that is much more calming and long-lasting to the mind than any brief sensory pleasure; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.
  • But the point is that paññā (wisdom) comes through understanding the true nature and not being persuaded via untruths.

4. In the Jivaka sutta, the Buddha states that bhikkhus can accept meat ” when it is not seen or heard or suspected that an animal has been purposely slaughtered for that offering.” I also found out recently that the custom those days was to use “pavatta mānsa” for bhikkhus which means the meat was from animals killed by other animals in the forest (lions and tigers usually 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 humans, elephant, horse, dog, cats, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and 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, the meat of a dead animal is no different from corn or wheat; they are all made out of four mahā bhuta: patavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo.
  • 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 better for health to eat less meat and more vegetables and fruits.  Generally, we eat much more food than necessary, leading to many health problems starting with obesity.

5. The critical point is that EATING MEAT or ANYTHING ELSE, if done with greed, is an akusala kamma done with the mind: abhijjā or intense greed.

6. Some 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 bothered by such thoughts, it is better not to eat meat for peace of mind. I 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 an uncountable number of living beings when they cultivate rice, wheat, and vegetables, for our consumption? With the above logic, aren’t we encouraging farmers to kill all those insects by eating any food that we buy at the supermarket?
  • These are the true “musāvāda” (“musā” means “incorrect” and “vāda” means “debate”), i.e., trying to win an argument by using false premises. They appear to make sense on the surface, but they have no substance when you examine them carefully.
  • We have to be careful about having such “micchā diṭṭhi” because niyata micchā diṭṭhi can lead to rebirth in the apāyā. Many such false beliefs appear “harmless” but count as micchā diṭṭhi (not knowing the true nature of things), and that is another reason why it has been hard for people to attain the Sotāpanna 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, one probably needs to worry about other harmful actions first; see “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma.”

7. People will always 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 immoral. It is up to each person to decide and understand that “what one sows, one will reap.”

  • As I mentioned, a “pig butcher,” Chunda Sukara, ran his butcher shop right next to Veluwanārāmaya, 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 had done that, Chunda Sukara would have generated hateful thoughts about the Buddha and ended up in an even worse apāya, as explained by the Buddha. Thus one needs to think deeper than go by “outward appearances.”
  • On the other hand, we should point out the dire consequences of raising animals under unfathomably harsh conditions in animal farms and killing animals in unimaginably cruel ways (see #10 below). Even though animals have much lower levels of “consciousness,” they feel pain the same as we do. Still, we need to get rid of the “wrong saññā” that eating meat (which is like any other food made of the satara mahā bhuta) is equivalent to eating “an animal.” See “Saññā – What It Really Means.”
  • Once the animal is dead, that 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 an “abhaya dāna,” which they interpret as “giving back the life or saving the life of that animal.”

8. First, let us examine WHY a cow is born a cow in the first place. A cow is called a “harakā” in Sinhala, which comes from “hara” meaning “the essence or what is good,” and “kā,” meaning “eat or destroy.” Thus one is born a cow due to a “cow saṅkhāra,” 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 Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.” What we can do is to try to 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 about the relative merits of different deeds.

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

  • One should be dreadful about the suffering one could undergo in the four apāyā (four lowest realms of existence), the animal realm being one. If one can motivate a single human to contemplate that, that will be much more meritorious than “saving” millions of 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 cows, pigs, … lives that one could save if one can point another human being toward becoming a Sotāpanna: that person will NEVER be born in any of the four apāyā. That could be an uncountable number of lives saved by “saving a SINGLE human.” That is the true “abhaya dāna,” and that may not even cost any money.

10.  The critical 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.” 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 Sotāpanna stage, be freed from the apāyās, and even attain the Arahanthood stage.
  • So, there is a HUGE difference between 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 it outside; trap the thing in the cup, slide a cardboard piece underneath slowly and take it outside.

11. I also need to point out that the Buddha ate meat when offered under the conditions given in #4 above. The last meal of the Buddha was a “pork dish,” specially made to alleviate the pain that the Buddha had with an 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 to be consumed by any human and to be buried. Some say this was because of a “contamination problem with that meal,” which led to the discomfort of the Buddha. The Buddha would have seen it beforehand if that meal had a problem.
  • The Buddha asked the remainder of the meal to be thrown away simply because that meal was special, just like the first meal of milk rice offered to him at the time of attaining the Buddhahood. Such meals can be digested only by a Buddha. Devas and Brahmā infuse highly potent nutrients into such meals; the Buddha was sustained for seven weeks with that single meal of milk rice.

12. Finally, the suffering of the animals is real, and this is one form of Saṃsaric 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 whole movie “Earthlings” at the following site (Warning: These scenes are disturbing to the mind, especially after about 10-15 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 vipāka. But the problem is that humans volunteer to carry out those punishments, generating much future suffering for themselves.
  • Thus the only tragedy 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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