Friday, November 30, 2012

The Buddha's Last Supper

The Digha Nikaya records that before the Buddha passed away he ate a meal given to him by a blacksmith named Cunda. This meal consisted of a preparation called sukara maddava which can be translated as ‘pig’s delight’ (D.II,127). The ancient commentaries to the Buddhist scriptures, the Sumangalavilasani and the Paramatthajotika, give a variety of explanations as to what this food was:  tender fatty pork, bamboo shoots, a rice preparation, etc. Obviously the identity of sukara maddava was forgotten very early and later Buddhists had to resort to guesswork. The earliest   Buddhists probably did not preserve information about sukara maddava because quite correctly they thought it unimportant. There has been a great deal of speculation of late as to what the Buddha’s last meal was. Scholars such as Arthur Waley, E. J. Thomas and J. F. Fleet, Walpola Rahula, R. Gordon Wasson, Karl  Neumann and most recently Thich Nhat Hanh, have all weighed in on the subject. Adding to all this are the opinions of numerous amateurs, usually ignorant of the Buddhist scriptures, ancient Indian social history and much else besides. Some have said  sukara maddava was a pork dish, which is quite possible as the Buddha was not a vegetarian. One of the more bizarre theories and one that has gained wide acceptance is that it was a type of truffle.

Early European scholars of Buddhism theorized that because the French use trained pigs to find truffles, the ‘pig’s delight’ mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures might be a variety of truffle. This theory is based on the false premise that what is so of the French countryside in the 19th century must have been so in India in the 5th century BCE. In fact, truffles do not grow in India and the use of trained pigs to find them even in France is a recent practice. Thus the theory that the Buddha’s last meal was truffles is without any foundation. Equally unfounded theories, presumably derived from this first one, is that sukara maddava was a type of mushroom, that the Buddha died of eating poison mushrooms, from food poisoning or even that he was poisoned. Again, the facts contradict such fanciful speculations.

While acknowledging that the matter is obscure and unlikely ever be settled, the general consensus amongst scholars is that sukara maddava  may have been some kind of pork dish. Partisans of vegetarianism vehemently deny this and insist that it was truffles or mushrooms or at least not meat. Those who mistakenly think that vegetarianism was an integral part of early Buddhism jump to the conclusion that the Buddha was contradicting his own teachings by eating meat, and accuse the truffle/mushroom party of denying the obvious and trying to perpetuate a cover-up. Religious zealots intent on replacing Buddhism with their own faith prefer the ‘Buddha was poisoned’ scenario as it introduces a sinister aspect into the Buddha’s life and mission. All we can say with certainty is that sukara maddava was some kind of culinary preparation, the ingredients of which have long ago been forgotten.
 Now let’s just look at the facts. In the months before his passing the Buddha had suffered  “a severe illness causing him sharp pains as if he were to die”  and which he “endured mindfully, fully aware and without complaint.”  (Digha Nikaya II,99). This took place during the monsoon when even in India today water-born diseases are very common. The Buddha was 80 years old, unusually long-lived for the time, and Ananda  described him at this stage as having  “slack and wrinkled limbs and being stooped.”  (Samyutta Nikaya V,217). He himself said that his body could  “only be kept going by being patched up.”  (Digha  Nikaya II,100). After his last meal, he had a severe bout of “diarrhea with blood” (lohita pakkhandika), a continuation of the sickness he had been suffering from for some time, and later the next day he passed away. Obviously the Buddha died of the typical complications brought on by exhaustion, sickness and old age, not because of what he had eaten the day before. This more sound conclusion was still current when the Milindapanha was written (2nd century BCE – 1st century CE). It says; “It was not from the food that the Lord became sick. It was because of the natural weakness of his body and the completion of his lifespan that the sickness grew worse.” (Milindapanha 175). 
From the Buddhist perspective the only significance of the Buddha’s last meal is that it demonstrated once again his infinite capacity for compassion.  When he realized that the end was near, he immediately thought that Cunda might be blamed for causing his death. To prevent this from happening he instructed  Ananda to return to Cunda’s village and tell him that to serve an enlightened one his last meal was a most auspicious and blessed act. Thus, even being sick, exhausted and nearing death the Buddha’s only thought was for the welfare of others.  
This is the last of my posts on Buddhism and vegetarianism. I am leaving for India tomorrow and will post again after Christmas.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Problematic Vegetarianism

One of the reasons why I only recently became vegetarian (and even now not 100% so) was the hypocrisy and inconsistency, even the fanaticism, I observed amongst quite a few vegetarians.  This and the resistance it caused prevented me from seeing intelligent, thoughtful vegetarianism’s consistency with the Dhamma. Arthur Koestler once described something as being “as dull as dining with a vegetarian” and I know exactly what he meant. Listening to some vegetarians talk often gives one the impression that they are more concerned about mastication, digestive juices and bowel movements than they are about the lives of innocent animals. 
In 1996 when I visited Hong Kong and Taiwan I stayed in many Chinese Mahayana monasteries. I was always welcomed with the greatest courtesy but inevitably the subject of diet would come up. As is fairly typical of vegetarians, many of my hosts were fixated on food and  one of the few  thing they knew about Theravada was that Theravadins  are not vegetarian. When I was asked, and sooner or later I always was, “Are you vegetarian?” I would truthfully reply; “No I am not. But while here (Hong Kong or Taiwan) I am adhering to your discipline.” This answer was often followed by a long, usually polite but sometimes reproachful, lecture about how uncompassionate it is to eat meat.
While fingers were being wagged in my face I couldn’t help noticing that nearly all my hosts were dressed in silk robes and I happen to know that approximately 50 silk worms have to be boiled alive to make one square inch of silk. I also noticed that all the banners, hangings, etc. in the monasteries’ shrines were likewise of silk. One monk delivered his lecture to me while sitting on a throne, flanked by two of the biggest elephant tusks I have ever seen, each intricately and exquisitely carved with images of Kuan Yin and other bodhisattvas. Both these tusks were still creamy-white indicating that their original owner had only been slaughtered (probably illegally) a few years ago.
Another thing I noticed was the furniture in the temples.  Running down the eastern side of Taiwan is a chain of very high mountains  that are covered with thick forest made up of the most magnificent ancient trees.  It has become the fashion in Taiwan to have furniture made out of these trees. A table may consist of a huge cross-section of a trunk a foot or more thick and the five or six chairs around it can be made out of cross-sections of smaller trunks or large branches. The attraction of this type of furniture is the often gnarled outer surface of the trunk slabs and the age-rings within them. I hardly need mention that this furniture is extremely expensive but as Taiwanese temples tend to be very wealthy, they usually have at least one or two sets of this furniture.
One incredibly lavish monastery I visited had five such sets in the visitor’s hall and one in the vestibule of each monk’s room. Another must-have I noticed in many temples is huge, twisted, gnarled tree trunks, sometimes including the roots, with Bodhidhamma, Kuan Yin or lohans carved into them. None of the enthusiastic  vegetarian monks I met seemed particularly concerned about their role in decimating Taiwan’s ancient forests by having these beautiful but completely unnecessary and destructive luxuries. It seemed that eating meat was unforgivable but stripping the forests of their trees and having silk worms boiled alive was okay.
But by far the worst thing I saw in Taiwan was the attitude towards pets. The Taiwanese are busy absorbing Western middle-class values and tastes but like all new-comers they still haven’t got it quite right. Everyone seems to  want a fluffy adorable puppy, kitten or bunny but they are not yet schooled in what to do with them once they get them. Three months later or when the animal has grown up and is no longer cute, they lose interest in it. This is particularly true of dogs who are often confined in tiny cages. Some of these caged dogs are put at front gates of peoples’ homes so they will bark when anyone comes. I recall looking down several streets and seeing one of these tiny cages at nearly every gate and hearing their occupants howling with boredom, barking incessantly and whimpering for attention.
As in Taiwanese homes, so too in Taiwanese monasteries. In one monastery I saw two adult Alsatians locked in a cage barely big enough for them to turn around and in the three weeks I was at this place they were never let out once. Worse still, the abbot of this temple, a rather formidable man, was well-known as an outspoken and crusading advocate of, you guessed it, strict vegetarianism - no milk, no eggs, no animal products at all. Both his Alsatians suffered from severe rickets. Being a vegan himself the abbot had refused to feed his pets meat or milk when they were puppies causing their legs to be all bowed and bent. Having said all this I should point out that generally I was impressed by the vigor of Buddhism in Taiwan and that the country has an active animal rights movement. My problem was only with the way some Taiwanese Buddhist practiced vegetarianism. 
 I’d have to say that some other vegetarians I have encountered suffer from a similar lopsidedness - a near obsession with meat and its consumption and little or no interest in any other kind of cruelty to animals or a carelessness towards the environment in which animals need to live. For many people, just abstaining from meat is enough - and from a thoughtful Buddhist perspective it is not enough. You could be a scrupulous vegetarian and at the same time be unkind and uncaring  towards other beings. Vegetarianism is good, but if it does not go hand in hand with a compassionate regard for all human and animal life it’s just another food fad. So if you are going to be a vegetarian be an intelligent one.
I will continue exploring vegetarianism and Buddhism in the next post.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meat Eating; Was The Buddha Inconsistent?

Here is a quandary to consider. We saw before that a causal link can be discerned between eating meat and animals being killed. Nowadays there are many persons between these two points - the slaughter man, the meat packers, the distributors, etc. but in either its simplest or its most complex form the three key participants are (1) the slaughter man, the one who actually draws the knife across the animals throat; (2) the middleman who sells the meat and (3) the customer, the person who buys and consumes the meat. The existence of these three depends on each other.
Now it is obvious why the Buddha mentioned slaughter men, hunters, deer stalkers, fishermen, executioners, etc. as those who do not practice Dhamma (Samyutta Nikaya II,256). It is also clear enough why he described people who sell meat as failing to practice Right Livelihood (Anguttara Nikaya III,208). But curiously, nowhere does the Buddha complete what seems to be the logical sequence by mentioning the third and last link in the chain, the buyer/eater. Why is this? If killing an animal is wrong and if selling its meat is wrong, why isn’t buying and consuming its meat wrong too?
Here is another quandary. The Buddha said that his lay disciples should avoid making their living by five trades; these being trade in weapons (sattha), in human beings (satta), in meat (mamsa), in alcohol (majja) and in poisons (visa, Anguttara Nikaya III.208). Although this seems clear enough, looking at it a little more carefully might reveal something relevant to the question of meat eating. Why are these trades wrong, unwholesome or kammicly negative? Let’s have a look at arms.

While the blacksmith is forging steel to make a sword he is unlikely to have any evil intentions, he is probably preoccupied with forging his steel and he certainly does not kill anyone. The arms dealer who sells the sword does not kill anyone either. He’s just selling a commodity. So why did the Buddha consider arms manufacturing/trading to be a wrong means of livelihood? Obviously because weapons, like poisons make killing possible. Their main purpose, indeed their only purpose, is to kill. The arms dealer is centrally situated in a chain that could lead to someone being killed, even though he himself does not kill anyone. A, arms manufacturer - B, arms dealer - C, purchaser and killing. Now if we reverse this sequence and apply it to meat eating then surely the same conclusion would have to be drawn; C - eating meat - B, meat seller  - A, slaughter man and killing. Why in both these cases has the Buddha left out one or two of the key links in these chains?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Motivation And Meat

Being true to the Dhamma in general and the first Precept in particular, would seem to require being vegetarian. Not everyone sees it this way and most Theravadin and nearly all Vajrayanist Buddhists do not interpret it as being so. We will now examine the motives in practising the Precepts and see how this could be relevant to the meat eating-vegetarian issue.
The Buddha gave three reasons why we should take ethical discipline seriously:
(1) The first is to avoid the negative effects of bad actions – usually called ‘bad kamma’ but more correctly ‘bad vipaka’. This is mentioned by the Buddha many times and is the only one of the three that is ever mentioned in traditional Theravada teaching, giving rise, with some justification, to the criticism that Theravada is self-centered. 
(2) The second reason is because following the Precepts lays the foundation for positive qualities like restraint, awareness, mental clarity, the happiness of having a clear conscience (anavajja sukha, Digha Nikaya I,70), etc. and which in time lead to the ultimate good, Nirvana.
(3) And the third reason is love and concern for others. I do not harm or kill others because I respect  their life. I don’t steal from them because I respect their property. I don’t sexually exploit or misuse them because I respect their dignity and their right to choose. I do not lie to them because I respect their right to receive and know the truth. And I do not intoxicate myself with alcohol because when I encounter others I want meaningful communication to take place between us. In short, fidelity to the Precepts is as much as anything an act of love, not just to the person I am directly relating to but to the wider community as well.
The Buddha highlighted this point when he said that right actions are a type of consideration or thoughtfulness (saraniya) to others that lead to “love, respect, kind regard, harmony and peace”, (piyakarana garukarana sangahaya avivadaya samaggiya…, Anguttara Nikaya III,289). Just so that there can be no uncertainty about what the Buddha said here, piya = love; karana = making, causing; garu = respect, esteem; sangaha, sympathy, togetherness, mutuality; avivada = non-dispute, harmony; samagga = peace, concord.
Those who feel that they can develop good qualities like patience, determination, mindfulness, generosity, kindness and love while eating meat should have no concern about their diet. But, anyone who genuinely feels that they should develop an expansive love and kindness towards others - all others (and the Buddha said we should), would have to feel uneasy about being connected in any way to the animals being killed. The knowledge that they are part of a chain that leads to some very nasty things happening (and I do not want to regale you with the horrors of the abattoirs) must make them feel uneasy. It would have to motivate a thoughtful Buddhist to try to do at least something about this cruelty; and the least one could do is not be a link in the chain, by abstaining from eating meat. 

I will continue the discussion in the next post.