Those [who] eat meat, should not [be] given meat.
Why is [this] so?
I see those not eating meat
[to] have great meritorious virtues
[due to practice of great compassion].
– Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra
Many see Buddhism to be all out to advocate vegetarianism, while some are unsure, with the others thinking it is not so at all. Such confusion can be resolved by taking a closer look at the sūtras for what the Buddha really taught. Briefly, the Buddha never made vegetarianism compulsory for beginners to his teachings, be they lay or monastic. However, as time went by, he gradually advocated stricter and stricter dietary guidelines, especially for those on the Bodhisattva path. This is done as it would be impossible to ‘demand’ all to eradicate highly habitual greed for meat straightaway.
From the ‘Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra: Chapter On Four Forms: Section On Severing Meat-Eating’ (大般涅槃经: 四相品: 断肉食章): ‘Kaśyapa Bodhisattva again [to the] Buddha [Śākyamuni] said, “World-Honoured One, why [does the] Tathāgata [Buddha] not agree [to] eating [of] meat?” [The Buddha replied:] “Good man, those who eat meat sever [the] seed [of] great loving-kindness.” (迦叶菩萨复白佛言, ‘世尊, 云何如来不听食肉?’ ‘善男子, 夫食肉者断大慈种。’)
Kaśyapa again said, “Tathāgata, why [is it, that you] first agreed [to] bhikṣus’ eating [of] three kinds [of] pure meat [See Note 1]?” [The Buddha replied], “Kaśyapa, this [teaching of] three kinds [of] pure meat [was] according [to] conditions, gradually stipulated.” (迦叶又言, ‘如来何故, 先听比丘食叁种净肉?’ 迦叶, 是叁种净肉随事渐制。’) Kaśyapa Bodhisattva again [to the] Buddha said, “Tathāgata, for what causes [and] conditions, [were] ten kinds [of] impure [meat] [See Note 2–3] and even nine kinds of pure [meat] yet again not agree[able?” [See Note 4] [The] Buddha told Kaśyapa, “Likewise, [this] is because of conditions, gradually stipulated. [It] should [be] known [that this] is [for gradually] manifesting the right conduct [or virtue] of severing meat[-eating].” (迦叶菩萨复白佛言, ‘世尊, 何因缘故, 十种不净乃至九种清净而复不听?’ 佛告迦叶, ‘亦是因事渐次而制。当知即是现断肉义。’) [See Note 5-8 for more details]
 Threefold Pure Meat (三净肉): Meat from animals (1) not seen killed, (2) not heard killed, and (3) not suspected killed (e.g. sought as random alms without prior demand). Note that consumer meat closely linked to supply for one’s demand does not fall in this category, for even if animals eaten were not seen or heard killed for one, one surely suspects the continual supply of animals to be killed for all animal-eaters, including oneself, to meet one’s demand.
 Ten Impure Meats (十不净肉): Meat from (1) humans (as it would be cannibalism), (2) elephants, (3) horses (as they might be royally owned), (4) dogs, (5) snakes (for hygiene as they are scavengers), (6) lions, (7) tigers, (8) leopards, (9) bears, and (10) hyenas/wolves (for personal safety as they can smell their kind having been eaten and attack the eater).
 In the Śūraṅgama Sūtra (楞严经) earlier, between the advocation of Threefold Pure Meat and Ninefold Pure Meat [See Note 4], the Buddha advocated, as explained by himself above, as a graduated and in-between transitional skilful means, the Fivefold Pure Meat (五净肉), which includes the criteria of Threefold Pure Meat above, with conditions (4) and (5) of the criteria of Fivefold Pure Meat below added.
 Ninefold Pure Meat (九净肉): Meat from animals (1) not seen killed, (2) not heard killed, (3) not suspected killed, (4) of natural death, (5) left over by birds of prey and scavenger birds, (6) not killed for (or by) oneself, (7) raw and self-dried after death of many days (and not cooked with water or fire), (8) with no prior appointment made for; but incidentally encountered, and (9) already killed; not being killed for oneself now.
 The above Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra excerpt can be seen as the Buddha’s final word on the diet to be adopted by those who wish to fully nurture great compassion as Bodhisattvas, so as to become Buddhas. Due to the cause and effect of supply being linked to demand, this is also why vegetarianism is advocated as the Third Secondary Bodhisattva Precept (菩萨戒) in the Brahma Net (Brahmajāla) Sūtra (梵网经) [See Note 6] and veganism (which is to also not consume or use animal by-products, which necessitate ongoing harm usually leading to killing) is advocated in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra by the Buddha [See Note 7]. Consumers with the power of choice should thus choose with greater compassion.
 The Brahma Net Sūtra’s ‘Third [Secondary Bodhisattva] Precept [Against] Eating Meat’ (第三食肉戒): ‘If [as] Buddhas’ [Bodhisattva] disciples, [on] intentionally eating meat, all [sentient] beings’ meat should not be eaten. Those [who] eat meat, sever [their] Buddha-nature’s seed [of] great loving-kindness [and] compassion, [whom] all [sentient] beings see and abandon. Therefore, all Bodhisattvas, should not eat all [sentient] beings’ meat. [As] eating meat attains immeasurable misgivings, if intentionally eating [it], [they] commit a light defiled misgiving [in contrast to killing personally for meat or otherwise, which commits a heavy misgiving].’ (若佛子，故食肉，一切众生肉不得食。夫食肉者，
 The Śūraṅgama Sūtra’s ‘Second Definitive And Clear Instruction For Purity’ (第二决定清净明诲): ‘How can [those with] great compassion, take all [sentient] beings’ blood and flesh [for] fill [as] food? If all bhikṣus [monks, (nuns, laymen and laywomen too)], do not dress in eastern [e.g. Chinese] silk [waddings], and this land’s [i.e. India] leather shoes, fur garments, [or eat dairy] milk, cheese, ghee [cream], butter, such bhikṣus, of [this] world [will be] truly liberated… Such [as] I here teach, [is] named as Buddhas’ teachings. Not [as] such taught, is Pāpīyān’s [Māra: the evil one] teaching.‘ (云何大悲，取诸众生血肉充食？ 若诸比丘，不服东方丝绵绢帛，及是此土靴履裘毳，乳酪醍醐，如是
 There is no record of the Śākyamuni Buddha himself eating meat in the Buddhist scriptures while there are many records of him gradually and finally advocating non-meat-eating. Although he turned down Devadatta’s request for all monastics to go meat-free, he did not disagree that any of them could do so in their own capacity if they wished and could. Only with more gradual teachings as above, which led to the readiness of more, did the Buddha finally encourage more to go meat-free. Even monastics who eat alms food can educate laypeople to practise greater compassion by offering kinder foods.
– 楞伽经: 断食肉品第八
[As] Bodhisattva Mahāsattvas [at] everywhere beings are,
contemplate all [sentient] beings as relatives [due to past lives’ relations],
and even [with] loving-kindness [are] mindful [of each like an] only child,
therefore should [all] not eat all meat.
– Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: Chapter 8: Severing Meat-Eating
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Project Makan: Vegetarianism In The True Sutras (Previous Run)