Bhikshu and bhikshuni, the Sanskrit terms for a monk and a nun, literally mean a “beggar” or “mendicant.” Buddhist monks and nuns originally received their single daily meal by going on alms rounds in local villages and towns, a practice that is still followed today in some Theravada Buddhist regions of Southeast Asia. Monks and nuns were required to accept whatever the laity offered to them, including meat, since charity (dana) was the principal means for laypeople to gain merit and thus better their prospects of a happy rebirth.
The only exception to this rule recognized in the Vinaya is if a monk knows that an animal has been killed specifically to feed him, in which case he is not allowed to accept that meat. Monks were always free to choose what to eat from their bowls, but the vast majority probably ate offerings of meat.
Related: A Plea for the Animals
We know that the Buddha rejected strict vegetarianism as an imperative of monastic life from a dispute with his cousin Devadatta, an ambitious monk who had sought unsuccessfully to be named the Buddha’s successor. Devadatta practiced five severe types of austerities (dhutanga), including vegetarianism, and he specifically asked the Buddha to require all monks to be strict vegetarians. The Buddha refused this request, since such a requirement would limit what monks could accept from the laity, and thus restrict the amount of merit laypeople could generate.
Another piece of evidence that early Buddhists ate meat is found in the story surrounding the Buddha’s death. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Discourse on the Great Decease), which narrates the last year of the Buddha’s life, his final meal was offered by the blacksmith Cunda, who invited the Buddha and his monks to his home to feed them. Cunda offered them a dish called sukaramaddava, which the Buddha accepted on behalf of the monks but warned that no one else should taste the dish and ordered that the remainder of the dish be buried.
After eating this sukaramaddava, the Buddha came down with the severe case of dysentery that eventually killed him. Cunda was distraught at having sickened the Buddha, but the Buddha sent his attendant Ananda to comfort him and tell him that he would receive great merit for offering a buddha his last meal. There has been much debate in the traditional commentaries as to exactly what sukaramaddava was. The term literally means “tender boar,” which in Indian and Sinhalese commentaries is usually presumed to have been some sort of pork dish. In East Asia, where vegetarianism was more common, this term was translated as chantanshu’er, which means “sandalwood tree fungus,” suggesting that the meal may instead have been something eaten by pigs, such as truffles or mushrooms.
The practice of vegetarianism, which is now widespread in India, seems to derive from the Jaina tradition, one of the rival schools of the wandering shramana ascetics with which Buddhism was also aligned. The Jainas were strong advocates of non-harming (ahimsa) and had strict vegetarianism as one of their defining practices. Since the mainstream Brahmanical tradition of the Vedas also was not originally vegetarian, we can conclude that the pervasive practice of vegetarianism in both Hinduism and later Buddhism is probably a result of Jaina influence.
In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, strict vegetarianism began to be promoted in some Buddhist texts, such as the Mahayana recension of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, and eventually was codified as one of the bodhisattva precepts in such indigenous Buddhist scriptures as the Fanwang jing (Brahma’s Net Sutra) of China. In East Asian Buddhism, vegetarianism became ubiquitous, perhaps prompted by dietary restrictions of Daoist adherents who comprised the early audience for Buddhism in China. Even today, however, not all Buddhist monks and nuns are vegetarians. For example, in China and Korea they typically are; in Tibet and Thailand, they are not.
[This story was first published in 2014]
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