... perhaps the main cradle of a more humane concern lay in the Far East.
But although in general modern India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand are vegetarian,
Tibet and Japan are not, although Zen monks are among the exceptions and might
have been expected to disseminate a wider interpretation of what must seem to
many the unfortunately inconsistent doctrine of ahimsa ('non-killing'). The
orthodox Hindu is vegetarian, but although Buddhists are forbidden to take life,
ahimsa subscribing to the belief that all life is sacred and that it is man's
duty to abstain from harming any living creature, less conscientious Buddhists
have for long eaten meat if provided by another. There is even a sutta in the
Buddhist scriptures where the Buddha flatly refused to make a strict rule that
his monks must be vegetarian on the ground that the more strict rule was that
they should take and eat whatever was put into their bowls when they went round
begging. However, as the eminent Judge Christmas Humphreys, founder and president
of The Buddhist Society, has pointed out, since what was given to them would
almost certainly be rice and vegetables, the effect on their eating habits cannot
have been great. (1)
Furthermore, it should be remembered that Buddhism is second not even to the Holy Bible in the number of interpretations it offers and invites. 'Buddha' is a title (meaning in the Sanskrit 'enlightened,' or 'to wake', and equating with Supreme Truth), not the name of a person, and although it is particularly and generally applied to Guatama, the historical founder of Buddhism, it is equally applicable to literally thousands of other teachers, especially in the field of Mahayana Buddhism which subscribes to countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (beings who present ideals of life and embodiments of compassion, sometimes loosely called 'Buddhas of Compassion'). Mahayana (meaning 'Great vehicle') is the major part of Buddhism and evolved at about the beginning of the Christian era, adding its scriptures to (but not opposing) the Hinayana ('small vehicle') that represented the earliest school of Buddhism (now found only in the Theravada).
Just as 'The Buddha' is equated with Gautama, so is Gautama with the Dhammapada (The Path of the Buddha's Dhamma, or Teaching). The Pali version can be read in several English translations, and perhaps this is the best way to judge Gautama's actual attitude to taking life, bearing in mind that the Mahayana scriptures have appeared in Sanskrit, Chinese and other languages for the edification of a world population of Buddhists today estimated to be in the region of 400 million. One sect of the northern (Mahayana) Buddhists were the Shakyas (thought to have lived on the Indian side of the borders of Nepal in the Himalayan foothills), and their scriptural authonty was one that left no doubt as to the 'Lord of Compassion's' views on eating meat. The Shakyamuni (Sanskrit, meaning 'the sage of the Shakyas', and a title of Gautama) Buddha says loud and clear:
To avoid causing terror to living beings, let the Disciple refrain from eating meat . . the food of the wise is that which is consumed by the Sadlius (Yogis); it does not consist of meat . . . there may be some fcolish people in the future who will say that I permitted meat~eating and that I partook of meat myself, but... meat-eating I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit. . . meat-eating in any form, in any manner, and in any place, is unconditionally and once and for all prohibited for all.
And one could hardly say it more flatly than that. However, the incursion of Western values has undoubtedly contributed to some unfortunate broadening of The Middle Path concept, and many Buddhists have extended their eating patterns well beyond the original tenets of their religious belief.
1) Another non-story, which appears in the Pali Canon and is oft quoted by Western people anxious to prove that Eastern nations are no less insensitive to animals' suffering than they are themselves, is that Buddha died after eating tainted pork. However, as scholars have pointed out, the term 'tainted pork' has an obvious symbolic meaning, concerning the much older tradition that the Buddha gave out too much and brought about the tremendous reaction of the Brahmins against his rashness. Delving into such legends achieves little, especially when language, metaphor and parable do so much to confuse the issue (the word 'pork', for instance, can mean 'esoteric teaching'!), and once again one must take into account the whole spirit and tone of a prophet's life and teachings rather than pick on his isolated remarks, or on those of his alleged spokesmen. As Christmas Humphreys has remarked, 'one cannot imagine the world's greatest teacher eating meat, or for that matter, not knowing that what he ate was tainted.'