Stephen Batchelor, the Historical Buddha, and Vegetarianism


Stephen Batchelor spoke at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on March 16 plugging his book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.” I was intrigued by his interest in the question of the “historical Buddha,” which has rarely been investigated. I asked him whether he (Batchelor) was a vegetarian, whether the historical Buddha was a vegetarian, and how this all related to the first precept (not to take the life of any sentient creature).He was clearly familiar with discussions on this issue. He replied that he was not a vegetarian himself, and while he did not directly address the question of the first precept, he did have quite a bit to say about the historical Buddha.

He said roughly this: the historical Buddha was not vegetarian. The Pali Canon, which are the oldest texts we have on Buddhism, describe the Buddha as dying from a meal of poisoned pork. Attempts to represent this as food eaten by pigs, or as mushrooms, simply do not reflect what it is in the texts. He also mentioned the schism in the early community of Buddha’s followers over this very issue: the evil Devadatta, a relative of the Buddha, tried to insist on a strict vegetarian practice at least for monks, but the Buddha repudiated it. Finally, there is the Buddha’s injunction to monks not to eat meat if the animal was killed specifically for you. Thus, Batchelor concluded that if you are a guest in someone’s house and they kill an animal for you to eat, you can’t eat it, but if you or your hosts get meat at the meat market, it is acceptable.

This can’t be justified on historical grounds.  In the first place, it is hotly disputed whether the text says that final meal of the Buddha contained pork, and the debate over the Buddha’s vegetarianism seems to be divided pretty much along sectarian lines. (Batchelor was introduced to Buddhism through the Tibetans, who are typically not vegetarians.)  But even accepting everything Batchelor says at face value, Buddhism is very favorably disposed towards vegetarianism. In fact, Buddhism is so favorably disposed to vegetarians, that one has to question on historical grounds whether texts purporting to describe the Buddha or his disciples as meat-eaters are really historical, or are later insertions designed specifically to exculpate meat-eating Buddhists.

The first precept of Buddhism (accepted by all Buddhists regardless of sect) is not to take the life of any sentient creature. It is telling that most non-Buddhists, when they hear of the first precept, assume that this means that Buddhists must be vegetarian. They are then very surprised to find that some Buddhists not only eat meat but don’t feel especially apologetic about it.

Taking the first precept seriously does not necessarily imply vegetarianism; we can imagine life-threatening situations, or situations in which animals or even humans are already dead, in which vegetarianism might not apply despite the first precept. But certainly anyone living (as we do) in a society with abundant food resources, would be vegetarian most of the time.

There’s even more. Basic doctrines such rebirth and karma reinforce vegetarianism. The Buddha was himself an animal in earlier lives: you could be eating a future Buddha. Other ancient believers in reincarnation, such as Pythagoras and the Hindus, also were favorably disposed towards vegetarianism. Even without an explicit prohibition of meat, we would have good reason to suspect that vegetarianism was taught at a very early stage.

What about the instruction that meat is allowed as long as it was not specifically killed for you? This is typically justified by an appeal to common sense: the early monks were beggars, and beggars can’t be choosers. If you’re offered meat, you should eat it, with the single exception of any meat killed specifically for you.

This story will set off alarm bells in the minds of anyone who is historically inclined.  It is suspicious because it looks like it is specifically designed to justify a particular type of meat-eating in spite of the first precept.  Since the first precept clearly implies vegetarianism (and we wouldn’t want to do that), to get around it you invent a story about the necessity of eating anything presented to a begging monk.  Many people have argued fairly convincingly that the Buddha was misquoted.

And what about this supposed controversy in early Buddhism in which the Buddha rejected the vegetarian faction? Obviously vegetarianism was divisive within Buddhism: much of the Mahayana tradition to this day repudiates the suggestion that it is acceptable to eat meat. When we explore this controversy further, we find that this didn’t just arise many hundreds of years later, but very early in the history of Buddhism, indeed among the first community of Buddhists, and indeed within the Buddha’s own family — a controversy itself recorded in the Buddhist scriptures.

A similar controversy engulfed the family of Jesus in Christianity. The family of Jesus was prominent in the early church. John the Baptist, Jesus’ predecessor, was a cousin; James, the first leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus’ death, was his brother; and Simon, the successor to James, was either a cousin or possibly a half-brother. The family of Jesus had a continuing influence in early Christianity, but unfortunately they backed the wrong faction in the early church — the Ebionites — and as a consequence found themselves ostracized in the scriptures. And so what you find in the Christian scriptures is a consistent denigration of Jesus’ own family: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4).

Just as in Christianity, what we have in Buddhism is an attempt to pre-emptively describe the losing faction — which apparently included some of those closest to him — as the ones deviating from the true path. The viewpoint of the losing faction (the vegetarians, that is), went on to become the dominant tradition in China and in parts of Japan, notwithstanding the Pali Canon.

If you take a historical approach— which presumably Batchelor wants to do — then it is highly likely that the Buddha was a vegetarian, and that the contrary texts were invented after the fact to rationalize away the first precept.  The first precept of Buddhism, which implies vegetarianism or something pretty close to it, is just too obvious to be denied.