Five Instances: EATING MEAT

by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

Recently there has been a lot of activity on my posting “Buddhists Eat Meat”.  There are those who vehemently disagree with this point of view.  Here I offer why I, and many other contemporary/traditionalist Buddhists have attained this appropriate view of the intent of encompassing compassion, compassion that requires us to honor that which gives us strength to do good works whatever category it falls under.

Wayne Ren-Cheng — November 8, 2013


One of the most frequently asked questions about being a Buddhist is, “Do I have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist?” The answer is no. Yes, there are varying opinions, translations and commentaries that say otherwise but the Buddha teachings make it clear that it is a matter of personal preference that is founded in the Five Instances. Master Sokei-An offers a pragmatic view of the issue, backed by the words of Rinzai Zen legacy teacher, Soyen Shaku; perceptions that arise from the words of the Buddha and the Vinaya Pitaka.

In Emptiness There is Law – November 1940 – Cat’s Yawn – Vol 1, No. 3

by Master Sokei-An

Whenever I go to a dinner-party in this country someone invariably asks me, “Does a Buddhist priest eat meat?” I never answer; I merely eat meat when it is served me.

When Soyen Shaku came to America, he was invited to dinner by his old friend, Mr. Abiko, who was living on a California farm. The host wrung the neck of a chicken, roasted and carved it and offered it to his guest.

Soyen said; “Mr. Abiko, did you kill this chicken especially for my dinner?”

Mr. Abido answered, “Yes, Venerable!”

I am sorry,” Soyen said, “but I cannot eat it. However I shall touch it with my chopsticks.” He picked up his chopsticks and touched the corpse of the poor bird with them. The host was pleased that Soyen had accepted the offering.

There are four commandments for Buddhist monks which pertain to meat-eating; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal killed purposely to provide food for thee; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal whose entire corpse thou hast seen; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal which has died fighting; thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal which has died of disease.

When you raise chickens in your own backyard, and when they come to you with complete trust and peck the food from your hand, can you suddenly change your heart and twist their necks to provide food for yourself? To eat the meat of a chicken which comes from the butcher is one thing, but I, for my part, could not eat the meat of a chicken which I had raised with my own hands! These commandments were established in accordance with the heartfulness of sentient beings.

This is not a new issue. Master Sokei-An felt the need the confront the issue in 1940 . . . and we are still confronting it today. I can’t help but wonder if he put this particular article in Cat’s Yawn so that his U.S. sangha would better understand how to prepare meats when he visited their homes 🙂

Soyen Shaku (1860-1919), who Sokei-An wrote of, was the first Zen Buddhist master to come and teach in the U.S., but never lived here. He was one Roshi of the Rinzai Zen school and served as abbot for two of the largest Buddhist temples in Japan. His approach to the issue of eating meat was grounded in years of study, tradition and practice . . . a practice of mindfulness with a foundation in the Five Instances that would challenge even the most fervent vegetarian checking labels at the supermarket. Ven. Master Soyen’s teachings on the subject revealed a balance of compassion and pragmatism that, in my view, parallels the ideals in the Buddha’s intent.

Here again is Bodhidharma’s practice of explaining through action that was written about in the previous newsletter. When someone in the U.S. asked Sokei-An about eating meat he didn’t find a need to talk Buddhism, instead he ate the meat he was served. That the story goes on and Soyen doesn’t eat chicken offered him but only touches it with his chopsticks seems contradictory. It stems from a Japanese cultural view that to accept, to “eat” in a sense, a priest touches the food to honor their host. It seems that Sokei-An ate, with no stated exceptions, whatever was given him to eat, though I feel confident that at times he was compelled by the situation to ask questions of his host about the when, where, why and how of the food being served. These questions were surely asked with sincere appreciation for the food being served, and to honor the co-dependent journey that brought that food to his table.

Soyen reacted to his situation with compassion for his host and for the chicken while staying firm to his commitments. The chicken had been slain expressly for him and so according to his commitments he could not eat it. He acted pragmatically by “accepting the offering” so that no loss of honor or negative karma was generated. There is no equal response in the West to being served something you’d rather not eat. It becomes a matter of showing respect to both the host and what is being offered.

The “commandments” he listed are for monastics but would be a basis for a compassionate diet including meat for laypeople today. In an increasingly suburban and urban environment few are faced with having an animal killed purposely for them. The same can be said for facing the slain body of the animal. It is the last two “commandments” . . . and let’s say now that these are guides not dogma . . . that have the most impact in contemporary culture. Creatively and compassionately I’ll change the word “fighting” so that the guide reads “thou shalt not eat the meat of an animal which has died in anguish”. For those concerned with this issue there are avenues of finding out which meats are more compassionately processed. We have to rely on governmental agencies and the honorable actions of others to ensure that undiseased and uninfected foods reach our grocery stores, and to inform us if there are problems. It is our responsibility to be aware.

In the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya, #55) the Awakened One teaches the Five Instances. They speak directly to where one is on the causal chain when it comes to eating meat. It is a mindfulness practice that reveals a compassionate intention being applied to the delicate subject of eating meat. The five instances taught are: 1) if a specific living thing is requested (No, you can’t pick a lobster from the tank or the lamb for Christmas dinner), 2) if the living thing is being mistreated or mishandled (if the animals live or die in anguish), 3) if the intent was the animal was killed directly for the consumption of the monk (see Master Sokei-An’s story above), 4) if the living thing is nervous or frightened (it’s that anguish thing again), 5) if knowing any of these things have happened and the person eats the meat anyway (whether done due to delusion or intent it is equally a negative). In any of these instances either the consumer, the provider, or both will accumulate demerits. Pragmatically speaking the word demerit is a placeholder for the concept of engendering negative karma. By participating in a negative act there will be negative consequences that we may, or may not realize ourselves. One example would be that because the abuse of one animal is accepted then the door is open for the same to happen to others.

If one wants to make a case for their own choice of vegetarianism it should be from the platform of loving-kindness and equanimity, not from a misguided idea that the “Buddha said so.” In our own time and culture there are Buddhists, and those of other worldviews who are smug vegetarians likely to judge others for eating meat. A contemporary Buddhist view is that a monk or lay person who claims spiritual superiority because they are a vegetarian is considered to have an immature practice, one where the ego is still prevalent. This is equally true of someone who chooses to eat meat.

Omnivore, carnivore or herbivore for most of the sentient beings on this planet it is a matter of survival and evolution. For human beings it is a choice. It is up to each of us to make a commitment to being a compassionate human being no matter which we choose.

There are strict vegetarians who are selfish, dishonest and mean. There are people who regularly eat meat and are generous, tolerant and thoughtful. Whose dispositions better reflect Buddhist ideals? Most would say, “The person who was thoughtful and generous. Because such a person obviously has a good heart.” Then eating meat does not preclude one from having a heart of loving-kindness any more than being a vegetarian automatically results in a heart of loving-kindness.


3 thoughts on “Five Instances: EATING MEAT

    • Good morning Terri,

      Your response mirrors the situation of others whose ideals encounter the real. There are causal factors outside ourselves, and in the case of illness within ourselves, that require one to alter lifestyle. It is our responsibility as human beings to make the appropriate, pragmatic changes while holding as close to the commitment to our ideals as possible.

      Terri, set-aside the concept of forgiveness as you have done nothing intrinsically wrong. In this situation there is no wrong or right, only good choice and bad choice; you made a good choice that enables you to continue living, to continue to add your compassionate voice to the voice of others.

      Instead of forgiveness, creatively re-describe your intent to honoring the food, no matter where it arose from, that supplies you strength and energy to be a noble human being. In this way you show compassion for yourself as you honor all life.

      EATING DHARANI: We/I honor the journey this food has taken. The energy and strength it provides will be used for good works in the future.

      I bow to you with respect,
      Wayne Ren-Cheng

  1. I see you made this post quite some time ago but still feel compelled to comment as I have seen it come up before. Though I can appreciate the instances sited I feel that since this will invariably come up time and time again, it should be kept in context of one’s current place and the opportunities they have and not rely entirely on another’s particular experience in a time and place that might be entirely different to our own.

    Science, technology and availability has made it much easier for many to maintain a healthy, vegan diet though obviously, many more in the world don’t have all these advantages working for them.

    Having said that and having read this well written post viewing from my personal, present station in life and not alluding anything towards another’s less advantageous situation, there are a few thoughts that first come to mind.

    Does “thoughtful and generous” pertain only to the living beings in the room and doesn’t trading anything of value, especially money, promote the very act of taking a life and thus deem the act as performed personally for the receiving party? Does the ‘positive’ karma of not hurting one’s feelings outweigh the negative karma of needlessly taking a life?

    I have evolved to become vegan over the last 15 years and yes, it cost me a long term relationship but it had become a moral issue to me and one that I was losing sleep over. Many aspects of Buddhism appeal to me and it was a bit disappointing to first learn that there are exceptions short of necessity that, in my opinion, simply make it easier to find excuses. However, I accept that we are each on our own path wrought with failures and accomplishments…we can only try harder to do what seems right and recognize our shortcomings, which for me, are many 🙂

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