A Critique of Kapleau's
"To Cherish All Life"
1820 Jefferson St.
Madison, WI 53711
Copyright 1994 Bruce Burrill
It is not difficult to find in popular books dealing with Buddhism or
Hinduism issues that directly concern the study of the early civilizations of
India. It almost goes without saying that lacking a careful consideration of
the historical, philosophical, philological, anthropological, etc. issues,
one is likely to take a stroll down the garden path of interesting but wrong
conclusions. Examples of this are not hard to find, and the intention in this
paper is to look at in detail an example that illustrates good intentions gone
wrong for the lack of a solid background in Indian history and thought. There
is no question that many of the issues of early Indian history -- and here we
mean around the time of the Buddha -- are not finally decided leaving much
room for conjecture. The question we must ask, however, is the conjecture
sensitive to the questions (and answers) raised by historical study and the
other disciplines that speak to issues of Indian civilization.
What we shall look at is Philip Kapleau's book, TO CHERISH ALL LIFE: A
BUDDHIST CASE FOR BECOMING VEGETARIAN (San Francisco: Harper, 1982; and
Rochester: The Zen Center, 1986). Essentially this is a book written by a
religionist for fellow religionists. It addresses a question of no small
importance for Buddhists -- what is our relationship and responsibility to our
fellow sentient beings? This book, a stern, uncompromising statement
following many of the stern, uncompromising arguments of the Lankavatarasutra,
is of interest having been written by a prominent Western Buddhist, and it is
of interest for its historical claims, but we must ask whether or not it does
justice to a careful study of Indian civilization.
The text of Kapleau's statement is 56 pages with additional information
on diet and protein written by a disciple of his. The first part is a standard
outlining of the horrors of the factory farm and the abattoir. The second
section deals with meat eating and the first precept of not killing. In the
absolute, fundamental sense of Buddha-nature, Kapleau states (p. 6), "There
is no demarcation between human and animal nature." He goes on to say (p.
19), "To willfully take life, therefore, means to disrupt and destroy this
inherent wholeness and to blunt feelings of reverence and compassion arising
from our Buddha-mind." He further states (p. 20):
...since our Buddha-nature has endless potential, the
creature that is a cow today may in a future rebirth become a
human being and from that state realize its innate
perfection--that is, achieve buddhahood. Thus we have
the fundamental Buddhist teaching that all life, human
and non-human, is sacred.
Though there are a number of issues raised in this second section, we
find of vital interest to Kapleau are the Buddha's dying from eating bad
pork, and the Pali canon's allowance of meat eating. Of this first issue
Kapleau, following Arthur Waley, rejects the notion that the Buddha died from
eating bad pork (pp. 23-5). Of this second issue, occupying over a third of
the discussion of the second section, Kapleau by the way of preface states
Through textual and other evidential material, as well as by
reasoned argument, I have sought to establish that the Buddha
could not have uttered the words attributed to him in the
Pali scriptures with regard to meat eating....
It is this second issue that we shall look at in some detail, for it is
here we find the center of Kapleau's argument. He puts forward three arguments
We shall first look at them and then respond.
First, Kapleau contends (p. 34), "...that even before the Buddha's time
the scriptures of the various spiritual traditions in India condemned flesh
eating as not conducive to spiritual progress." Using Koshelya Walli's THE
CONCEPTION OF AHIMSA IN INDIAN THOUGHT as a source, Kapleau states (p. 37),
"The teaching of ahimsa influenced the spiritual climate of the Buddha's
day." To illustrate this he quotes six passages of "ancient Hindu" texts
from Walli's book.
The first reads (p. 37):
Meat can never be obtained without injuring creatures,
and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to heavenly bliss;
therefore one should shun meat eating...
How then could the Buddha have allowed (defended?) meat eating, being
so much against the current of spiritual thinking of the time?
Secondly, he states that the Mahayana sanction against meat eating flatly
contradicts the Theravada position. He mentions the Sanskrit Lankavatara-,
Surangama-, Mahaparinirvana- and, Brahmajala-sutras. He quotes from the first
It is not true that meat is proper food and permissible
when the animal was not killed by himself, when he did not
order others to kill it, when it was not specially
meant for him...Again, there may be some people in the future
who...being under the influence of the taste for meat will
string together in various ways sophistic arguments to defend
Of this Kapleau states (p. 34):
...as Conze and other scholars have pointed
out, many of the Sanskrit scriptures were contemporary, or
nearly so, with the Pali [Theravada]. Isn't it reasonable to
suppose that if the elders of the Mahayana were satisfied
that the Theravada suttas correctly reflected the Buddha's
views as respect meat eating, they would have remained silent on
It is worth noting the above two arguments are used by Kapleau to show
why (p.34) "the Mahayana teachings directly contradict those of the Theravada
in the matter of meat eating." He also on the basis of these two arguments
states that (p. 34), "...commentators [who] attribute the difference [between
the Mahayana and the Theravada] to a shift in public morality that took place
in the years between the compiling of the two set of scriptures" are wrong.
Thirdly, Kapleau asks (p. 39-40), "How did those words imputed to the
Buddha get into the Pali Canon? The answer is simple: Monks and scribes still
attached to meat eating put them there." There are two issues underlining
this statement. First, Kapleau states (p. 30):
There has never been a genuine spiritual master either
before, during, or after the Buddha's time who has defended meat
eating or denied that it is a bar to realization of the highest
states of spirituality. Why? Because meat stimulates the lower
In other words, it is inconceivable that as a "genuine spiritual master'
the Buddha could have "defended" meat eating. Secondly, he points out,
referring to Rhys Davids' and Conze's work, that the Pali canon (as it is
with the other canons) shows editing, reflecting "the prejudices or points of
view" of the school it belongs to. The conclusion has to be that, using the
terminology of the Lankavatarasutra, that monk scribes "under the influence
of the taste for meat" have edited into the Pali texts "sophistic arguments
to defend meat eating." So stands Kapleau.
Kapleau's first contention that early Indian scriptures prohibited the
eating of meat can only in part be borne out by textual evidence. Some did
and some did the opposite. If Kapleau wants us to believe that meat eating
was not commonplace before, during, and after the Buddha's time, the evidence
marshals strongly against such a view. Walli states that Indians of the
Vedic and Upansishadic times were meat eaters, and some texts supported meat
eating. In volume two of R. C. Majumdar's THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF THE
INDIAN PEOPLE, dealing with the time between 600 B.C. and 320 A.D., we find
In spite of the growing spirit of ahimsa fostered by the Jains and
Buddhists, and enforced by emperors like Asoka, various kinds of fish
and meat, not excluding beef, were extensively taken by the people.
Even the "ancient Hindu" texts that Kapleau quotes, like the one above
are not without serious difficulty. The one above and three others -- that
is, four out of the six that he quotes -- are quoted from page 145 of Walli's
book and come from the Manusmrti. On the bottom of that page Walli quotes
the Manusmtri, "An abstainer of meat and a performer of horse sacrifice, both
these get equal merit." On the next page Walli states, "According to Manu,
there is no sin in meat-eating, for that is the natural way of human beings,
but abstention brings great rewards." On page 121 Walli states that according
to the Manusmrti animals were created for the purpose of performing
sacrifice. The texts that Kapleau quotes may argue against meat eating as it
is a detriment to spiritual progress, but they also emphatically implore the
wholesale destruction of animals for that end. This is something that Buddhism
and Jainism strongly spoke against. These texts are hardly suited to be quoted
in support of the first precept, for the context simply does not allow it,
but Kapleau ignores this. The point is that despite what he wants the texts to
say, the historical fact, as put forth by Walli, Majumdar, and others, is that
meat eating was commonplace before, during, and well after the Buddha's time.
If the lack of historical considerations is a problem with the first
argument, it is no less bewildering with the second argument. Does Kapleau
really mean that the Sanskrit Lankavatarasutra, et al. mentioned above are
really "contemporary, or nearly so, with the Pali"? The Pali canon was written
down in the first century B.C. and the main corpus of the canon was probably
settled before the third century B.C. Following Hajime Nakamura in his
INDIAN BUDDHISM, we find these dates for these texts: p. 212
Mahaparinirvanasutra, 300-400 A.D., p. 231 Lankavatarasutra, 350-400
A.D., p. 221 Brahmajalasutra, probably composed in China circa 350
A.D. These texts are contemporaneous with the Pali texts only in geologic
In protecting his position that the Buddha could not have allowed meat
eating, Kapleau argues, as we have seen, against the notion of a shift from
meat eating to non-meat eating, but his position finds no support in the
above dates, nor does it find support from scholars who have worked with
these Sanskrit texts. D.T. Suzuki holds that the eighth chapter of the
Lankavatarasutra, which deals with the prohibition against meat eating,
is probably a later addition, having "no organic connection with the text
proper." He goes on to say:
According to this, there must have been the accepting of meat-food
among the followers of Buddhism in the time when the Lankavatara was
compiled. Evidently, the Buddha did not object to their [the monks]
eating it if the animal was not especially killed for them. This
caused unfavourable comments among the other religions, for instance,
the Lokayatas, and the Buddhists naturally did not like them, and
this must have started the new effort to prohibit meat-eating
altogether among the Mahayana advocates.
D. Seyfort Ruegg states:
It is therefore probable that vegetarianism became established in
Buddhism, at least in the practice of very many Mahayanists, neither
in the wake of some generalized tendency supposed to derive from a
primative pre-Aryan source nor as the result of the increasing
influence of "heretical" Renouncers [samnyasin, inclusive of the
Buddhists and Jainas], but rather in close connexion with a specific
religious and philosophical teaching: the tathagatagarbha doctrine.)
It is important to note that the texts Kapleau mentions are the
tathagatagarbha texts, and it seems reasonable to argue that the move
toward vegetarianism arose both from internal as well as external pressures.
Kapleau, for his third argument, offers neither "evidential material" nor
"reasoned argument". What Kapleau offers us is the fact that the Pali canon
shows evidence of editing, and the belief that the Buddha could not allow
meat eating; therefore, allowance of meat eating in the Pali text was the
results of editing in by monks still attached to meat eating. This is not
evidence or "reasoned argument," it is mere assertion. Of course, we cannot
know with certainty what the Buddha said, but we can know what the tradition
has to say, and we can know the cultural context within which it is said.
One of the important pieces of tradition in Buddhism is the Jivakasutta
in the Pali canon. For Kapleau (p. 29-33) the Jivakasutta makes no sense in
allowing meat that has not been seen, heard, or suspected of having been
killed for oneself. He sees this as freely sanctioning "meat eating for
everyone" and by implication, an approval of "butchering and the horrors of
the slaughter house." Contrary to Kapleau and others this is not a sanction or
a defense of eating meat for everyone. The rules of this discourse and of the
corresponding Vinaya text are directed strictly to monks who unless ill
are not allowed to ask for food, accepting whatever is given. A monk, when
"among the houses," accepted regardless of caste from everyone who wished to
give. The attitude of early Buddhism was that all people "have the right to
practice giving (dana)."
And it has to be remembered furthermore that as an almsman the
Bhikkhu was not only dependent on the offering he received on his
begging round, but that as a person to be honoured [dakkhineyya] and
a 'field of merit'[punnakkhetta] he was morally bound to accept any
alms offered in good faith by a pious donor and that if he failed to
do so he was interfering with the karmic fruit and just reward that
the donor was entitled to expect.)
The problem we are faced with in understanding this issue is well put by
Since it is impossible to eat animals without harming them, a
Buddhist should be a vegetarian. But if he is a monk, who begs his
food by going round a village from house to house, and if this
village is inhabited by non-vegetarians [non- Buddhists>, who would
have been common even well after the Buddha's time], he comes up
against a serious difficulty.)
We must keep in mind that in discussing the rationale of the Jivakasutta,
we are not talking about Southeast Asian and Japanese societies today -- both
of which are targets of Kapleau's vitriol. We are talking about a society that
was not Buddhist, and where many of the forest dwelling mendicants, of whom
the Buddhists and the Jains were a part, obtained their daily food by going
among the houses taking whatever food that was offered. There is no evidence
that the forest dwelling mendicants were exclusively, or even predominately,
non-meat eating. To the contrary, Nand Kishore Prasad states, "The Jaina
Canonical texts bear ample evidence to show that meat-eating or fish-eating
was in practice among the early Jaina monks." He goes on to state, "...to
seek out pure vegetarian food was an impossibility for the early [Jaina]
monks, and thirdly to eat meat or fish not prepared for their sake was
normally not regarded as violence. The Buddhists were perhaps allowed
non-vegetarian food because of the latter two reasons." He further states that
a vegetarian diet became commonplace with the Jains later.
The Jivakasutta states that not only should a monk refuse meat that he
knows or even suspects has been killed for him, but the donor should not kill
or cause an animal to be killed in order to feed a monk (and we could add by
extension: and to feed oneself). The Jivakasutta goes on to speak about
the attitude with which a monks eats a meal -- meat or otherwise. Of this
If a householder invites an almsman to a meal and serves an
excellent meal, the almsman has got no hand in the selection of the
meal, he eats his food with indifference with full knowledge that it
[food] affords no refuge, at such a time, an almsman's thoughts are
not set on hurting himself, or others, or both. That almsman eats
food to which no blame attaches.)
By way of contrast Kapleau's response to the Jivakasutta is:
But if they [monks] ate the more (by ordinary standards) delectable
meat of cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep, not only are they indulging
themselves in the manner of lay persons but, even worse, they are
indirectly causing pain and death to other living creatures and
perpetrating morally indefensible acts.(p. 33)
We shall here let Ruegg speak once more:
Finally, since in Buddhist thought it is the intention
with which an act is accomplished that determines its moral and karmic
quality, the Bhikkhu's accepting and eating meat in the
conditions specified above cannot be dismissed as necessarily a
mere subterfuge allowing him to circumvent some share of
responsibility in a series of acts involving vihimsa at an
In conclusion we can see that Kapleau's effort fails. He does not give
his reader accurate information, and the reason for this is simple: Kapleau
lacks the appropriate background to do so. We are not arguing here that one
needs to be an Indologist or a Buddhologist, but in an enterprise that makes
historical claims the reader should expect at least some attempt at
historical accuracy, and not mere assertion based upon notions of how things
should be independent of what research shows. Did the Buddha eat meat, and
allow meat to be eaten? In all likelihood he did both, and we can say this
after looking carefully at the historical and cultural evidence as we have it
in Jaina, Buddhist and Brahmanical texts, which is more than merely
suggestive. Kapleau comes to us stating that the Buddha could not have eaten
meat or allowed it, but he demonstrates an inability to handle the research
material he has at hand. When he states that "Conze and other scholars have
pointed out, many of the Sanskrit scriptures were contemporary, or nearly so,
with the Pali," we can find no verification that this statement is so.
Clearly, Conze was too good a scholar to make the mistaken assertion that
Kapleau attributes to him, and Conze's own discussion of the question of meat
eating is, as we have seen, in one brief paragraph more to point than is
Kapleau in his 56 pages. Kapleau's use of Walli is equally disastrous. He
shows no sensitivity to the dating of the material, though Walli provides
little help. More importantly, however, he ignores the evidence from Walli
that contradicts his position. Even more importantly Kapleau makes no
distinction between descriptive and prescriptive in dealing with the "ancient
Hindu" texts, nor does he show any understanding that the "ancient Hindu"
material that quotes from Walli's book is Brahmanical and thereby
representing an elitist body of literature. It is unfortunate but Kapleau's
journey down the garden path is complete. It was journey that could have
avoided, but it was one upon which he served as his own guide.
 Varanasi: Bharata Manisha, 1974. p. 145.
 Walli, 113, 143, 144, 146, 150, 151.
 London: George Allen & Unwin, 1951. p. 577. See also Vol. I p. 520. This
is very strongly supported by Om Prakash's FOOD AND DRINKS IN ANCIENT
INDIA, Delhi: Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, 1961, passim.
 Ling, Trevor O. A DICTIONARY OF BUDDHISM. New York: Scribners, 1972.
 Tokyo: KUFS Publication, 1980.
 STUDIES IN THE LANKAVATARA SUTRA. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1930.
 "Ahimsa and Vegetarianism in the History of Buddhism." In BUDDHIST
STUDIES IN HONOUR OF WALPOLA RAHULA. Ed. S. Balasooriya, et al., London:
Gordon Fraser, 1980. pp. 236-7.
 The Mahayanist monks of China, Vietnam, and Tibet follow the
non-Mahayanist Vinayas of the Mulasarvastivada and Dharmagupta,
which, as does the Pali Vinaya, have the three allowances. They are a
very old part of the Buddhist tradition that cannot be brushed aside
lightly. See THE MIDDLE WAY Vol. 60, No. 2 page 69: The Dalai Lama states
that meat eating is not prohibited by the Vinaya, and he states that he
does not follow a vegetarian diet.
 Bhikkhu Khantipalo. THE BUDDHIST MONK'S DISCIPLINE. Kandy: BPS 1969. p. 7.
 Ruegg, p. 239.
 Conze, Edward. BUDDHISM. New York: Harper & Row, 1959. p. 62.
 From the Jain Acaranga Sutra (Ayarangasuyam): "A monk or a nun on a
begging-tour should not accept meat or fish containing many bones
[atthi], so that only a part of it can be eaten and the greater part
must be rejected...[if meat with many bones is put in the mendicant's
bowl] he should say, after consideration: "O long lived one! (or, O
sister!) it is not meet for me to accept meat with many bones; if you
want to give me a portion of whatever sizes, give it [to] me; but not
the bones!" ...But if he inadvertently accepted it, he should not say:
"No, away, take it!" Knowing this, he should go apart...eat the meat or
Hermann Jacobi (tr.) Gaina Sutras. Vol. XXII: The Sacred Books of the
East. Ed. F. Max Muller, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884, pp. 114-5.
See Prasad (below) pp. 117-8 for a discussion of the terms flesh (mamsa)
and bones (atthi).
 STUDIES IN BUDDHIST AND JAINA MONACHISM. Bihar: Research Institute of
Prakrit, Jainology & Ahimsa, Vaishali, 1972. pp. 117-8.
 Walli, p. 193.
 Ruegg, p. 239.
Kapleau could have strengthened his argument by appealing to the fact
that the Mahasamghika Vinaya contains no mention of the three allowances.
In HISTORY OF RELIGIONS Aug. 76 Vol. 16 Nattier and Prebish point out that
the Mahasamghika Vinaya is the oldest version (pp.267-9). It is only in the
Pali, Dharmagupta, Sarvistivada, etc. vinayas that we find the three
allowances. In addition we do not find the Jivakasutta in the Chinese version
of the Majjhima Nikaya, the Madhyama Agama. On the face of it Kapleau's
argument does seem to be supported by Nattier and Prebish's contentions as by
the absence of the Jivakasutta. It is theoretical then that we could get a
canon without mention of the three allowance.
Nattier and Prebish argue that Mahasanghika vinaya is the oldest on the
basis of the Pratimoksa rules, the Mahasanghikas having fewer rules. They
argue since the Pratimoksa is important for maintaining the identity of the
sangha, it is not likely to be easily changed, and the assumption seems to be
the fewer the rules, the least changes and therefore the older it is. Maybe.
We don't think one can generalize from the specific patimokkha rules -- if
they are older or not -- to the whole of the vinaya. None of the different
schools rules mention the three allowances, but none of the patimokkha rules
of any school prohibit meat eating. The discussion of meat eating in the Pali
texts can be found in at least three places in the Pali vinaya, and these
three allowances are found in the vinaya texts of all except the
Mahasanghikas. Again, it may be that the Mahasanghikas have the oldest
pratimoksa, but that is not necessarily to say that their vinaya texts as a
whole are older. Nakamura in his INDIAN BUDDHISM states that comparative
study of the vinayas is "a favorite subject of Japanese scholars." He is of
the opinion based upon recent and exhaustive Japanese studies, that the Pali
vinaya is the oldest, followed by the Dharmaguptas, and then we have the
In a footnote in John C. Holt's DISCIPLINE: The Canonical Buddhism of the
Vinayapitaka, Holt states: "Hirakawa argues that the Suttavibhanga of the
Pali Vinaya represents the oldest version of the first part of the
Vinayapitaka that has survived. He bases his assertion on the fact that the
Pali recension contains the least amount of apadana material when
compared to other texts. Hirakawa considers apadanas to be a genre of
literature from a later period. See Hirakawa, A STUDY OF THE VINAYA (Tokyo:
Sakibo-Busshoron, 1960), pp.12-15."
This now brings us to the Jivakasutta. The Ven. Minh Chau is in his THE
CHINESE MADHYAMA AGAMA AND THE PALI MAJJHIMA NIKAYA: A COMPARATIVE STUDY
(Saigon: The Siagon Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies, 1964) of the
opinion that this discourse was dropped from the Chinese text:
"Again the dropping from all the Chinese Agamas of the Pali sutta number
55...."(p. 31.) It can probably be argued that the Chinese canon shows far
more evidence of sectarian editing then does the Pali canon. The Agamas were
brought in to China after Mahayana Buddhism had already been established
there, and it is far more likely that biases of the translators are reflected
in the Chinese texts. For example, the Chinese version of the Anguttara
Nikaya, the Ekottaragama, talks about hinayana and mahayana, which signifies
a very late editing, indeed. The Pali Anguttara Nikaya was probably fixed
about 1st century B.C., but the Chinese version can be dated about the 2nd or
3rd century A.D., according to Nakamura.