RULES OF BUDDHIST CONDUCT (VINAYA) FOR MONASTICS (AND LAYPEOPLE) ON EATING MEAT: 17th Karmapa on the Vinaya rules on ‘offered’ meat and the three ‘tests’ of impurity

Drawing of Buddha’s Alms Bowl by Alexander Cunningham in 19th Century

In the second half of Day 16 (see, the 17th Karmapa spoke about the different Vinaya schools on the offence of eating impure meat, when it has been offered. Historically, Buddhist monks of different traditions, would go and beg for alms and food, and were supposed to accept whatever was given to them to avoid them being choosy about what they ate and having attachment to it. That meant that they were allowed to eat meat, but only if it was offered to them and the animal had not been specifically slaughtered for that purpose.

The 17th Karmapa told the story of how a three ‘tests’ of impurity rule developed when the Buddha was invited to a meal at which lots of meat had been prepared and served to him by a layperson, from the carcasses of animals that had died naturally. When the Jain students who saw this feast complained about it at the time, the Buddha afterwards gathered the sangha together and explained that monastics could only eat meat that had been offered to them, if it was not impure in the three ways. Basically, it was not impure if they were 100 hundred percent sure (had not seen, heard or had zero doubts) that the animal had been killed specifically for offering it to them.

Using citations from Chinese and Indian sources, some of which the Karmapa himself had personally translated from Chinese into Tibetan, the Karmapa gave a fascinating insight into how seriously the Buddha and the early Buddhist traditions saw the slaughter and eating of animals, and how monastics had to avoid being involved with the murder of and eating any animals, even those that had been offered to them by others.

Times have changed, and these days most monastics in Tibetan Buddhism don’t beg for food instead they buy, make and eat food within the monasteries. In 2007, in Bodh Gaya, the 17th Karmapa told Kagyu monastics and followers not to buy, cook or consume any meat within Kagyu centres. Thus, this latest teaching on the ancient sources of the strict rules on eating meat offered for monastics, is a welcome and valuable lesson not only in history but also in Buddhist conduct and discipline, which we would all do well to ingest and follow too. Even though the rules were created specifically for monastics, they were also said to apply to Buddhist laypeople (with the five lay vows) who are serious about not deliberately harming animals and eating them.

In summary, Buddha did say that monastics could eat meat, but only under very strict conditions in the context of monastics begging for alms, and only as long as the animal had not been killed specifically for them. It did not mean that monastics themselves should seek out and request meat, or that it was alright to eat slaughtered animals generally. The Buddha was not condoning killing and eating animals at all, as can be seen in his clear Mahayana teachings that expressly forbid it.

I have also added a final section regarding the discovery of the Buddha’s alm bowl, by the 4th Century Chinese traveller, Faixian (who is referred to by the 17th Karmapa in this teaching), which is said to be currently housed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

May it be of benefit and may we lose all attachment to eating animal products and by doing so cause less harm to animals, the planet and ourselves!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 15th January 2021.

17th Karmapa’s teaching on the Vinaya Rules relating to eating meat

17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje

“I thought it would be good to speak about the Vinaya and what it says about eating meat. Then, after that we don’t need to debate it. In Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Pali there are Vinaya scriptures of various schools[1].  If we look at them, we can see that our teacher, the Bhagavan Buddha paid a lot of attention to food and conduct of his for students in the monastic community, and gave them a lot of advice.

Food is a daily necessity for any being, you cannot do without it. Since it is a necessity, there is no choice but to eat. Since one has to eat, at that time in India there were many different religions and philosophical schools and many of those religions considered practicing austerities to be extremely important. There are also severe austerities concerning food that would be extremely difficult for ordinary people to practice. Buddha himself, before he achieved awakening, practiced austerities for six years. As he had that experience, he knew that liberation cannot be achieved through austerities alone. After he stopped that, he taught his students, particularly monastics, that they should not have an extreme lifestyle such that their body cannot bear it. Nor should they fall into the extreme of a very lazy lifestyle. In particular, it is necessary to have food to continue living, so one has to eat. However, we should think about food as medicine and eat it at the right time and in moderation. If one eats it like a pig or dog, then that is not alright.”

Begging for alms – monastics had to accept whatever was offered to them
Monks with alms bowls with which they use to beg for food

“At that time, it was the tradition that Buddhist monastics should go out on alms rounds (begging for food) every day and eat what donors gave them.  Other than that, they should not choose which food they like better or not; or eat food that is too elaborate; or store food and so on, that was not allowed. The meat that is pure in the three ways, I think came about for such situations and reasons. This is very clear. In general, we must understand that from ancient times until the present,  India has always been the largest country where there is the biggest number of vegetarians. It is the country where the most people do not eat meat. In particular, within the Brahmin caste, whom at that time was considered the highest caste, most people did not eat meat. Some scholars say that in the past Brahmins did eat meat, but that later they didn’t. However, in the Vinaya texts, it seems the Brahmins did not eat meat. Thus, even when the monastics went on their alms round, there were probably very few people who offered them meat, as in that region there were so few people who eat meat. Similarly, when the monastics went on their alms round,  they did not only go to high caste households for alms but also to lower caste households, to request food and ask for alms. If it was a lower caste family that ate meat, it is possible that they may have offered some to the monastics.

Basically, when you beg for alms one had to accept what is offered and if one didn’t take it, the donor might think they were being insulted and that they are not being given an opportunity to gather merit. That is how people might see it. So, the Bhagavan Buddha was different from others, and did not consider if costs are high or low, and thought it was suitable to meet people from all levels and walks of society. So, whether they were rich or not, if the monastics were offered something they had to accept it and not only take that which they wanted or liked. They were not supposed to have some individual choice about it.”

Forbidden meats

“Does this mean according to the Vinaya that monastics can eat any meat that is offered to them? No it does not. How do we know that? Well, in Tibet we have the Vinayottaragrantha (‘ba gzhung bla ma) Vinaya texts of the Mūlasarvāstivāda [2]  tradition. I don’t need to say all that it mentions but it says there are several types of meat that monastics should not eat at all. Such as the flesh of some types of birds, including owls, reptiles and amphibians such as toads, and the meat of carnivores such as lions, tigers and bears. Not only were you not allowed to eat those forbidden meats, but also not consume the juices and fats of those inappropriate meats.  Also, raw meat was not allowed and monastics were also not allowed to eat meat specifically killed for their sake.”

Three ‘tests’ of purity for offered meat

“Therefore, several kinds of meat were expressly forbidden from being eaten, whether they were pure in the three ways or not. If it was not a forbidden meat, then first one has to examine whether it is pure in the three ways. If it is pure, you can eat it, if it is not pure in any of the three ways, then you should not eat it. In the same way, if you eat any meat without caring, there is a danger that you eat impure meat. So you had to think about whether it is pure in those three ways or not.

If one asks for whom was the three ‘tests’ of purity determined? For monastics or for laypeople? It is primarily for monastics. However, there are different schools of Vinaya, which say even laypeople should not eat meat unless it is pure in the three ways. However, generally, in the Vinaya it is primarily a rule presented for monastics.

Karma Kagyu sources on eating meat – 8th and 9th Karmapas

In terms of sources for the three ‘tests’ of purity of meat, there are some quotes (see image) from the 9th Karmapa’s rules for the Great Encampment and from the 8th Karmapa’s Vinaya Commentary: the Orbit of the Sun and his Hundred Short Instructions.

9th Karmapa text (cited by 17th Karmapa) on the Rules of the Great Encampment relating to ‘offered’ meat which forbids meat being offered or animals being slaughtered, even for important occasions or events and the punishment that would happen if they disobeyed the rule.
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje texts (cited by 17th Karmapa) that refer to the use of meat. The first strongly states that anyone who uses meat and alcohol during Gutor and so on, he is not their teacher, they are not his listener/student and is he is not their lama. The second text refers to the need to give up the eight impure things once becoming a monastic, which includes meat, alcohol and weapons.
When Buddha was served a meal of meat – 4th Century text on origin of the three ‘tests’ of purity meat rule
4th Century Chinese monk, Faxian at the ruins of Ashoka palace

In terms of historical sources for the background of the rule of three ‘tests’ of purity of meat, in the 4th century there was a Chinese master called Faxian (法顯) [3]. He was one of the earliest masters who went to India and wrote about his travels going there [In A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Foguo Ji 佛國記)].  The main reason he went there was to find complete texts on the Vinaya. When Faxian returned from China to India, he brought texts on Vinaya from different schools and also a manuscript from Sri Lanka[4].

There was a master called Jiping, in the 5th Century, from a country called Kaspin, to the west of China, a  Vinaya master called Buddhajiva (Sangye Tsho) from that region. He broke it down into Chinese and another master, Sherab Gyenwa then translated it[5]. This is Five Sections of the Vinaya[6] of the Mahīśāsaka [7] Vinaya. The manuscript was then brought from Sri Lanka[8]. It was translated by a person called Sherab Gyenma (?). I translated this into Tibetan from the Chinese, but I don’t think it turned out well. Here is the image of some words from that Vinaya text,  the Five Sections on Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka (sa ston sde pa’i ‘dul ba lung sde lnga) :

Five Sections on Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka tradition. Translated from Chinese to Tibetan by 17th Karmapa.

What it says is that ‘when the Tathagata Buddha was travelling to Vaishali, he went to a monastery where he taught the Dharma on the banks of Monkey Lake. This is a region of Vaishali, which is a place called Mahkattarada. It is like a river or a lake called the ‘Monkey Pond’. At that time, there was a general called ‘Lion’. This general is also mentioned in the Tibetan Buddhist Vinaya scriptures from the Sometimes this is translated as Captain Senge or General Senge, the General Lion who served the Sangha. At the later time he became very poor and had very little to eat. This is in our Vinaya Scripture. You will see these events described.  He was a student of the Jain teacher, he had heard the Bhagavan had come to the town and wanted to see him and was delighted and wanted to hear the Dharma. So he immediately got his horses and carriage and went to see him. From far away he saw the Tathagata’s body that was like a mountain of gold, prostrated and sat to one side. Then the Buddha taught many teachings on the Four Noble Truths. While sitting there, the General realized the true nature ‘the immaculate eye of Dharma’. Then he got up and said ‘I would like to invite the Buddha and Sangha to a meal’. The Buddha accepted and he was very happy. He went back to his house and told the people who often bought meat for him, to buy meat of animals that had naturally died and not slaughtered, regardless of cost. He spent the entire night making all these different and delicious meat dishes.

When it was ready, he went back to see the Buddha and said the food and seats are all ready, so please tell me when you will come. Then, the Buddha went with the sangha to his house. They sat down on the seats and the General served the sangha himself. He was very happy about this. At that point, there were some Jain students (Niganthas), who had heard that the General, who had been a former patron,  had prepared and offered a great meal of meat to the Buddha, and they were peeved and envious about it.  So, they went around waving their arms, moaning from road to road in the city. They  declared to all that the General Lion had not only turned away from his previous teacher and broken his samaya, but also offered meat that had been killed and offered to the Buddha, who knew this. They shouted this loudly all over the streets.

When the Bikshus heard this they didn’t dare to eat the meat. When the General saw and heard this, he told them that the meat was not from slaughtered animals, that they had all died naturally. Then the Buddha said alright then eat as you wish. They sat down in front of Buddha, who told the General it was good that he made the offering to the sangha and then left.

Buddha teaching monastic disciples

So, the Buddha had gone to the General Lion’s house for the meal and the non-Buddhists protested about it. Afterwards, the Buddha then gathered the sangha because of what had happened and announced that “Monks, I allow you meat if it is not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk. However, you should not knowingly make use of meat killed on purpose for you.” So he taught that, in future, when eating meat that is offered, there are three types that must not be eaten. Those that we have 1) seen, or 2) heard or have 3) suspicion/doubt were killed for your sake. If none of those three apply to the meat you are offered, then that is meat permissible to eat.

There is something different here in this text though, it says for the sake of Bikshu but does not specifically say that novices and monks in training, or nuns and laypeople are not allowed to eat it. Basically, those for whom it was slaughtered are not allowed to eat it. This is the background history to this rule.”

Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya

In the Mūlasarvāstivāda (根本說一切有部; ; Gēnběn Shuō Yīqièyǒu Bù) Vinaya text, the The Great Treasury of Seeing All As Excellent (Samantapāsādikā) (gos dmar ba’i sde ba’i ‘dul ba thams cad legs par mthong ba’i mdzod chen po) used in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is a similar text which says that:

‘The Buddha was staying in a house near the Monkey Pond…’ and so on, but here it says ‘Captain’ Lion (you won’t find it with ‘General’ Lion). The words are slightly different but the meaning is the same. In any case, if you compare what is in the Tibetan scriptures with what is in the Chinese Mahīśāsaka Vinaya, the Chinese ones are clearer. In sum, in this text too, the Jain students protesting that General Lion had given meat to the Buddha and the sangha, is the event that led to the rules on the three ‘tests’ of impurity.

Tāmraśāṭīya Pali Vinaya

There is also a quotation from this text (see image below) from the Tāmraśāṭīya Vinaya school:

The Tāmraśāṭīya scriptures, were originally in Pali, I have translated them into Tibetan from Chinese translations. They offer a detailed description of the three-fold purity test. The Tāmraśāṭīya is one of the 18 original schools of Buddhism, developed mostly in Sri Lanka, and is considered to be part of the Theravada tradition. They also have a source in Pali The Great Treasury of All Seen to Be Excellent (Samantapāsādikā):

The Great Treasury of All Seen to Be Excellent (Samantapāsādikā), a Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya text cited by 17th Karmapa

This text also says that if the animal was killed for the sake of a Bikshu monk, they are not allowed to eat it. The main point is in terms of ‘seeing’, it means if you see another individual slaughter the animal, but it is not for your sake, then later if you get offered the meat, it is not an offence to eat it because it was not killed for that monastic.

In terms of ‘hearing’, it means if the bikshu himself hears the sounds of the slaughter but it was not slaughtered for the bikshu’s sake , if then later you get offered the meat, it is not an offence to eat it because you did not hear it was killed for that monastic.

In terms of ‘suspicion’, when bikshus go to town on their alms rounds and they see fresh meat they might think that is was killed for them. If the donor says it was not killed for them, then it is OK to eat it. Likewise, if they are offered meat to a senior or junior monk, then if the junior thinks it was killed for the senior one, so if I eat it,  it is not an offence, and the senior monks think like that and they have doubts about it. They don’t really know who it was killed for. Or the butcher does not know if it was killed for them or not, then it is not an offence. However, then the monk has to ask questions, was this slaughtered for my sake?’ If you do not ask, then  you cannot know if it is or not. It is the same as if you don’t know what the meat is. You have to ask ‘Is it pig or bear meat?’ You need to check it. It does not depend on the person getting it, but on the donor. The donor generally knows so one must ask the donor about the meat. That describes it very clearly.”

Sarvāstivāda Vinaya tradition
Seated Buddha from the Sarvastivadin monastery of Tapa Shotor, 2nd century CE.

Next, the 17th Karmapa gave a citation from the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya tradition (說一切有部; Shuō Yīqièyǒu Bù):

“I translated this section of text on the Ten Sections of Vinaya in the Sarvāstivāda tradition (mas cad yod smra’i ‘dul ba lung sde bcu pa) , but did not have time to proofread the spelling properly.

Ten Sections of Vinaya in the Sarvāstivāda tradition, cited by 17th Karmapa

If you look at this citation here it is similar to the previous quotation, which states when begging for food monastics have to ask and examine if the meat is pure in  the three ways. If it was slaughtered for their purpose, or they have doubts about it, then it is impure meat and should not be eaten. What this means is that if the monks are not careful about eating meat then there is a danger that many animals will be slaughtered for their sake, and that is why it is an offence.

Then there is another quotation from the Ten Sections of the Vinaya: The Basis of All [9] (gzhi thams cad yod smra’i ‘dul ba lung sde bcu pa) from the Theravada Sarvāstivāda tradition [10] version.

Ten Section of the Vinaya: The Basis of All (gzhi thams cad yod smra’i ‘dul ba lung sde bcu pa)

This says that, the Bhagavan assembled the sangha and, as I mentioned before, there was the event with General Lion. So the Buddha said you may not eat meat that is impure in the three ways. If you see, hear or suspect that it was killed for you, that is impure. What does that mean? ‘Seeing’ means seeing it being killed with your own eyes. ‘Hearing’ means if a credible person says that the being was slaughtered for your sake then that type of meat should not be eaten. ‘Suspicion’ means you have some reason to doubt if it was slaughtered for you. For example, it may be there is no butcher in that region. So , the householder probably slaughtered it. Or there are  no animals who died naturally in that region. Or maybe the householder also kills animals and may have killed it for your sake. So, if you have that suspicion, it is also impure.

Dharmaguptaka Vinaya

In Tibetan Buddhism, we practice the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition of Vinaya. In  Chinese Buddhism, they mainly  practice the Vinaya of Dharmaguptaka (法藏部; Fǎzàng bù) [11] tradition. Here is something I translated from a Chinese Dharmaguptaka text , The Four Sections of Vinaya Scriptures, The section on Dharma Protectors (chos srung sde pa’i ‘dul ba lung sde bzhi): (see image):

The Four Sections on the Vinaya (chos srung sde pa’i ‘dul ba lung sde bzhi)

It says that ‘You are not allowed to eat meat that is impure because of these three reasons. If you see that and animal is slaughtered for your sake, or hear from a credible individual that it was killed for your sake. Seeing also means (uniquely in this text) if you go to that household and you see the animals’ head, hide or hair and so on, or if you see the feet and limbs, or blood, or if that individual or head of the household is someone who habitually commits the ten non-virtues or killing, then there is a danger it was killed for your sake. If you have that suspicion, then it is impure. If you do not have such seeing, hearing or doubts, then it may be eaten (if offered to you).”

Mahīśāsaka Vinaya

The Five Sections of the Vinaya from the Mahīśāsaka [12] school (sa ston sde pa’i ‘dul ba lung lnga) is similar to what has been said before.

‘Five Sections of the Vinaya from the Mahīśāsaka‘ school (sa ston sde pa’i ‘dul ba lung lnga)

“Although here it is a little different too. It says if it is killed for a Bikshu (fully ordained monk) then neither fully ordained or novice (getsul) monks are allowed to eat it. However,  female fully ordained and novice nuns, or male and female laypeople,  are allowed to eat it. However, if it is killed for fully ordained or novice nuns,  or male and female laypeople, it is as before [they are not allowed to eat it]. Basically, anyone for whose sake the animal is slaughtered is not allowed to eat the meat.”

Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya

The last citation is from the Section on Ordinary Sangha Mahāsāṃghika[13]  Vinaya text (dge ‘dun phal sde pa’i ‘dul ba), which is probably only extant in Chinese.

As I mentioned previously, in the 4th Century, the Chinese monk Faixian went to India. In Central India, he got this text and brought it back to China. He translated it with the Indian master Buddhavijara. This text is very clearly saying that if an animal is slaughtered for a bikshu, no-one, be they a monk or nun, fully ordained (gelong), novice (getsul) or layperson (genyen), male or female, may eat such meat if offered to them.  Here, it says no monastic can eat it, regardless of what type of monastic it was killed for and it also applies to a layperson.  If it was slaughtered for a layperson it cannot then be eaten by monastic, if it is of the three impure types.

Summary of the Vinaya traditions

“I have given quotations from five texts of the different Vinaya schools, most of these I have translated from the Chinese. Among them, the first three are generally for the fully ordained and novice monastics. The last two citations also say that laypeople with the five lay precepts may not eat offered meat, if it is impure in the three ways.

Thus, in all the types of Vinaya, one can only eat meat that is offered, if it is not impure in those three ways. So what does this really mean? Whether it is a chicken, pig or ox , if you see it with your own eyes being killed and it is killed for your sake, it is impure. It is impure, if someone else tells you it was slaughtered for you, and they have to be credible person. It is impure if you have a suspicion or doubt that it may have been slaughtered for you. Those are the three of being seen, heard, and suspicion.

This is not always so easy. The crux is this, in the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya and Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, where it says, if the householder is not a butcher,  if the animal died naturally or the householder did not kill it for your sake. You need to know it is not killed for the monastic’s sake. One must not buy meat that was killed for the sake of them, and then offer it to them. Also, it is necessary that you don’t see all the animals’ skin, hair and hide in their house, and they are not a butcher or someone who has given up killing, and you believe they would not do that.

Not only that, it is possible they may have asked a butcher to do it for them. So they may not have killed it themselves, but have asked someone else to do it for them. Likewise, if we look at the Ten Sections of Vinaya from the Sarvāstivāda, at that time they had great rituals and gatherings and they would bring animals as offerings and slaughter the meat. The monks would not be allowed to go to such celebrations because if you were among the people there is a danger you would be included in that.

Likewise, in our Great Encampment Rules commentary by the 9th Karmapa, after an animal has been killed, if you skin, sell, cook the animal these are considered compatible with taking life. If we look at these two traditions in terms of the three-fold purity,  they are narrower and stricter presentations.

If you talk about Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism, the main sources are from the Sarvāstivāda  tradition. The way the eighteen Vinaya schools developed, and their different basis, one way is from the old texts from Sri Lanka. The other way is from the texts in the Chinese tradition. These are the main texts for the development of the eighteen different schools. Most scholars explain that the two original or root schools of the Vinaya are the Theravada and the Mahāsāṃghika school. From those, after they had some disagreements, different ones branched off from them. The Sarvāstivāda tradition developed from the Theravada school. The Chinese tradition also comes from Sarvāstivāda and Dharmaguptaka Vinaya tradition. Their practice of the three-fold purity is stricter than other Vinaya schools.

“It is childish to think Buddha said we can eat meat because of this rule”

“Now, some might say that we are allowed to eat meat because the Buddha said we can if it is pure in the three ways. Such thinking is a very childish and simplistic way of looking at it. For example, you would not have been allowed to go to a household and say please give me a meat. If they give potatoes, you can’t say ‘I don’t want that, give me meat or chicken’. If you went to a poor house and did that, they might think ‘we can’t even get that for ourselves, so how can we give it to him’. So, you have to eat what you are given. What the three-fold test for purity means is that you cannot eat any type of meat, even if it is offered. It does not mean that you are allowed to eat any meat that you can get your hands on. This could be difficult at times. Even if one’s stomach was burning with hunger, one was still not allowed to eat impure meat. This is something we need to think about.

Tomorrow, I will speak about how meat is prohibited in the Mahayana.  Regarding what is said about Devadatta’s austerities, those who say we should eat meat otherwise we are following Devadatta’s example.  Also, in the Mahayana, there are prohibitions about eating meat in general, regardless of whether it it pure in the three ways or not. There also many debates about this in Tibet and we also need to consider the numbers of animals that are slaughtered and the harm to the environment and health that comes from slaughtering huge numbers of animals for meat.”

[HH then spoke about the schedule being extended for two days and the possibility of his doing a Summer teaching in addition to the Winter and Spring teachings. This teaching would related to be rituals and pujas connected to the yidam deities. As they will be connected to secret mantra practices, it will not be for the public in general.  However, even if it says the teachings are for the nuns, it means it is for all our monasteries and nunneries.]

The Buddha’s alms bowl
Drawing of the Buddha’s Alms Bowl by Alexander Cunningham

Although this was not mentioned by the 17th Karmapa, in an interesting article here, there is a report and photos and drawings of the Buddha’s original alms bowl, which is said to be preserved in a museum in Kabul and was drawn by Alexander Cunningham in the 19th Century. It says that:

“In the year 1880-81, the then Director General of the Archeological Society of India, Major General A. Cunningham, made a tour of the Archeological sites of the Indian state of Bihar. During course of his visit, Cunningham visited a place known as ‘Besarh’, which was immediately identified by him as the famous medieval town of India known as ‘Vaishali’. Cunningham did not find any artifacts in this village. He however came to know a very interesting story that Buddha’s original alms bowl was preserved and celebrated for many centuries in this town. Cunningham collected more information about this story and wrote a note on this in his book.

Buddhist birth stories have an interesting anecdote about this story. According to the anecdote, the original alms bowl given to ‘Goutama’ by ‘Mahabramha’ vanished when ‘Goutama’ became Buddha. The four guardian deities, Indra, Yama,Varuna and Kubera, each brought an alms-bowl made from emerald to Goutama, which he refused to accept. They then brought four alms-bowls made from stone of mango colour and each and every one of four begged to Goutama to accept their alms-bowl. Not to disappoint any of them, Buddha kept all the alms-bowls and after placing them one into another, miraculously transformed all the four bowl in a single bowl, upper rim of which appeared, as if four bowls have been placed one within the other.

In the days of Goutam Buddha, (5th century BC) part of Bihar or Magadha was ruled by Lichchhava Dynasty with Vaishali as their capital. According to Cunningham, Buddha had given his alms-bowl to the Licchavi king and people, when they took final leave of him at the old city on their northern frontier, which Cunningham identifies with Kesariya, 30 miles to the north-west of Vaisali. The famous Chinese travelers Fa- Xian (AD400) and Xuen Zang (AD520) have mentioned this story in their travelogues. Fa-Xian mentions that Buddha gave them (Lachchhvis) his alms-bowl as a memorial. Xuen Zang says that Buddha gave them his religious vase as a souvenir. In any case this alms-bowl was preserved and celebrated in Vaishali for next four to five centuries. In fact Vaishali city had become famous for this alms-bowl.”

Photo of the Buddha’s alms bowl in Kabul museum

“This bowl was near Kandahar city, till Mohamad Nasibulla continued as the president of Afghanistan and was moved to Kabul museum only in last decade. During Taliban rule. This museum was attacked by Taliban extremists couple of times. By good fortune, it has survived there and can be seen in the museum.”

Whether is was Buddha’s bowl or not, it is good to be reminded that the Buddha himself begged for alms and food with monastics and accepted whatever he was offered, clearly someone who practiced what he preached!


  • Satoshi Hiraoka (1998). “The Relation between the Divyavadana and the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya”. Journal of Indian Philosophy 26 (5), 419-434.
  • Yamagiwa Nobuyuki (2003). “Recent Studies on Vinaya Manuscripts”. Journal of Indian and Buddhist studies 52 (1), 339-333


[1] “The Vinaya (Pali & Sanskrit) is the division of the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka) containing the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community, or sangha. Three parallel Vinaya traditions remain in use by modern monastic communities: the Theravada (Sri Lanka & Southeast Asia), Mulasarvastivada (Tibetan Buddhism and the Himalayan region) and Dharmaguptaka (East Asian Buddhism). In addition to these Vinaya traditions, Vinaya texts of several extinct schools of Indian Buddhism are preserved in the Tibetan and East Asian canons, including those of the Kāśyapīya, the Mahāsāṃghika, the Mahīśāsaka, and the Sarvāstivāda.”

[2] “The Mūlasarvāstivāda (मूलसर्वास्तिवाद;根本說一切有部; ; Gēnběn Shuō Yīqièyǒu Bù) was one of the early Buddhist schools of India. The origins of the Mūlasarvāstivāda and their relationship to the Sarvāstivāda sect still remain largely unknown, although various theories exist.  The continuity of the Mūlasarvāstivāda monastic order remains in Tibetan Buddhism, although until recently, only Mūlasarvāstivādin bhikṣus (monks) existed: the bhikṣuṇī order had never been introduced. which has 253 rules for the bhiksus and 364 rules for bhiksunis. In addition to these pratimokṣa rules, there are many supplementary ones.

The full nun’s lineage of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was never transmitted to Tibet, and traditionally, Tibetan “nuns” were śramaṇerīs or simply took eight or ten Precepts.” Although this has recently been looked into by the 17th Karmapa who is trying to introduce it into Tibetan Buddhism.

[3] “Faxian (337 CE – c. 422 CE) was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled by foot from China to India, visiting sacred Buddhist sites in Central, South and Southeast Asia between 399–412 to acquire Buddhist texts. He described his journey in his travelogue, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Foguo Ji 佛國記). Other transliterations of his name include Fa-Hien and Fa-hsien. Faxian wrote a book on his travels, filled with accounts of early Buddhism, and the geography and history of numerous countries along the Silk Road as they were, at the turn of the 5th century CE. He wrote about cities like Taxila, Pataliputra, Mathura, and Kannauj in Middle India. He also wrote that inhabitants of Middle India also eat and dress like Chinese people. He declared Patliputra as a very prosperous city. He returned in 412 and settled in what is now Nanjing. In 414 he wrote (or dictated) Foguoji (A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms; also known as Faxian’s Account). He spent the next decade, until his death, translating the Buddhist sutra he had brought with him from India.”

[4] It is known that Faxian obtained a Sanskrit copy of the Mahīśāsaka vinaya at Abhayagiri vihāra in Sri Lanka, c. 406 CE.

[5] The Mahīśāsaka Vinaya was then translated into Chinese in 434 CE by Buddhajiva and Zhu Daosheng. This translation of the Mahīśāsaka Vinaya remains extant in the Chinese Buddhist canon as Taishō Tripiṭaka 1421. Daosheng (Chinese: 道生; pinyin: Dàoshēng; Wade–Giles: Tao Sheng; ca. 360–434), or Zhu Daosheng (Chinese: 竺道生; Wade–Giles: Chu Tao-sheng), was an eminent Six Dynasties era Chinese Buddhist scholar. He is known for advocating the concepts of sudden enlightenment and the universality of the Buddha nature.

[6] The Five Part Vinaya (Pañcavargika-vinaya;五分律; Wǔfēnlǜ; Wu-fen-lü) (T. 1421), a Chinese translation of the Mahīśāsaka version.

[7] Mahīśāsaka (化地部; Huàdì Bù) is one of the early Buddhist schools according to some records. Its origins may go back to the dispute in the Second Buddhist council. The Dharmaguptaka sect is thought to have branched out from Mahīśāsaka sect toward the end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 1st century BCE.

[8] In the early 5th century CE, Dharmaguptaka Vinaya was translated into Chinese by the Dharmaguptaka monk Buddhayaśas (佛陀耶舍(C.406~413)) of Kashmir. For this translation, Buddhayaśas recited the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya entirely from memory, rather than reading it from a written manuscript. After its translation, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya became the predominant vinaya in Chinese Buddhist monasticism. The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, or monastic rules, are still followed today in China, Vietnam and Korea, and its lineage for the ordination of monks and nuns has survived uninterrupted to this day. The name of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya in the East Asian tradition is the “Vinaya in Four Parts” (四分律; Sìfēn Lǜ), and the equivalent Sanskrit title would be Caturvargika Vinaya. Ordination under the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya only relates to monastic vows and lineage (Vinaya), and does not conflict with the actual Buddhist teachings that one follows (Dharma). Buddhayaśas, from Kaśmīra, was a teacher of Kumārajīva. He stayed in Changan from 408 to 412 (415 according to Kamata). Buddhayaśas was invited to Changan by his former pupil in 408 (410 according to Kamata). Buddhayaśas was a prolific translator of Vinaya texts into Chinese. He translated the Four Part Vinaya (《四分律》), making it the second full Vinaya text available to the Chinese (Yifa 5).

[9] The Ten Recitation Vinaya (Sanskrit: Daśa-bhāṇavāra-vinaya;十誦律; Shísònglǜ; Shisong lü) (T. 1435), a Chinese translation of the Sarvāstivāda version.

[10] The Sarvāstivāda (: 說一切有部; Shuō Yīqièyǒu Bù) was one of the early Buddhist schools established around the reign of Asoka (third century BCE). It was particularly known as an Abhidharma tradition, with a unique set of seven Abhidharma works.

[11] The Dharmaguptaka (法藏部; Fǎzàng bù) are one of the eighteen or twenty early Buddhist schools, depending on the source. They are said to have originated from another sect, the Mahīśāsakas toward the end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 1st century BCE.”. The Dharmaguptakas had a prominent role in early Central Asian and Chinese Buddhism, and their Prātimokṣa (monastic rules for bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs) are still in effect in East Asian countries to this day, including China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. They are one of three surviving Vinaya lineages, along with that of the Theravāda and the Mūlasarvāstivāda.

[12] “Mahīśāsaka (化地部; Huàdì Bù) is one of the early Buddhist schools according to some records. Its origins may go back to the dispute in the Second Buddhist council.

[13] “The Mahāsāṃghika (Sanskrit “of the Great Sangha”,大眾部; Dàzhòng Bù) was one of the early Buddhist schools. Interest in the origins of the Mahāsāṃghika school lies in the fact that their Vinaya recension appears in several ways to represent an older redaction overall. Many scholars also look to the Mahāsāṃghika branch for the initial development of Mahayana Buddhism.” “Most sources place the origin of the Mahāsāṃghikas to the Second Buddhist council. Traditions regarding the Second Council are confusing and ambiguous, but it is agreed that the overall result was the first schism in the Sangha between the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghika nikāya, although it is not agreed upon by all what the cause of this split was.”

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