Read transcript of Ep 2: Middle Path

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Tibetan horns. Buddhist chanting]

Ian McDonald:

All of Buddhism comes here. Tibetan horns, Thai chants, American meditators. They all come together in a clockwise circle around this temple to a tree.

Rev Dr Varasambodhi Thera:

This is the most sacred place in this Earth according to the Buddhists.

Ian [as narrator]:

That’s half a billion people who look here for inspiration. Why?

Last episode, we met Mahavir, leader of the Jains, the torchbearers of the principle of non-violence, ahimsa.

We’re exploring more the ancient kingdom of Maghada, in the basin of the Ganges river in northern India. With its subculture of vagabond philosophers, called “śramaṇas”, including both Mahavir and the Buddha.

We’re now just a day or two’s walk southwest of the capital Rajgir. Twenty five centuries ago this would have been a quiet spot with a shady tree under which a wandering śramaṇa monk could meditate.


So we are sitting now under the holy people tree, which is we called bodhi tree.

Ian [as narrator]:

This is the Reverend Dr Varasambodhi Thera. He runs a meditation centre here for pilgrims.

We are sitting under a vast old Indian sacred fig tree. Props are holding up its twisted branches. Crowds of young monks are trying to catch falling leaves as treasured mementoes. And next to us is a golden throne marking where a monk once sat down to meditate.


And this tree offer shadow to the Buddha for enlightenment. So therefore it is very very sacred for the Buddhist people and because of this tree and this throne people come here and pay a visit of respect.

[sound of horn gently blowing long notes; people’s voices in the background]

Ian [as narrator]:

I have travelled in countries where the place you’d most rely on getting a vegan meal was the Buddhist temple. And yet many of the pilgrims here wouldn’t even think of going vegetarian. The oldest Buddhist stories seem to suggest that their founder himself ate meat, and tell of clashes over vegetarianism with the Jains.

And yet this, not Jainism, is the movement that takes ahimsa to the ends of the Earth.

To understand these contradictions, let us sit under this tree. With a monk that world will come to know simply as the awakened one, the enlightened one, the Buddha.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]


Vegetarianism: the story so far, with me, Ian McDonald. Episode 2: The Middle Path.

[Theme ends]


Before enlightenment nobody call him the Buddha.

Ian [to Varasambodhi]:



He was the Prince Siddharta. The Buddha is not a person, it’s an enlightenment condition.

[sound of breeze through tree’s leaves]

Ian [as narrator]:

If it sounds noisy, that’s because we’re right next to the tree and the throne, by the walls of the towering stone temple, inside the procession route.

Siddharta Gautama – like Mahavir – is a prince from the the warrior class rather than a hereditary Brahmin priest. Both hail from tribal republics north of the Kingdom of Maghada. Gautama is from several days travel away, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

[birdsong, breeze through leaves, voices in the background]

[to Varasambodhi] So tell me about the Prince Siddharta who was travelling and meditating, before he sat down.


Before he came here he also practised meditation several other places and under several teachers. No one could fulfill his quest and requirements. So he left all the places and masters.

Ian [as narrator]:

Buddhist texts mention interactions with many other movements and ideas. In a chapter from a collection of stories called the “Middle Length Discourses”, Siddharta Gautama tells a Jain monk the story of his search for enlightenment. After renouncing his family, it begins at the capital Rajgir.

He mentions a teacher who – from their name – is probably from the Brahminical contemplative (Upanishadic) movement within the traditional hereditary priesthood (the Brahmins). Gautama then describes an extreme fast that probably sounded very familiar to the Jain.

Buddha [reading from the Maha-Saccaka Sutra]:

Like a cloven hoof was my backside.

Like a string of beads was my back.

Like the jutting rafters of a tumbledown roof were my gaunt ribs.

Like the glint of water afar in the depths of a well, shone my eyes, sunk deep in their sockets.


But those extreme austerities didn’t bring him enlightenment either, and he shocked his companion śramaṇas by breaking his fast. We will catch up with Siddharta Gautama when he reaches the bodhi tree.

But first, let’s look at the other teachings that he might have discussed with other wandering śramaṇas. Partially to marvel at the intellectual creativity of the time. But also because one of them is as important to the progress of ahimsa in the following centuries as the Buddhists and the Jains. We can tell the stories of Gautama and Mahavir because their followers have survived to pass on their teachings. We know so much less about the others. Oxford University Indologist Richard Gombrich.

Prof. Richard Gombrich:

The evidence is all, virtually all, in the Buddhist scriptures.

Ian [to Gombrich]:

What can you say about the other sramanic movements?


None of them were Brahminical or kept to the Brahminical taboos particularly clearly. These were individuals who preached doctrines about karma, fatalism. They were very interested in the – who wouldn’t be – in questions of rebirth, how often did one get reborn, why did one get reborn et cetera et cetera. Those are the kinds of things they talked about, things relevant to karma and rebirth.

But there were also sceptics, we know that’s quite interesting. There’s one particular, he’s called Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta, about who, the main thing that the Buddhist texts say, is that he wouldn’t give you a straight answer to any questions. He says, it could be this way, it could be that way, but I’m not saying either that it is or that it isn’t, or both, or neither [laughs].

Ian [as narrator]:

Everything was up for grabs.

Some śramaṇas denied there was such a thing as ethics. A group called Lokayatas denied rebirth and afterlife completely – full-blown atheists in the modern sense.


So, you know, they were some interesting wandering philosophers. No doubt some of them were rather eccentric.

Ian [as narrator]:

We explored the origins of ahimsa, karma and rebirth before.

The fatalists – the group called the Ājīvikas – are the great vanished religion of India. The Dan Brown novel I may actually read.

The early Buddhists talk about them as their main rival. The most educated guess puts their commitment to vegetarianism somewhere between the Buddhists and the Jains. And they lasted two thousand years.

So imagine the impact of a pro-vegetarian religion that was around as long as, thus far, Christianity.

Prof. Umar Shankar Vyass:

The Ājīvikas were very very important, very popular. They were very much in society. Unfortunately their tradition is totally finished, lost.

Ian [as narrator]:

Professor Umar Shankar Vyass, Buddhist University of Nalanda. Ājīvika texts are lost. But UC Vyass told me what we know of the teachings of Makkhali Gosal, their leader, a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavir.


We can get idea of their thought only from the books of Buddhist and Jain.

Makkhali Gosal was very very famous teacher of the Ājīvikas.

He used to say that there is no meaning of human effort. Everything is determined. When time comes you will get happiness.

It is determined. Fixed.

Ian [as narrator]:

If it seems hard to imagine drawing comfort from helplessness in the face of fate, remember that that’s the lived experience of many in iron age India. An existence so harsh, that for many śramaṇas, including Siddharta Gautama and Mahavir, liberation and nirvana meant not being reborn into it.

So what happens to Makkhali Gosal? Jain scriptures say he spent years as a disciple of Mahavir before they become rivals. They have in common an ideal of complete renunciation.


They did not wear any clothes. Naked. Like Mahavir.

Ian [as narrator]:

Jain texts have Makkhali Gosal die when his magical attack on Mahavir is repelled. The duel is why Mahavir needed that controversial restorative meal that we talked about in the last episode.


They were against the killing of all types of life.

Ian [as narrator] :

We, though, haven’t heard the last of the Ājīvikas. As Gautama follows the śramaṇa trails through the Kingdom of Maghada, searching for enlightenment, it’s easy to imagine him talking destiny on the road to the place that we now call Bodhgaya.

[Ambient noise of Bodhgaya – chatter, people chanting/singing, birdsong, rustling leaves]

Ian [to Varasambodhi]:

What happened here?


To find the truth he came here and under this Bodhi tree, practising meditation, he enlightened by himself.

[Reading from the Jâtaka Sutra]:

He sat himself down cross-legged in an unconquerable position, from which not even the descent of a hundred thunder-bolts at once could have dislodged him.


So he discovered here, we can overcome or eradicate the greed, anger, and delusion. There is no more rebirth, no death. So that is the peace, that is the happiness. That is the ultimate goal.

Ian [as narrator]:

Like many śramaṇa, teachers, Siddharta Gautama offers a path to nirvana, to blissful liberation from the cycle of rebirth and redeath.

But he believes karma comes not from action, but from intention.

That liberation comes from a mental shedding of attachments and delusions.

Buddha [in reading from the Anguttara Nikaya]:

These three are the root of karma.

Greed is a root of karma, anger is a root of karma, delusion is a root of karma.


Then he free from all kinds of evil roots with the greed, anger and delusion. Then he finally became the Buddha.

Buddha [in reading from the Mahãvastu]:

With little difficulty I have attained the uttermost enlightenment.

By my knowledge and energy I have escaped ill.

I have laid down my heavy burden and won omniscience.

Death is cast down, with all his host, while I stand under this incomparable bodhi tree.

Ian [as narrator]:

This story of renunciation, meditation, and awakening is similar to other śramaṇa teachers, like Mahavir.


He thought that he should preach the dharma or teachings. So he taught forty five years.

Ian [to Varasambodhi]:

What did he teach regarding other animals?


So Buddha’s first teaching for the common people is that not to kill any living being. So that is very important.


The common people, the laity rather than the monks.


Laity and monks both. So don’t kill, even an insect, mosquito, flies, insects etc. Should not kill any living being consciously.

Ian [as narrator]:


For Gautama, the Buddha, it is the intention that matters.

And Buddhism, at least in its earliest texts, seems to oppose killing animals without necessarily opposing eating them. Historian DN Jha, speaking in his flat in the suburbs of Delhi.

Prof Dwijendra Narayan Jha:

Buddhism was more practical. It championed non-violence. It championed non-killing of animals. But at the same time Gautama Buddha also preached that if a monk is given something, some flesh of animal, as alms, he can take it because the animal was not killed for him.


A renunciate in most of these groups, Buddhists, Jains with other groups …

Ian [as narrator]:

Richard Gombrich.


A renunciate had no dietary preferences, we would say these days. So the renunciate was supposed to eat whatever he was given, and indeed not necessarily to notice what he was given.

There’s a rather nasty famous Buddhist story about how a monk was going begging and he was given food from a leper, but the leper’s thumb dropped off and was in the food, and he et it. And this is the story given why a Buddhist’s begging bowl should have a lid [laughs] so that lepers’ thumbs are not going to drop off into it.

Ian [as narrator]:

To the people of the Kingdom of Maghada, the Buddha Gautama preaches a middle path – avoiding the fixed rebirth of the fatalist Ājīvikas and the oblivion of the rationalist atheist Lokayatas; between the hedonism of kings with their Brahmin priests – and the extreme asceticism of Jain monks and nuns.

The Buddha [in the Mahavagga, part of the Samyutta Nikaya in the Sutta Pitaka]:

Monks, these two extremes should not be practiced by one who has renounced the life of the household.

There is chasing after the indulgence of sensory-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of common people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is chasing after self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

Avoid both these extremes.

The enlightened one has realized the Middle Path. It gives rise to vision, which gives knowledge, which leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to nirvana.


As groups of followers, like those of the Buddha, form into orders of monks and nuns, they need to make clear what they are, and what they’re not. Peter Flügel, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Peter Flügel:

All these groups co-evolved. That is obvious. And they mutually influenced each other in a variety of aspects, and identified their identities progressively in the way they interacted on certain issues. So they co-evolved but also differentiated at the same time.

Ian [as narrator]:

Arguments over eating animals are one way Buddhists and Jains draw up those lines.

Early Buddhist texts include a set of stories that they passed on to explain their monastic rules. One story recounts a clash with the Jains over ahimsa, animals, and meat-eating. It is set in Vaiśālī, the capital of a tribal republic bordering the Kingdom of Maghada. And is the home turf of Jain teacher Mahavir.

When I was there, I saw Buddhist monuments and the building work for a Jain temple marking Mahavir’s reputed birthplace.

Both Gautama and Mahavir preached there.

It is the perfect setting for a story of a clash of these two great movements for ahimsa.

The Buddhists tell of a big local figure, a kind of hereditary general, whose name is Siha. He was a noted sponsor of the Jains, but after long conversations with the Buddha Gautama, General Siha converts, embracing the Buddhist teachings – the Buddhist dharma. This is, after all, a Buddhist story.

So General Siha invites the Buddha Gautama and his monks to a meal. Killing animals is against the Buddhist dharma. But for these Buddhists flesh in the market is different. The harm – the himsa – is done, the karma sustained, the animal already dead.

[Fade in the noise of ancient Vaiśālī as we enter this dramatisation of an episode from the Vinaya Pitaka]:

Story narrator:

Then the general Siha asked a certain servant:


Go, good fellow, find out if there is meat to hand.


Story narrator:

Then Siha, the general, towards the end of that night had sumptuous food, solid and soft, prepared.

[sound of running, shouting, alarmed animals]

Now at that time many Jains, waving their arms, from carriage road to carriage road, from cross road to cross road in Vaiśālī, cried:

Jains [actors in-turn and together]:

Today, a fat beast! Great Ox!

Killed by Siha, the general, is made into a meal for the śramaṇa Gautama.

The śramaṇa Gautama makes use of this meat,

knowing that it was killed on purpose,

that the deed was done for his sake.

Story narrator:

Then a servant approached the general Siha.

Having approached, he whispered into the general Siha’s ear:


For a long time now these venerable brethren have been desiring to discredit the Buddha, the dharma, the Order.

And those venerable brethren do not tire of telling false, idle, vain lies of the Blessed One.

Not for the sake of our livelihood would we intentionally deprive a living thing of life.

Story narrator:

Then Siha, the general, having with his own hand served and satisfied the Order of monks with the enlightened one at its head with sumptuous food, solid and soft.

Then the Lord on this occasion having given religious discourse, addressed the monks saying:


Monks, one should not knowingly make use of meat killed for your purpose.

Whoever should make use of it, there is an offence of wrong-doing.

I allow you, monks, fish and meat that are quite pure in three respects: if you do not so see, if you have not so heard, if you do not so suspect.

[Vaiśālī fades away as the dramatisation ends]

Ian [as narrator]:

The first thing that strikes me is that this Buddhist story is trying to paint the Jains as militant judgemental vegetarians. One set of animal advocates trying to say “but don’t worry, we’re not those extreme animal rights people”, whilst the Buddhist order tries to at least ensure that people do not slaughter animals in their honour.

Here in the dust of Vaiśālī are the lines drawn up for an argument within animal advocacy that is still going on.

And from that day to this, the Jains are arguing that the only reason meat ends up in the marketplace is to be eaten, to argue that meat is murder. Peter Flügel.

Dr Peter Flügel:

This is a very old text, relatively old text. The text makes clear that the Jains have had a completely different interpretation of ahimsa. A much clearer, stronger advocacy of vegetarianism.

Ian [as narrator]:

After the Buddha’s death, the order – the sangha – split into schools. Over time, separate movements emerged called Theravada and Mahayana.


So, community of the sangha splitted in different ways. The later development is called Mahayana, which is translated in English “the great vehicle”. I am from the Theravada tradition which is the original school of Buddhism.

Ian [as narrator]:

Theravada means “the doctrine of the elders”. And it does have some of the oldest texts, called the “Pali canon”, from which the readings you’ve heard are taken. But the followers of the Mahayana path challenge the Theravada claim to be the original, including when it comes to meat-eating.

Prof KT Saroa:

The Theravada obviously, clearly, they say that a man can accept meat if they just follow these three rules. You have not seen, heard or suspected that meat was particularly acquired for you. Mahayana says this is criminal, completely criminal.

Ian [as narrator]:

At the busy campus of the University of Delhi, I met Professor KT Saroa, head of the Department of Buddhist Studies. He is a Mahayana Buddhist.


Before I became a student of Buddhism, I as an Indian know, we all Indians know, that if a Sannyasi – Sannyasi is a holy person – [Ian simultaneously says something similar] – if a Sannyasi eats meat, he’s a criminal and a crook. I am not going to offer him food or shelter, I’ll just kick his arse, throw him out. Because a Sannyasi in no way can eat meat.

Ian [as narrator]:

On the one hand Professor Saroa dismisses the story about Siha and the rule of seen/heard/suspected as an invention of monks who wanted to eat meat; but on the other, secular historians would dismiss his attitude as the ethos of a later more vegetarian India being projected backwards onto the iron age.

A lot of what you hear about early Buddhist meat-eating or vegetarianism comes through the filter of the different paths of Buddhism today. Richard Gombrich.


But this explains what people are unnecessarily confused about.

Why Theravada monks are on the whole not vegetarians, and Mahavira monks always are. Theravada monks are very conservative and most of the rules that they live by certainly go back to about the 4th century BC.

Ian [interjecting as narrator]:

The century after the Buddha.


And therefore they just eat what they are given. And that’s still true of most Theravadan monks to this day, the vast majority.


This disagreement over meat-eating between the two major paths of Buddhism comes to a head over the story of the final meal of the Buddha Gautama. Once again, it comes down to translation.

Professor DN Jha – the secular historian – used to teach KT Saroa – the Buddhist theologian – back when the latter was a student. DN Jha translates the Theravada texts at face value. Professor Saroa does not.


He took a heavy pork meal and next day he died. The point is, pork was offered to him for as food. He ate it, but that was available.


In the case of the last meal, one – it wasn’t meat, it was possibly mushroom, or something.


Ah, I think that is going too far. That is trying to cover up that Buddha did not eat pork. And what is wrong in that, because Gautama Buddha is said to have eaten beef. He has eaten beef twice. I have mentioned it in the text, with references.


The Buddha was invited one day in advance to come and have this meal. He had an invitation for this meal. He did not walk suddenly to this man’s house, he had an invitation. You are inviting me to your house tomorrow to have lunch with you. Then suspect, hear, or see – it is broken. And also the word that is used for the food that the Buddha ate is “sukar-maddav”. It’s a compound word.


“Ṡukar” and “maddav” [which he pronounces closer to “maddab”]. These are two separate words.


When they are translated compound words are Sanskrit and Pali. There is lot of confusion because compound words do not necessarily mean the same as the component words. I think “sukar” is pig, “maddav” is soft.


It may be soft pork, it may be softly cooked.


But then together, we have hundreds of examples of words like this which are the names of vegetables. For example, sweet potato, is called “sukar-kand”. So therefore I believe this actually was some mushroom. Some scholars have translated this as some mushroom, or some soft food. Or some kind of food, soft food, which pigs like.


Now, they don’t occur in the entire Pali text. They are currently once. They are currently in the context of Gautama Buddha’s death.


And this was a poor man, a smith. And he cooked it, it was stale. The old man was 80 years old, wasn’t really strong. And so therefore the old man ate this food, perhaps cooked poorly, maybe it was stale, maybe it was poisonous. And died.

Ian [as narrator]:

They say, that after the death of Siddharta Gautama the Buddha, the order held a council in the caves above the Maghada capital Rajgir to recite their rules. And a century later, split over how strict those rules should be at a second council at Vaisali. And then splintered into many schools before Theravada and Mahayana teachings emerged.

Secular scholars take the earliest texts as our best picture of an order that was never fully vegetarian. As far as we know, the Ganges plain had no writing. The texts that survive from both the Buddhists and the Jains were passed on by word of mouth for centuries. They are a copy of a copy. Like the Mahabodhi tree itself.

[sound of breeze, birdsong, and people in background]

Ian [to Varasambodhi]:

So is this the original tree or is this a sapling of a sapling of a sapling of the original tree?


This is not an original tree, it is the sapling of the sapling of the original tree.


The original tree was destroyed, and it was replanted …


It was destroyed.


… from a sapling that Ashoka had sent to …


To Sri Lanka, yeah. So that we can call it a original tree.


And we are actually under the shade of the tree right now.


Yes, yes, yes.


And we can hear the music of the celebrations and the prayers of different Buddhist traditions around us.

[sound of a horn gently blowing long notes]

[as narrator] King Ashoka is going to do so much more than simply replant a tree. In future episodes, when we return to India, we will discover how Ashoka turns the biggest empire on Earth to the cause of animals. As well as just how Mahayana Buddhism emerges.

Ultimately, Buddhism is going to carry ahimsa across the world in the wake of its core idea: that happiness lies in giving up your attachments.

The Buddha [in a reading from the Mahavagga]:

And this is the noble truth of the end of suffering.

It is the remainderless fading away and ending of that craving, so that no passion remains, abandoning it, being freed from it, being released from it, giving it no place.


West of the Ganges plain, there is the Indus River. From beyond it, the Persian empire sends out Greek explorers into the subcontinent. They have writing, and the written word travels to Greater Greece.

In the mid 5th century BCE, perhaps when Buddha and Mahavir are preaching, the world’s first history book, by Herodotus, mentions an Indian tribe who (quote) “refuse to put any live animal to death, have no dwelling-houses. Vegetables are their only food.”

Herodotus also mentions in passing as one of the greatest of Greek teachers, one Pythagoras: someone who shares a belief in rebirth, and an objection to meat-eating.

Next episode we turn to the Mediterranean. And the Pythagoreans.

[Theme starts: music with sound of gongs]


With the voices of Sandeep Garcha, Chetan Pathak, and Selva Rasalingam; and the music of Robb Masters. You can discover more, including full credits and background information, at veg hist, v – e – g – h – i – s – t dot org. And if you like this please do recommend it to everyone else. Good reviews on your podcast provider are a really great way to let other people know.

I’m Ian McDonald, and thank you for listening.


This transcript was posted October 29 2017, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter. Featured image of Burmese Buddhist scriptures CC-BY Wellcome Images

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About Ian

London. Formerly known as New Media. Vegan since 1992.

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