Selections from “Nonviolence and Culture:
Finding the Dharma in a Flesh-Based Diet”
By Zach Larson
Larson, Zachary. (2000) NONVIOLENCE IN TIBETAN CULTURE: A GLIMPSE AT HOW TIBETANS VIEW AND PRACTICE NONVIOLENCE IN POLITICS AND DAILY LIFE. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.
For further information, including full text, photos, notes, and bibliography, please contact the author:
13 Sherman Ter. Apt. 3
Madison, WI 53704
Chapter One:Tibet: the “Last Frontier.” A frozen tundra where vegetables cannot grow and yaks abound. Any human being who lives here
created by meat consumption is, it could be argued, essential to one's survival.
Enter Buddhism. Brought to Tibet by King Trisongdetsen and established and spread by Padmasambhava, the Buddha's teachings have been an important aspect of Tibetan culture for over a thousand years. Depending on one's interpretation, the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism which Tibet holds dear emphasize freeing all living beings from suffering, abstaining from killing any creature and avoiding causing others harm and unhappiness. To some, meat eating doesn't correspond with Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and ethics. To others, it works just fine.
In this chapter, I will look at how Tibetans view meat eating as compared to how Buddhist authorities and Buddhist texts view the topic. I will also look at Tibetan traditions and reflect upon what I experienced living in a Tibetan refugee community.
I started my research in the Bylacopy Tibetan Refugee Camp near Mysore, India on the last day of the year 2025, according to the Tibetan calendar. A full fifteen days of New Year celebration lie ahead. Without taking time to adjust, my research had begun. The questions started to fly as soon as I had been introduced to my new Tibetan family, relatives of UW language professor Tinley Dhondrup. The first thing I noticed as I sat down on their porch, besides the many palm trees around me, was the four huge sacks of fresh sheep and yak meat, which had been obtained from Tibet.
As relatives carried even more meat from their car to the porch, my Tibetan mother Sangye remarked “too much meat!”* Mutton is as central a tradition to Losar (“New Year”) for Tibetans as turkey is to Thanksgiving in the United States. The sheep’s head also plays an important traditional role. The Bon religion, which predates Buddhism in Tibet by thousands of years, is responsible for the tradition of placing a sheep’s head on the altar at Losar.
On the first morning of Losar, Panden Lhamo—a Bon god incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism—comes to the altar of all Tibetan homes to receive the offering of a sheep head, and then gives blessings upon the family for the upcoming year. No sheep head, no blessings. Fortunately, Tibetans have become more creative in making their offerings, and now they make sheep heads out of barley cake. In Tibet, real sheep heads are still used, but most of the Tibetan community in exile has converted to the new sheep head cake tradition.
Tsepak Rigzin writes, “One of the more tragic requisites for the Losar celebration is the mass killing of animals—yaks, sheep and goats, for their flesh, heads, intestines and so on, to be consumed or displayed during Losar.”1 The intestines are used to make elaborate offerings to wrathful deities, though I only saw this at Thupten Choling monastery in Solu Khumbu, Nepal. Meat also serves ceremonial purposes. A Swiss woman named Elsa, married to a Tibetan man whom I met in Bylacopy, told me,
“On the last day of the last Tibetan month of the year they eat a special soup with large chunks of pork that have special objects in them. The object you get when you bite into the pork tells what kind of person you had been the previous year. A hot pepper means you had been a short-tempered, feisty one, et cetera. At the monasteries they use huge chunks of pork to conceal the objects so no one knows what’s in them until they bite into the pork.”
*All quotations in this chapter, unless otherwise stated, from a literary source, or from a non-Tibetan person are translated from Tibetan by myself.
Tibetans are considered to be some of the most faithful people in the world to their religion. Watching my Tibetan mother get up every morning at five in Bodhanath, Nepal to recite prayers, fill the water bowls on their altar, and walk around the stupa was evidence of this for me. The majority of Tibetans recite hundreds of mantras every day, most commonly of course “om mani peme hum.” Yet, as you might expect, the cultural Buddhism of Tibet differs quite a bit from the doctrinal version.
A great 19th century Tibetan yogi named Patrul Rinpoche writes,
“It is said that offering to the wisdom deities the flesh and blood of a slaughtered animal is like offering to a mother her murdered child. If you invite a mother for a meal and then set before her the flesh of her own child, how would she feel? It is with the same love as a mother for her only child that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas look on all beings of the three worlds. As the Bodhisattva Shantideva says, ‘Just as no pleasures can bring delight to someone whose body is ablaze with fire, nor can the great compassionate ones be pleased when harm is done to sentient beings.’ ”2
“It isn’t a momo without meat,” Sangye’s daughter explained when I asked her if her family ever eats vegetarian Tibetan dumplings. “In Tibet it is very cold. Vegetable momos are only made special for vegetarians at restaurants. Everything has meat in it because Tibetans need the energy.”
“We know that eating meat is bad and that Buddhists shouldn’t eat meat,” Sangye’s husband Dorje explained, “but in Tibet there are no vegetables and it is very cold so we eat a lot of meat. Moving to India and Nepal didn’t change this. It is a Tibetan custom to eat meat. The Dalai Lama tells us that eating meat is not good, but all Tibetans do it anyway.”
My vegan diet was very hard for my family to understand. I told them that I don’t eat food that comes from animals, so as to not harm sentient beings through my diet. Some thought it was bizarre and wondered how I could possibly survive on such a diet, some thought it was noble and praiseworthy. Sangye seemed most fascinated by it. “Milk comes from a cow, it is from animals, so he doesn’t eat it” she said to her niece as she pointed to her breast, explaining why I was drinking black coffee. Later on in the meal, as she reached for a lamb chop she said, “We are bad people (for eating meat).” A few minutes later she continued, “Meat is a Tibetan tradition. Our parents passed it on to us, and now we are passing it on to our children. But slowly, slowly we are eating less meat.” “Eating meat is a very bad sin so we are trying to stop,” her husband chimed in.
Patrul Rinpoche writes, “Especially nowadays most people crave meat and consume flesh and blood without a second thought, completely oblivious to all the diseases caused by old meat or harmful meat spirits.”3 Sangye’s cousin responds,
“Tibetans think they need meat for health, to be strong. Many use the Dalai Lama as an example. He became vegetarian for a few years. In 1965 he was at a meal. There was chicken. Everyone else in the room was vegetarian. When he asked what the chicken was for, they said it was for him. At that moment, he pledged to stop eating meat. He became frail, got hepatitis, and his doctors prescribed he eat meat again. In Tibet, Buddhists believe that by killing the largest animal they minimize suffering by maximizing meat per animal. So they don’t eat chicken or fish as they view all beings as equal and these smaller animals have too little meat to justify their deaths.”
The notion that one needs to eat meat to be strong is very widespread among the Tibetan community, especially among men. Elsa’s Tibetan husband Kama recalled,
“I once hiked the Annapurna circuit with Elsa. The first few days weren’t so bad because I had some chicken and these things to eat. After that it was really bad because there was no meat. I never felt like I was eating with the daal bhat. It wasn’t real food. For me, growing up in Tibet, when my dad would go out to kill the pig it was like a sacred ritual—very special. I have warm feelings toward the tradition of meat in Tibet and I can’t live without it.”
Yet Tibetans seemed to perceive a growing number of vegetarians among their people. Pointing me to one I could talk to proved to be a harder task. “There are a lot of Tibetan vegetarians these days,” a young Tibetan boy told me. “Do you know any?” I asked. “Well, the Dalai Lama, of course, I guess that’s all I know,” he replied. The Dalai Lama currently eats meat every other day of the week, I am told, yet it was interesting to hear that this boy thought he was a vegetarian.
I observed and was told frequently that meat is a Tibetan custom. I attended a wedding during Losar, where there was not a single vegetarian option on the table of thirty entries. Patrul Rinpoche writes on Tibetan brides,
“For every marriage, innumerable sheep are slaughtered at the time of sending the dowry and for the presentation of the bride to her in-laws. Afterwards, every time the young bride goes back to visit her own family, another animal is sure to be killed. Should her friends and relatives invite her out and serve her anything but meat, she affects a shocked loss of appetite and eats with a pretentious disdain as if she had forgotten how to chew. But kill a fat sheep and set down a big pile of breast meat and tripe before her, and the red-faced little monster sits down seriously, pulls out her little knife and gobbles it all down with much smacking of the lips. The next day she sets off loaded down with the bloody carcass, like a hunter returning home—but worse, for she never goes back empty-handed.”4
Near the end of Losar, I was invited to a party put on by a neighbor family. As I arrived, I sat and watched people play cards for a while, and then the food was served. When I came to the serving line upon request, a woman told me “oh, all this food has meat in it (there were about 17 items). They are making your food in the kitchen.” Then they brought out a plate of fried rice for me and told me to sit in a chair in the most isolated place possible within the compound, right next to an abandoned room with a tub of eight bowling ball-sized spheres of raw ground meat. Then the hosts, an elderly couple, came right up to my face and stared at me. They were gawking at this strange creature who doesn't eat meat, and watching and laughing as I put the strange meatless food to my mouth with my spoon. Then the man said. "He is just like a girl (in his vegetarianism).” The woman replied, "He is a girl." Then they laughed and shook their heads at how any self-respecting male could not eat meat. Later, when the old woman went around with chunks of meat, a little boy said, “No thanks, I don't eat meat,” to which the woman pointed to a sauce on top of his rice and said, "This is meat!" and left. The boy seemed to be embarrassed and feel a little bit guilty. The perils of vegetarianism.
While playing a traditional Tibetan dice game, and proceeding to win a hundred Indian rupees in prize money, I was exposed to another aspect of the Tibetan mentality. When the other players would shake the dice, hoping for an eight, they would cry out “Mutton!” or “Yak meat!” as they slammed down the dice. The games term for an “eight” was “sha” or “meat.” I was later told that the full mantra for when people want an eight is “We have killed many things and have a lot of meat. We have one full basket of cooked meat and another basket of raw meat yet to be cooked.” It implies good luck and prosperity relating to the “eight” or “sha.” When people want to get a “six” they say a mantra Dorje translated as, “At the age of six, the sheep should be killed.” And when they want a nine, they say, “I may get sick or die, but I want to eat as much pork thukpa as I can.”
Interestingly enough, there is a distinct consciousness related to insects and avoiding harming them. The scene in the film Seven Years in Tibet where Brad Pitt’s Tibetan workers insist on removing all of the worms while the foundation for a movie house is being built appears to be accurate. Tendar, Dorje’s brother, took great care to escort mosquitoes out of the house. He would never slap them. When I went onto the porch once, he warned me “Don’t go over there, there are a lot of ants.” He didn’t want me to step on the ants. Several months later, back in Nepal, Chatal Rinpoche’s wife took great care to remove worms and beetles while digging up a plant from their lawn. Kammie Morrison, a student on the CYN program in 1989 who stayed with a Tibetan family, recalls,
“I had gotten lice on a crowded bus trip and my Tibetan sisters had discovered it in the kitchen one night. They offered to pick the little white blobs from my hair, and we settled ourselves. The tiny bugs were then gently extracted and dropped carefully into a dish. Images of popping lice between fingernails and suffocating lice in layers of chemical ‘Lice-L’ filled my imagination as I watched them take the bowl to the garden and empty the creatures into a flowerbed.”
Yet for the most part, the way I observed Tibetans treating animals did not invoke admiration. The family I stayed with in Bylacopy (Sangye’s nephew and his wife) had three adorable puppies. Most of the time they would tie them to a two foot rope and endure their all-day-long cries and yelps. I couldn’t stand this, and I would often untie them from their nooses. Once, after I had done this, the puppy was lying in the sun in the driveway. My Tibetan father (pala) threw a walnut-sized rock at the two-week old puppy, seemingly as some kind of amusement, hitting it in the stomach. The puppy squealed and hid in a bush. Pala picked up a stick and poked the puppy until it came out of the bush and ran terrified into the house where it hid.
Deep down, Tibetans do have some kind of awareness that harming animals is sinful. Reading texts helps to remind them that seemingly commonplace actions can create a lot of suffering and subsequent karmic demerit. Patrul Rinpoche advises farmers,
“Reflect particularly on the sufferings and hardships of your own cattle, sheep, packhorses and other domestic animals. We inflict all sorts of barbarity to such creatures, comparable to the torments of hell. We pierce their noses, castrate them, pull out their hair and bleed them alive. Not even for a moment do we think that these animals might be suffering. Think about it carefully. Our attitude comes from not having cultivated compassion. If someone were to pull out a bit of your hair right now you would cry out in pain. You would not put up with it at all. Yet we twist out all the long belly hairs of our yaks, leaving a red weal of bare flesh behind, and from where each hair was growing a drop of blood begins to flow. Although the beast is grunting with pain, it never crosses our mind that it is suffering.
Think carefully about the suffering of these animals. Imagine that you yourself are undergoing that suffering and see what it is like. Cover your mouth with your hands and stop breathing. Stay like that for a while. Experience that pain and the panic.”5
Tendar, flipping through the 2026 Tibetan astrological calendar, reads to me the advice given to his sign (he was born in the year of the sheep), “We have to free animals in danger of being killed—like chickens and goats tied up at a butcher shop. If we save their lives, we will not face problems in the coming year.”
Tibetans are aware of the Buddhist texts that threaten periods in hell for those who eat meat, but are good at ignoring them. Patrul Rinpoche describes “The Crushing Hell,”
“Sometimes the mountains on both sides of the valley turn into the heads of stags, deer, goats, rams and other animals that the hell-beings have killed in their past lives. The beasts butt against each other with their horn-tips spewing fire and innumerable hell beings, drawn there by the power of their actions, are all crushed to death. Then once more as the mountains separate, they revive only to be crushed again.”6
Yet, there is one quote by the Buddha that Tibetans frequently use to nullify the sin of taking animals for food. In The Descent into Lanka Sutra, the Buddha is quoted as saying, “All meats known by seeing, by hearing, or by suspicion to have been killed for oneself must be fiercely depreciated. Knowing this as the recognition of what is impure, all ordained ones should avoid them.”7 Acharya Bhavaviveka writes in his commentary, Essence of the Middle View, “If the meat is free from the three objections, taking it is not non-virtuous. It will increase your clarity of mind… If you don't accept it out of greed, it is like any other food offered by another.”7 Most Tibetans, especially monks, take the “three condition rule” (meat not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed for you) as a green light to eat meat from the butcher.
The Venerable Lobsang Gyatso, Principal of the Buddhist School of Dialectics at Dharamsala, says “You should keep in mind that meat has the very same nature as such unsavory substances as blood, pus and mucous … It is the vessel of excrement… Also it is similar to your own flesh and to that of a corpse. You should be mindful when eating that meat is impure by nature and as unsuitable for consumption as that of your friend or relative. (However) when these three practices are followed no fault arises from eating meat and to that of a corpse.”8 So, even after saying that meat is unsuitable and unsavory, he affirms the belief that the Buddha’s Hinayana (school of Buddha’s basic teachings) passage on the “three conditions” allows for all other forms of meat consumption.
He continues, “Some practitioners, when their feeling for Dharma is momentarily strong decry the purchase of meat even from meat vendors. They declare that because it has been killed for meat eaters generally, it has been killed for them personally. Later, when their pious mood has passed, these same people pounce on any meat that is offered like vultures upon a corpse. This is not more than the game of a child.”9 He is speaking of Westerners who criticize Tibetans for eating meat yet still eat meat on occasion.
The debate as to whether or not meat bought from a butcher is acceptable for a Buddhist to eat was the topic of many more discussions, some of which will be included in the interviews of the next chapter. Tsepak Rinzin, after hearing Gyatso’s views, explains,
“The Venerable Gyatso’s refutation of this view that he labels ‘No consumer, no killer’ is that the meat sold in the butcher shop has been completely separated from the animal. Whatever actions such as cutting and frying that come later cannot harm the animal itself. He notes, in classical debating style, that to condemn the purchase of meat for general sale would lead to the expanded absurdity of saying that leather products or such things as pearls and peacock feathers could not be virtuously bought, yet this extension probably would not dismay an ardent vegetarian.”10
Being an “ardent vegetarian” myself, I am dismayed that cow skin, clam mucous and the feathers of a bird being forcibly removed would be separated from the suffering of the animal itself by a Buddhist lama. Even a layperson with no Buddhist education knows that the Buddha doesn’t consider harming animals “virtuous.”...
Tsepak Rinzin offers a Buddhologist’s analysis of the karmic consequences of purchasing meat from a butcher,
“By analyzing this subject in terms of the four factors of a completed karma—object, motivation, completed action and satisfaction—at least a partial complicity by the general consumer in the act of killing can be argued. Assuming a quantity of beef purchased from a butcher shop, the object is an actual cow. The motivation—that the cow be killed. The actual killing, while not carried out by the consumer, still is partly caused by him in concert with other consumers because of the payment provided to the actual killer. Finally, satisfaction with the result is certainly present. The kind-hearted may not feel satisfaction at the death of an animal per se, but they do feel satisfaction with the fact that now it is dead, the meat is available. The fact that the animal is dead is the result of killing. Thus, as all four factors of the karma of killing are completely or partially present, it can be posited that a negative result must follow. Whether this is strong or weak and whether a negative action can be transformed into something positive by the power of a truly virtuous motivation when eating meat is another question.”13
Patrul Rinpoche offers a more visual break down, from a farmer’s perspective.
“An example is the slaughter of a sheep raised for meat by its owner. First the master of the house tells his servant or a butcher to slaughter a sheep. The basis is that he knows that there is a sentient creature involved—a sheep. The intention, the idea of killing it, is present as soon as he decided to have this or that sheep slaughtered. The execution of the actual act of killing takes place when the slaughterer seizes his noose and suddenly catches the sheep that he is going to kill, throws it on its back, lashes its legs together with leather thongs and binds a rope around its muzzle until it suffocates. In the violent agony of death, the animal ceases to breath and its staring eyes turn bluish and clod over, streaming tears. Its body is dragged off to the house and the final phase, the ending of its life, reaches completion. In no time at all the animal is being skinned with a knife, its flesh still quivering because the 'all pervading energy' has not yet had time to leave the body; it is as if the body were still alive. Immediately it is roasted over a fire or cooked on the stove, and then eaten. When you think about it, such animals are practically eaten alive, and we humans are no different from beasts of prey.”14
The Buddha’s teachings on meat differ, depending on his audience. For example, In the Descent into Lanka Sutra, he tells his disciples, "He who eats flesh in transgression of the words of the Sage, that man of evil mind after being dedicated under the gospel of Sakya… (will) burn in terrible hells like Raurava for the duration of the destruction of two worlds. Flesh free from the Three Objections does not exist. Therefore one should not eat flesh…If one eats it he will always be born shameless and mad.” 15 And again, “As passion is an obstacle to deliverance so are such things as flesh or intoxicants. In future times the eaters of flesh, speakers of delusion, will say that flesh is proper, blameless and praised by the Buddhas. But the pious man should take his morsel in moderation, indifferently, like a useful physic, as though it were the flesh of his own son. Oh wise ones, since I regard each and every sentient being as I would my only son, how could I permit my disciples to eat his body? And how would I dare take meat if I did not permit my disciple to consume it? To do so would be very illogical.”15 ...
Entering The Tibetan Psyche
An interview can be an excellent way to unlock the treasure chest of
opinions and insights inside a person's mind. It can also cause them to make great efforts
in mind, I asked various Tibetans two questions related to meat eating and got both
treasures and rhetoric.
1) In your opinion, what is the relationship between the Buddhist philosophy of nonviolence and a Buddhist practitioner's life style, for example eating meat?
2) Do you consider eating meat to be in violation of the Bodhisattva Vow to not harm sentient beings?
Tendar is one of three brothers married to Sangye, and was the kindest to me in my time at the Tibetan refugee camp. I stayed at his home in Bangalore twice and we became very good friends. The interview was in English.
1) “I think there are many relationships between the two. What did the Lord Buddha teach to the people? For example, don’t do harm to any life—whether man, animal or insect. Treat them as your parents because every being has been your mother in a previous incarnation. One lama visited a family. The father had been reborn as a dog in their family. Their enemy was reborn as their child. They beat and starved the dog, yet carefully nurtured the child.”
The lama he is talking about, named Arya Katayana, was quoted as saying “He eats his father’s flesh; he kicks his mother away. He dandles on his lap the enemy that he killed. The wife is gnawing at her husband’s bones. I laugh to see what happens in Samsara’s show.”16 Tendar continues,
“Every life is interchanging—man, animals and insects. That's why we have to treat all beings as parents according to Buddhist philosophy. We want them happy, not in sorrow. We wish them continuous happiness. We have to treat all animals and men the same. When we are eating meat we don't think; it is careless when we think about the religious side—very sinful. When we eat, we should try to cause less suffering. As Buddhist philosophy says, human life is very important as to whether we go up or down. It is a good opportunity to become a good person. If we do good things in this life, the next life will be better. If we sin, eat meat, beat dogs, have enemies, fight or cause sadness, the next time we will go down and be born as an animal or worse. If we become an animal, we can't say anything, like ‘I want water’—we can't speak. They get all things on their own. That's why we want the human body, so we can become a Buddha.
“Meat eating—we have to stop. We eat meat in Tibet because vegetables are scarce, but here in India we should change. There are so many vegetables that are more suitable for our health. If we continue to eat meat, we may have health problems. We can stop. Lamas, His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) are only eating meat occasionally—once a week, twice a month. We can do this too and eventually stop. I heard in Nepal, there are many Tamong. They used to be Hindu and kill as many animals as possible, cut off their head in front of the temple and throw blood at the gods. Our lamas taught Buddhism to the Tamong and now they have stopped and taken up the Buddhist teachings. At present Buddhist followers are eating meat. This can be stopped, but it takes some time. It's best not to harm anybody; killing is not right. Animals don't speak, otherwise they would ask man why they are being killed. This is very sad, very sad. So this meat eating should be stopped among all these Buddhist followers. Meat eating is against the Buddha's teachings. All lamas are trying to stop eating meat.”
2) “There is no excuse. It is clearly a violation. All the Buddhist philosophies say we should stop this meat eating and take vegetables. Tibet is Tibet. But now Tibetans live all over the world. They should stop this meat eating and just eat vegetables. If a follower isn't capable of living without meat, they should repeat the meat mantra seven or 21 times. According to Buddhist philosophy, we should do like this.”
I was fortunate to have a long conversation with Tendar in their SUV on the way
to visiting monasteries in a refugee camp forty kilometers away where they had relatives.
Here is what I recorded from that conversation,
"At Bodhgaya (in late December, 1999), His Holiness made the people promise to stop eating meat on the 8th, 15th and 30th days of the month, as merit is multiplied on these days. When my family saw animals eating animals on TV, they started to get the idea that we should not eat meat. During Saka dawa (month of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and entrance into Nirvana) and other religious festivals, people have started to abstain from eating meat. His Holiness tells people they should not take meat as it is a sin. When we stop eating meat, our mind is changed—the anger mind is diminished. Eating meat is so engrained in the Tibetan consciousness that no one thinks about it, they don't think about animals being killed. This is the same in the monastery.
“Now, people are seeing the animals being slaughtered and are starting to think that meat is wrong. Monasteries, all Tibetan families, have stopped eating meat for these three days, and on other occasions. At Swayambu in Nepal, a nunnery has a big festival in which they've totally stopped eating meat. They use rice and flour and things instead. Some Tibetans have stopped eating meat altogether. My daughter eats meat about seven days a month. She once saw a chicken's head cut off at a slaughter shop. Its body was still moving after its head was cut off. So now she is disgusted by the meat and the stench. The animals are not killed by us, they are killed by the butcher. So there is not as much sin in purchasing meat from them. We don't say we have no sin, we have sinned, but it is a lesser sin than the butcher. There is a mantra. If we say it for seven or 21 times when we eat meat, praying that ‘As I am taking this meat, I pray that this animal will not go to hell, but go to heaven,’ this helps the animal to go to heaven. That will help the dead animal. Lamas recite this mantra, but it is too long for normal people. Lamas say we shouldn't take meat; it is very sinful. Animals feel pain, so it is dangerous and sinful. If you can't stop, pray that the animal will go to heaven. Animal killing is very bad because you're inflicting pain on them. You should teach people the mantra. That will help. There are some lamas who don't take meat. There are now many people who are not taking this meat."
Norbu—Settlement Officer (Chief Political Figure), Bylacopy, India (Late Thirties)
Norbu had the aura of a leader and was very decisive when he spoke. He was a bit intimidating, but generous and kind. The interview was conducted in English.
1) “Meat eating doesn't need to relate to Buddhist teachings. Meat is compulsive in Tibet. We have a consciousness that we have committed a sin against the Buddhist teachings. The general public inherits Buddhism, but doesn't know much. Mainly the monasteries have Buddhist knowledge. Without meat, there are health consequences among Tibetans. Tibetans need meat as a continuity of their diet to maintain health, especially for elders. Kindness and compassion are easy to talk about, but tough to practice. As an individual person, we all have our own approach. As a government servant, here the most important thing is one should speak less and try to practice what the Buddha and His Holiness have said—how to be kind. Public officials need to practice honesty, sincerity and selflessness. These shouldn't be negated. Others are more important than oneself. Putting this into practice, however, is hard to do.”
2) “Yes, I think so, we have violated the Buddhist teachings. Also we have started now to offer milk and bread at the altar rather than meat and wine. There may be some changes that will coincide better with Buddhist teachings than what we are practicing now.”
Tsering was the first man that I interviewed, on the first day of the Tibetan New Year. He later helped me to translate my written questions into Tibetan and was very kind and honest. The interview was conducted with Tsering in English.
1) "Buddhist philosophy is based on nonviolence. If you go deep, you find a lot on nonviolence. Lay people don't know much. Non-harm is in the scriptures, but Tibetans worry that if they don't eat meat they will not be healthy. Since Tibetans have eaten meat for so many years, they feel that they need to keep eating it. Young Tibetan people understand that meat is against Buddhism and that they don't need as much now in exile as they did in Tibet. Tibet is cold and there are no vegetables. We try to eat less meat now. It is bad for the body in the hot climate."
2) "Eating meat is very much harmful to the Bodhisattva. Every Buddhist scripture is basically ‘non-harm.’ Eating meat very much harms sentient beings. If you do not eat meat, animals will be saved, get freedom, get to eat grass in the open. If you eat meat, the butcher will kill the animals. Animal will lose their life. The old generation knows that eating meat is a sin and that the animals will lose their lives. Even then they are eating meat. I think it is an old, bad habit. So we are trying to change this habit by eating less meat in order to give more freedom to the animals." ...
One of the most highly respected men in Sera Monastery, his picture is hung in the Sera Je library next to the Dalai Lama’s. This animated man with unfathomable spiritual depth has the compassion, kindness and humor of a Buddha. He looked very young and alive. The interview was in Tibetan and translated from the tape recording by Tinley.
1) “Not to harm other people, this is usually the most important. There is a strong relation between daily life and non-harm. Normally, we like those who don't harm. If we don't kill insects, tell bad words or show any anger, then we will be a likeable person. If I become angry, you will become angry. It will harm the other person, which is not good. The daily practice and principles of non-harm have a strong relationship. A Buddhist practitioner should not harm other beings and help them whenever possible. We can't practice all of the teachings of the Buddha. But non-harm is the most important. However, it is difficult to say whether it is possible to cause no harm whatsoever in one's daily practice. Harm happens all the time—slander, harmful speech, stepping on insects. There is almost always some violence. If you eat meat, it harms other beings. How does this happen? Although I don't kill, I am indirectly participating in the killing. So indirectly it becomes a kind of violence. If I buy meat, he kills more and more animals. I don't kill, but they kill—I buy it and eat it. If I buy, you buy, he buys, we all buy—then he will kill more and more. It will become a kind of violence. If everyone stops eating meat, they won't buy and he won't kill. Animals won't die, which is good. If we eat meat, he will kill. Buy once, he will kill—then he'll kill more and more. So indirectly it becomes very violent. Buying meat indirectly becomes a kind of harming. Buy again, he will kill again—so that's why it's not good. Meat eating is not good.”
Question: Will the butcher be able to achieve Buddhahood faster if less people eat meat?
“After a long, long time the butcher will be able to achieve Buddhahood—a long, long time. It is a big, big sin to kill animals. It's not easy to get Buddhaood after this—it is a huge sin. If he doesn't kill or harm but rather helps other beings, then he can transform himself into a positive spirit. Then he will be able to achieve Buddhahood quickly. If one cheats, steals, kills, harms others—then it will take a long, long time. If everyone doesn't eat meat, the butcher won't kill animals and won't accumulate sin; then it will be easier for him to achieve Buddhahood.”
Question: Do you think there is less sin in buying meat from a large meat market?
“Buying from a small and large meat market entails the same sin. The killing is the same. If you are a meat salesman and I order you to kill 100 kilograms of meat, then both of us receive the same sin. It is definitely an act of harming. There are five chickens. If you buy one there will be four left. If you don't buy, he won't kill. It's less harm if you buy less. If you buy more, it is more harm. The biggest sin is telling the butcher to kill some chickens for me tomorrow.”
I asked him if there was a prayer for eating meat. He said there were several. He spent the next half-hour looking one up in an old text he had lying around. He eventually found it, but part of the page was torn off and the text was too deteriorated for him to read it. I would later get a meat eating prayer written in Tibetan for me in my notebook, but that notebook was lost when my bag was stolen. So unfortunately, despite many attempts, I have not been able to find a translation of a prayer for eating meat.
“This sin is the same for killing a big or a small animal. You can't say whether an animal will become a human or god in the next rebirth. If you pray, they might be born in better realms. Not eating meat is better than eating meat with a prayer.....
“The main concept of Buddhist philosophy is that if you can't help others, at least don't harm them. You must respect the existence of other beings. As far as practice is concerned, there will be a large variation among individuals in the extent to which they can use these beliefs. A high lama or a yogi will practice it in a different way than the average lay person. They may go into a retreat without much social mingling and can really concentrate on cultivating bodhicitta or something. As for myself, I am staying in society and depend on others. The Dalai Lama says, when we are born, we depend on our parents. When we get old we again depend on others for help. Therefore, as grown-ups, we should really help others. I can use the energy I have to help people. Individuals have different capacities to help. I am a doctor, so I try to help people with physical suffering. All life is interdependent, and so helping others also helps yourself.
“As far as meat eating goes, Tibet is at a very high altitude and meat is necessary there due to the cold climate and the lack of availability of meat alternatives. So it is habitual. There was a poor trade situation in Tibet; you couldn't get non-regional food for the most part. Now meat eating is reducing; many Tibetans are becoming vegetarians. The basic Buddhist concept of non-harm is against eating meat, as you have to kill something. The lamas always taught that there is a big difference in killing the animal specifically for you or buying it already dead. There are different degrees of sin, depending on how you obtain the meat, what weapons are used to kill it, what the motivation was, et cetera.”
Question: Is meat eating necessary to the Tibetan physiology?
“It is not necessary at all. If someone gets weak, if their energy is very low, then they may need meat for a little while. If there is a lot of imbalance in their body energies, then they should eat meat for a few days, and then go back to a pure vegetarian diet.”
Question: Have there been any health problems among Tibetans who stop eating meat?
“No, most problems are caused by eating meat instead. If we have meat for two or three days continuously, too much heat is created and one gets drowsy. If one takes vegetarian food, they feel fresh and alert, with lots of energy. Vegetarian food is perfect for hot weather. Many in the younger generation are not so fond of meat. Among the older ones, they don't want to stop, so they will say that their ears would start ringing if they didn't eat meat for ten days or something. I don't really believe this, though. I think all Tibetans can and should stop eating meat. Losing weight is not really harmful at all. In the Tibetan community there is a paranoia about being thin. Fat is considered healthy and thin is considered bad. When I went home to my parents after becoming vegetarian they remarked at how thin I was as if they were worried. In the West it is good to be thin, but Tibetan culture considers a person who is fat to be a person who is eating well. Being thin is far better in a hot climate. A fat person sweats a lot and can't breathe well when it is hot. Meat is unnecessary. There are a lot of high-protein alternatives like soy. Vegetables and legumes are the best sources of protein.”
Question: Among young Tibetans who stop eating meat, do you think this is health-related, ethics-related or both?
“I don't know about others, but as far as my own personal experience, when I was in college I heard a lot about how eating meat is bad. For me it combined the Indian climate with Buddhist ethics, and I gradually stopped eating meat for these reasons.”
Question: Do you think it is necessary for His Holiness to eat meat to stay in good health?
“No, it is not necessary for him to eat meat. His Holiness has a crazy routine, he gets only four or five hours of sleep and the rest of the 19 or 20 hours he is very busy and cheerful. You can't compare His Holiness with normal people. His Tibetan doctors visit him every day to check his pulse and so forth and prescribe him medicine for that day. He takes Tibetan medicine faithfully every day, and encourages others to do so as well. He really believes in it. His Holiness likes fruits a lot, I don't know about tofu. But tofu is very popular in Dharamsala in general.”
Question: If someone stopped eating meat and lost weight, would you prescribe they eat meat again?
“I would never tell someone to start eating meat again once they've stopped. It is like an alcoholic who stops drinking; it is not good to drink again even though he may have some problems being sober. It is very bad to start drinking again, or eating meat again. Alternatives are definitely the best. I would never prescribe someone to start eating meat again. The Tibetan doctors who do so are a bit old-fashioned and aren't as aware or open to the alternatives to eating meat.
"Tibetan medicine uses some animal products (snake meat, etc.) but now not too much, as the availability and legality of obtaining such things has changed. Plant alternatives are now used in place of animal products. Namto Ling and Sera Je Monasteries don't serve non-vegetarian meals. I had four vegetarian classmates in Tibetan medicine school and now more and more young people are eating primarily vegetarian food. I ate only one or two non-vegetarian meals a month during college.”
__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
On the topic of health and meat eating, Patrul Rinpoche remarks,
“To have killed in a previous life makes our present life not only short, but also subject to frequent disease. Sometimes babies die at birth as a result of having killed in their past life, and the same thing may well occur over and over gain for many lifetimes.”17
“In the sutras, it says that if one has not heard, seen or has any suspicion that an animal has been killed for them, it is acceptable to eat meat. So most Tibetans follow this, and eat meat from a butcher rather than kill the animals themselves. However, His Holiness has been encouraging the Tibetan community to cut down on their meat consumption, and if possible, adopt a vegetarian diet. He requested in 1993 that the restaurants of the Dharamsala area that normally serve meat dishes become vegetarian so that the Tibetan community can experience delicious vegetarian food and learn how to stop eating meat. Several of the area restaurants became vegetarian after that, and I think that it has turned out how His Holiness envisioned, and people are getting the idea that eating meat is not necessary after all to make good food. Dharamsala has a lot of tofu, which was introduced to the people by the restaurants that switched over to vegetarian. The Dalai Lama, three years ago, took up a new policy for his own diet. He now eats a small amount of meat every other day, and eats pure vegetarian food (including no eggs) every other day. Thus, he tells people that he is vegetarian six months of the year. In 1965, he became pure vegetarian and was very adamant about it. Unfortunately he got frail with hepatitis, and both his Tibetan doctors and Western doctors advised him to start eating meat again. He regained his health soon after. So, the Dalai Lama still eats small amounts of meat. However, he has been very adamant in stressing to the Tibetan people that on special Buddhist holidays and other days where merit is magnified, meat should be avoided altogether. For the sake of the Dharma and for the health of the Tibetans in exile, he requests that his people eat less and less meat and gradually try to become vegetarian.”
“It is quite clear to me that a serious Buddhist practitioner cannot justify eating meat. Those who say that buying meat from a market doesn’t involve much sin have a fundamental lack of understanding of basic economics—supply and demand. If us Tibetans didn’t buy so much meat in and around Dharamsala, the butchers would simply be out of business and countless animals would be saved from the knife. The Indians don’t buy much meat because most of them are Hindu and vegetarianism is quite widely spread. It is unfortunate that Tibetans still eat so much meat, especially monks at the monastery. That is truly shameful. A monk needs to uphold his vows and one of the primary vows is to not kill. Eating meat is unquestionably a violation of this vow, and thus the monks who continue to eat meat in exile when it us completely unnecessary are disgracing the Tibetan monastic tradition. Especially now since Tibetan Buddhism is spreading so widely throughout the world and to the West, monks really need to stop eating meat. When Westerners see this, and hear the next day at a Dharma talk that they are supposed to be saving all sentient beings from suffering, they often get quite confused. Buddhism is supposed to dispel confusion, not create more of it. Therefore, especially monks, but also lay Tibetan Buddhists, must stop eating meat. If we are to preserve the integrity of Tibetan Buddhism, it is time we realize that meat is very sinful and simply give it up. Eggs, pork and chicken are the worst and should be given up first, as they do not provide nearly as much meat as a yak for instance. But all meat should be avoided if possible.”...
__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
On buying meat, Patrul Rinpoche responds,
“Some people imagine that only the person who physically carries out the killing is creating a negative karmic effect, and that the person who just gave the orders is not—or if he is, then only a little. But you should know that the same karmic result comes to everyone involved, including even anyone who just felt pleased about it—and therefore how much more so the person who actually ordered that the killing be carried out. Each person gets the whole karmic result of killing one animal. It is not as if one act of killing could be divided up among people."18 ...
__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Geshe Thupten Phelgye from Sera Je monastery is now living in Dharamsala, running his organization Universal Compassion Movement and serving as a member of the International Gelukpa Executive Committee. He gets his income by running a four- story apartment complex, which forbids meat inside its walls. Non-vegetarians aren't allowed to apply for a room. He has a billboard across from the Dalai Lama's residence at one of Dharamsala’s main intersections that reads, "Take Pity on Animals, Don't Cause Their Slaughter, Become a Vegetarian." The same message is written in Tibetan. He also puts up flyers around town to encourage Tibetans to follow the Buddha's teachings and become vegetarian.
He was born in Bylacopy, India to very poor parents who farmed their small plot of land and often had trouble putting food on the table. He wanted to help his family to improve their standard of living, so he tried to join the army at age 13. He was turned down because of his age, so he tried again at age 14. The army recruiter felt sorry for him and paid for his education until age 18. At this point, his mother became sick and wanted him to look after her. However, Thupten had his life ahead of him and didn't want to spend more time at home. He told his parents he would either go back to school or go to the monastery, so his parents sent him to Sera Je. He flourished at Sera, and after the required training, had earned a Geshe degree.
In 1980 in the nearby town of Kushal Nagar, he saw a chicken that had been in the grass and eating corn days earlier, with its head cut off, convulsing in the butcher shop. At this point, he decided to give up meat and eggs. For his Geshe degree reception, he agreed to have all of the traditional foods, just no meat. The monks at the reception raved about how good the vegetarian food was. Shortly after, there was an all-day food offering given to the monastery by a local Tibetan, complete with three truckloads of meat.
He relates: “The monks spent all morning chop, chop, chopping the meat, hacking away at the red flesh with their big knives. There was meat momos, meat soup and just plain meat. By the end of the day there were so many bones on the ground that it was hard to walk. It was horrible.” He talked to the Abbot about it and said that something had to be done. He said that it was hard for him to be a monk and have all of this suffering and sorrow in the form of meat being caused by the monastery. The Abbot agreed. Soon after, at a large puja, the Abbot announced that from that day forward, there would be no meat allowed at offerings, pujas or in the mess hall at Sera Je Monastery. Monks who wanted to continue eating meat would have to do so on their own.
Soon after receiving his Geshe degree, Thupten and his mother went to Dharamsala to receive the Dalai Lama's blessings. The Dalai Lama encouraged Geshe Thupten to go to America and teach, but the young Geshe decided he wanted to work on reforming the Tibetan community, and stayed in Dharamsala. He had difficulties finding his mother a place to stay, so in exasperation had to build his own house. A plan for a simple residence turned into a four-story building with two and three-room apartments for rent. He started the Universal Compassion Movement and is now working on making it an influential organization.
He acquired hepatitis several months ago, which his doctors told him could be fatal. He is taking many Tibetan medicines, and showing improvements, but still worries about launching his organization before he passes away. He is a remarkable man. On his book shelf lie animal rights staples, such as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, John Robbin's Diet for a New America and Eric Marcus' Vegan, the New Ethics of Eating. He has pictures of animals on his shrine to the Buddha, below a large picture of the Dalai Lama. He drinks milk, but says he would be vegan if he lived in America, due to the poor treatment of cows there.
His laugh is full and comes easily. He looks quite healthy and is neither thin nor fat. His face is beautiful and large, kind of like Mao's. His mother lives in the apartment room next to his own. He tells me that he has always been a sort of rebel, and his views on Tibetan culture and religion show this. He thinks the primary purpose of Buddha's philosophy is to apply it to everyday life. For instance, he told me,
"Instead of lighting countless butter lamps and emitting black smoke into the realm of the gods, why not put up a new street light? Instead of circumambulating a stupa, buy an animal back from the slaughterhouse. Putting the Buddha's teachings into action is sorely lacking in how Tibetans approach Buddhism. The fact that almost all Tibetans eat meat is a sad example of this."
I found his flyer very interesting, and so am putting it as it is on the next page. He told me that he put the flyer all around Dharamsala, and that Tibetans started to complain to Dawa Norbu, Mayor of Dharamsala, saying that it made them feel bad about themselves. Geshe Phelgye explained to Norbu that he was trying to help the Tibetan community to live more compassionately in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s wishes, and so the flyer was not taken down.
Trulshig Rinpoche, Abbot of Monastery in Boudha, Nepal
"It is not suitable for Buddhists whose belief system is founded on compassion to have their sustenance based in killing."
“We talked in one of our Dharma lessons about eating meat. The Geshe said that he couldn't advise people not to eat meat, because then he would be more compassionate than Buddha himself.”
The world today has become very cruel: humans are eating almost all the animals -- innocent sentient beings, domestic and wild-- among them poultry, snakes, frogs and the various animals that live in the sea. All of them experience the same pain and suffering when they are brutally slaughtered.
So to enjoy meat is absolutely contradictory to the nature of love and peace-- the principles of all true religion. Even in the general sense, to eat meat is totally unjust to helpless animals. Therefore as Buddhists, we must pay more attention to this fact since our commitment is to practice compassion to all mother sentient beings. Furthermore, human welfare is dependent on the environment of which these living beings are also a part. Thus, when we destroy them, we destroy ourselves.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very much concerned about this and has spoken many times about the importance of vegetarianism. The Buddha also strictly condemned meat eating. In the Lanka Vatara Sutra found in the fifth volume of the Kagyur, he said "All sentient beings are equal to me as my only son-- how can I allow my followers to eat the flesh of my son..." He added, "Eating meat, to me, is out of the question. I have never allowed, am not ever allowing and will never allow it because I have strictly condemned meat eating in every way.
There is another benefit too: saving others' lives extends one's own life. Even in regard to health, refraining from eating meat can prevent heart disease, cancer, tuberculosis, high blood pressure and so on.
Therefore my appeal to you is this: give up eating meat from today-- for the rest of your life, even for a few years, one year or a few months. At least try to reduce the meat in your daily diet.
Please do this for the following reasons:
· to save the lives of innocent animals
· for your own health and long life
· to preserve the environment for coming generations.
Geshe Gepal—Sera Je Secretary (Thirties)
“In 1980, when I was in Kathmandu, I went on a picnic with some other monks from Sera. There was a Nepali family there and they had a goat tied up and some chickens. They let the chickens go, and then their little boys chased them around the park until they caught them. When they caught the chickens they cut their heads off and roasted them over a fire. It really made me sick. Later, I offered to buy their goat to save its life, but they got really nasty with me and told me to leave them alone. At that point, I realized that eating meat was evil and I stopped eating meat and eggs.
“I used to be very strong. I could lift two forty-kilogram sacks of grain over each shoulder and run with them. I could pick up 250-pound monks without a problem. But when I became vegetarian, I started to lose my strength. My parents and my doctor were worried about me, and they begged me to start eating meat again. After they had done this, I lay in my bed thinking, ‘Do I want to live a compassionate lifestyle or not?’ I was certain that eating meat was wrong, and so I told myself that even if I die, I am going to do what is right for myself, the animals and the Buddha. So I continued to be a vegetarian. I learned how to get enough protein, and gradually I gained back my weight.
“I served awhile as the director of the Sera Health Advisory Committee, and tried to introduce tofu into the monastery. I brought in all the equipment to make it, and it was available for the monks for several months. They found it too expensive, however, and hard to keep in the hot weather, so this idea failed. I kept trying to come up with creative vegetarian options for the monastic dining halls, and after several years of effort, I resigned.
“I think that all people need to realize their ethical stances on their own terms, so I don’t harass others about eating meat. Of course, I think it is wrong for a monk to do, but I recognize the realities of Tibet and the time it is going to take for Tibetans to adapt to a vegetarian diet. In southern India, a vegetarian diet is best. I find I have a lot of energy, and can outlast the other monastic workers. I feel strong.”...
This 88-year-old Nyingma lama and yogi, is the abbot of dozens of monasteries in India and Nepal. He is extremely active, traveling constantly and helping sentient beings with his every action. He has been a vegetarian since he came from Tibet in 1958, and spends most of his money releasing fish from the Calcutta fish markets. Meat is not allowed in any of his monasteries, and his wife estimated that 20% of his several thousand disciples are vegetarian.
Question: Why did you decide to stop eating meat? How old were you when you made this decision?
“It is written in the Hinayana and Mahayana texts that one should not eat meat. There is also a Vajrayana text which says the same thing, that one should not enjoy meat or alcohol. Because of this I am following the instructions of Shakyamuni Buddha. Being a religious person myself I don’t take meat or alcohol and at the same time I try to tell other people not to take these things. This is my reason—I’m just trying to motivate other people not to take alcohol or meat. I was 47 years old when I went to Bodhgaya and made a vow to all of the Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas to give up meat and alcohol.”
Question: Why do you think vegetarianism is an important aspect of practicing the Dharma?
“If you take meat, it goes against the vows one takes in seeking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Because when you take meat you have to take a being’s life. So I gave up eating meat.”
Question: Some claim that one can help the animals one eats by praying for them, and thus eating meat is compassionate. Other than for the most accomplished yogis and lamas, what do you make of this claim?
“With super natural power gained through certain meditations, it is true there are some who can revive animals from the dead and help them reach higher rebirth or enlightenment by consuming small amounts of their flesh. But this is not done for sustenance, only for the purpose of helping that animal. I personally do not have that power and because of that I never eat meat. Eating meat in one’s diet is much different than eating flesh to liberate a being through super natural powers. I am just an ordinary monk who really doesn’t have these qualities. So, if I ate meat it would be the same if you or any other lay person ate meat. I would be committing sin and I would be getting negative karma. I don’t pretend as if I have some powers and eat meat. I just avoid it altogether.”
Question: What is your opinion on His Holiness the Dalai Lama's meat eating?
“Well, you’ll have to ask him yourself about meat eating. With regard to what he’s telling people about meat now and before, it is all dependent on the state of his mind and his spiritual development. After His Holiness came to India, I didn’t see him. So I never had the chance to meet him, so I have nothing to say. One should be very decisive of the things one talks about. You shouldn’t be ambiguous, but must say ‘This is it. This is what I believe.’ ” (He is referring to the Dalai Lama’s discouraging meat consumption, yet eating meat himself.)
Question: Do you know other lamas who are vegetarian?
“I know many of them from Tibet. There are Nyingma, Sakya and Gelukpa vegetarians in Tibet. Compared to the many meat-eating lamas, vegetarian lamas are very few though. I’m 88 and during my experience I have come across many lamas in Kham, Amdo—all parts of Tibet—who don’t eat meat. There are lamas who eat meat and those who don’t. At my monastery in Tibet there are also lama’s who take meat and those who don’t.”...
Question: Do you see Tibetan Buddhists in exile making a sincere effort to reduce their meat consumption and become vegetarian, or has meat eating become an entrenched aspect of Tibetan culture?
“In Tibet, there’s only meat and tsampa—there is no other staple food. Tibet is at a high altitude and the climate is like a tundra. There are not many vegetables and fruits. After getting here, you really don’t have to follow the Tibetan customs of meat and tsampa. There are fruits and all kinds of vegetables, nutritional supplements—all kinds of good foods. Everything is available. So there is really no need to talk about the customs of Tibet. It’s a different place. You can take vegetables and fruits here in abundance and it is not necessary to eat meat. If you don’t take meat, it’s very good from my experience. I’m 88 and ever since I stopped eating meat, I haven’t gotten any major sickness. If I sleep, I sleep well. If I get up, I can walk right away. If I read religious texts, I can see them properly. I have very good hearing and can listen attentively. I have had no major sickness. These are the qualities I have experienced from not taking meat. I didn’t get sick when I stopped eating meat. I didn’t die. Nothing came—no negative consequences came to me. I can travel by vehicle, airplane or train without a problem. I never vomit. I don’t get dizzy or get headaches. So these are all qualities of giving up meat. This is what I experience. I am also a human being formed with flesh and blood, and am proof that giving up meat does not make one ill, like many Tibetans seem to think. If there were negative effects from giving up meat, I would have felt them, which has not been the case. Only good things have happened to me from giving up meat. I’m telling this from my own experience.”
Question: Many Tibetans quote a Hinayana text that says that if meat is not heard, seen or suspected to have been killed for you, then it is acceptable to eat it. How do you respond to this?
“If the animal being killed is unseen, then it is something like stealing something without being caught. That is also allowed in this thinking. You can say something dirty without being heard, as if you need evidence to judge whether it is a sin or not. What they say is not right. Killing, stealing and other negative actions can never be gotten away with. Even if other people don’t see you do them, the deities and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas see you doing these things. There is a Tibetan saying that even if one does not get caught committing a sin, that the gods catch you every time. It is impossible to do anything without being seen. You’re always being watched by the deities. They see and understand what you did—they know that you helped to kill an animal by buying meat. This is my answer.”
Question: Some monks have told me that since insects are killed in the production of rice and other vegetables, then there is really no difference between eating those things and eating meat. What do you think about this?
“This would mean that you wouldn’t eat anything and let the people die. If you say you were going to go for a week without killing insects through the food you eat, then you would die. If you die, this precious human life is being wasted. So if you just let your body be destroyed, that means you are taking your own life, which is killing in itself. You can always take the insect from the rice when you see it and let it free outside. You don’t necessary have to kill beings to eat. Although, when we walk we crush many insects under our feet. We may not see them or observe them, but still we must be killing them. Not being aware doesn’t mean that we have not created any sin. Because after all, cause and effect are always there.
“Every year there was a festival called Yoray. It was a time of year that the Tibetans don’t travel so much. It was observed primarily to avoid killing insects by walking. But, now in this decadent age, hardly any people make the effort to stay in one place for this long. We are nearing the end of an era, where people who say they are followers of the Buddha steal, commit adultery, and run businesses that profit from dishonesty. They do all sorts of unrighteous things. There are some bad obstacles to the Buddha Dharma, and due to this people do these things they are not supposed to do. Because of this, there is a lot of war, weapons and all sorts of negative things happening. The big nations and small nations all have disputes with each other most all the time. There is unrest everywhere. All of the negative actions are running rampant and sins are frequent. Because of that there is no timely rainfall, which leads to droughts. Natural disasters are common. Whenever someone says something it is always tinged with negativities. Those who live in peace and tranquility are being robbed. Those who are giving teachings of the holy Dharma to other people are not given the proper respect and the sacred Dharma is wasted. The situation is becoming very bad. Both outside and inside, there are disputes—among families and nations. These are the results of our past negativities, and we must take responsibility for them.”
I was fortunate to meet with the daughter of Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, named Pema. Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche is the most prominent Nyingma figure in the United States, and his daughter grew up in the U.S., studying at Berkeley. She considers herself to be close friends with Chatal Rinpoche.
“Most Tibetans in Tibet don’t eat eggs. When Chatal Rinpoche was offered crepes a while ago, he asked me if they had eggs in them. I shook my head yes, and Rinpoche was repulsed by it and refused to eat them. Meat eating is high on Chatal Rinpoche’s spiritual radar. Rinpoche is so connected with animals. He loves animals. He loves watching wildlife videos on T.V. His great compassion caused him to stop eating meat. He gives all his money to save 70 truckloads of fish in Calcutta. It is his most important yearly activity. He prays for every bucket-full he dumps into the ocean, trying to bring them to a higher rebirth. Tibetans have a guilt complex about their meat eating. When I say I’m vegetarian, they say ‘That’s great!’ as if it is an enormous sacrifice that they can’t fathom. In the Dharma, it is not just a matter of not doing something—not eating meat for instance—but actively protecting life. Rinpoche lives this. He is so connected on a vast level to sentient beings and their suffering.
“Rinpoche is drawn to dark, sinful, murderous places—to Hindu animal sacrifice areas. He took myself and his daughter Sera Sati to one once. It was beautiful on the outside, with flowers and carvings. He bought some birds in a cage and released them at the top of the roof. Then we came to the goat sacrifice place. At first I had my eyes closed, but then I saw it—innocent goats being murdered and blood everywhere. I was horrified. Rinpoche calmly walked all over the goat blood as if he was doing walking meditation. He wasn’t a bit fazed by it. I think he was trying to teach us the lesson of being fearless and patient in the face of suffering. Goats are very sensitive beings—they were very afraid. It’s so awful. Meat was such a turnoff to me at the cafeteria in Berkeley, where I went to school. Seeing it made me nauseous.
“Young monks who do not have good protein sources feel that meat is the essence of their diet. A small dollop of daal on their rice is about all they get without the meat. I can sympathize with this. I don’t think it is a common thing to recite prayers while eating meat, although there may be some kind of an apology for the animals they are eating. The key is for high-level lamas who teach compassion to not eat meat themselves. Instead of just talking, they need to show compassion through their actions. It is common for Mahayana practitioners to look down on Hinayana monks—who are mostly vegetarian. They often say that since they have taken the Bodhisattva vows, they are above the Hinayana vows not to kill. But, of course, the Vajrayana recognizes that all three schools are essential aspects of cumulative Dharma.”
Chatal Rinpoche wrote a piece called On Flesh Eating which I will re-produce in its entirety at this point. It was translated by my friend Geshe Phelgye, and is yet unpublished in English, but available in Tibetan at bookstores.
On Flesh Eating by Chatal Rinpoche
Meat, the sinful food, is never permitted in all the three vows: not in the vows of individual liberation, the Bodhisattva vows, nor the tantric vows. Thus Buddha stated “I have never approved, do not approve, and will never approve a meat diet.” He declared: “my followers must never eat meat.”
In general, both the butcher and the customer of meat will suffer in such realms as the burning and boiling hells. As Buddha said, “Killing animals for profit and paying for meat are both evil deeds; whoever does them will be reborn among the screams and cries of the hells.” Intentionally eating meat is violating Buddhist principles. “Even the so called ‘approved meat’ requires the effort of checking (if it is ‘approved’) and begging or some other means of attainment. Therefore, one should never eat meat. Both myself and other Buddhas say: an adept will not eat meat. Those beings which consume each other will be reborn as carnivores…they will give off a stench and be held in low esteem. Even after such miserable human births as these, they will descend lower, being reborn as such animals as cats and owls. Since the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and sravakas have all condemned meat-eating, one who still eats meat without shame will be reborn into insanity. Those who give up eating meat will be reborn as wise and healthy Brahmans. Meat which one has seen, heard, or suspected to have come from an animal slaughtered for meat is to be condemned. Dialecticians who are born as meat-eaters will not understand this. These close-minded meat-eating gossipers will one day blame me, saying that the Buddha has said that there is no sin in eating meat! An adept enjoys vegetarian food in appropriate quantity and views meat as unfit to eat as the flesh of one’s own son. Eating meat is a horrifying site and prevents progress towards Nirvana. One should not eat meat, for (practicing non-harm) is the victory banner of liberation.”
In the “Parinirvana Sutra,” Buddha speaks to Kasyapa saying, “Blessed son, those who have the mindfulness of the shravakas are not allowed to eat meat from now on. Even if one’s master offers one meat with genuine faith, one should see it as the flesh of his own son.” Bodhisattva Kasyapa asked Buddha, “Lord, why do you not allow the eating of meat?” Buddha replied, “Blessed son, eating meat hinders the development of compassion; therefore, whoever is mindful of me should not eat meat from now on. Kasyapa, wherever a meat eater goes, lies, sits, or walks other sentient beings become fearful upon smelling him. Blessed son, just as when a man eats garlic others will keep away because of his bad smell, likewise, animals, when they smell the meat eater, fear death.” Kasyapa asked Buddha, “Lord, as monks, nuns and novice monks are dependent for their food on other people, what should they do when they are offered food with meat?” Buddha replied to Kasyapa, “Separate the food and meat, wash the food, and then eat. You may use your begging bowl if it does not have the smell or taste of meat; otherwise you should wash the bowl. If the food has too much meat, one should not accept it. Do not eat food if you see that there is meat in it; if you do then you will accumulate demerit. There will be no end if I speak thoroughly about the reasons I do not allow meat-eating. I have given a brief reply because the time has come for my parinirvana.”
Buddha has further elucidated the faults of meat-eating in the “Angulimala Sutra” as well as in the “Siksammu Caya” compendium of precepts. Furthermore, the treasure teaching of Padmasambhava called “Rinchin Dronme” (“The Precious Lamp”)… clearly condemns the eating of meat for both lay and ordained people: “All the followers of Buddha: monks or nuns, novice or lay have seven main principles to follow. These are ‘the four root principles,’ and abstinence from alcohol, meat and evening food.”
If some people argue that Buddha’s condemnation of meat applies only to the seven classes of Vinya vows and is unrelated to the Mahayana and Tantrayana, then this clearly indicates their lack of proper knowledge. They have not even seen the following chapter from the Vinya sutra: “Meat-eating is the diet that vanquishes the three realms (desire, form and formless realms). It is the weapon that destroys the potential for liberation. It is the fire that burns the seed of Buddhahood. It is the shaft of lightning that ends rebirth in the higher realms or a precious human rebirth.” Since meat-eating is not approved for anyone, not for monks, nuns or lay-holders, those who are committed Buddhist practitioners are never allowed to eat meat. One who has taken the Bodhisattva vows will incur great sin in eating the flesh of sentient beings who were one’s parents in past lives. Even in Tantryana meat is not allowed until one attains the ultimate view and wisdom.
Tulshig Pema Dudul, speaking of a pure appearance, said: "The great compassionate one (Avalokitishvara) appeared in the sky in front of me and spoke 'You have attained generating stages and acquired some knowledge, yet you are lacking in love and compassion. Compassion is the root of the Dharma and with compassion it is impossible to eat meat. One who eats meat will experience much misery and illness. Look at the miserable ones! Every one is experiencing suffering according to their deeds…One who gives up meat will not experience this suffering. Instead, great guru Buddha's deities, Bodhisattvas, and dakinis will rejoice and protect you.’” Having heard this, Tulshig gave up meat forever.
Many more renowned adepts have condemned meat as a poisonous food. Machig Labdron, a renowned female practitioner of chod had said, "For me eating meat is out of the question. I feel great compassion when I see helpless animals looking up with fearful eyes." Rigzin Jigme Lingpa, a great yogi of the Nyingma tradition stated, "Just as in the story of Arya Katayana going to beg for food, I see that the animal which this meat must have come from was our mother in earlier lives. If so, can we eat our own mother’s flesh that was slaughtered by butchers? Imagine how much concern would arise! Therefore, if we concentrate honestly, there is no way we won't feel compassion for the animal."
Some people who claim themselves to be practitioners say, "At least some meat and alcohol is necessary to keep healthy, otherwise weakness or death may occur." This is not true. However, even if death should follow from engaging in the Dharma practice of abstaining from meat and alcohol, then it is worth it. As the great adept Tsele Rigzin said,
“From the bottom of my heart I pray
Never to be with carnivores and drinkers
In this and lives coming
May an ordained never be born where meat
And alcohol are used without morality
If I should die
Due to the absence of meat and alcohol
That will be fulfilling of Buddha's wishes
Thus I shall be a most successful adept!”
Bodhisattva Jigme Chokkyiwangpa said, "As Buddhists we have taken the triple refuge. To take refuge in the Dharma, one must practice nonviolence to sentient beings. Thus, if we continue to eat meat which has come from the slaughtering of innocent animals, then is this not a contradiction of our Buddhist commitments?"
Knowing all these faults of meat and alcohol, I have made a commitment to give up meat and alcohol in front of the great Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions as my witnesses. I have also declared this moral to all my monasteries. Therefore, any one who listens to me is requested not to break this Dharmic moral.
The majority of these interviews seemed to have an anti-meat slant. Yet all but two of the interviewees ate meat. Some of the monks I talked to that I did not include in this chapter became very defensive about their meat eating, saying it is a central part of Tibetan culture and that it shouldn’t be messed with. Others got angry, feeling they were being judged. However, my motivation throughout this process was simply exploration of how Tibetan people, known throughout the world as valuing compassion, justify killing animals for food. For the most part, I was very impressed with their sincerity and the thought put into their responses. We will see if the Tibetan custom of eating meat gradually changes to be in closer accordance with the Buddha’s doctrine, or if it remains integral to the Tibetan lifestyle.
The monastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is the most prominent such tradition in the world today, even in the absence of a homeland to base it in. Many
of the major monasteries, such as Sera and Drepung, can be found in India and Nepal.
The views of the monks and nuns, Geshes and Rinpoches, are often quite different than
that of the lay people, especially regarding Buddhist philosophy. Within the monasteries,
there is a spectrum of views regarding meat consumption, making for dynamic research.
This was a topic of controversy for most, embarrassment for some. It was the most
difficult part of my research, but also, perhaps, the most rewarding.
The very first research I did at a monastery was during the Hindu festival of Dusai, with monks at the Thupten Choling monastery in Solu Khumbu, northeastern Nepal. Between pujas the monks and nuns performed for the animals being sacrificed by Hindus for Dusai (to facilitate their rebirth in higher realms), I interviewed monks and nuns about eating habits at the monastery. I even had a fierce debate in Tibetan about meat eating with a monk, giving me my first taste of this classic Tibetan Buddhist learning style.
They use an actual sheep head on their altar during Losar at this monastery, and use actual sheep intestines in making offerings to wrathful deities. Losar is one of the only times of year where meat is served, and the monks and nuns said they looked forward to it partially for this reason. They seemed to view the mutton and yak meat that was brought in from Tibet for this occasion as an important link to their homeland. One monk told me that aside from Losar, meat was generally not allowed or encouraged at the monastery, so as to not violate Buddhist tenets.
When I asked the monks how meat eating and Buddhist Dharma corresponded to each other, I got a range of interesting answers. One monk admitted that it is not compassionate to eat animal flesh. A Sherpa lama told me that eating meat is forbidden in the texts, yet most Tibetan and Sherpa Buddhists try to get around that by buying meat instead of killing the animals themselves. Since everyone seems to accept that buying meat in such a manner is acceptable for Buddhists to do, the negative karma incurred from killing the animal is mentally minimized.
Then came the great debate. My opponent was a monk in his twenties named Sonam, clad in a fancy Nike windbreaker covering his monk’s robes and a cocky demeanor. He said (in Tibetan) that, “Tibetans have the great expansive mind (Mahayana consciousness) so we can eat animals, as we and the Buddha cover them with our understanding of the Dharma.” He continued, “I understand compassion, but animals will suffer regardless of whether or not I eat them, so why not eat them?” He said that Buddhists can’t be picky about what they eat and attributed my vegetarianism to my being a “picky American.”
During the debate, one nun pointed to Sonam’s younger brother and asked me, “Do you think it would be O.K. to eat him?” She raised her voice. “DO YOU THINK IT WOULD BE O.K. TO EAT HIM?” I responded that I didn’t think that would be O.K. Then she said that in her opinion it would be the same to eat him, a monk or an animal. Sonam then responded that he thinks if he ate me, that it would be O.K.—tasty in fact—if that was all he had available to him.
I then asked monks and nuns at Thupten Choling if their eating habits have changed since they came from Tibet. Most everyone said that Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India are eating much less meat than they used to in Tibet. Sonam made it sound like meat consumption was such an integral part of Tibetan culture that giving it up altogether would be a weakening of the cultural integrity in exile and would almost be disgracing the tradition. This was strong evidence for me that meat eating is an aspect of Tibetan culture, just as Buddhism is an aspect of Tibetan culture. The fact that these two conflict with each other is more of a situational irony than a distortion of Buddha’s teachings. Of course, efforts are made to justify the tradition of meat eating under the tradition of Buddhism, but most of these, in my opinion, are built on shaky ground.
Sonam thought that the pleasure he gets out of eating meat might outweigh the suffering of the animal that gets killed for his food. Others thought that since the animals would be suffering in samsara if they were not killed to be eaten, the suffering created by being killed was not significantly greater, and thus vegetarianism was not worth pursuing. I should mention, however, that all of the monks and nuns I was able to talk to were in their twenties, and certainly lacked the wisdom of some of the senior monks. Freeing animals from the slaughter is a common merit-building activity for senior monks in Tibet, but may not yet be appreciated or understood by most of the younger monks and nuns.
While I was conducting this research, I began to read The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche. Patrul Rinpoche was a 19th century Nyingma practitioner who rejected high monastic office to become a wondering yogi, living his life as a beggar or in caves. He was strongly against meat consumption, and very critical of the propensity of the monastic order for eating meat. He wrote,
“Look at the lamas of today! Each time a patron kills a nice fat sheep and cooks up the gullet, kidneys and other organs along with the meat and blood, serving it piled up with the still quivering ribs of a yak, our lamas pull the shawl of their robes over their heads and suck away at the entrails like babies at their mother's breast. Then they cut themselves slices of the outer meat with their knives and munch them in a leisurely fashion. Once they have finished, their heads emerge again, hot and steaming. Their mouths gleam with grease and their whiskers have acquired a reddish tinge. But they will have a big problem in their next life, in one of the ephemeral hells, when they have to pay back with their own lives all that they have eaten so many times in this life."20
Patrul Rinpoche’s strong animal rights stance combined with his criticism of the monastic order accentuated my experiential conclusions about the lack of sympathy by monks for the animals being killed for food. Chatal Rinpoche and other Nyingma yogis on the other hand, were very intimately concerned with the suffering of animals and were strict vegetarians as a result. My strong admiration for these yogis coupled with a slight disgust with the monastic order’s apathy towards suffering animals caused me to generalize and romanticize these two categories.
Patrul Rinpoche’s bold proclamation fueled these beliefs.
“Lamas and monks are the people who are supposed to have the most compassion. But they have none at all. They are worse than householders when it comes to making beings suffer. This is a sign that the era of the Buddha's teachings is really approaching its end. We have reached a time when flesh-eating demons and ogres are given all the honors.”21
Initially, I thought that Patrul Rinpoche was talking about people like the Dalai Lama, who eats meat and obviously is “given all the honors.” After having read the Dalai Lama’s autobiographies and talking with a number of his advisors and members of his cabinet, however, I have put him in a category all his own. I don’t really understand why he hasn’t questioned his doctors’ advice to eat meat, but appreciate his role as the primary agent for reducing Tibetan’s reliance on meat in their diet, through his many messages to his people on the subject.
The Dalai Lama is considered, to some extent, the leader of all monastic traditions in Tibet. He is honored by all Tibetan Buddhists, not just the members of his particular school, the Gelukpa. No other country in the world gives their leader the support and loyalty that Tibetans give the Dalai Lama. He is considered the human manifestation of the God of Compassion, Avalokatishvara. He is humble and has a sense of humor, yet can be very stern and direct when addressing his people, as I witnessed during the Opera Festival (Shoton) speech he gave and during his March 10th speech, both in Dharamsala. His observations are very astute, and I will dedicate the next few pages to them.
In his initial autobiography, written as a young man, he writes,
"There are different opinions among Buddhists about eating meat but it was a necessity in Tibet. The climate was rigorous and although food was plentiful, it was limited in variety so it was impossible to stay healthy without eating meat… Tibetans would think it is a sin to kill any animal, for any reason, but they would not think it sinful to go to the market and buy the meat of an animal which was already dead. The butchers who slaughtered the animals were regarded as the sinners and outcastes."22
In his second autobiography, written recently, he recalls his childhood.
“I particularly enjoyed going over (to my parents’ house) at mealtimes. This was because, as a young boy destined to be a monk, certain foods such as eggs and pork were forbidden to me, so it was only at my parents’ house that I ever had the chance to taste them. Once, I remember being caught in the act of eating eggs by one of my senior officials. He was very shocked, and so was I. ‘Go away,’ I shouted at the top of my voice!“On another occasion, I remember sitting next to my father and watching him like a little dog as he ate some pork crackling, hoping that he would give me some—which he did. It was delicious.”23
“I also well remember one occasion when, as a small boy, (my brother Tenzin) told me that Mother had recently ordered pork from the slaughterman. This was forbidden, for whilst it was acceptable to buy meat, it was not acceptable to order it since that might lead to an animal being killed specially to fulfill your requirement.
“Tibetans have a rather curious attitude towards eating non-vegetarian food. Buddhism does not necessarily prohibit the eating of meat, but it does say that animals should not be killed for food. In Tibetan society it was permissible to eat meat—indeed it was essential, apart from tsampa, there was often not much else—but not to be involved in butchery in any way. This was left to others. Some of it was undertaken by Muslims, of whom there was a thriving community, with its own mosque, settled in Lhasa. Throughout Tibet, there must have been several thousand Muslims. About half came originally from Kashmir, the remainder from China.”24
At a very young age, the Dalai Lama is quoted in the film Seven Years in Tibet as saying, “Tibetans believe that all living creatures were their mothers in a past life. So we must show them respect and repay their kindness—and never, never harm anything that lives.” He notes in his second autobiography, “Tibetans have a great respect for all forms of life. This inherent feeling is enhanced by our Buddhist faith which prohibits the harming of all sentient beings, whether human or animal.”24a In the same book, he describes a lesson he learned about kindness,
“One of the parrots (at my summer palace) was very friendly with my Master of the Robes. He used to feed it nuts. As it nibbled from his fingers, he used to stroke its head, at which the bird appeared to enter a state of ecstasy. I very much wanted this kind of friendliness and several times tried to get a similar response, but to no avail. So I took a stick to punish it. Of course, thereafter it fled at the sight of me. This was a very good lesson in how to make friends; not by force but by compassion.”25
The Dalai Lama enjoyed going to his parents’ house “in late autumn when there would always be fresh supplies of delicious dried meat, which we dipped in chili sauce. I liked this so much that on one occasion I ate far too much and soon afterwards I was violently sick.”26 Later on in his childhood, autumn took on a different meaning for him.
“There was a particular time of year, autumn, when nomads brought yaks to be sold to the slaughtermen. This was a very sad time for me. I could not bear to think of all those poor creatures going to their deaths. If ever I saw animals being taken behind the Norbulingka (summer palace) on their way to market, I always tried to buy them by sending someone out to act on my behalf. That way I was able to save their lives. Over the years I should imagine I must have rescued at least ten thousand animals, and probably many more. When I consider this, I realize that this extremely naughty child did do some good after all.”27
In the 1950’s, the Dalai Lama describes a Chinese Communist technique of
humiliating and torturing Tibetans,
“Monks and nuns were subject to sever harassment and publicly humiliated. For example, they were forced to join in extermination programs of insects, rats, birds and all types of vermin, even though the Chinese authorities knew that taking any form of life is contrary to Buddhist teaching. If they refused, they were beaten.”28
Years later, in setting up refugee camps for Tibetans in southern India, he says,
“On that first visit to Bylacopy, I well remember the settlers being very concerned that the burning they were having to carry out to clear the land was causing the death of innumerable small creatures and insects. For Buddhists, this was a terrible thing to be doing, since we believe that all life, not just human life, is sacred. Several of the refugees even came up to me and suggested that the work should be stopped.
“All attempts to found poultry farms and piggeries have been unsuccessful. Even in their reduced circumstances, Tibetans have shown themselves unwilling to become involved in animal production for food. This has given rise to a certain amount of sarcasm on the part of some foreigners, who point out the anomaly between Tibetans willingness to eat meat and their declination to provide it for themselves.”29
The Dalai Lama relates the time he became vegetarian,
“It so happened that my room in the Governor’s residence looked directly on to the kitchen’s opposite. One day I chanced to see the slaughter of a chicken, which was subsequently served up for lunch. As it was having its neck wrung, I thought of how much suffering the poor creature was enduring. The realization filled me with remorse and I decided it was time to become a vegetarian. As I have already mentioned, Tibetans are not, as a rule, vegetarians, because in Tibet vegetables are often scarce and meat forms a large part of the staple diet. Nevertheless, according to some Mahayana texts, monks and nuns should really be vegetarians.
“From that moment on, I adhered minutely to the vegetarian rule and in addition to abstaining from meat, ate neither fish nor eggs. This new regime suited me well and I was very contented; I felt a sense of fulfillment from a strict interpretation of the rule. Back in 1954 in Peking, I had discussed the subject of vegetarianism with another politician at a banquet. This other man claimed to be vegetarian, yet he was eating eggs. I questioned this and argued that because chickens come from eggs, eggs could not be considered to be vegetarian food. We disagreed quite strongly—at least until (the Chinese politician) brought the discussion to a diplomatic close.”30
“On returning to Dharamsala in early 1966, I had taken enthusiastically to my new vegetarian diet. Unfortunately, there are few dishes in Tibetan cuisine that do not use meat and it was some time before the cooks learned to make them taste good without it. But eventually they succeeded and began to produce delicious meals. I felt really well on them. Meanwhile, several Indian friends told me of the importance of supplementing my diet with plenty of milk and different kinds of nuts. I followed this advice faithfully—with the result that after 20 months I contracted a severe case of jaundice.
“Eventually the illness, which turned out to be Hepatitis B, cleared up, but not before I had consumed large quantities of Tibetan medicine. As soon as I began once more to take an interest in eating, I was instructed by my doctors that not only must I take less greasy food, cut out nuts and reduce my consumption of milk, but also I must start eating meat again. They were very much afraid that the illness had caused permanent damage to my liver and were of the opinion that, as a result, my life has probably been shortened. A number of Indian doctors I consulted were of the same opinion, so reluctantly I returned to being non-vegetarian. Today, I eat meat except on special occasions required of my spiritual practice. The same is true for a number of Tibetans who followed my example and suffered a similar fate.”31
My mother, a nutritionist, believes that the Dalai Lama’s diet was imbalanced—far too much milk and apparently too much greasy food—and that the cause of his getting hepatitis was a weakened immune system indicative of an imbalanced diet, not of a vegetarian diet. The Tibetan doctor in Bylacopy comes up with a similar analysis. However, not being familiar with how to eat a balanced, vegetarian diet, his doctors made a decision within the limits of their specialized knowledge of foods available in Tibet, namely meat. Even though he continues to eat meat, the Dalai Lama encourages the Tibetan monastic community to get active in helping to reduce suffering among sentient beings, and to try to break the meat eating tradition, as much as possible. He relates, “I feel that Buddhist monks and nuns tend to talk a great deal about compassion without doing much about it.”31a
One monk who is doing a lot about it is Geshe Thupten Phelgye from Sera Je Monastic University. With his Universal Compassion Movement I mentioned in the previous chapter, he works hard to educate and to bring the monastic community out of apathy and into compassionate action. He is a member of the Gelukpa International Executive Committee, and submitted the following proposal on March 24th, 1999 to the Committee’s annual conference in New Delhi, India.
“To discuss ways to bring about changes into the most (contradictive of) the fundamental practice of compassion in Buddhism, ‘enjoying the flesh of Mother Sentient Beings’ particularly (among) the ordained people, individuals and monasteries, (I encourage them) to adopt veganism or at least vegetarianism.
“It’s (a) pity, that the human race in this world (has) used and tortured animals (in) unimaginable ways without caring (about) their suffering and right to live, because they are unable to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the Buddhist, who aims (to attain) Buddhahood for the well-being of mother sentient beings are addicted to the taste of the flesh of these mother sentient beings. If we try to think about it in the deepest (part of our) heart, it is a contradiction to our commitment.
“Moreover, the ordained people are the symbol of peace and compassion, the preserver of Buddhism, the teachings of the most compassionate teacher to mankind. Therefore, it is unfortunate to see the monks and nuns at the butchers (buying) meat and (using) meat in the monasteries and (as) individuals. (In addition), using animal products like leather shoes and skin wearing are unfair for the monks and nuns. Therefore, I (appeal) with my folding hands to the councils of this seminar to discuss on the above mentioned subject to bring about changes in our diet: to adopt veganism or at the least vegetarianism for ordained people and pass a resolution.”
The proposal passed and is now being implemented at Gelukpa monasteries worldwide. It was the first time I had ever seen the word “veganism” written by a Tibetan. This diet, which excludes all animal products, was extremely foreign to the Tibetans I met, and they often had a hard time understanding why I followed it and what it entailed. UW language teacher Tsetan would often ask me if things like bread, potatoes and tofu were “O.K. for me to eat.” My Tibetan family in Bylacopy was at first baffled by my diet, but later became very skilled at cooking tasty vegan meals.
The term “Bodhisattva” was mentioned quite a bit in the interviews of the previous chapter, but I did not take time to explain it. It is a term for a kind of semi-enlightened Buddhist social worker who vows to return to Earth incarnation after incarnation for as long as it takes to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. It is an important part of the Mahayana Buddhists’ identity, and most serious monks take the “Bodhisattva Vow,” in which one promises to dedicate this and all future lives to helping sentient beings alleviate suffering in their lives. I have taken the vow myself, with the Dalai Lama presiding. Yet as the Dalai Lama notes, compassionate action is not the highest priority for the majority of monks and nuns.
Patrul Rinpoche says, “To be given the Bodhisattva vows is more valuable than being given command of a province. Look how those with no compassion hurl their vows away!”32 A good example is a commercial that is shown on television stations in Europe and Asia. It shows an old, wise Tibetan Buddhist lama levitating in the sky. Young monks watch admiringly below. A swarm of mosquitoes fly up to where the lama is levitating, and so he levitates closer to the ground. The young monks hand him some bug spray. He sprays the insecticide and levitates upward again while all the mosquitoes drop dead to the ground. He levitates high in the air, smiling widely. Tibetan Buddhist monks have also given Chevrolet trucks rights to their chant recordings. These trucks kill thousands of insects and mammals every year and are harmful to the environment. Certainly these are not the activities of Bodhisattvas?!
I was disturbed by a lot of what I saw at Sera Mey Monastery. I went with Dorje, his two brothers and his son to the section of the monastery that represented their hometown. There were quite a few severely obese monks there, and I saw a fair amount of meat in the kitchen. There was a playing card with a nude woman on it in their courtyard. Near there, at “The Sera Mey Hostel,” there was a large sign with the aforementioned name on it, that had a cartoon of a man eating huge portions of meat and a bowl next to him full of large bones. Regretfully, I didn’t photograph the sign, but it is still firmly implanted in my mind. That same day, there was a monk in his late twenties shooting at some fruit in a tree with his toy gun.
This image of monks with guns would not be my last. In the next few pages, I
have documented young monks playing with realistic pistols that shoot plastic pellets.
These toys are quite dangerous, used with a violent mentality, and have a lot of social
implications. Not only do these young monks continue to harm animals through meat
consumption, they are now playing with weapons that have the sole purpose of harming
other human beings. I found the popularity of this phenomenon to be both fascinating
and disturbing. The strange juxtaposition of nonviolent symbols (monks) carrying
symbols of violence (guns) is just another example of hypocrisy in the monastery.
Sangye’s nephew told me, “Monks say ‘don’t lie’ then lie. They say ‘don’t desire’ then
demand big money from tourists. For all of these monks, hypocrisy is a natural. The
monks don’t practice Buddhism in the monastery or in society.”
Tibetans these days are losing faith in the integrity of their monasteries. Sangye’s nephew told me, “Most monks have blind faith and don’t know much. A parrot will say ‘om mani peme hum’ but doesn’t know the meaning. The majority of monks are the same way.” His niece was very disgusted at how the abbot of one area monastery had such elegant living quarters. Yet for both of these Tibetan skeptics, the Dalai Lama is the exception. “I think His Holiness is the cleanest one. He says what you already know, but when he says it, the hairs on my arms go up. He teaches very simply and does what he says. So many monks these days gossip and fall asleep during Dharma talks,” Sangye’s nephew exclaims. His niece told me that the Dalai Lama always lives humbly, while a lot of other high lamas live in luxury and have fancy cars.
The texts and commentaries are certainly there to inspire monks to live virtuously. K. Sri Dhammananda writes,
"Buddhists are encouraged to love all beings and not to restrict their love only to human beings. They should practice loving kindness toward every living being. The Buddha's advice is that it is not right for us to take away the life of any living being since every living being has a right to exist. Animals also have fear and pain as do human beings. It is wrong to take away their lives. We should not misuse our intelligence and strength to destroy animals even though they may sometimes be a nuisance to us. Animals need our sympathy. Destroying them is not the only method to get rid of them. Every living being is contributing something to maintain this world. It is unfair for us to deprive their living rights.”33
Nagarjuna says, “We would run out of earth trying to count our mother with balls of clay the size of juniper berries,” 34 to which Patrul Rinpoche comments, “There is not a single form of life that we have not taken throughout beginningless samsara until now. Our desires have led us innumerable times to have our heads and limbs cut off.”34 So the primary idea—that all living beings deserve the respect of our own mothers—is established. If we kill these mothers of ours, or treat them with cruelty and unkindness, demerit is sure to follow. Patrul Rinpoche writes,
"At the time of the Buddha, there was a village butcher who made a vow never to kill animals at night. He was reborn in an ephemeral hell. At night his pleasure knew no bounds. He lived in a beautiful mansion, with four lovely women plying him with food and drink and other pleasures. During the day, however, the walls of the house would transform into blazing hot metal and the four women into terrifying brown dogs who fed on his body."34
The suffering is bad enough for animals in the realities of their samsaric existence, without humans making it worse. Patrul Rinpoche writes,
“Cattle and sheep are exploited until they die. Once they are too old, they are sold off or killed by the owners themselves. Whatever the case, they are destined for the butcher and a natural death is unknown to them. Animals, then, experience inconceivable torments. Whenever you see animals tortured in this way, put yourself in their place and imagine in detail all they have to undergo. Meditate with fierce compassion upon all those reborn as animals. In particular, if you have animals of your own, treat them with kindness and love. Since all animals, right down to the smallest insect, have feelings of pleasure and pain, and since they have all been our fathers and mothers, develop love and compassion towards them, combining your practice with the methods for the beginning, main part and conclusion."35
Patrul Rinpoche continues,
"Except for those in the hells, there is no being who does not shrink from death or who does not value his or her life over anything else. So to destroy a life is a particularly negative action. In the Sutra of Sublime Dharma of Clear Recollection, it is said that one will repay any life one takes with five hundred of one's own lives, and that for killing a single being one will spend one intermediate kalpa in the hells. It is even worse to slaughter animals and offer their flesh and blood to lamas invited to your house or to an assembly of monks. The negative karmic effect of the killing comes to both givers and receivers. The donor, although he invited the guests, is making an impure offering; those who receive it are accepting unsuitable sustenance. Any positive effect is outweighed by the negative one. Indeed, unless you have the miraculous power to resuscitate your victims on the spot, there is no situation in which the act of killing does not bring defilement. You can be sure that it will harm the lives and activities of the teachers. If you are not capable of transferring beings' consciousness to the state of great bliss, you should make every effort to avoid taking their lives.”36
As many of the monks I talked to suggest, avoidance of harm is not enough. One should make sincere efforts to help suffering beings. In other words, being a vegetarian is a step made to avoid harming others. Striving to be a Bodhisattva, a sincere Mahayana practitioner should make every effort to ease the suffering of all beings. Patrul Rinpoche advises,
“When you think of a sheep being led to the slaughter, do not think of it as just a sheep. Instead, feel sincerely that this is your own old mother that they are about to kill, and ask yourself what you would do in such a situation. What are you going to do now that they are going to kill your old mother, even though she has done no harm? Experience in the depth of your heart the kind of suffering that your mother must be going through. When your heart is bursting with the desire to do something right away to prevent your old mother from being butchered on the spot, reflect that although this suffering creature is not actually our father or mother in this present life, it is sure to have been your parent at some time in your past lives and to have brought you up with great kindness in just the same way. So there is no real difference. Alas for your poor mother who is suffering so much! If only she could be free from her distress right now, without delay—this very instant! With these thought in your heart, meditate with such unbearable compassion that your eyes fill with tears."37
Feeling strongly this notion that all beings are one’s mother, it was hard for me to hear monk after monk claiming that they were following the Buddha when they followed the three condition rule and ate meat. No wonder they believed this, with passages like this one, from the “Jivaka Sutra,”
“Jivaka Komarabhacca, the doctor, discussed the controversial issue with the Buddha: 'Lord, I have heard that animals are slaughtered on purpose for the recluse Gotama, and that the recluse Gotama knowingly eats the meat killed on purpose for him. Lord, do those who say (this) falsely accuse the Buddha? Or do they speak the truth? Are your declarations and supplementary declarations not thus subject to be ridiculed by others in any manner?’
“The Buddha replied, 'Jivaka, those who say (this) do not say according to what I have declared and they falsely accuse me. Jivaka, I have declared that one should not make use of meat if it is seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk. I allow the monks meat that is quite pure in three respects: If it is not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk.’ ”38
So the Buddha is quoted as saying that meat obtained through following the
“three-condition rule” is “pure.” Patrul Rinpoche disagrees, saying,
“ ‘Pure meat,’ does not mean the meat of an animal slaughtered for food, but the meat of an animal that died because of its own past actions, meaning meat from an animal that died of old age, sickness or other natural causes that were the effect if its own past actions alone.”39
Your mother gets home from a long and pleasant day in the field. She falls asleep under the stars. She has exciting dreams. The next morning she gets up as the sun rises and stretches out. Suddenly, she is grabbed from her bed, a rope is tied tightly around her neck and she is dragged to a truck where she is driven along with dozens of others she doesn't know to a busy city. There she is tied to a wooden post, which makes a leg for a table that is seeping blood through its cracks. A large, scattered pile of crimson flesh loads down the table. "Hey!" she thinks to herself, "What the hell is going on here? Where is my son? I raised him well, surely he will help me at a time like this!!" After a day in the hot sun, smelling nothing but rotting flesh, she tries to sleep, but the rope cuts into her skin and she cannot.
The next morning the rising sun burns into her mind of torment. Her rope is slowly untied. "Alas," she thinks, "my son is here to save me and get me back to the field." For a moment her thoughts drift to her favorite willow tree by the river where she would often relax on warm days. Her thoughts are jerked into the sides of her skull as the rope cuts into her neck again. She is brought into a small shed behind the table. A large knife is raised in the air, blocking the sunlight that had peeked through a small hole in the shed. "Where is my son? I thought he came to save me!" The knife swiftly cuts through the rank air and your mother's soft throat is sliced with a thud, blood from her delicate veins spurting onto the wall, staining the floor a brilliant red. Your mother's eyes roll to the back of their sockets, turning whitish blue. She tries to make one last call for her son, but the wind from her lungs jets empty through her severed windpipes, going unheard into the morning air. Her body still quivering, the knife works its way across her soft skin, exposing her flesh, naked and warm. Her skin is placed in a heap; her arms, legs and breasts are displayed on the table. Two hands pick her head up from off the floor and place it neatly on the table. A splotchy red rag is used to clean off your mother's face, so the beauty she was always known for can attract visitors to the table. Stall number 79 at the Mysore meat market.
A man with a shaven head walks up, his clothes matching the color of the place itself—dark red blending with dark red. He walks up to stall 79, smiles briefly as he gazes upon the freshly severed head of his own mother, the mother that carefully nurtured both of you. The mother who with limitless patience and compassion, raised you for 17 years in your previous life. The monk points to your mother's breasts and asks for five kilograms. The hands pick up your mother's breasts and place them in a cold, metal tin. The monk's lip twitches slightly as a five-kilogram-weight is placed in the other pan. Your mother's breasts are placed in a plastic bag, then another to support the weight of her severed body. The money is exchanged and the monk steps into an awaiting SUV, which zooms off back to the monastery.
In the preceding account, all three conditions were met. The monk didn't use the knife to kill his mother, the monk didn't request previously that his mother be taken from her favorite willow tree and onto his plate, and the monk had no doubt that his mother was killed generically—not just for him. Still, he ended up taking the flesh from his mother—the very breasts he had been nurtured on in previous lives—and participated in her death in the most direct way possible, economically speaking. He paid the man in rupees for his mother's flesh. The motive of this knife-wielding man was not blood and guts, it was not the thrill of killing an animal, a beautiful goat, it was the stack of rupees handed over by the monk. The monk's rupees were the sole motivation for him killing your mother. This man of the Dharma, your brother the monk, told the butcher with the exchange of those rupees that, “You run a fine business here at stall 79. It's too bad you're going to spend a few kalpas in hell, but now you'll be able to buy another sheep or goat with the money I gave you. You can now afford to kill my sister and grandmother too. See you next week, when I pick up their carcasses at the same time, 9 a.m.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this according to the three condition rule, nothing what-so-ever. A pure monk eats his pure meat and upholds his vows. According to the “Jivaka Sutra,” the Buddha Shakyamuni himself would pat this monk on the back and say, “Keep up the pure ways, my son.” Let’s listen in on the butcher’s conversation in Mysore.
Butcher 1: "Hey Ram, when do you think the monks from Sera Mey will come?"
Butcher 2: "Shit, there are over 4000 of them, they come nearly every day, are you kidding? I know they'll come for more of my tasty goat meat. The head on the table gets 'em every time."
Butcher 1: "Yeah, thanks to them I've been able to buy a shiny new knife and our family eats meat twice a day."
Butcher 2: "Hell yeah, I heard there are three new stalls opening up just to keep up with the local Tibetan monks."
Butcher 1: "Yeah, Lord Krishna knows most Indians can't afford meat, but those Tibetans love their meat. They work hard and are doing pretty well bringing in the money. They keep this meat business flourishing! No wonder the Buddha is fat, if he ate as much meat as these monks!"
Butcher 2: "Yeah, I've seen more than my share of lard tubs in monk's robes."
I guess the reason it was so challenging for me to do this work at the monastery was that it was emotional for me. To not find people supporting my vegetarianism through their own actions in an institutional community of Buddhist practitioners was heart-breaking. Beacons like Chatal Rinpoche and Geshe Phelgye were what prevented me from doubting myself succumbing to confusion.
My last night in Bylacopy was the fifteenth and final day of Losar. It was a full moon, and I was at a cultural performance at a monastery. Before it started, I went down to the nearby pond to give some of my puja offerings from earlier in the day to the fish. I was delighted to see dozens of young Tibetans doing the same. The fish swarmed at the surface and attacked our biscuit crumbs and tsampa cake with a veracious appetite. Then two monks from the tiny monastery that was hosting the cultural performance came down with huge bags of biscuits and cookies. The monks tossed the biscuits in the pond and recited mantras with each handful. One of the little boys who was throwing his puja offerings into the pond exclaimed, “It’s the last day of Losar. We’re giving the fish food that has been blessed. Those are some happy fish!” These young Tibetans felt genuine compassion toward these fish and took delight in making them happy.
I must now admit that one of the primary motivations for undertaking this aspect of my research was to understand to what extent Tibetans are responsible for the trend of American Buddhists eating meat. I have been told by many Buddhist practitioners in the Madison-Chicago area that they have not given up meat because their Tibetan lamas, whom they look up to as pristine examples of Buddha Dharma, continue to eat meat. This is a disturbing trend that I would like to see reversed. Although all romantic notions I may have had about Tibetan Buddhist monks have been eradicated, the incident on the last day of Losar seemed to expose a beautiful motivation that Buddhism has managed to implant in some Tibetans. For this, they have my sincere admiration. ...