Life as a Vegetarian Tibetan Buddhist Practitioner
A Personal View
By Eileen Weintraub
Compassion is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana, the “great
vehicle,” is the prevalent form of Buddhism practiced in China, Japan and
Tibet. The central theme of this vehicle is the aspiration to attain
enlightenment not for oneself alone but the sake of all sentient beings.
Protecting beings is second nature to many Buddhists. All would hesitate to kill
anything and many would go out of their way to save even an insect’s life.
Why then do many Buddhists eat the flesh of other beings? In Tibet, killing
and hunting were traditionally discouraged by the clergy, but climatic
conditions made successful year-round agriculture impossible. The solution was
to rely upon a class of individuals to slaughter animals. The interpretation of
Buddha’s teaching was that it was OK to buy and eat meat if the being wasn’t
killed directly for you. Tsampa (ground barley), meat, yogurt and tea
were the basic diet for those living on the “Roof of the World.” Tibetans
generally ate sheep and yak—which were cultivated by the nomad culture and
kept individually by families. One yak was enough to feed a family for perhaps a
whole season. In the U.S., it is ironic that some people think that by consuming
chicken and fish they are further on the path towards vegetarianism than by
eating “red” meat. Consuming meat from a larger animal means that fewer
animals are killed for food.
After fleeing Tibet, many lamas went into exile in India. There they did not
change their diet from the one they had eaten in Tibet—in spite of the
predominantly vegetarian Indian culture that served as their new home.
Sticking to Meat
It was not until the mid-1970s that mainstream Tibetan lamas started visiting
America. Often their first contacts were with people from other Eastern
spiritual traditions. American disciples were attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and
migrated over from the mostly vegetarian Hindu traditions, including yoga and
Transcendental Meditation practitioners. Did the Tibetans try to change their
own meat-based diets? Did they try to embrace a new healthy, ethically conscious
diet that was now available to them? More commonly the reverse happened—many
Westerners graciously embraced the Tibetan diet. Students who were used to
eating salads, brown rice and tofu learned to cook and eat lamb, beef and other
Tibetan-style dishes to please their teachers.
Except for some purification days, meat was served at many Tibetan Buddhist
centers at most meals (however, recently this has changed and retreat centers
now offer vegetarian options.) Disciples became adept at fielding questions from
surprised newcomers as to why Tibetan lamas, who would never kill an animal, ate
meat. Why did meat have to be offered at the tsok pujas (group prayers
with food offerings on special lunar days)? For some outsiders this was
seen as nothing less than hypocritical. Those of us who were offended eventually
stopped making it an issue. As the incongruities of this diet were pointed out
we shrugged and parroted the party line. After all, the important part
was that we prayed for the liberation of all beings.
In certain Tibetan Buddhist circles that developed in this country,
meat-eating—and some other more controversial habits—were promoted as part
of the Tantric lifestyle. “Tantric” in this case meant not getting hung up
on conventional morals or concepts of purity. In other words, to embrace life
fully was to consume it literally. Other lamas acknowledged that it was
meritorious to stop eating meat, if one could manage it. Yet there was more
important work to be done, like taming the mind and praying for the benefit of
all sentient beings. Besides, once you became enlightened you had set up a link
with all those beings you had eaten (or perhaps a heavy karmic trail). If one
was enlightened like the 10th century Tibetan saint Tilopa, one could
send the consciousness of the being to the pure land before eating the flesh.
Both lay and ordained Tibetans are known for their extraordinary compassion
for animals. One Tibetan lama performs powa (liberation after death) for
street dogs in Nepal that are poisoned by the government. He whispers mantras in
the dying dogs’ ears. Powa is commonly done for animals whenever
possible. The Abbott of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, NY
confessed in his life story that the most painful part of his escape from Tibet
was when his party was forced to shoot a wild boar to keep from starvation. In
Heinrich Herrer’s account of his time spent in Lhasa, Seven Years in Tibet,
he told how building projects would halt to protect even the lives of insects.
When possible, killing is avoided at all costs.
Trying to follow ahimsa (non-violent) principles, I have been a
vegetarian for 25 years. But it has been a challenge to be both a Tibetan
Buddhist practitioner and a vegetarian. My own teacher had a good laugh when I
insisted on staying vegetarian during visits to him in Tibet. And in Tibet my
meat-eating travel mates joined me once at a vegetarian noodle stand—only when
it became apparent that the tukpa (soup) they were going to have was
going to be prepared from the chickens that were still running around outside
There are Tibetan injunctions, however, to refrain from eating meat. For
example, an 18th century Tibetan saint named Shabkar was a spokesperson for the
virtues of not eating meat. In The Life of Shabkar, the Autobiography of a
Tibetan Yogin, he wrote: “Eating meat, at the cost of great suffering for
animals, is unacceptable. If, bereft of compassion and wisdom, you eat meat, you
have turned your back on liberation. The Buddha said, ‘the eating of meat
annihilates the seed of compassion.’” Shabkar articulates the most sweeping
indictments against meat-eating found in Tibetan literature. This was
particularly relevant at a time when the prediction the Buddha made in the Lankavatara
Sutra had already become a reality: “In the future, meat-eaters, speaking
out of ignorance, will say that the Buddha permitted the eating of meat, and
that he taught there was no sin in doing so.” And also from this Sutra:
“Those who practice loving-kindness should consider all sentient beings as
their own children; therefore, they must give up eating meat.”
Another 18th century Tibetan saint was lama Jigme Lingpa. A commentary on his
autobiography (Apparitions of the Self, the Secret Autobiographies of a
Tibetan Visionary by Janet Gyatso) recounts: “Of all his merit-making,
Jigme Lingpa was most proud of his feelings of compassion for animals; he says
that this is the best part of his entire life story. He writes of his sorrow
when he witnessed the butchering of animals by humans. He often bought and set
free animals about to be slaughtered (a common Buddhist act). He ‘changed the
perception’ of others, when he once caused his followers to save a female yak
from being butchered, and he continually urged his disciples to forswear the
killing of animals.”
Respecting Buddha Nature
According to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, humans and animals are the only
visible realms of the six classes of beings. Plants are non-sentient and do not
inherently contain Buddha nature (the seed of enlightenment within all sentient
beings). Although it has been said there may be nature spirits, which protect
the plants, their lives are not taken when we harvest vegetables. Buddhists are
admonished constantly to work to save all sentient beings yet little thought may
be given to sitting down to consume even a whole being for lunch!
The harvesting of beings for their flesh could be seen as the supreme form of
exploitation. I see vegetarianism and veganism as a boycott of all that abuse.
Even making a partial effort is commendable. If not eaten solely as a necessity
to sustain life, I believe that flesh eating as a culinary preference will be
considered barbaric in the future. If concerns arise regarding the karmic
consequences of eating flesh, to whom should we give the benefit of the doubt?
The living beings who were raised in obscene conditions and who died in terror
in slaughterhouses, or our own habitual patterns and taste addictions? Even if
health benefits are thought to be obtained by eating meat, this should be
considered very carefully. With our abundant food markets in the U.S.,
satisfying alternatives can always be found.
In his 1995 Seattle public talk, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, said he tried
being a vegetarian all the time but found it too difficult. At the time of the
talk he said he eats meat every other day. This makes him a vegetarian six
months of the year. By making an example of cutting his meat consumption in
half, he is trying to gently influence his followers. It should be noted that
this recommendation received little applause from the audience.
While many of the great Tibetan teachers did and do eat animals, the Dalai
Lama has broken new ground by publicly stating his case for vegetarianism. If we
seriously consider the compassion inherent in His Holiness’ advice and
actions, Buddhist meat-eaters could similarly try to eat vegetarian at least
every other day to start out with. Since Buddhists have taken vows not to
kill, they should not support a livelihood that makes others kill. Even
if one does not have great compassion for animals this would meritoriously save humans
from performing heinous deeds. The power of each human being becoming
vegetarian releases the most intense suffering of the animal realm—the agony
of factory-farmed animals. This profound action can help slow the grinding
wheels of samsara, bringing to a halt the cycles of suffering of the
entire animal realm and influencing their eventual liberation. When animals are
not just looked upon as creatures to fill our stomachs, they can be seen as they
really are—beings who have the same Buddha nature as we all do.
Eileen Weintraub has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism since 1976.
She made three extended trips to China and Tibet to visit her Buddhist teacher
who returned to re-establish his monastery in Tibet after exile in India and
America. She lives in Seattle, with her husband and rescued companion animals.