Example better than precept

Dalai Lama

Tibetan New Year, February 2012

It so happens that it’s the time of the Tibetan New Year, and today’s New York Times Dining & Wine section ran an article that caught my eye:

Tibetans’ (Forbidden) Special Treat

New York Times – JULIA MOSKIN – Feb 22, 2012

The Dalai Lama himself has struggled with adopting a vegetarian diet, which is expected of Buddhist spiritual leaders; many Tibetans will tell you that doctors have advised him to eat meat for health reasons. (The official position is that the kitchens in his residence in Dharamsala, in northern India, are vegetarian, but that the Dalai Lama does eat meat elsewhere.)

The tradition of meat-eating is strong because without meat as a source of fat and protein, Tibetans simply could not have survived on their high, cold plateau for centuries, said Ganden Thurman, the executive director of Tibet House, a cultural center in New York City. Also, Mr. Thurman said, there is a practical, Buddhist reason for eating yak instead of, say, rabbit or fish.

“The karmic load of killing one rabbit and one yak are the same: one life,” he said. “But you can feed a lot more people with a yak.” Go to story

Meat-eating tradition at conflict with Buddha’s teachings

“Struggled with adopting a vegetarian diet”. The Dalai Lama has not put up much fight. He is an unabashed meat eater. Everywhere he goes he eats meat, even when vegetarian catering has been specially arranged, as happened in France when he was offered a vegetarian meal at a dinner at the Elysee Palace for Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (reported by Agence France Presse (AFP). He also famously scarfed up veal roast in Madison, Wisconsin at a fund-raising luncheon for the Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery after rejecting the vegan meal prepared by caterers.

As the New York Times writer has pointed out, the story goes that the Dalai Lama was once upon a time vegetarian for one year, but contracted hepatitis (are we supposed to believe that it was due to his vegetarian diet? Seriously?), and so his doctor (40 years back) advised him to eat meat, and in all the years since he has never questioned it, in spite of mounting evidence that vegetarian diet is healthier than a meat-based diet, and totally ignoring that it’s a core principle of the Buddha’s teachings.

There’s the over-used excuse that killing a single large animal is less sinful than killing many smaller animals, but the Buddha’s main mission was to promote ahimsa, stop the butchering of animals and teach people the laws of action and reaction (karma) and how to get off the wheel of samsara, repeated birth and death. According to Buddha’s teachings, meat eating contravenes the principle of compassion, and he did not allow it.

There is a record of the Buddha explaining to the disciple Jivaka that meat cannot be eaten when it is seen or heard or suspected that a living entity has been killed for the eater, and that it can be eaten only when the eater has not seen for himself that it is meat, has not heard that it is meat and does not suspect that it is meat. Besides that he explained that the one who orders the slaughter, the one who actually slaughters, the one who prepares it for consumption and the one who eats it—all are equally implicated in the karma of killing the living entity. To the same disciple he also said, “Knowingly or unknowingly, meat has never entered my mouth.”

From Wikipedia:

In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which presents itself as the final elucidatory and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha on the very eve of his death, the Buddha states that “the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness”, adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals found already dead) is prohibited by him. He specifically rejects the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it: “. . . it should be rejected . . . I say that even meat, fish, game, dried hooves and scraps of meat left over by others constitutes an infraction . . . I teach the harm arising from meat-eating.” The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will “hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma” and will concoct their own sutras and lyingly claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact he says he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha speaking out very forcefully against meat consumption and unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. In several other Mahayana scriptures, too (e.g., the Mahayana jatakas), the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.

Moreover, in the Buddha’s time—after all, he was a Vedic prince—the cow in particular was held sacred. (Even now, two thousand years later, the cow is revered throughout India, and most households are still vegetarian.) The Buddha specifically prohibited eating of cow’s flesh. He declared that the milk of the cow is pure food, ghee (clarified butter) is medicine, but the flesh is poison, unfit for consumption. It is well known, however, that the Tibetan Buddhists especially like to eat beef, and the Dalai Lama even prefers veal, the flesh of newborn calves separated from their mothers. Eating beef contradicts the very essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Dalai Lama has lived outside Tibet since 1959, based in Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. In 1983 I was in India to perform the shraddha for my father, and in my travels I had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama in person in New Delhi. I went to the Tibet House to look in the shop for a warm woolen jumper to wear for a journey to the Badrikashram at 10,244 feet altitude. I was planning to hike there on foot from Hrishikesh, a distance of nearly 600 km. The shopkeeper asked me if I would like to meet the Dalai Lama—he was there on that day—so he brought me to meet him. The Dalai Lama shook my hand with a strong grip, and we sat down in his office. And so I had occasion to ask him why the Tibetans eat meat. He gave to me the same stock answer: the high altitude and inhospitable environment is not suitable for vegetarian diet. I was doubtful, however, when in my own travels in the high Indian Himalayas everywhere I went I found that people were vegetarian. There’s nothing wrong with eating meat when there is nothing else to be eaten, in a life or death situation. Say, for example, you happen to be stuck somewhere in the Arctic or Antarctica wilderness, far away from a convenience store, in the middle of a winter storm and without any other provisions. But everyday living is different from emergency survival.

While the Tibetan plateau is the world’s highest region with a short growing season, the people do raise livestock and grow vegetables and fruits, barley, wheat, corn and pulses, as well as buckwheat, millet and some rice in the southeast. They obtain butter from the yak or a crossbreed of the yak and cow, which they also eat. It is argued that the harsh climate cannot support a vegetarian diet, yet in Himalayan provinces in India, even at very high altitudes, the people are primarily vegetarian, subsisting on the same kinds of foodstuffs, with the addition of milk, yogurt and cheese to their diet. Instead of killing the yak or cow, simply accept its milk as nourishment. In other parts of the world where there are also short growing seasons, the vegetables and fruits are harvested and preserved by pickling or salting or canning and stored for use throughout the rest of the year, and the grains and pulses are similarly stored, milk can be had from cows and goats, and converted to yogurt, cheese and whey, butter, ghee. This is the way of advanced human civilization everywhere. So the argument does not really hold.

Besides that, the Dalai Lama himself has not lived on the high plateau for the last 53 years. If it were just a matter of environmental necessity… but then, he repeats that mantra about the medical advice from 40 years ago.

Were the Buddha’s teachings already compromised when Tibet became Buddhist? The Buddha appeared about 2500 years ago, and his teachings were recorded some 300 years after he had already passed, and already there was a great schism amongst the followers. The first Buddhist influences trickled into Tibet in the 7th century, and became mingled with the animalistic beliefs of the Tibetans. Tibet accepted Buddhism as the official religion only in the 8th century. Maybe the Tibetan Buddhists have always eaten meat. But it is the duty of spiritual teachers to correct ignorance and lead by example, not fall down to the level of the ignorant. In any case, the spiritual leaders have not come to the standard of representing the Buddha’s pure teachings of ahimsa. Speaking nice words about the virtues of vegetarianism inbetween forkfuls of veal is not very convincing.

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