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Nine Questions About Vegetarianism
TAKING CARE OF THE SELF
This question and answer series about vegetarianism with Geshe Thubten Soepa is a continuation from “Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle through Vegetarianism” by Diana Gorbea, from the January-March 2011 issue of Mandala located on page 53.
1: In the monasteries of Tibet people eat meat, which contradicts a bit with the rest of the Buddhist monasteries of other traditions such as those in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Taiwan and China. Could you explain the reason for this?
In the early Buddhist monasteries of the 9th century, seven new monks and their teachers, Shantarakshita and Guru Padmasambhava, taught new Buddhists not to eat meat. However, the Tibetans ate meat anyway because it was the ancient tradition – a habit from when offerings were made of flesh and blood. Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava said that if they kept eating meat and making offerings of blood, they would not teach and would return to India. The Tibetan king Chisong Dusenge apologized to Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava and promised a new law. He then made a pillar on which he wrote a law so that monks and nuns would not eat negative, or “black,” foods such as meat or alcohol. Monks and nuns that remained in the monasteries could not eat meat. The next king, Lang Tarma, destroyed Buddhism. For 80 years there were no Buddhist monks or nuns. When Buddhism was restored, the old habit prevailed and many people ate meat. Then in the 12th century, Lama Atisha came and suggested that people should not eat meat. His warning was not strongly worded, so not all Buddhists stopped eating meat.
In the Hinayana teachings, eating meat is generally not allowed. However, if a person has health problems and needs to eat meat, then their assistants can find food from an animal that died of natural causes. The meat is then cooked with turmeric and the monk or nun covers his eyes so as not to see the meat when eating it.
This is what I read in the texts and scriptures of the Kangyur. If it is done without attachment or desire; only for health reasons; and if nobody kills with the intention of feeding humans, then eating this meat is permitted according to Hinayana ethics.
2: How can one reconcile the fundamental Mahayana motivation of bodhichitta with eating meat?
In the Mahayana teachings the Buddha forbade eating meat altogether. In many different sutras (the Lankarawatara Sutra, the Great Sutra of Nirvana in the Angulimala Sutra, the Sutra on the Ability of the Elephant, the Sutra of the Great Cloud), it is taught that if one is trying to live with great compassion, then eating meat is not allowed. This is because one has to see all sentient beings as our mother, brother, son, etc. Also in the Angulimala Sutra, Manjushri asked the Buddha, ‘‘Why do you not eat meat?’’ He replied that he saw all beings as having buddha-nature and that was his reason for not eating meat. Therefore, if you practice Mahayana and eat meat, it is a contradiction.
In the High Mahayana Yoga Tantra, they used five types of meat and five types of nectar. The five types of meat are human, elephant, cow, dog and horse. The five types of nectar are feces, urine, menstrual blood, semen and marrow. People with high realizations transform these five dirty things into good nectar, ultimately seeing that dirty and pure things are the same. They used these types of meat (getting them from animals that die of natural causes) for tsog practice. It is not allowed for ordinary tantric practitioners without high realizations to offer the actual five meats and five nectars in tsog practice. Instead, they should offer fruit, juice, biscuits, or other foods without meat and egg. But if you have high realization, and can transform everything, you can even offer kaka for tsog!
3: The Buddhist texts that say you should not eat meat from an animal that has been specially sacrificed for this purpose? Are there no more mentions in the scriptures in favor of not eating meat?
Yes, all traditions agree. Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana texts all are against eating meat. If you believe in karma, of course, you are not allowed to kill any being, including yourself, and you are not allowed to kill or have someone else, like a butcher, kill with the intention of eating meat.
Another reason is that if you take refuge in the Dharma, there is a commitment not to damage any living being directly or indirectly. Most particularly, the Mahayana tradition emphasizes great compassion and bodhichitta. Therefore, one is not allowed to eat meat. The main reason is that if you believe all beings have buddha-nature, then you must necessarily believe that all beings want to be happy and don’t want suffering because these are characteristics of buddha-nature.
4: There were exceptions to this rule to eat meat in Tibet. Do you know of great teachers that were vegetarians?
The first teachers of the 9th and 10th centuries: Shantarakshita, Guru Rinpoche and Master Kamalashila. Lama Atisha in the 12th century led the monks and nuns to stop eating meat. Today, in the Sera Monastery, which is home to more than 6,000 monks and nuns, none are allowed to eat meat by monastery law. If some monastery security monk sees that they are eating or buying meat, then they are immediately given a fine of 1,000 rupees. Gyudmed Tantric College has over 500 monks who are vegetarians. Also, Drepung and Gaden Monasteris. Also, monasteries in Ladakh, Nepal and Butan have laws against eating meat. Also Gampopa, of the Kagyu lineage, and Pagmo Drugpa, Digun Chopa, Digan Chengawa, Taklung Tangpa and Togme Sangpo are great vegetarian teachers. There are many others of the Sakya, Nyingma and Gelug lineages.
5: Can you, as a strong proponent of vegetarianism, tell us how you were led to it?
When I was young, yes, I ate meat, as my mother gave it to me. Then, when I was a teenager, I saw some butchers killing a yak. I saw how they opened it. I also saw other butchers killing sheep. It was then I changed my mind and I realized that killing animals was negative and I stopped wanting to eat meat. Later, when I was in the 13th class of Buddhist philosophy, we had many debates with classmates and had access to authentic, original texts and scriptures. I understood quite well what the Buddha was thinking and saying. I wrote my first book and I gave a copy to the Dalai Lama. His Holiness asked me to speak with him for about 40 minutes and said he enjoyed the book and congratulated me. He said my book was very necessary and useful and that I was to write more necessary and useful books.
Another reason is that I wear monk’s robes signifying that I’m a spiritual practitioner. Being part of the Sangha means being a good example. Therefore, I do not eat meat.
6: Can you quote the names of current Tibetan teachers who advocate not eating meat?
The teacher Nyingmapa Chatel Sange Dorje Rinpoche, who is 96 or 97 years old, does not eat meat or eggs and advised his Nyingmapa monks not to eat meat.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche does not eat meat and has many animal liberation projects.
The 17th Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Rinpoche emphasizes vegetarianism and instructs students to not eat meat.
There are other Tibetan masters who do not eat meat, such as the Sakya lama Pemaomgda of New York, the Nyingma lama Pema Ongyel and the French monk Matthieu Ricard.
7: His Holiness the Dalai Lama admits that he has tried to stop eating meat, but that his doctors have advised him to keep eating it. How is this possible? This is a bit shocking because in India millions of people are vegetarian throughout their life. Could you tell us your opinion?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat once a week for his health.
He gives a perfect explanation. He says you should not eat meat, but if you must, you can eat a little, not tons. Anyway, he says it’s best not to eat meat. And he also says that if you do not eat any meat, you’re the best.
When the 14th Dalai Lama became the leader of Tibet at 16, ministers gave a party with a lot of meat in the food. When he saw it, he decided that henceforth, the parties would be vegetarian. Since then, no meat is allowed at parties, which I think is fantastic. Also, when he gives some Dharma teachings, everyone attending them is asked to become vegetarians for the duration. He also asks this of the area restaurants for the duration of teachings; otherwise, they would be killing many animals and selling meat.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that humans are the worst murderers of the earth. If there were no humans, then fish, chickens and all other animals would be free.
In my opinion, the case of the Dalai Lama and that of the ordinary people are completely different. Normal people want to eat meat through desire or bad habit. He is certainly a person with great realizations, and he eats meat not because of desire or bad habit. People with high realization can eat meat for different reasons. For example, according to his biography, Mahasiddha Tilopa was all day fishing and eating meat. He was a person of great realizations. That’s my opinion, but please don’t just believe my opinion. I don’t know the real reason why he did so.
8: Can you briefly explain the benefits of vegetarianism from a spiritual or health point of view?
Reasons from a spiritual point of view are found the Lankavatara Sutra. There, the Buddha says to stop eating meat because otherwise complete results will not be achieved with the mantra practice. Furthermore, if you eat meat, gods will renounce you and will not come when you invite them. Therefore, the Lankavatara Sutra says, yogis don’t eat meat. Moreover, if you eat meat, you cannot develop great compassion and wisdom. Pandit Kamalashila said that if you eat meat you cannot realize shamata.
From the point of view of health, many doctors and scientists have researched vegetarianism, and have found that people in poor countries who cannot eat meat and are vegetarians become less sick, less likely to have lung cancer and other illnesses. Rich people who eat meat are more likely to get sick. Vegetarians have fewer blood pressure problems and heart problems, while meat eaters ingest many oils in the meat that go into their bodies and cause their blood to thicken! If you eat meat, your digestion is very heavy and the liver is damaged. Also, eating meat is an obstacle in developing your mind and you feel angrier and less intelligent. Also, vegetarians age more slowly and live longer.
9: What advice would you give to a Western practitioner who eats meat regularly?
If you’re a monk or nun of the Sangha, and you continually eat meat, finding it difficult to contol your habit, then it is better to do it in private and not show it to anyone, because you are an example. If you cannot stop eating meat completely, then try to eat less meat, as little as possible. Do not eat only for desire or taste. See meat as a medicine, not as a daily meal. If you wear robes and follow Buddha’s example of compassion, then eating meat is a contradiction. Moreover, in Western countries you can find many things to eat to replace meat, so there is no need to eat it. You should control your desire to eat meat.
In this video, Geshe Thubten Soepa continues his arguments in support of vegetarianism.
Geshe Thubten Soepa is an FPMT-registered touring teacher dedicated to the promotion of vegetarianism.
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From the Buddhist point of view, attachment for something means that it’s very difficult for us to separate from it. We have a very strong attachment – strong like iron – for the things we think of as being very good. We need to learn to be flexible.
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