Perhaps the weakest defence offered by Tibetan lamas to justify their meat-eating is that although 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. And after all the important part was that they were praying for the liberation of all beings. Of course the inherent contradiction of praying for the benefit and liberation of sentient beings whilst feasting on their flesh seems to have entirely escaped them. It escapes me how a monk can be called a monk if he concentrates so much on the food that he wants to eat. How can he tame the mind when he cannot tame his stomach?…
Which of the contrasting food habits of the two schools Of Bhuddism better reflects the spirit of Buddhism?
Even an objective assessment would have to admit that the fundamental condition of begging alms that prevailed during the time of the Pali Canon allowing for the eating of meat, no longer exists. Since the condition that allowed meat to be considered ‘blameless’ does not apply, the practice of meat-eating must be considered guilty of violating Buddha’s rule and inconsistent with basic Buddhist philosophy.
What form of Buddhism do Tibetan monks follow?
Tibetan monks do not follow the Brahmajala Sutra but the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, which is much the same as its Theravadin counterpart. But their sutras are mainly Mahayana and, because they are followers of the compassionate Bodhisattva Ideal, one would expect Tibetan Buddhists and their European and American followers to practise vegetarianism. However, there are many who do not. Some years ago I asked a Tibetan lama why so many Tibetan Buddhists ate meat. He replied that it was a matter of what type of meditation practice one did. If one did a Mahayana practice such as the visualisation of Avalokiteshvara or Tara then one should not eat meat as one had to remain ‘pure’. But if one performed a Tantric practice, such as visualising one of the wrathful deities, then the power of the practice purifies one regardless of one’s eating meat. This cannot serve as justification as the reason for refraining from eating meat is not to safeguard one’s own purity’ but to prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals. The former is more in the spirit of Hinduism, the latter that of Buddhism.
It is not as if there are no Tibetan injunctions to refrain from eating animal flesh. The 18th century Tibetan saint, Shabkar, spoke out strongly against meat. In ‘The Life of Shabkar, the Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogi’, 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.
So why then do Tibetan monks eat meat?
The Tibetans say that the harsh, barren landscape made successful year-round agriculture impossible. This does not seem to be entirely accurate. Climatic conditions can never be made an excuse for eating meat for logically speaking, if the environment permits the survival of meat animals that are entirely vegetarian, it can certainly sustain a human vegetarian population. Besides after fleeing Tibet, many lamas went into exile in India. But even here they continue to eat meat in spite of the predominantly vegetarian Indian culture that serves as their new home.
But perhaps the weakest defence offered by Tibetan lamas to justify their meat-eating is that although 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. And after all the important part was that they were praying for the liberation of all beings. Of course the inherent contradiction of praying for the benefit and liberation of sentient beings whilst feasting on their flesh seems to have entirely escaped them. It escapes me how a monk can be called a monk if he concentrates so much on the food that he wants to eat. How can he tame the mind when he cannot tame his stomach?
But worse even than simply eating animals, Tibetan monks have invented truly horrific ways of killing animals. In a cruel perversion of the Buddha’s edict, Tibetan monks in Ladakh tie the animal’s mouth, stuff up its nose and wait for it to die of suffocation so that it cannot be said to have been killed for meat. Similarly they throw tied up animals over the cliff only to cart up their bleeding carcasses. The logic is that they were killed by “gravity” or “lack of air” – not by killing! Tibetans in India are also deeply involved in the illegal wildlife trade – Tibet is full of leopard, tiger, and bear skins, all taken from India by them. The chiru trade for shahtoosh is run by them. Protecting beings should be second nature to Buddhists: it is appalling to find the Tibetan community in India so blatantly disrespectful of the tenets of their own religion and the laws of their host nation.
Each person has to make up his or her own mind. Some will accept one point of view and some another. Many Dalits have become Buddhists but they continue with meat-eating.
There can be little point in formulating any religious philosophy and tenets, if ultimately followers are going to follow their own convenience. You cannot be said to belong to a faith unless you adhere to its basic doctrine. No-one can deny that non-violence or non-injury to any living being is the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings.
Therefore, in the present day when meat-eating is from choice not necessity or accident, there can be no justification for eating flesh. We can twist and turn texts to find support for our greed for meat but ultimately we cannot escape the essential truth. The economic machine which produces meat creates fear and suffering for a large number of animals. Buddhists certainly cannot contribute towards it continuance. Many Dalits become Buddhists in order to make a political statement against caste discrimination: few have been taught the essential nature of Buddhism.