On vegetarianism

Could Khenpo please respond to these questions on Tibetan Buddhism.

Question (1): Within Theravada Buddhism, because of alms rounds, it is permitted to eat meat that is pure in three aspects. But Mahayana sutras like the Brahma Net Sutra, Surangama Sutra, and Parinirvana Sutra all clearly prohibit eating living beings’ meat, believing that eating meat is the cause for cutting off great compassion and loving kindness. In accordance with Mahayana sutras, Han Buddhism has a tradition of vegetarianism, which has become a great feature of Han Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism also belongs within Mahayana Buddhism, but I see that most monks in Tibetan regions do not prohibit the eating of meat. There are also some Vajrayana practitioners who seem to view this as being perfectly natural. There are even claims that vegetarians are unable to engage in the practice of focusing on vital points within the channels and wind energies.

Answer: Based on numerous teachings including the Nirvana Sutra and Surangama Sutra, and out of great compassion, Emperor Wu of Liang composed the four texts of On Abstention from Alcohol and Meat. He proposed that all monks and nuns should avoid meat and be vegetarians, and this has since become a system broadly observed by monastics in Han regions. Not only monastics observe this, many lay practitioners also followed suit. They either choose to be vegetarians for life, or decide on a certain period of time when they are free from meat. These kinds of outstanding traditions are really worth praising and rejoicing by Tibetan Buddhism and its disciples. Even though before Emperor Wu of Liang, not all Buddhists in Han regions necessarily observed the rule of vegetarianism, the persistence of vegetarianism is worthy of every Mahayana practitioner’s admiration and praise.

As for Tibetan Buddhist teachings’ attitude towards vegetarianism, what I must first state is: Tibetan Buddhism has never promoted, commended, or praised the custom of eating meat. Further, Tibetan disciples of the fourfold sangha are strictly prohibited from killing and eating meat to satisfy the cravings of their stomaches and palates. Since Buddhism has entered the Tibetan region, ethnic Tibetans have in general relied on meat that is pure in three aspects as the source of their meat diet. There is also no shortage of Tibetan eminent monks and masters who promoted vegetarianism. Highly accomplished masters like Chagme Rinpoche, Venerable Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu, Patrul Rinpoche, Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje, and Pema Thangton all encouraged vegetarianism and severely condemned the evil of killing and the corrupt custom of offering the flesh and blood of sentient beings. Many of them also set a personal example by not eating meat.

Master Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, in fact stated in his terma Jewel Lamp Commentary on the Three Roots: “The eating of meat should be gradually stopped, … novice monks and monks should not eat the following: meat of a being that has died from pregnancy, was killed, died from self hanging, had not matured, was burned to death, drowned, fell from a mountain, the meat of a mixed offspring of an ox and a nak (female yak), and the meat of animals with hooves. The same applies to their blood. Those wishing to know the vast and profound meanings should refer to the related Tripitaka classics.” The promulgator of Longchen Nyingthik, Venerable Jigme Lingpa also said: “As the noble Katyayana observed when on alms round, the meat we consume in our life are all the meat of our mothers and fathers from previous lives. If one is upright and has a conscience, how can one bear to eat the meat of one’s parents killed by a butcher? If we quiet the mind and ponder this, we will definitely be filled with great compassion for these pitiful beings that were our mothers. Yet some Tantric yogis are boundlessly indolent. They drink alcohol, feed on meat, and are already no different to jackals and vultures.”

Through these, we can see that the so-called view that meat eating is a supreme tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is a groundless statement. It is merely that Tibetan regions are situated on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. As a vast region existing on the roof of the world, remote transportation circumstances has led it to be almost completely barricaded from the outside world for more than a thousand years. In addition, due to the limitations of its harsh natural conditions, the impact of factors such as high elevation, large temperature differences, lack of oxygen, severe cold, and permafrost mean that a negligible, few crops are suited to grow on this land. Under the restriction of these unfavourable factors, ethnic Tibetans still rely on highland barley and zanba as their main daily diet. Only when there are no vegetables or grains that some Tibetans then started to consume a limited amount of meat. This is because natural conditions do not allow them to make any other choices.

There is one point however, that I hope everyone can be aware of, and that is not to simplify any question during its analysis. In particular when this question is already a combination of thousands of complicated elements, we certainly should not make sweeping generalizations or lightly jump to conclusions. Judging is easy. But how widely can that judgement be applied is another matter all together. The question of eating meat or being vegetarian should also be treated thus. An evident and basic fact is: globally speaking, apart from Han regions, most countries and regions that practice Buddhism, such as Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Japan, are all basically a mixture of eating meat or being vegetarian. There are no clear requirements on vegetarianism. The custom of vegetarianism in Han regions is of course a wonderful one that is worthy of praise and rejoicing. But we also cannot eject Buddhists from these other regions from Buddhism based on their eating meat, or further slander them for not being devotees of Buddhadharma. We cannot generalize the actual causes and conditions of each region and each person. What’s more, the various behaviors of particular practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism have their own profound, secret meanings. Before we have attained the level of realization that matches theirs, it is better that we do not presumptuously conjecture or lightly make assertions.

Many Vajrayana practitioners would arouse great compassion before they eat meat. Through chanting mantras, they dedicate the merits to the beings that have the special connection with them, and transfer the “liberated” consciousness of these beings to the Pure Land. Some highly accomplished masters eat meat with a mind that is unfathomable by ordinary people. For example, Naropa often ate fish, and Han region’s monk Ji Gong also ate dog meat. As ordinary beings, it is better that we make fewer comments on these behaviors. For an awakened being, any method of behavior can be a vessel for their Dharma displays in an illusory world.

Generally speaking however, the fact that a few Vajrayana practitioners see meat eating as being perfectly reasonable and sanctioned by heaven and earth merely shows that they do not understand the teachings of Vajrayana at all. They also do not understand the profound meanings of the skilful displays of eminent monks and masters. Particularly in recent years, as Tibetan regions have increased contact with the outside world, increasingly convenient transportation has allowed more abundant vegetable and grains in Tibetan regions. Under this circumstance, I am greatly comforted to see that many Vajrayana practitioners have chosen vegetarianism.

Buddhas and bodhisattvas have already expounded extensively on the faults of eating meat in the Elephant Power Sutra, Mahamegha Sutra, Nirvana Sutra, Avgulimala Sutra, Lankavatara Sutra, Sutra Requested by Subahu, as well as various Madhyamika treatises. As a member of Mahayana Buddhism, of course Vajrayana would not pretend to be blind or deaf to these, or deliberately find excuses to defend itself. I only hope that people can treat this question with a holistic attitude. For example, eating meat is listed in the Brahma Net Sutra as one of the 48 minor offenses, and is not a severe root downfall. Therefore, this question should be given careful consideration. Those who are interested may wish to explore deeper into the sutras and sastras, and draw on these resources.

And the saying that “vegetarians are unable to engage in the practice of focusing on vital points within the channels and wind energies” is completely groundless. In Vajrayana, it is mainly tantras like the Kalachakra Tantra that emphasize the cultivation of vital points. But immediately, we find in the General Commentary on Kalachakra, Commentary by Longchenpa that eating meat is in fact strongly prohibited. Many Nyingma sastras on the practice of Great Perfection (Dzogchen) also prohibit the eating of meat. In addition, as far as I know, this isn’t necessarily the case in the sastras of other traditions. I believe that there is nothing in Vajrayana teachings that would support the behavior of calling on the practice of vital points as an excuse or rationale for eating meat. It cannot possibly comply with the meaning of the Vajrayana teachings.

At the Larung Gar Serthar Buddhist Institute, His Holiness Khenchen Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche once extensively expounded the various faults of eating meat in front of nearly ten thousand disciples of the fourfold sangha. Under His Holiness’s prompting, over a hundred disciples vowed then to become vegetarians. After His Holiness’s open declaration, when the Institute held Dharma assemblies again, food offered to the monastic sangha was changed to being mainly vegetarian. I have also always praised the good custom of vegetarianism, and have often publically said that while there are many supreme, precious, and worthy traditions in Tibetan Buddhism, eating meat clearly is not one of them. For Tibetans, eating meat is merely a dietary habit influenced by the conditions of the natural environment. Ethnic Han disciples who come to seek the Dharma in Tibetan regions should mostly pay attention to the true essence of the unsurpassable Vajrayana, rather than the local dietary custom and tradition. It is best that ethnic Han practitioners maintain their original custom of vegetarianism. Especially under the greater global climate of rampant killings right now, we should particularly become the messengers and pioneers of compassion and wisdom.

While there are many regions that are home to the spread of Mahayana Buddhism, there is no one view, one opinion on the question of vegetarianism or eating meat. But this does not impede the various regions and traditions from mutual enhancement and integration. On this point, you may wish to refer to my works including A Miserable World, and The Merit of Releasing Captured Creatures. In these books, I have elucidated on this in detail, so I shall not repeat it here.