Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“Animals are not vegetables” - a meeting with the Dalai Lama

Although the traditional Tibetan diet is heavily meat-based – a function of the arid Tibetan climate – decades of exile in India (the Dalai Lama) and exodus to the West (many of his fellow Tibetans) have resulted in a growing appetite among Tibetans for ethical vegetarianism. It hasn't hurt that the Dalai Lama himself has been an increasingly outspoken advocate for animal rights and welfare, as we see in the following post by Dr. Nanditha Krishna who recently met with the Dalai Lama as a member of a delegation from the Tibetan Medical Centres of India.

Men Tsee Khang, the Tibetan Medical Centre headquartered in Dharamshala, which is the location of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, celebrated its 50th anniversary on March 23rd, 2011. The Centre's medicines are made of herbs and a few minerals. The herbs are sourced in the upper reaches of the Himalayas and are very rare and highly endangered. Tibet, the original source, is not accessible.
No animal products are used.  Compassion, the Dalai Lama’s message, is gaining ground.
Last year, His Holiness ordered the closing of all piggeries and chicken farms run by Tibetans. “The poor hens are shut in a cage all their lives,” he told me. He even closed down the egg-laying farms. “After two or three years, the hens are sold for slaughter. This is not good.  Raising animals for commercial purposes is not good.”
In Ladakh, he has started shelters for sheep and goats taken to slaughter. He buys them and lets them live till they die a natural death.
He has ordered that only vegetarian food should be served in all official Tibetan functions, an important step forward.  The pre-function dinner and post-function lunch hosted by the Tibetan Medical Centre were both vegetarian.  Wonderful

All of the food served to the monks is vegetarian as well.
Unfortunately, the Buddha himself was ambivalent about meat eating, saying neither yea nor nay. While the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra quote the Buddha as positively speaking out against meat-eating, both Vajrayana (Tibetan) and Theravada (Sri Lankan) Vinayas permit meat-eating “if the animal is not killed specifically for you.”
“A Buddhist monk is a bhikshu, who cannot say I will eat this and not eat that. He has to eat whatever he is given, even if it is meat,” said the Dalai Lama.  “Only Chinese Mahayana Buddhism totally bans meat” (hence the Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurants).
The Lamas agree that vegetarianism is the highest form of compassion. But neither they nor their followers are vegetarian. “It may be difficult to be a vegetarian in Tibet, where nothing grows. But we get everything in India. It is not necessary to eat meat,” said the venerable Geshe Lhador.  But he too is not a vegetarian.
“Animals are not vegetables. They are intelligent. They feel pain and suffering like human beings,” said the Dalai Lama. “Freedom is liberation from suffering. All creation must have freedom from suffering. Compassion is my message.”
This was part of a 90 minute conversation I had with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who had invited the “sponsors” of the Tibetan Medical Centres in India and abroad, of whom I am one, to meet him.  The Dalai Lama is charming and charismatic, a powerful speaker who intersperse his words with jokes and laughter, lightening a serious moment.  He smiles often, yet does not mince his words.
The “release” of animals (especially fish) on Buddhist festivals causes untold misery. Salt water fish are released in fresh water and vice versa. Sea turtles are released on land and re-sold. Birds are caught, sold for release, and re-caught again. I mentioned this to him.
“I cannot order people to stop eating meat,” said the Dalai Lama, “But I speak of cruelty and compassion. When I visited Taiwan after the typhoon, I was horrified to see the way shrimps and fish were stored and sold. I said that even as the typhoon had caused great harm to the people, it had liberated the fish and shrimps who were washed back into the sea.”
“What is your solution to this practice?” Geshe Lhador, a senior Lama and Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives threw the question at me, when I discussed this.
My solution?  Walk into a chicken farm and release the birds, I replied.  Release those in captivity. But do not buy animals to release them, for that is a profitable venture. He agreed, but he is a scholar who is far from the public eye. It is up to lay Buddhists to change this practice.
What is ahimsa? Is it merely non-ahimsa or non-killing. “Ahimsa is the practice of compassion. It is a dynamic force. Compassion and wisdom are the two sides of ahimsa,” said Geshe Lhador. Nor is the cow sacred to the Buddhists. “Ahimsa is the active practice of compassion.”
I was pleasantly surprised to see several vegetarian restaurants run by Tibetans. The food is a mixture of Tibetan, Chinese, Indian and American (pizzas and burgers). Most of the clients are Europeans and Israelis who live in Mc Leodganj and Dharamkot. But I also saw many young Tibetans there. And the young alone can fuel change.
It is not fair to target the Tibetans when the whole world is cruel to and consumes animals. But the Dalai Lama bears the burden of the Buddha’s legacy. And that is why people look at him to set an example in the practice of compassion.
We all praised the efficacy of Tibetan medicine to His Holiness. Prayer is a major part of the production and prescription process. The “Special Pills” are blessed and must be taken before dawn – the Brahma muhurtha of Hindu tradition – with a prayer to the Medicine Buddha (Never good at learning new lines, I repeat “Om Namo Narayanaya” at 3.30 a.m.)  
“When allopathic medicine doesn’t work, Tibetan medicine does. And if Tibetan medicine not work, allopathic medicine does,” joked the Dalai Lama.  His Holiness was appalled at the cruelty to animals in medical research and testing. “We must do research and develop scientifically. I keep telling Men Tsee Khang. But no testing on animals. No animal products. Medicines must be made with compassion.”
Why are we targeting the Dalai Lama alone? Why don’t European animal welfare organizations target the Pope? Or the Archbishop of Canterbury? If vegetarianism is not a Christian tradition, it is not a Buddhist tradition either. Monks are bhikshus (literally, beggars) and must eat whatever is given to them by a lay person. That is what the Buddha taught. They cannot say we won’t eat this, or that they want only vegetables, not meat. Even in the Buddha’s time they ate whatever was placed in their bowl, according to Buddhist tradition.
This is a fact. A Buddhist bhikshu or Hindu sanyasi can eat only the food that is placed in his bowl. The difference is in the followers. Buddhists have no hesitation in placing mutton curry in the monk’s bowl. Hindus would never dream of putting any non-vegetarian food in a sanyasi’s bowl. It is the ultimate insult. The blame lives with the Buddha who permitted his monks to eat whatever was given to them, not the Dalai Lama. So why target a man who was born on the Roof of the World and now lives in the Himalayas which are covered in snow from October to March? Start with the Pope and the Archbishop, who have the best choice of grains, fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, I do not hear any European animal welfare group targeting these powerful religious leaders.
The Dalai Lama carries the entire burden of a people without a nation on his shoulders. If he were to start preaching vegetarianism to Japanese, Taiwanese, South East Asian and Sri Lankan Buddhists, he would probably lose any support they give the Tibetans. They cannot own land in India and live on a subsistence economy. So, he speaks of compassion towards all life forms, especially animals, of their pain and suffering, intelligence and comprehension.
“What is freedom?” asked a lady in our group. “It is freedom from suffering. It is moksha*,” replied His Holiness, a true Buddhist (*moksha = nirvana = liberation).
Dr. Nanditha Krishna is an historian, writer and environmentalist.  Director of the C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, both headquartered in Chennai, India, she is also a governing Body member of the Blue Cross of India, Founder-President of the Blue Cross of Kanchipuram and author of Sacred Animals of India (Penguin). The C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation hosts the Men-tsee-khang - a  full-time Tibetan medical clinic with a doctor and compounder - in Chennai, India.

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