Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat

Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat

by Shabkar Natshok Rangdrol

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Based on the teachings of the Buddha, this book offers the most compelling and impassioned indictment of meat-eating to be found in Tibetan literature and is pertinent to anyone interested in vegetarianism as a moral or spiritual issue. The Buddha's teachings show how destructive habits can be examined and transformed gradually from within. The aim is not to

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Based on the teachings of the Buddha, this book offers the most compelling and impassioned indictment of meat-eating to be found in Tibetan literature and is pertinent to anyone interested in vegetarianism as a moral or spiritual issue. The Buddha's teachings show how destructive habits can be examined and transformed gradually from within. The aim is not to repress one's desire for meat and animal products by force of will, but to develop heartfelt compassion and sensitivity to the suffering of animals, so that the desire to exploit and feed on them naturally dissolves.

There are two texts presented here. One is an excerpt from Shabkar's Book of Marvels, consisting of quotations from the Buddhist scriptures and the teachings of masters of Tibetan Buddhism that argue against the consumption of meat, with Shabkar's commentary. The second, the Nectar of Immortality , is Shabkar's discourse on the importance of developing compassion for animals.

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Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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Shambhala Publications
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the Translators' Introduction

who know little about Buddhism but are fairly familiar with its teachings on
nonviolence and compassion often assume that Buddhists are vegetarians. It is
with surprise and sometimes a touch of disappointment that they discover that
many (though by no means all) Buddhists, East and West, do in fact eat meat.
Leaving aside the host of factors, private or social, affecting the behavior of
individuals, the general attitude of Buddhists toward the consumption of meat
has been conditioned by historical and cultural factors, with the result that
attitudes vary from country to country. In their traditional setting, for
example, the Mahayana Buddhists of China and Vietnam are usually strictly
vegetarian. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for Japanese—and almost
always the case for Tibetans—to eat meat. And as Buddhism has spread to
Europe, America, and elsewhere, it has seemed natural for new disciples to
adopt the attitudes and practices typical of the tradition they follow.

Tibet was the one country in Asia to which the entire range of Buddhist
teaching was transmitted from India, and Tibetans have, from the eighth century
till the present, been deeply committed to the teachings of the Mahayana in
both its sutric and tantric forms—studying, reflecting upon, and bringing into
living experience its teachings on wisdom and universal compassion. It is well
known, moreover, that these teachings and the attitudes they engendered on the
popular level exerted a powerful influence on the relationship between the
Tibetans and their natural surroundings. European visitors to Tibet and the
Himalayan region before the Chinese invasion were often struck by the richness
and docility of the wildlife, which had become fearless of human beings in a
country where hunting was rare and universally condemned. Yet the fact remains
that Tibetans in general have always been, and still are, great meat eaters.
This is mainly due to climate and geography, since large portions of the
country lie at altitudes where the cultivation of crops is impossible.

Long habit, of course, gives rise to deep-seated predilection and, despite
their religious convictions, many Tibetans living in other parts of the world
have not changed their diet. This, in itself, is not very surprising. It is
difficult for everyone to abandon the habits of a lifetime, and one of the
first impulses of travelers and immigrants the world over is to import or
procure their own kind of food. In any case, like the rest of humanity, many
Tibetans find meat delicious and eat it with relish. But if this was and is the
norm, both in Tibet and among Tibetans in exile, the daily practice of the
Mahayana—constant meditation on compassion and the Bodhisattva's commitment to
liberate all beings from their sufferings— inescapably calls into question the
eating of meat. As a rule, Tibetan Buddhists, even confirmed meat eaters, are
not insensitive to this. Many freely admit that the consumption of a food
indissociable from the intentional killing of animals is less than ideal and is
unsuitable for Buddhist practitioners. Many Tibetans make the effort to abstain
from meat on holy days and at certain sacred seasons of the year. Many express
an admiration for vegetarianism; and it is rare to find Tibetan lamas who do
not praise and advocate it for those who are able, even if, for whatever
reason, the lamas consume meat themselves.

Among the Tibetans living in exile in India and Nepal, countries where
alternative nourishment is available and where the practice of meat eating is
culturally less ingrained, a change of custom seems to be slowly taking shape,
particularly among the younger generations. A number of monasteries, including
Namgyal Dratsang, the monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, no longer allow
meat to be cooked in their kitchens; and even if the personal practice of
individual monastics is left to their own decision, a small but growing number
of monks and nuns have abandoned meat eating altogether. For Western
practitioners, the situation is rather different. Unlike the Tibetans, we live
mostly in areas where a wide variety of wholesome vegetable food is easy to
obtain. Nevertheless, we belong to a culture in which religious and ethical
traditions sanction and encourage the eating of meat. The compassionate
attitude toward animal life, which is inherent to the Buddhist outlook and with
which, despite their nutritional habits, Tibetans are as a rule profoundly
imbued, is lacking in our society. To a large extent, the humane treatment of
domestic animals, where it exists in the modern world, is dictated by
sentimentality and curtailed by financial considerations; it is not based on
the understanding that animals are living beings endowed with minds and
feelings, whose predicament in samsara is essentially no different from our
own. In any case, for many Westerners who have become Buddhists, who are
carnivores both by habit and desire, the challenge on the question of meat
eating posed by Buddhism in general and by the Mahayana in particular tends to
be dampened by the fact that, for the reasons just explained, Tibetans have
rarely been able to give more than theoretical guidance, albeit sincere.

The situation has been further complicated by the perpetuation in the West of a
number of ''traditional'' rationalizations used to condone the eating of meat
by Buddhists. These are often adopted—a little too easily and uncritically,
perhaps—by Westerners unable or unwilling to consider an alternative
lifestyle. They include the concept of threefold purity, the idea that animals
gain a connection with the Dharma (and are therefore benefited) when their
flesh is eaten by practitioners, and various other notions derived from a
distorted reading of the tantras. As Shabkar demonstrates, these arguments are
either false or only half true and call for a careful, honest interpretation.
The most that can be said for them is that they are very understandable, very
human attempts to salve tender consciences, invoked often apologetically and
without much conviction when abstention from meat seems too difficult. In
ordinary circumstances and where ordinary people are concerned, it is surely a
mistake to regard them as expressions of valid principle.

In any case, it is important to be aware that in Tibet there exists and has
always existed another point of view. This was present from the earliest days
of Buddhism in the country. It was powerfully reaffirmed by the teaching of
Atisha and his Kadampa followers and has been upheld by a few heroic
individuals in every subsequent generation. As the texts translated in this
book will show, Shabkar was one of this glorious company—Bodhisattva
practitioners of both the sutras and the tantras, whose love of others and
whose awareness of their sufferings was such that they abstained from meat, at
the cost of great personal hardship, in a difficult and unyielding environment.
In his discussion of the issues involved, Shabkar raises profound questions
regarding various aspects of the Buddha Dharma at its Pratimoksha, Mahayana,
and Vajrayana levels and, as a compassionate but clear-sighted observer of
humanity, throws a fascinating light on the society and religion of his time.

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