Vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism
During most of the history of Tibet, vegetables were rare and very difficult to acquire due to The Land of Snow’s extremely harsh geographical environment. In spite of this, for the past decade, vegetarianism has become more and more popular. Indeed, the thought that Tibetan Buddhism is open to having meat is a common misunderstanding.
These days most of monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries are primarily vegetarian, though some of them probably also eat meat. As for myself, I have been emphasizing the importance of vegetarianism for more than 10 years. The reason for this is that when I had previously learned about the tradition of Han Buddhism, I considered it as an extreme practice from the view of the Mahayana. Later, when we again went back to the words and teachings of Mahayana lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, we found that, in the past, vegetables were almost impossible to bring in to Tibet because of difficulties in transportation and other poor conditions. This could be one of the reasons why vegetarianism never gained popularity in Tibet.
A more likely reason is that traditionally, in Theravada Buddhism, it is allowable to eat meat that is pure in three ways. However, my feeling is that the ultimate teachings of Buddha are revealed in the Mahayana rather than in the Theravada, as is illustrated by the circumstance of the Buddha nearing parinirvana, when he said that permission to eat meat as described in the Theravada was actually provisional and expedient, and that in the ultimate teachings of the Buddha, he would never permit disciples to eat any sentient being’s flesh.
Therefore, if we had found that such a tradition in Han Buddhism did not correspond with the Buddha’s teaching, we would not have accepted it. But, in fact, this is not the case. If a large number of Buddhists were to abstain from eating meat, this would directly benefit the lives of many sentient beings. If 100 people want to eat meat, the killing of one pig or one yak may not be enough to serve them all, for even one meal. Conversely, if the same number of people were to instead eat vegetables, this would reduce the killing of any sentient beings. Therefore, in our academy we highly emphasize vegetarianism and, together with Han monks, we stress that everyone should stop eating meat.
In the beginning, I didn’t allow meat eaters to receive my teachings; this is how I initially promoted vegetarianism. In fact, almost everyone connected to our Academy has now become vegetarian. I think that as genuine Mahayana practitioners, we should make a sincere effort to promote this tradition because it corresponds with the Buddha’s teachings. Moreover, it directly benefits the lives of sentient beings, and is, as such, a very meaningful practice.