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July 1999

West Meets East—Vegetarians and the Dalai Lama


Over the past year, much outrage has been expressed over the diet of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In the mid 1960s, the Dalai Lama was impressed by ethically vegetarian Indian monks and adopted a vegetarian diet for about a year and a half. Apparently he consumed primarily nuts and milk. Unfortunately, he contracted Hepatitis B and his liver was seriously damaged. For health reasons, he was advised by his personal physicians to consume meat. While he has eaten meat in moderation ever since, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly acknowledged that a vegetarian diet is a worthy expression of compassion and contributes to the cessation of the suffering of all living beings. In spite of these admissions, his continuous meat-eating outrages many ethical vegans and vegetarians.

Last December His Holiness attended a state dinner hosted by French President Jacques Chirac for Nobel Peace Prize recipients and human rights activists in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When served a special vegetarian meal he asked for the same entrée that everyone else was having (braised calf’s cheek and crayfish stuffed Vol-au-Vent) and reportedly commented, “I'm a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian.” Ouch!

To many, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the living Buddha, the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara—the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He is revered as a spiritual leader by Tibetan Buddhists and many others worldwide. The Dalai Lama is the head of state of the Tibetan government–in–exile. He devotes much of his life to raising the awareness of the world to the destruction of the people, religion and culture of Tibet under Chinese occupation, and struggles continuously for the reinstatement of the autonomy of Tibet. He is also a Buddhist monk, heading a monastic community of exiled Tibetans and others in northern India.

Regarding his awareness of the compassion expressed by a vegetarian diet, he has actually advised fellow Tibetans and Buddhists to incorporate veggies into their diet as much as they can. Environmental logistics, however, apparently make this difficult. The climate of Tibet and the areas where many exiled Tibetans reside in India are mostly at extremely high altitudes and are suitable for limited types of indigenous crops and animals. Most Tibetans live on a combination of barley and the milk and meat from yaks. Vegetables and fruits are scarce at such altitudes and there are few corner delis and supermarkets where Tibetans can pick up some tofu, kale and quinoa for dinner.

For some people, particularly non-Buddhist Western vegans, this is simply not good enough. Knowing full-well that people can be perfectly healthy on a balanced vegan/vegetarian diet, the Internet blazes with on-going discussions about this issue. “He should get a second medical opinion,” many comment. “Making the Dalai Lama a vegetarian would be a great conversion,” and “It would create hundreds of thousands of new vegetarians in the world,” others enthuse. Last year, staff members from the Fund for Animals petitioned His Holiness to adopt a vegetarian diet. He expressed great sympathy for the suffering of animals and agreed to work with the petitioners to educate Tibetans and Buddhists about vegetarianism, but held his ground on his own personal diet. Though a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Dalai Lama is not a poster-child for vegetarianism or animal rights. While we may wish that he will “see the light” and “convert” to a vegan diet, we should acknowledge that the Dalai Lama has the integrity and awareness to acknowledge the compassion expressed by a vegetarian diet, which is far more than one can say about most other people of his stature.

Why is the diet of a Tibetan holy man so important? As an ethical vegan, I am disappointed that the Dalai Lama does not choose to be vegetarian, but I give him credit for discussing the issues and find it hypocritical that Western non-Buddhists devote so much energy to his “conversion”. We don't demand that Western religious leaders, peacemakers and heads of state go vegetarian. Why aren't people outraged by the diets of the Reverend Jessie Jackson, President Bill Clinton, the Roman Catholic Pope, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jerry Falwell—even of those very influential people who have passed away, such as Mother Teresa and Princess Diana? These people have and had more of a direct effect on the lives of Western vegans and vegetarians than does the Dalai Lama. Moreover, unlike His Holiness, no significant Western leaders have ever publicly acknowledged the ethics of a vegetarian diet. The occasional fanfare over Boca Burgers served at the White House amounts to very little when compared with the statements of the Dalai Lama. If we don't confront our own leaders, peacemakers, etc., is it not hypocritical and self-righteous for Westerners to determine what the Dalai Lama must eat and which doctor he should trust?

More insulting is the repeated criticism that by eating meat His Holiness defies the Buddhist proviso of causing non-harm and the very ideals that he embodies as the incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. While the topic is controversial, there is no concrete evidence that the Buddha himself was a vegetarian. As an ascetic, he relied upon whatever food was offered, which may have been vegetarian but could possibly have contained meat. The majority of Buddhists are in fact not vegetarian, although there certainly are pockets of believers who are. For a man who has practiced Buddhism his entire life, who are we to criticize the religious adherence of the Dalai Lama? Where is the compassion, tolerance and respect for a man who is leading his own way of compassion? Can't we agree to disagree and respect the personal decisions of others who are at least aware of the issues so that we might focus our energy and efforts on those in our society who do not even acknowledge the issues of a vegetarian diet, and who affect our lives more directly?

Catherine Clyne


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