Here in Vermont, as in other places where crunchy Americans congregate, the 14th Dalai Lama is a popular guy. Folks like Cath and me who shop at community food co-ops and farmers’ markets—and are often vegetarian—tend to think of him as a wise and compassionate teacher.
For many, it comes as a shock to learn that he eats meat. I know it did for me.
By the time I read about it in his autobiography, I had already abandoned vegetarianism, and his story resonated.
Back in the 1960s, he had witnessed the slaughter of a chicken and had sworn off flesh foods. Before long, though, his health began to suffer, with complications caused by hepatitis. Following his physicians’ instructions, he reluctantly returned to eating meat and regained his health.
What resonated even more was his commentary on Tibetans’ relationship with meat.
He notes that, in the 1960s at least, very few Tibetan dishes were vegetarian. Alongside tsampa—a kind of barley bread—meat was a staple of the local diet.
This, however, was complicated by religion. Buddhism, the Dalai Lama writes, doesn’t prohibit meat-eating “but it does say that animals should not be killed for food.” And there lay the crux of what he calls Tibetans’ “rather curious attitude” toward meat.
Tibetan Buddhists could buy meat, but they couldn’t order it, “since that might lead to an animal being killed” for them specifically. (This reminds me of a friend’s experience with a rabbit earlier this year.)
What, then, were Tibetan Buddhists to do? How could they eat meat without being involved in butchery? How could they consume flesh, yet prevent themselves from being implicated in killing?
Easy. They let non-Buddhists do it, often local Muslims.
These moral gymnastics might strike us as odd. But is the average American so different? Here, people’s distaste for butchery may be guided less by scripture than by squeamishness, the task assigned less by religion than by profession. The end result, though, is much the same. The dirty work gets done by others.
And there lies the crux of my own curious attitude toward meat. I prefer to take my own karmic lumps.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli