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A Small Step for the Tibetan Vegetarian Movement, a Giant Leap for Tibetan Civil Society
Phayul[Tuesday, March 07, 2006 04:16]
This article is part of a monthly series of socio-political commentary, titled “Pencil Notes”. The column is updated in the first week of every month; it will appear in the News section on the first day of its posting, and then move to the Opinion section the following day.

Tenzin Wangyal

Amaravati, January 2006:

Young saffron-robed monks - carrying teakettles – joyously running to serve tea to the thousands of people gathered under one big tent …

Our folks trying to communicate with the local Andhraites using a motley of Tibetan with excessive hand gesturing, the always handy Hindi, and broken Telegu …

With people’s faces half-covered by masks to filter out the dust and smoke, those blessed with better-looking eyes attracted all the attention …

Vignettes aside, this year’s Kalachakra held at Amaravati will be remembered as the first-ever vegetarian Kalachakra – attendees knew that they were not allowed to eat meat and none of the on-site restaurants and food stalls sold any non-vegetarian dishes. This was achieved due to the efforts of the members of the Tibetan Volunteers for Animals (TVA) and supporters of their Vegetarian Kalachakra Project initiative. In the months leading up to the religious event, TVA was able to convince the Central Tibetan Administration and exile Tibetans that in light of the teachings of the Kalachakra (with its emphasis on non-violence and compassion), everyone attending the Kalachakra should abstain from eating meat at least for the duration of the two-week long event.

In the last few decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of vegetarians in the world, testament to the fact that vegetarianism is no fleeting fad, and supporting Henry David Thoreau’s belief that “it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals."

However, compared to other people, the Tibetan exile community is seeing such a disproportionately high number of people turning to vegetarianism that this trend could be called a vegetarian revolution or explosion of sorts. In recent years, many prominent Tibetans have also become vegetarians and 2004 was observed as Tibetan Vegetarian Year. His Holiness who has been a steadfast supporter of vegetarianism also recently “turned to a vegetarian diet.”

Last year, TVA received signatures from over 14,000 Tibetans pledging to become vegetarians for life (80% of whom were young people). To put this into perspective, that is approximately 10% of our exile population. This is without even counting the hundreds of Tibetans who would have been brought into the vegetarian fold through the efforts of other vegetarian organizations such as T4VS (Tibetans for Vegetarian Society, which was started by Tenzin Kunga Luding), and Geshe Thupten Phelgye la’s Universal Compassion Movement, or by the teachings of revered vegetarian lamas such as Chatral Rinpoche.

Now, whether this vegetarian revolution is a result of the efforts of the above organizations and individuals, or whether it is just our collective conscience that is being reflected in the mission of these organizations is a “chicken-or-egg” question. Suffice it to say, in the last few years many new organizations have been started by young dynamic Tibetans such as Tenzin Tsundue of Friends of Tibet and Rapsel Tsariwa of TVA, just to name a few. This is a sign of a flourishing civil society, which in turn is a sign of a thriving – in our case, a blooming – democracy. What is encouraging is that the driving force behind such endeavors is the belief that one man’s vision can be translated into a movement - the conviction that one person or a small group of people can make a big difference. Moreover, the Tibetan society in general has also gradually become less cynical and more accepting and appreciative of individual initiative and new ideas: many older Tibetans who always assumed they knew better are slowly (some more reluctantly than the others) stepping out of their caves, and overcoming their fear of the outside glare that is the reality of today’s ever-changing modern world.

TVA - a non-profit non-governmental organization – has also inspired some schools and monasteries to become strictly vegetarian, not to mention the vegetarian clubs that exist in most Tibetan schools. In addition to pointing out that our stance on meat-eating is hypocritical and educating Tibetans about the health benefits of adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, I personally think that TVA’s campaign has been overwhelmingly successful because of its “shock and convert” strategy. The films produced by TVA show animals being butchered in slaughterhouses, clips chosen to maximize the shock effect and to evoke the viewer’s compassion and embarrassment, all in a short span of time. With the exception of some hard-hearted people, few are immune to the gory images and the cries of the dying animals. Consequently, many people line up to sign pledges to adopt a vegetarian diet, while the remainder return home to continue eating meat but with an albatross around their necks. Not only is this means justified (by the end), I really think this strategy is ingenious. Moreover, I believe that showing is always better than explaining (whenever possible) – after all, logical reasoning may be required to explain metaphysical and abstract ideas but it is certainly not necessary for something that can be shown in its true form as is the case with animal slaughter for our consumption.

It is ironic that even though several major texts of Mahayana Buddhism like the Lankavatara Sutra emphatically inveigh against meat-eating as it violates the First Precept which prohibits killing, many Tibetan Buddhists quote the concept of the “three-fold rule” or nam sum dagpai sha, as it is referred to in Tibetan. Also known as “meat that is pure in the three aspects”, this rationale states that the Buddha condoned meat-eating if one knew that the animal was not killed specifically for him; if one did not witness the animal being killed; and if one did not hear the animal’s cries as it was being killed. However, what may actually qualify as nam sum dagpai sha is debatable and it bears pointing out that this should not be misinterpreted to be an affirmation of the saying – ignorance is bliss. The other excuses we use to justify our meat-eating habits such as – “vegetation was scarce in Tibet” and “the Buddha allowed members of the sangha to eat meat if it was offered to them as part of their alms”- are now anachronistic at best.

In addition to the religious, ethical, environmental and health reasons for turning to vegetarianism, I feel that it would also be politically expedient if exile Tibetans living in predominantly Hindu countries like India (where the majority of the 82% Hindu population are opposed to beef consumption for religious reasons) eschewed our non-vegetarian diet, specifically our beef consumption. In other words, we should see the wisdom in our old adage yulchu thung na yultrim kher for which the English equivalent (not translation of course) is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This might go a long way in fostering mutual respect between our two communities and eventually invalidate this stereotype - “where Tibetans go, butchers flourish.”

Tenzin Wangyal is an alumnus of TCV School, Dharamsala, and Middlebury College, Vermont. He currently works in Boston, USA and is on the Board of Directors for Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). He can be reached at tenzin_wangyal@hotmail.com

The views expressed in the article are solely of the author, and do not reflect those of phayul.com or Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) or any other organization or institution that the author has been associated with, such as his alma mater, Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School, Dharamsala, for that matter.
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