In 1314, when he was twenty-two years old, the Omniscient Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen received full monastic ordination from the famous abbot of Cholung Monastery, Sonam Trakpa (1273–1352), and made a vow at the time to never eat meat.
Although rice and vegetables can be found in many parts of Tibet today, this was not the case in the Omniscient Dolpopa’s day. It is true that in the low-lying regions to the south and east, enough grains and vegetables were grown for most of the population to supplement their essentially meat based diet. But the cultivation of vegetables on a scale sufficient to provide what would now be regarded as an adequate vegetarian diet was impossible.
No crops can grow at altitudes of over twelve thousand feet, and much of Tibet is covered by immense grasslands suitable only for the raising of livestock: yaks, goats, and sheep. To give up eating meat was, therefore, a truly laudable act, accomplished by very few. It meant being satisfied with a diet consisting of little more than tsampa, the traditional Tibetan flour made of roasted barley.
It is understandable that such a diet was beyond the capacity of the majority. Even in a country where the principles of the Mahayana were omnipresent, where no one was ignorant of the Buddha’s teachings on compassion, it was simply impossible for most people to live out such teachings on the level of their eating habits. In the case of the large monasteries, the provision for the monks of adequate supplies of vegetable food, even if they had been inclined to a meatless diet, was completely out of the question. To be a vegan in Tibet required powers of endurance and a determination that could only come from the deepest possible conviction.
The Omniscient Dolpopa derived this conviction from the all-embracing quality of His compassion and the study of the Lankavatara Sutra. The following are some of the important passages of this seminal Mahayana scripture:
The Blessed One said, “For innumerable reasons, Mahamati, the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, is not to eat any animal flesh.
“I will explain the reasons. Mahamati, in the long course of transmigration, all sentient beings have been our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, and we have felt many different kinds and degrees of kinship with each and every one of them.
“These sentient beings have been beasts, domestic animals, birds, and humans in different lifetimes and have often been related to us in some way.
“This being the case, how can the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva who desires to respect all sentient beings as he or she would respect himself or herself and who is committed to devotedly practicing the Dharma eat the flesh of any sentient being whose nature is the same as himself or herself?
“Even, Mahamati, the Rakashasa, when they listened to a discourse on the highest essence of the Dharma by the Tathagata, were inspired to protect Buddhism. Through this they had awakened to the feeling of compassion, became sensitive to the sorrows of sentient beings, and therefore chose to refrain from eating animal flesh. How much more should human beings who love the Dharma do the same!
“Thus, Mahamati, whenever and wherever there is evolution among sentient beings, let people cherish the thought of kinship with them, and holding the thought intention of treating them as if they were our only child, and therefore refrain from eating their flesh.
“So much for more should Bodhisattvas, who are committed to being compassionate towards all sentient beings, and whose inner nature is compassion itself, choose to refrain from eating animal flesh.
“For a Bodhisattva to keep good integrity with the Dharma, he or she should not make any exceptions to the eating of animal flesh. He or she is not to eat the flesh of dogs, donkeys, buffaloes, horses, bulls, humans, or any other sentient being, whether or not such flesh in generally eaten by some humans in some culture or society.
“Nor should a Bodhisattva eat flesh sold by others for monetary profit.
“For the sake of the love of purity, Mahamati, the Bodhisattva should refrain from eating flesh which is born of semen and blood. For fear of causing terror to sentient beings, let the Bodhisattva discipline himself or herself to attain compassion and refrain from eating animal flesh.
“To illustrate, Mahamati: When a dog sees, even from a distance, a hunter, a sociopath, or a fisherperson, who desires to eat animal flesh, he or she is terrified with fear, thinking, “They are death dealers and will kill even me.” In the same way, even small animals who live in the air, on earth, or in the water, seeing animal flesh eaters at a distance, will notice them, by their keen sense of smell, the odor of the Rakashasa and will run away from such people as quickly as possible, because they carry the threat of death.
“For this reason, let the Bodhisattva abide in great compassion, and because of the odor that exudes from the skin of animal flesh eaters and because such an odor causes terror, a form of suffering, among sentient beings, he or she should refrain from eating animal flesh.
“Mahamati, animal flesh which is liked by the unwise is full of bad smell and gives one a bad reputation, which turns wise people away.
“The food of the wise, which is eaten by Rishis, does not consist of animal flesh or blood. Therefore let the Bodhisattva refrain from eating animal flesh.
“In order to guard the minds of all people, Mahamati, let the Bodhisattva whose nature is holy and who wishes to avoid unnecessary criticism of the Buddha Dharma, refrain from eating animal flesh.
“For instance, Mahamati, there are some who speak ill of the Buddha Dharma and say, “Why are those who are living the life of Sramana or Brahmin reject the diet of the ancient Rishis and choose to live like carnivores who fly in the sky, live in the water, or move on the earth? Why do they wander the Earth thoroughly terrifying sentient beings, disregarding the life of a Sramana and destroying the vows of a Brahmin? There is no Dharma and no discipline in them.” There are many adverse minded people who speak ill of the Buddha Dharma in this manner.
“For this reason, Mahamati, in order to guard the minds of all people, let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is full of compassion, who is sensitive to the sorrows of sentient beings, avoid unnecessary criticism of the Buddha Dharma and therefore refrain from animal flesh eating.
“Mahamati, there is a generally offensive odor to a corpse which feels unnatural, therefore let the Bodhisattva refrain from animal flesh eating. When flesh is burned, whether of a dead human, animal, or any sentient being, the odor is the same. When any flesh is burned, the odor smells foul. Therefore, the Bodhisattva who wishes to keep his or her discipline pure should refrain from eating animal flesh.
“Mahamati, when sons and daughters of good family, wishing the exercise themselves in various disciplines such as the attainment of a compassionate heart, reciting a mantra, perfecting knowledge, or journeying deeper into Mahayana Buddhist teachings, should go to a cemetery, into a wilderness retreat, or travel near a place where obstructers visit, or when they sit to do meditation practice, they are hindered because of their eating of animal flesh, and are less able to attain the excellences, be healed of illnesses, or even attain liberation itself. The Bodhisattva, seeing how animal flesh eating weakens the ability to attain the excellences, the ability to heal oneself and others, and even the ability to become liberated, and also remembering his or her wish to help save sentient beings and heal himself or herself, should therefore refrain from eating animal flesh.
“When even looking at outer forms stimulates a craving for tasting the delicious flavor of animal flesh, let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is sympathetic compassion and who regards all sentient beings as if they were his or her only child, totally refrain from eating animal flesh.
“Recognizing that the mouth will produce a foul odor, even while living this life, let the Bodhisattva, whose nature is compassion, totally refrain from animal flesh eating. Those who eat animal flesh sleep uneasily and when they awaken in the morning are distressed. They dream of disturbing events that make their hair stand on end. They are left alone in empty huts. They live a solitary life. Their spirits are seized by obstructers. Frequently they are struck with terror. They tremble without knowing why. There is no order to their eating. They are never satisfied. Their diet is not attuned to what is appropriate in taste, digestion, and nourishment. Their intestines are filled with worms and other impure creatures. They harbor the causes of disease. They cease to believe that they can become free from all diseases and do not have a clear aversion towards all the causes of diseases.
“When I teach to regard animal flesh eating as if it were the eating of an only child or as an intoxicant, how can I allow my disciples to eat food consisting of flesh and blood, which is gratifying to the unwise and which is shunned by the wise, which brings about much harm and keeps away many benefits? Animal flesh eating was not part of the wisdom of the ancient Rishis and was not meant to be appropriate food for any human being.
“Now, Mahamati, the diet I have allowed for my disciples to take is satisfying to all wise people but is avoided by the unwise. This diet produces many merits, keeps away many harmful effects, and was prescribed by the ancient Rishis. It comprises rice, barley, wheat, kidney beans, beans, lentils, clarified butter, oil, honey, molasses, treacle, sugar cane, coarse sugar, and similar foods. Food prepared with these ingredients is proper food.
“Mahamati, there may be irrational people, who, under the influence of the habit energy of carnivorous races, will strongly crave the taste of animal flesh. The above mentioned diet is not prescribed for these people.
“Mahamati, the above mentioned diet is prescribed for those Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas who have made offerings to the previous Buddhas, who have planted the roots of goodness, who are possessed of faith, who are devoid of prejudices, who belong to the family of the Buddha, who are sons and daughters of good families, who have no attachment to body, life, and property, who do not crave, who choose to live a life without greed, who have the compassionate desire to cherish all sentient beings as much as themselves, and who love all sentient beings as if they were their only child.”
kunchen dolpopa chenno