I am very happy that the Padmakara Translation Group has translated these wonderful texts. Lama Shabkar drew attention to the fact that animals, insects, and even shellfish are sentient beings, and because all of them cherish life and have feelings, they deserve to be respected just as human beings do.
If we Buddhist-especially if we consider ourselves to be on the Mahayana path-wish to live according to the Buddha’s teachings, then, as is said again and again in these texts, we must definitely avoid harming any living beings, whether directly or indirectly. This means that we must neither kill nor torture them ourselves, nor induce anyone else to do so.
When we enter upon the path of Dharma, we go for refuge in the Three Jewels, taking the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as our witnesses. Repeating after the preceptor, we say, “Taking refuge in the Dharma, I vow not to harm any living beings.” It is difficult to pretend not to know that we have said this, or to think that we can interpret these very clear words in some other way.
And so it is my wish that we may all develop love and compassion for all sentient beings, considering each of them as though they were our own dear children.
Back of the Book
Based on the teachings of the Buddha, this book offers the most compelling and impassioned indictment of meat-eating to be found in Tibetan literature and is pertinent to anyone interested in vegetarianism as a moral or spiritual issue. The Buddha’s teachings show how destructive habits can be examined and transformed gradually from within. The aim is not to repress one’s desire for meat and animal products by force of will, but to develop heartfelt compassion and sensitivity to the suffering of animals, so that the desire to exploit and feed on them naturally dissolves.
There are two texts presented here. One is an excerpt from Shabkar’s Book of Marvels, consisting of quotations from the Buddhist scriptures and the teachings of masters of Tibetan Buddhism that argue against the consumption of meat, with Shabkar’s commentary. The second, the Nectar of Immortality, is Shabkar’s discourse on the importance of developing compassion for animals.
Shabkar (1781-1851) was a renowned practitioner and teacher both of the Mind-Training and the Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a free spiritual who chose to live as a hermit or wandering pilgrim without home or possessions, far from the organized life of religious establishments. He left behind many volumes of teachings, including a celebrated autobiography. He is famous for his concern for animals.
The Padmakara Translation Group, based in France, has a distinguished reputation for all its translations of Tibetan texts and teachings. Its work has been published in several languages and is renowned for its clear and accurate literary style.
People who know little about Buddhism but are fairly familiar with its teaching on nonviolence and compassion often assume that Buddhists are vegetarians. It is with surprise and sometimes a touch of disappointment that they discover that many (though by no means all) Buddhists, East and West, do in fact eat meat. Leaving aside the host of factors, private or social, affecting the behavior of individuals, the general attitude of Buddhists toward the consumption of meat has been conditioned by historical and cultural factors, with the result that attitudes vary from country to country. In their traditional setting, for example, the Mahayana Buddhists of China and Vietnam are usually strictly vegetarian. On the other and Vietnam are usually strictly vegetarian. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for Japanese-and almost always the case for Tibetan-to eat meat. And as Buddhism has spread to Europe, America, and elsewhere, it has seemed natural for new disciples to adopt the attitudes and practices typing of the tradition they follow.
Tibet was the one county on Asia to which the entire range of Buddhist teaching was transmitted from India, and Tibetans have, form the eighth century till the present, been deeply committed to the teachings of the Mahayana in both its sutric and tantric forms-studying, reflecting upon, and bringing into living experience its teachings on wisdom and universal compassion. It is well known, moreover, that these teachings and the attitudes they engendered on the popular level exerted a powerful influence on the relationship between the Tibetans and their natural surroundings. European visitors to Tibet and the Himalaya region before the Chinese invasion were often struck by the richness and docility of the wildlife, which had become fearless of human being in a country where hunting was rare and universally condemned. Yet the fact remains that Tibetans in general have always been, and still are, great meat eaters. This is mainly due to climate and geography, since large portions of the country lie at altitudes where the cultivation of crops is impossible.
Long habit, of course, gives rise to deep-seated predilection and, despite their religious convictions, many Tibetans living in other parts of the world have not changed their diet. This, is itself, is not very surprising. It is difficult for everyone to abandon the habits of a lifetime, and one of the first impulses pulses of travelers and immigrants the world over is to import or procure their own kind of food. In any case, like the rest of humanity, many Tibetans find meat delicious and eat it with relish. But if this was and is the norm, both in Tibet and among Tibetans in exile, the daily practice of the Mahayana-constant meditation on compassion and the Bodhisattva’s commitment to liberate all being form their sufferings-inescapably calls into question the eating of meat. As a rule, Tibetan Buddhists, even confirmed meat eaters, are not insensitive to this. Many freely admit that the consumption of a food indissociable from the intentional killing of animals is less than ideal and is unsuitable for Buddhist practitioners. Many Tibetans make the effort to abstain from meat on holy days and at certain sacred seasons of the year. Many express an admiration for vegetarianism; and it is rare to find Tibetan lamas who do not praise and advocate it for those who are able, even if, for whatever reason, the lames consume meat themselves.
Among the Tibetans living in exile in India and Nepal, countries where alternative nourishment is available and where the practice of meat eating is culturally less ingrained, a change of custom seems to be slowly taking shape, particularly among the younger generations. A number of monasteries, including Namgyal Dratsang, the monastery of His Holiness the Dalia Lama, no longer allow meat to be cooked in their kitchens; and even if the personal practice of individual monastics is left to their own decision, a small but growing number of monks and nuns have abandoned meat eating altogether.
Foe Western practitioners, the situation is rather different. Unlike the Tibetans, we live mostly in areas where a wide variety of wholesome vegetable food is easy to obtain. Nevertheless, we belong to a culture in which religious and ethical traditions sanction and encourage the eating of meat. The compassionate attitude toward animal life, which is inherent to the Buddhist outlook and with which, despite their nutritional habit, Tibetans are as a rule profoundly imbued, is lacking in our society. To a large extent, the human treatment of domestic animals, where it extent in the understanding that animals are living beings endowed with minds and feelings, whose predicament in samsara is essentially no different from our own. In any case, for many Westerners who have become Buddhists, who are carnivores both by habit by habit and desire, the challenge on the question of meat eating posed by Buddhism in general and by the Mahayana in particular tends to be dampened by the fact that, for the reasons just explained, Tibetans have rarely been able to give more than theoretical guidance, albeit sincere.
The situational has been further complicated by the perpetuation in the West of a number of “traditional” rationalizations used to condone the eating of meat by Buddhists. These are often adopted-a little too easily and uncritically, perhaps-by Westerners unable or unwilling to consider an alternative lifestyle. They include the concept of threefold purity, the idea that animals gain a connection with the Dharma (and are therefore benefited) when their flesh is eaten by practitioners, and various other notions derived from a distorted reading of the false or only half true and call for a careful, honest interpretation. The most that can be said for them is that can be said for them is that they are very understandable, very human attempts to salve tender consciences, invoked often apologetically and without much conviction when abstention from meat seems too difficult. In ordinary circumstances and where ordinary people are concerned, it is surely a mistake to regard them as expressions of valid principle.
In any case, it is important to be aware that in Tibet there exists and has always existed another point of view. This was present from the earliest days of Buddhism in the country. It was powerfully reaffirmed by the teaching of Atisha and his Kadampa followers and has been upheld by a few heroic individuals in every subsequent generation. As the texts translated in this book will show, Shabkar was one of this glorious company-Bodhisattva practitioners of both the sutras and the tantras, whose love of others and whose awareness of their sufferings was such that they abstained from meat, at the cost of great personal hardship, in a difficult and unyielding environment. In his discussion of the issues involve, Shabkar raises profound questions regarding various aspects of the Buddha Dharma at its Pratimoksha, Mahayana, and Vajrayana levels and, as a compassionate but clear-sighted observer of humanity, throws a fascinating light on the society and religion of his time.
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