Thursday, September 3, 2015

My Short Experiment with Vegetarianism

Until high school, I never ate chicken and mutton (i.e. goat’s meat). This has partly to do with my direct witness of how some Indian teachers slaughtered goats or cocks or hens. Once they even demanded that I helped in the act. I refused and locked myself in in an empty classroom. Our family did eat dried beef, pork, and fish but often only on special occasions such as the New Year. We also used to eat meat of a cow, for example, that died a natural death. We never reared animals for meat. As children we were forbidden to mention the word “meat” in front of our domestic animals, especially cows. “Meat of killed animal” (bsad sha) used to be a taboo and meat of a just-killed animal even a greater taboo. Once my mother almost killed me for daring to eat sausage made from such a kind of meat. 

In the high school, I ate meat (probably buffalo meat) on Tuesdays and Fridays because the school provided it. As a monk in a Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary, I tried to be a vegetarian for a few months. In those days, monasteries and monks were very poor and resources very scarce. An ex-monk of Paṇ-chen-bla-ma cooked for the monks in the seminary. He used to smoke biḍī (a kind of cheap Indian cigarette). As a dGe-lugs ex-monk he had no sense of guilt in consuming the intoxicant. “The Buddha did not prohibit smoking,” he would say. “It was Slob-dpon Rin-po-che who did.”  He did not feel obliged to heed to the instructions of Slob-dpon Rin-po-che because, according to him, he had “women” (skye dman). He despised all bla mas who had “women.” He would show his little finger to vent his detestation for them. Dil-mgo-mkhyen-brtse Rin-po-che was no exception. He despised him too. He used to say that “a Bhutanese bla ma with woman scratched everything away from Pad-nor Rin-po-che and that monks were left with nothing to eat.” He was referring to the offerings Pad-nor Rin-po-che made after Dil-mgo-mkhyen-brtse Rin-po-che bestowed initiations and transmission of Mi-pham’s works. In order to tease him, I would tell him “Paṇ-chen Rin-po-che, too, had woman.” He would stand there fuming with biḍī and anger. He had tremendous respect for Pad-nor Rin-po-che not the least because he was a a fully-ordained Buddhist monk (bhikṣu: dge slong). So he volunteered to cook for Pad-nor Rin-po-che’s monks in the seminary. Of course, provisions were provided by Pad-nor Rin-po-che. Most monks dedicated to acquiring Dharmic knowledge were full of gratitude for receiving knowledge, accommodation, and food for free. Mi-la-ras-pa could have only dreamt of such a facility! Note that Mar-pa told him very sternly that he can expect from him either Dharma (chos) or food-and-clothes (lto gos) but not both! The cook turned out not to be the kindest person or the most competent cook on earth. The tea he would prepare would smell and look smoky. Its temperature would be either cold or lukewarm. The tea and the rice porridge he made would contain biḍī butts. Rice would often be half-cooked or burnt. The roasted maize-flour would be full of sands. Two monks were assigned to assist the cook for two weeks. If those two monks made better food or tea, he would become jealous. To spoil their work, he would, for example, even pour a bucket of cold water into a caldron of ready-to-eat rice porridge. To minimize the damage, the two monks had to somehow keep the cook happy. Only two things could make him happy. (a) Let him cook as he wished. (b) Buy him a bottle of ara (i.e. alcohol) and a packet of biḍī. Hardly anyone would complain. Even teachers would mix some sandy tsam pa with some lukewarm biḍī-smelling tea, turn into a brew and sip at it. If one slightly shook the dented steel-bowl with the concoction, one could hear the sound of sand-sediments rubbing against the steel. Only once I heard a senior teacher reprimand the cook saying the Rin-po-che is providing the provisions for the saṃgha and that these should by no means be wasted. Another teacher, however, would reprimand any monk who complained. “The door is open in both ways,” he would say. “Nobody invited you to come. If you are displeased, you may leave the seminary any time.” He was right. Some monks would leave; others would stay behind biting their lips and biting sandy tsam pas. I stayed. Occasionally there would be meat. If one is lucky one might be able to fish out a piece of meat or bone in the porridge or cabbage or potato dish. There would be no vegetarian alternative. Once I told the cook that I don’t eat meat. He told me that I should then only take the soup or put aside the meat pieces (in any). Under such circumstances, the only way one could be a vegetarian was to buy one’s own vegetarian food. I had no money and so vegetarianism was a luxury for me. So I relinquished my short-lived vegetarian diet. Since then I eat meat but I try not to eat meat so often. I know I have no other excuse for my meat-eating except my greed and my inability to relinquish “exquisite” food. I am often guilt-ridden for eating meat and have much respect for those who relinquish meat for whatever motives. One thing seems clear: If I had to kill an animal myself to obtain its meat for myself, perhaps I would never eat meat.

Apropos, I am tempted to share this story. It is said that once a
 German lady witnessed the Dalai Lama eating a piece of steak onboard a plane. She went up to him and said: “I thought Buddhists do not eat meat.” The Dalai Lama retorted: “Those are the good Buddhists.”

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