Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Note on Bya-bral Sangs-rgyas-rdo-rje’s (1913–2015) Vegetarianism

I have neither studied the life and works of Bya-bral Sangs-rgyas-rdo-rje (1913–2015), a leading Tibetan Buddhist master of the rNying-ma (“Ancient”) Order, nor am I an expert on the subject of vegetarianism. Nonetheless, I wish to make a note on Bya-bral Rin-po-che’s endorsement of vegetarianism. One of his legacies is certainly his active propagation of vegetarianism and his engagement in the freeing animals. Modern scholars have begun  to take interest in the phenomenon of vegetarianism in societies of the past and present impregnated with Tibetan Buddhism. I recently came to know sNying-byams-rgyal (I hope my orthography is correct) in Cracow, a young bright scholar from A-mdo, who is studying the phenomenon of vegetarianism in present Tibetan society (especially in East Tibet). I was told that a scholar in Japan (i.e. a student of Professor Chizuko Yoshimitsu from Tsukuba University and whose name I have not registered) has also been studying the effects of vegetarianism in the traditionally meat-eating nomadic society, and especially impacts of practicing vegetarianism on pregnant nomadic women. There seem to be also other unanticipated problems that practice of vegetarianism brings along for the Tibetan society. Let us, however, wait for the findings of sNying-byams-rgyal. A few points that he shared with us during the recent conference in Cracow struck me. According to him, vegetarianism in Tibet has also become an instrument of polemical or sectarian divide. The popular cliché is that the rNying-ma masters propagate vegetarianism whereas the dGe-lugs masters propagate meat-eating. Like  any other cliché, there are some elements of truth in it but, as a cliché usually is, it is also dangerously over-simplifying and caricatural. We cannot, however, deny that Tibetan masters in Tibet who propagate vegetarianism are rNying-ma masters (e.g. mKhan-po Tshul-khrims-blo-gros from gSer-rta). But many master from other schools, too, propagate vegetarianism. I personally happen to know, for example, Jo-nang master ’Jam-dbyangs-blo-gros Rin-po-che from ’Dzam-thang), who also practices vegetarianism. Outside Tibet,  Bya-bral Rin-po-che has been the main proponent of vegetarianism among the rNying-ma masters. Although a bundle of different motives and arguments are possible, his main argument seems to be an ethical one, that is, meat-eating is not in tune with the fundamental Buddhist ethical-spiritual precept of non-injury and of refraining from taking life. The ethical argument is perhaps the primary argument for all proponents of  vegetarianism within and without Tibet. In addition, vegetarianism within and without Tibet seems to have been compelled by societal circumstances. That is, it sounds simply inappropriate for a Tibetan Buddhist master who has a great number of Chinese disciples hailing from a Chinese Buddhist society with a strong  tendency for vegetarianism. Similarly, in Dharamsala, for example, one would not usually get beef dumplings. Not selling or consuming beef in such a societal context is a mark of certain consideration for the social environment. It seems simply inappropriate to eat beef in a largely Hindu society, where cows are regarded sacred. If one were to live in a Jewish or Islamic society, it would be similarly appropriate to relinquish pork. Such a Buddhist compliance to society is expressed by the Buddhist dictum: “The code of discipline should conform the place” (’dul ba yul dang bstun). Śāntideva, too, has advised (Bodhicaryāvatāra 5.93cd): “All those that would cause disproval of the world should be abandoned after having seen and asked” (’jig rten ma dad gyur pa kun || mthong dang dris te spang bar bya ||). So Buddhist monasteries in South Asia now seem to serve only vegetarian food. This does not, however, mean that all Buddhist monks living in monasteries are vegetarian. When one hears of Tibetan Buddhist masters such as Bya-bral Rin-po-che propagating vegetarianism, one might suspect these masters to be somewhat like the so-called “peace activists” who, with full of hate, resort to violence. In other words, one may suspect them to be vegetarian dictators or despots, who threaten or employ psychological terror: “If you eat meat, you are not my disciple.” Or worse still: “If you eat meat, you are not a Buddhist.” Such rigidity or radicality would seem to be contrarious to what one would believe is the very attitude and approach of the historical Buddha. I heard my German professor often say that the historical Buddha is often attributed of stating: “One should refrain killing even an ant.” But, according to him, he never prescribed to what extent one should refrain from killing. A total refrainment from killing a sentient being is practically impossible, that is, if one continues to exist. But just imagine the Buddha telling me: “If you kill a microorganism (e.g. bacteria), you are not my follower (or a Buddhist).” This would mean that to be a Buddhist, I should cease to exist! Ānanda, having obtained clairvoyance one day, is said to have stopped drinking water, because he could see that his drinking water was full of microorganisms. But the Buddha just told him: “Drink!” So to what extent should one refrain from harming other sentient beings? The Bodhisattvabhūmi would have told us: yathāśakti yathābalam. Indeed, the answer really seems to be “as much as one can” or “to the best of one’s capacity.” But how much is “as much as one can”? That has to be decided by oneself. One alone is a witness to whether one has done one’s best. Returning to Bya-bral Rin-po-che, I was curious to know how apodictic or radical is his propagation of vegetarianism. So I tried to listen to some videos containing his statements on vegetarianism. It became clear to me that he recommends (but does not demand or dictate) a vegetarian diet primarily on ethical grounds. More importantly, however, he clearly states that one should refrain from meat-eating “if one can.” If one cannot at all give up meat-eating (i.e. for whatever reason), he suggests to refrain from meat-eating at least on the four auspicious days (dus bzang) in the Buddhist calendar, such as on the Buddha’s birthday. In short, he is not at all apodictic or radical about his propagation of vegetarianism. One should refrain from meat-eating as much as one can. If the Buddha were to live today, he would have said the same thing. In this and many other regards, I would say that Buddhavajra (Sangs-rgyas-rdo-rje) is very much like the Buddha (Sangs-rgyas).

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