The Dalai Lama is often mistakenly thought of as the leader of both Buddhism and the Tibetan diaspora but he is neither of these things. The Dalai Lama is a very influential monk in one school of Tibetan Buddhism and has recently resigned from his position as Tibetan head of state, leaving political decisions to a government of Tibetan officials. He has spent most of his life advocating for Tibetan refugees and has travelled the world speaking and writing about compassion.
Does Buddhism even promote veganism?
There are five precepts are the Buddhist code of ethics. The first of these five is:
I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.
In the original Pali, the word Pana is used to define what the Buddhist should abstain from killing. Pana means ‘breathing,’ and the precept is understood to mean that Buddhists should abstain from killing anything that breathes*. Many people, whether they know of this precept or just have a general idea of what Buddhism is about, assume all Buddhists are vegetarian if not vegan.
That’s not quite the case. Different Buddhist sects interpret this seemingly simple rule in various ways: some abstain from killing certain animals, some will not eat the meat of an animal killed explicitly for them, others will eat meat but never order it at a restaurant and some believe the rule is intended for monks but not lay-followers.
Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, is a high lama of the Gelug school of Buddhism – a sect which arose from Vajrayana Buddhism, and in which eating meat is not always prohibited. Growing up in Tibet he ate a diet typical of the region and his status, which included meat and dairy. Tibet is an inhospitable place to grow vegetable crops and the majority of the population, including many Buddhists, eat animal products.
Tenzin flirts with lacto-ovo vegetarianism
When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 he took residence in India, the birthplace of the Buddha and a region with a rich tradition of vegetarianism. Here he adopted a vegetarian diet which he has described as being rich in milk and cream*. After 20 months of vegetarianism he succumbed to a Hepatitis B infection * and was encouraged by his doctors to resume consumption of meat to aid his recovery. He told Piers Morgan in a 2012 interview:
Then some illness. The gallbladder, jaundice problem. So, I — my sort of face become yellow. And nails and eyes become yellow. So later, I jokingly telling people, at that time, I truly become living Buddha.*
It’s quite possible that doctors advised this change in diet, but it is unnecessary advice since usually acute hepatitis B infection in adults is overcome by the patients own immune system. If the Dalai Lama’s infection was severe (which from his description it sounds like it was, jaundice causing yellowing of the skin is seen in patients suffering severe hepatitis B) he may have required antiviral treatment. Some studies have been published assessing the potential effects of nutritional supplements or adjustments on Hepatitis B patients none of which suggest consuming meat as either a remedy or therapy*. Eating healthily is advised for all patients especially those with liver inflammation so perhaps the advice to change his diet was appropriate ‘lay off the cream’ but returning to regular consumption of meat is unlikely to have had any effect on his recovery.
Since recovering from his illness the Dalai Lama has remained convinced that he is unable to be vegetarian, let alone vegan. It is hard to understand how he can maintain this belief when brief research into hepatitis B or the nutritional adequacy of a well balanced vegetarian or vegan diet reveals that it is entirely possible for someone with his health concerns to thrive on a vegan diet. Not only is he based in India where he must know many healthy life-long vegetarians but as an international celebrity he could easily have access to the best health and nutrition advice should he seek it out. No less than Paul McCartney has taken it upon himself to write to the Dalai Lama asking him to go vegetarian and responding to his protests of being unable to due to his doctors advice told his holiness in no uncertain terms that “[the doctors] are wrong”*
Does sitting down, after a hard day of espousing the vegetarian diet, for a meal of veal make one a hypocrite*?
Despite not adhering to a vegetarian diet the Dalai Lama promotes vegetarianism, saying, when asked about the ethics of meat-eating:
A vegetarian diet is the most healthy one for you. We must respect all forms of life.
He goes on to clarify the basis of his views on vegetarianism:
Animals deserve our compassion… We must know their pain. We should nurture this compassion through education. Showing concern about animal rights is respecting their life. *
The Dalai Lama is thought to be a bodhisattva of compassion, nurturing this compassion and expressing it through his actions would seem to be consistent with his beliefs and his role as the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. However it appears that even high lamas succumb to cognitive bias. The Dalai Lama recovered from his hepatitis B infection after following his doctors advice to resume consuming meat it is unsurprising that he perceives these two unrelated events as causally related. His refusal to reexamine this perception could be due to fear or hypocrisy but it seems most likely that, like many others the Dalai Lama lives with a level of cognitive dissonance surrounding the use of animals.
Human, all too human
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort of holding beliefs which contradict or oppose each other. To ease Cognitive dissonance Leon Fesstinger posits two human reactions:
- The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance”
- When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance” *
In the all too common example of a meat-eater who believes killing animals is wrong the dissonance can be resolved either by adopting a vegan lifestyle thus achieving consonance, or ignoring information that reminds them of their belief that killing animals is wrong, thus avoiding the discomfort. The Dalai Lama claims to believe that he is unable to give up eating animals. If this belief is challenged, in letters from pop stars or any other source, he is forced to confront his dissonance which is an unpleasant experience. This is why Paul McCartney will in all probability, never get a reply to his second letter.
To understand why people don’t act in a consistent manner it is important to understand cognitive dissonance and to avoid elevating people to hero-status. I don’t believe that Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th reincarnation of a bodhisattva, I think he is a human with the same janky human brain we all have. To understand that is to be kinder in our judgment of him and ourselves, but also to strive to overcome our own often irrational brains and live in a manner consistent with principles governed by reason and compassion not superstition or cognitive bias.
Imperfect people are capable of expressing great truths, in fact all great truth was realized by an imperfect human mind. In this closing quote The Dalai Lama touches on the subject of cognitive dissonance, perhaps inadvertently.
It is always dangerous to ignore the suffering of any living being, of whatever species, even if we think it necessary to sacrifice an animal for the benefit of the majority. To deny the suffering involved, or to avoid thinking about it, is a convenient solution, but such an attitude opens the door to all kinds of excesses as we witness in wartime. It also destroys our own happiness. As I often say, sympathy and compassion always end up proving beneficial. *
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