Meat - A Moral Maze
In Tibet, meat is a topic of considerable interest and debate. Geoffrey Barstow recently wrote a whole book about it, unpicking how the practice of killing animals and eating meat can be tolerated in a society that aligns so closely with Buddhism and Buddhist morality.
Tibetan people have traditionally lived closely alongside their animal friends, and perceive the suffering of animals as similar to that of humans. This is a view of the animal kingdom that is completely distinct from traditional Christian theology, which holds that God created animals for the use of human beings, and that animals have no powers of reasoning, and no soul.
In Tibet, where people believe in reincarnation and it is possible for a human to be reborn as an animal and vice versa, it is conceivable that the animal slaughtered for your dinner table was once your mother in a previous life. This problem is widely discussed. Yeshi often mutters a prayer under his breath before eating something meaty. He says that the idea is to help the animal gain a better rebirth next time around. It also, of course, does wonders for his own karma.
The reality is that in many parts of Tibet, and particularly for nomadic people, meat is an unavoidable part of the diet. Very little grows at high altitude, and nomads have traditionally relied on yak, sheep and goat meat, and their associated dairy products, for basic survival.
Then there is the medical angle. Tibetan people widely accept that His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama consumes meat occasionally "for medical reasons". In the monasteries where monks and nuns follow a vegetarian diet, there is evidence of meat being tolerated and introduced as a form of medicine where required. The belief that a meat-free diet may be detrimental to health persists in many parts of Tibet.
Finally there is the question of meat and machismo with which we in the west are surely familiar. In Tibet this may tie in with the belief that eating meat helps to build a strong constitution. As elsewhere in the world, male vegetarians are probably rarer in Tibet than female vegetarians.
A very Tibetan twist on all this involves the butcher himself. In modern-day western society, there is a movement of people who say that they will only eat meat from animals they have killed themselves. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, has spoken of his own attempts to follow this method.
In Tibet, there is nothing more sinful than this when it comes to meat. Killing is forbidden in the Buddhist monastic code, and so to kill an animal for one's own consumption is completely taboo. But a monk is permitted to eat meat from an animal slaughtered by someone else, as long as the butcher does not specifically hold the monk in mind.
The most "acceptable" way to eat meat is to come upon an animal that has died a natural death. At the weekend we were driving to a campsite just outside of Oxford, and saw a dead pheasant in the road. Yeshi said that we should stop and cook the pheasant on the barbecue for dinner. This idea was hugely distasteful to me, but for him it represented a rare opportunity to enjoy something delicious guilt-free.
We didn't take the pheasant, but this was an interesting case (and there are many of them!) of how our cultures collide.