On Being Vegetarian

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kadampa Center, Raleigh, North Carolina (Archive #1951)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche discusses how to benefit animals by becoming vegetarian. Rinpoche also explains why meat is required for tsog offering, a Highest Yoga Tantra practice. This teaching is excerpted from the Light of the Path retreat, May 17, 2014, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. Edited by FPMT International Office, June 2014. Second edit by Sandra Smith, November 2023.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche blesses a rescued goat, Maratika, Nepal, February 2016. Photo: Holly Ansett.

When I was in the hospital [in Australia] I saw on TV that a huge number of animals, cows and sheep, were being sent from Australia to Indonesia to be killed. They didn’t show the killing, but they showed the place where the animals were lined up to be killed. There was one cow with its horns tied with ropes—not with monk’s robes—on a platform down there where they were going to slaughter them.

Also, this is not a quick way, an easy technique for killing them. I think in Indonesia the way of killing must take time—they use knives and for bigger animals it’s a very heavy, very bad process that takes time for them to die. The man down below pulls the rope on the cow’s horns to bring it down to the place to be killed. They didn’t show it being killed, but they did show it being pulled down and the cow didn’t want to go. The horns were tied with ropes—they showed that—and the cow didn’t want to go as the man pulled it down with the ropes.

I thought, “I can’t stop this, I don’t know how, but from now on in the world, if I teach tantra, whatever subject it is, I can bring up this issue and ask people if they can become vegetarian, to not eat meat.” I’m not saying that every person on the course can’t eat meat, but generally, whatever subject I teach, I announce this message, wherever I go. The conclusion is that the less people eat meat, the fewer animals that are killed and suffer.

The rest of the world never pays attention to the chickens, to the fish, never pays attention to their suffering, to how much they suffer, and never thinks of their suffering. Due to ignorance and with self-cherishing thought, people think animals are just like plants, that they have no mind, that they are completely like a plant or piece of paper. Due to heavy ignorance—wow, wow, wow—the human beings on the earth never think animals want happiness and don’t want suffering, just like the human beings themselves who want to eat chicken or fish.

When the animal knows it will be harmed, it tries to run away. Why they do that? They try to hide or run away. Why they do that? Or they try to attack or harm back. Why they do that? People never understand that animals have suffering; they never think animals have suffering. Some people don’t care. The majority of human beings in the world treat animals like tissue paper. It’s unbelievable.

Think you are an animal, you are a fish or you are a chicken. How is this? You’re packed in a truck, it’s so hot, it’s difficult to breathe. You can see from the outside that in the truck it’s difficult to breathe.

When you liberate animals, goats are easy to keep because they don’t eat meat. But if you rescue chickens it’s difficult, because you have to put them in a house where they won’t eat worms, and then you feed them seeds or grain. If you have a house or a place to keep chickens, then it is easy. In Bodhgaya on Maitreya Land, there was space where we could liberate chickens, keeping them in a house and giving them food. Otherwise if you buy chickens and then all day long they eat worms on the ground, that is not good. That is very difficult. When I fly from Nepal, then from Patna I take a car to Root Institute in Bodhgaya. You see from the road where the chickens are to be killed. There are two or three places, at least two. In the past when I went through there, I tried to buy some chickens. I don’t remember any goats. So, it’s very difficult.

People who care about their health, you can see them doing so many exercises, hundreds of exercises. They buy machines and all day long put effort into exercise to be healthy. So why be healthy? What for? To have a long healthy life and create negative karma? To be healthy so they can continuously create heavy negative karma? Human beings have a sophisticated mind and brain, something that animals don’t have. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says to use the sophisticated brain to practice Dharma, to benefit oneself and bring happiness to other sentient beings.

Being healthy doesn’t mean to be pure; it means to not have sickness that can be seen through machines. We can live for a hundred years creating so much harmful negative karma, thinking in unbelievably complicated ways and making plans, but negative karma. Of course, for some people, in order to help others a long life can help. Having a good heart to help others, to help animals and to help the people, that is good. Otherwise, it’s a totally wrong reason to be healthy.

Although not all the time, when I take medicine I try to pray that my life may be beneficial for sentient beings. So I try, although not all the time, but from time to time I pray like that, to be beneficial for sentient beings. It is good if you can think like that when you take medicine or even when having an operation, to dedicate your life to be beneficial for sentient beings, to help them. This is very, very good for your life to not become harmful, but to be beneficial for sentient beings.

We are born [as a human], then our life finishes and perhaps we won’t meet Dharma for eons and eons. It’s so difficult to meet Dharma, so difficult to hear Dharma, so difficult to have the opportunity even to hear a human voice. When that karma is already experienced, what to do? If we’re born as monkey, what to do? If we’re born as a tiger we have to live life as a tiger eating other animals, we can’t be vegetarian, we can’t eat grass. Then worms eat small insects. What can we do? The karma already happened, so it’s too late. We didn’t meet Dharma, we didn’t practice Dharma, so it is karma, and we have to suffer like that until we get killed or we kill others. We create the karma to be killed. Every day we create so much heavy negative karma and make others suffer, and so we create the causes to suffer in the future—a hundred thousand, million, billion times—and to continuously be killed. We create the cause; it’s very, very sad.

Fewer people eating meat means fewer animals that suffer and are killed. Less people eating meat means less animal meat will be sold in shops, generally speaking. Of course, in the world, that doesn’t happen. To completely stop eating meat in the world doesn’t happen, because of the karma of sentient beings. Besides the whole world, even in a city it doesn’t happen because of the karma of sentient beings. But we can eat less meat, we can try. That can happen. 

In the past in Dharamsala, when I was traveling down the road, I used to think that all the goats and sheep were so fortunate because their meat was going to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness says that on some days he’s vegetarian and some days he’s not, because his doctor told him he must eat meat to be healthy. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, my root guru, and the elder guru of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ling Rinpoche, are not only great bodhisattvas, but enlightened beings, so it’s fortunate for those goats whose meat goes into their mouths. I used to think that.

Those animals receive prayers from those who are bodhisattvas, great tantric practitioners, yogis, enlightened beings, and what they pray really helps the animals get a higher rebirth. I think it’s so fortunate that they are eating them. Those bodhisattvas and great yogis and tantric practitioners, on the basis of bodhicitta, have so much power to help, to transfer, to guide them. Even though the beings are now in the lower realms, their consciousness can be [transferred] to a pure land or they can get higher rebirth and meet Dharma. Those great practitioners have much power, so they can do that to help.

tsog offering

In tsog, in the Highest Yoga Tantra practice, you need alcohol to hook the clear light, the highest tantra path. Like an atomic bomb, the quickest way to pacify the dualistic mind, the dualistic view and obscurations is the clear light nondual with emptiness. So it hooks the clear light. I’m not saying to have big steaks, huge meat like a cooked turkey and then eating it for tsog, similar to what I hear of many ngagpas who use many big bottles of alcohol and offer tsog and then drink the whole bottle. It should be just a small amount of alcohol, generally, even for Sangha, just small. The main thing is the meditation.

Even if you don’t have [realizations of] the generation stage, the graduated generation stage, gross and subtle, you visualize and take the blessing and then generate bliss. Try to do that: generate bliss nondual with emptiness. Try to generate that, so it hooks the clear light. It makes to have the realization of clear light, and then the meat, just blessing, that causes the illusory body, so the highest tantra method, wisdom clear light method, clear light and illusory body, which is the direct cause of the path of unification of those two and becomes the direct cause of the stage of no more learning, the unified state of Vajradhara. So you take [the tsog] with meditation like that, with a pure view, a pure mind. That is why we say bala and madana and don’t use their ordinary names. To stop the ordinary view, we use the terms bala and madana, not the ordinary terms “alcohol” and “meat”.

At least in my view, which is very limited view, in the Vajrayogini commentary there is reference to the root tantra text and a quotation that says alcohol and meat are needed to hook the clear light and illusory body. This is the quick way to pacify the obscurations, and as I said before, the quickest way to achieve enlightenment. You can’t use juice for alcohol and cheese for meat. At Kopan Monastery there was one Namgyal monk who came from Dharamsala for several years and when he was running the tsog, he used to offer cheese and juice. That is not what is mentioned in the root tantra commentary. You need alcohol and meat taken with meditation, with a totally pure mind, with pure concept, pure view of yourself as the deity. All that with a totally pure mind, pure view.

It is the karma of sentient beings and it won’t happen in the world that everyone stops eating meat. Even in a city like New York, to think everybody could stop eating meat is ridiculous. It’s like wanting everyone to have one religion or thinking that because everyone is fighting and there is so much war, that it’s better to have one religion. That is very silly, a very silly idea.

Even in Buddhism, the four different schools happened during Buddha’s time and in Tibet the Kagyü, Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug schools happened due to the karma of sentient beings. Even in tantra there are four classes of tantra. There are all those [variations] even in Buddhism, so of course, all the different religions—Hindu, Christian and so forth—had to happen. People have strong karma with those major religions and they don’t fit other religions, so it helps them. They have strong faith, so it helps them and brings happiness to them.

As His Holiness said, the basis of the majority of religions in the world is the good heart, to not harm others, and to help others; that is the very essence of all major religions. Thinking one religion is for all is kind of silly. Even for a restaurant to be successful, you can’t have only one type of food. You need many different kinds of food because one food doesn’t make everyone happy. Even with clothes, if you only sell baby clothes for one-year-olds, it doesn’t make sense. You have to have clothes for many ages, even for people who are one hundred years old. I’m joking, but if you want success, if you want to make [people] happy, even with clothing or houses, that is a normal thing to understand.