Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"You Get Sick If You Don't Eat Meat!"

Once a year during Sakadawa, Tibetan culinary conventions are reversed for the course of four weeks: Not eating meat is the social norm and for a change, vegetarianism is self-understood. Tomorrow will be the first day of the Tibetan Vesak. My grandma from A Tibetan Christmas used to live on tea and buns during the whole month, and on tsepa 15, the day of the full moon which falls on 13 June this year, she would rise before dawn to take the eight Mahayana precepts. Except for the meal at noon which also consisted of some tea and a bun, she would fast to turn her focus on the mind, making the fasting become a prayer.

To observers it is often astonishing that there aren't more "full-time vegetarians" beyond Sakadawa. Tibetans usually explain it with the harsh highland climate, the historical lack of greens and the environmentally imposed necessity to eat meat for physical strength, even though that is bygone times: These days you can find any food in Tibet, with plenty of greens and fruits not only imported from China, but also locally grown. That hasn't weakened the traditional bias though that a meatless diet weakens your health.

When we openly refused a food as children, we were told, "In Africa they have nothing to eat, so be grateful and eat up!" When we left food on our plates because we were full, we were told, "Leaving food is sdigpa! Eat up!" 

Miraculously enough, none of us had any food allergies back then: "Gluten-free" or "lactose-intolerant" were unknown adjectives and "vegetarian" sounded like an illness. I for one have never been much of a carnivore from the start. It felt nauseating to eat meat even when it came disguised as Momo, the Tibetan national dish number one. The moment our parents left the dinner table, I would quickly shovel the meat over onto my brother's plate. He would quietly pass me his Momo wrappings and vegies.

My Amala would also have none of my first attempts as a teenager to consciously stop eating meat. Her first reaction was always, "You get sick if you don't eat meat!" But only with the second argument did she haul out the really big guns: "Even Gyalwa Rinpoche, who tried to subsist on a meatless diet, was forced to eat meat again, because he became very frail, and the doctors ordered him to eat meat again!"

The message was very clear: When even Tibet's Avalokitesvara in person had to eat meat to sustain his human body, what was I ordinary little mortal to think she could survive without?

Khyod sangsrgyas-las mkhaspar yodbas?

That was usually the end of my attempts to discontinue a carnivorous diet. With the years I realised that the rhetorical question "Do you presume you are smarter than the Enlightened One?" was an effective method to discourage any attempt at trying something outside of the social norm.

Only later did I learn that there are millions of Indians, who voluntarily and healthily subsist on a vegetarian diet without the slightest health deficits, and right under the Dalai Lama's nose, if I may point out.  Perhaps his cooks back then were not up to the latest level of nutritional information? And if they were Tibetan, they maybe had the same ingrained bias like my mother that a meatless diet makes you sick?

While Tibetans are generally fond of meat, I think it's safe to say that the killing aspect haunts them and they sincerely rejoice in everyone, who manages to live as a vegetarian. The Lama said, honestly rejoicing in the wholesome actions of others is also a way to accumulate great merit. In other words, the pensive carnivore might actually be in better karmic shape than the proud vegetarian.

Some also point out though they eat meat, it comes exclusively from big animals such as cattle, where one life taken lasts to feed many; and not from small animals such as for example crabs, where many lives would have to be taken to achieve the same effect. This can sound like an excuse. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. And perhaps it also is for some, but according to Tibetan logic, a life weighs equal irrespective of size. Therefore, while fully acknowledging that taking the life of any sentient being is an unwholesome action, people tend to consider killing "only" big animals for food, a mitigating circumstance.

A further distinction is made with only two-toed "big animals" slaughtered. Meat from solidungulates such as horses is a cultural no-go. A total no-go are fish, seafood and insects enjoyed in other Buddhist countries such as Thailand. Traditionally, Tibetans haven't eaten chicken either. So although the Tibetan diet is doubtlessly carnivorous, it is indeed conservatively restricted to the meat of certain animals. Of course from the standpoint of those "certain animals" that's still bad news, but the goal to have a vegetarian world is unrealistic and from a Buddhist point of view the vegetarian diet is not harm-free either since uncountable numbers of insects die even in organic agriculture. 

My oldest cousin in Tibet, who inherited the farm where my dad was born, grows crops and keeps animals as most people in his area. His work animals are mostly Dzo, a crossbreed between Yak and cow used mainly for heavy-duty work such as ploughing fields or pulling charges. His animals also have names which is indicative of something like a personal relationship. Gü-ser ("Golden Back") is the name of the animal he loves most because it is working the hardest. During a leisurely walk through his fields where we caught up on what happened in our lives since we last met, my cousin suddenly disclosed, "Aché, I stopped eating beef. I cannot eat their flesh any longer when I see how hard they labour side by side with us." Empathy had grown in him.

Given that this relative is an upright Khampa, who are the people capable of asking in all seriousness, "If you don't eat meat, what do you eat?" this change of heart is truly remarkable. But of course he still relishes pork. There is nothing that beats phayul phaksha ("hometown pork") with loads of fat. When we first came to this part of the highlands we were invited to many homes. There was always a dish in a bowl made up of pure white cubes. The first time, my mom thinking it is Liangfen stuck in her chopsticks and ate one. To her horror it was solid pork fat, a local delicacy. Tibetans love their tshilu. Some even affectionately call their sweetheart ngayi snying-gi tshilu – "fat of my heart", woah!

My mom didn't give up preaching the beneficial effects of a carnivorous diet long after I had become a big girl, married with children and her own household. But now nearing my late grandma's age, she is also immersing herself more into the Dharma and in parallel, her conviction that not eating meat will make you sick, has been eroding. To my surprise I heard her say the other day that there are so many other ways of getting your protein, that eating meat was no longer a necessity.

The Lama could easily tell his devoted listeners to stop eating meat in order not to contribute to the killing of animals. Most would follow whatever he says without a second thought, faith runs deep. But he doesn't give them the answer. Instead the Lama works out the animals' side, explains their suffering, their stress and fear, and then leaves it up to people to do their thinking and draw their conclusions, helping them to strengthen their judgment and responsibility. And not only does he accord people the freedom to act as they see fit, he also does not judge their decisions: As long as behaviour remains ethical, he said, any decision is okay. - Definitely more appealing than vegetarian fundamentalist accusations in the style of "meat is murder!" or "don't ask me why I am a vegetarian; ask yourself why you are not!"

With time my mom befriended many people in her Dharma community, several of whom happen to be vegetarian. Seeing once is better than hearing a thousand times. Through their simple personal example, she finally became aware of her overestimation of the benefits of a carnivorous diet. As a result, my mom now limits her own meat intake to once a week. Miracles happen! Being the person my mother is she now found herself a new culinary Mantra: "Eating meat once in a while won't harm you!"

Happy Sakadawa!
Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

Related Essays