Religious leaders attempting to follow specific rules of conduct are often the object of criticism regarding hypocrisy. For example, the Dalai Lama has been criticized over his consumption of meat, when it is generally understood that monks are vegetarians due to their belief in non-violence. After all, in Buddhism the first precept is, “I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from harming living beings.”[i]
Even Paul McCartney, former Beatle, outspoken vegetarian and animal-rights activist, and practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, has written a letter to the Dalai Lama entreating him not to eat meat, which causes suffering to animals.[ii]
While the Dalai Lama has received criticism from the vegetarian community “for continuing to eat meat, while promoting non-violence,” it is on the advice of a doctor that he has begun eating “small amounts of meat after developing gall bladder issues and hepatitis.”[iii]
There are divergent views on vegetarianism in the various schools of Buddhism, however, in the Pali Canon, Buddha declared meat-eating to be karma neutral.[iv] In general, monks are to accept the food given to them with this caveat: they should not eat meat if they believed it was killed specifically for them to consume.[v]
Recently, the New York Times ran an article on the forbidden treat of Tibetan beef dumplings (sha momos). In Tibet, the tradition of meat-eating is deeply ensconced. Because of the inhospitable terrain of the country, it is not conducive to growing vegetables. Due to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1960’s, many Tibetans live in India and the U.S., and eating sha momos gives these exiles a strong cultural tie to their homeland.[vi] Being Tibetan, the Dalai Lama may also crave this connection to his homeland, as he escaped into exile from Tibet in 1959.[vii]
As an international religious and political figure, the Dalai Lama has struck a compromise for his health’s sake, and eats “vegetarian in Dharamsala and meat dishes when he’s on the road and it’s offered by his hosts.”[viii] However, the question on many people’s minds is whether compromise is acceptable in their leader.