Talks on Vegetarianism by HH Gyalwang Karmapa:
Jan 2007
Dec 2007   
Feb 2013   
In Finnish




27th Feb –Vajra Vidhya Institute, Sarnath


On the sixth day of his Spring Teachings the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, cut straight to the core of an issue that is vital not only for the sustainability of our contemporary world, but also within our individual lives as Buddhist practitioners. Exploring the topic from many different angles, the Gyalwang Karmapa discussed his views on whether Buddhist practitioners should eat meat or not, and if so, when and how it may be acceptable to do so.


"A few years ago at one of the Kagyu Monlams I spoke about the topic of vegetarianism, giving up eating meat. You could say it was an announcement, but it was really like making a suggestion. Since then many years have passed, and over the years I've heard people say various things. Some people have even said, 'Oh, Ogyen Trinley Dorje says that if you don't give up eating meat then you're not a Kagyupa.' Now, it actually wasn't me who said that. It was the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje who said that. So it wasn't my idea, and it's not like I said you better give up meat or else you're not a Kagyupa."


In fact, there are different ways we can interpret the 8th Karmapa's advice, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa continued. If we take a looser interpretation of Mikyo Dorje's words, then by eating meat you can say that you're not a truly pure Kagyu practitioner. "There are many great Kagyu masters who have eaten meat, so it is very difficult to merely say that eating meat means that you have faults. But eating meat is something that all of us who practice the dharma need to think about very carefully."


The Gyalwang Karmapa, himself a pure vegetarian, then turned to his own life as an example. "When I spoke about this, I was primarily thinking about the way I lead my own life. I can't really do anything about how other people lead their lives, but in terms of thinking about myself there are some reasons for this." He then explained two key reasons that he personally does not eat meat. The first reason is the intense suffering that the animals who are killed go through. Every single day millions of animals are killed to feed us, and many are subjected to terrible conditions to provide us with food. Just a few days previously the Gyalwang Karmapa had shared a story of how, as a child in Tibet, when animals were killed for his family's food he felt unbearable, pure compassion for them.


The second reason he doesn't eat meat, the Gyalwang Karmapa continued, is because of his Mahayana training in seeing all sentient beings as his mothers. "We say I am going to do everything I can to free sentient beings from suffering. We say I am going to do this. We make the commitment. We take the vow. Once we have taken this vow, if then, without thinking anything about it, we just go ahead and eat meat, then that is not okay. It is something that we need to think about very carefully."


The Gyalwang Karmapa then acknowledged that there are some circumstances in which eating meat is allowed, or even necessary. He explained that within the Buddhist Vinaya, or rules for monks and nuns, eating meat is allowed mainly when one is ill, but only if three conditions are met: we must not have seen, heard, or thought that the animal was killed particularly for us to eat it. Meat is allowed when a person is sick, the Gyalwang Karmapa clarified, or for those people who need more nourishment and have great difficulty nourishing themselves without it.


"But when you eat meat in these situations you should not just eat it in an ordinary sort of way," he continued. "You first need to meditate on compassion for one session—compassion for all sentient beings in general, but especially for this particular animal whose flesh is in front of you. Then you should recite the mantras of the Buddha's name, as well as mantras that can help purify misdeeds. Only then should you start eating the meat."


Yet his guidance did not stop there. Returning to the Mahayana training of seeing all sentient beings as mothers, the Gyalwang Karmapa explained further. "When you start eating the meat you have to think about it in a particular way. You should think of it as being the meat of your mother or your father or your child. You should think of eating it in that way, and so it's when you think of it as being your mother's or your child's meat, then that is when you can eat it."


We must also have a pure motivation when we eat the meat, the Gyalwang Karmapa continued. "We should not eat the meat in order to enjoy it, because it is delicious. We should not eat it because we want to enjoy the great flavor and savor what we are eating. Instead we should eat the meat only in order to keep ourselves alive."


To avoid any misunderstanding, the Gyalwang Karmapa repeated the need for each individual to reflect deeply on the issue: "Now, I did not say that we need to immediately give up eating meat. I understand that it's difficult to give up eating meat. But I did say that we need to think about it carefully. When we eat meat, if we are someone who has entered the path of the Mahayana, someone who has begun to think of all sentient beings as their father, their mother, or their child, in terms of someone who practices in this way it's really something that we need to consider very carefully."  


Gyalwang Karmapa’s Advice on Vegetarianism
December 24, 2007, Translated by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche & Karma Choephel,


Now we are finishing the 25th Kagyu Monlam in a very auspicious way, and there is not a whole lot for a fool like me to say. A great crowd of monks and nuns from the different Kagyu monasteries have come here. Similarly, there are many people who have come here from , Tsang, and Kham in Tibet. A great number of people from foreign countries, both East and West, have also come. For all of you to come here is, as I have already said, a wonderful great fortune for all of us, for myself and for you, and I am very happy about this.
Last year on the final day of the Kagyu Monlam, I said a few things on the subject of giving up eating meat. Almost all of you probably already know this. It seems some people did not completely understand what I said. For example, some foreign students seemed to think it meant that once you become a student of the Kagyu, meat is not allowed to pass your lips. They told all the meat-eating Kagyupas, “You can’t be a Kagyupa if you eat meat.” I did not say anything that inflammatory. If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat. That is what I said.
I certainly did not say that you are not allowed to eat meat at all. That would be difficult. Whether it is because of previous karma or their present circumstances, some people cannot do without meat. This is how it is, and there’s nothing to do about it. It’s not a problem.
If you have to eat meat, there is a proper way to eat it. Do not just grab it and stuff it into your mouth as soon as it is put on your plate. If first you think carefully about it, meditate on compassion, and recite the names of buddhas or mantras before eating, then it has some positive effects.
When I was explaining this last year, I said that one reason to give up eating meat was for the long life of the lamas. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, passed through his “obstacle year” according to Tibetan astrology, so it was for his long life. Next year will be his post–obstacle year. I also brought up my own name. On one hand, it may have been out of desperation that I said, “If you do this for my own long life, that would be good.” Some people have asked how it is that their giving up eating meat could bring me a longer life. It’s difficult to give a direct answer to that question.
But if we don’t eat meat, even if we don’t live longer, I think we will live happier lives. If we enjoy the flesh and blood of other beings, then at the time we have to go, we might feel as if this life didn’t turn out so well. We will have carelessly consumed the flesh and blood of other beings. That might happen, right? If we don’t eat meat, life might not be longer, but there is a possibility we might be more satisfied.
Many monasteries in India and Nepal have done such great, positive things as giving up meat and cooking vegetarian food instead. This is a good example for Buddhism in general, and I think it especially becomes Mahayana practice.
 In our eyes, such high lamas as Jamgon Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche are the living presence of Manjushri and Vajrapani. Out of care for sentient beings, they intend to refrain from eating meat and to become vegetarian. I think that for them to have such an intention is actually a great fortune for all of us sentient beings; it is good fortune for all of their followers.

Some of the other high lamas who are here, Thrangu Rinpoche and Tenga Rinpoche, were present during the time of the previous Karmapa, and they are like the pillars of the teachings. Throughout their lives they have developed strong habits of eating meat. However, out of their concern for beings and the Buddhist teachings, they have taken great steps in this direction. For that reason, all of us who call ourselves their followers need to think about this.
Everyone is really trying their best. For example, in Tibet, in the old days there was no way to live without eating butter, cheese, and meat. Now maybe because of better environmental conditions, or because Tibetans have such strong faith, or because they are stubborn, the monasteries even in many remote places have promised to give up meat. When we think about it, there are many people here in India who generally do not like eating meat. So when those of you who live here give up meat, it is not really anything novel. For people in Tibet, however, to give up meat is a big deal. I would like to say thank you to all of them. We need to keep doing everything we can.
We should contemplate the Mahayana teachings and the precious teachings of the Kagyus. The earlier Kagyu masters gave up meat, took up a vegetarian diet, and developed pure love for sentient beings. If we ourselves can take up even the smallest aspect of this sort of action and start with something small, it will turn out extremely well, I think. So that is what I have to say about giving up meat.


Instructions on not eating meat from His Holiness 17th Karmapa (notes)


Notes in January 2007

Full moon day 3rd January 2007 was the last day of the 24th Kagyu Monlam.  In the shade of the Bodhi Tree, seat of Enlightenment of One Thousand Buddhas, Ogyen Trinley Dorje the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa gave this teaching on the benefits of not eating meat.  Over 6,000 people were present.  The teaching was heard by Lineage Holders, Rinpoches, Lamas, Ordained Sangha and lay practitioners who had travelled from many countries including Tibet, Nepal, India, Taiwan, Korea, Burma, USA, Canada, Russia and all parts of Europe. 


The teaching was translated into various languages simultaneously and transmitted by FM radio.  In this way it was possible to hear the meaning and at the same time to connect with the clarity and passion of the Karmapa’s roaring voice.  The English translation was made available by Ringu Tulku. 


I made no notes at the time and perhaps at a later date the full transcription will be made available.  However, on a few occasions during the Monlam teachings, His Holiness said that as the Kagyu family we should not be over concerned with precise details at the expense of the meaning of His message.  For all practical purposes I am confident that this is a true account of what was said and offer it now with a sense of urgency.


Towards the end of the teaching His Holiness specifically asked those present to make it available to others since he considers the subject to be of such importance.  He joked that the Tibetans should translate it for those from Amdo in case they claimed not to have understood His dialect.


Throughout the Kagyu Monlam, His Holiness spoke often of his childhood as a poor nomad in Tibet.  It was the practice of nomads at a particular time of year to gather together the animals that were to be slaughtered.  At these times He was completely distraught with concern for the suffering of the animals.  Whatever his family tried they could not contain his sorrow.  Since then He said that He has studied so much of the Dharma and practiced so diligently and yet in all of the study and practice He has never found anything that could be created that was more precious than this naturally arising kindness towards other beings. 

He urged us all to connect with that innate goodness in ourselves.


On one occasion whilst living in Tibet someone had interpreted the lines on the hands of His Holiness and indicated that there are potential obstacles to his life in his 23rd and 24th years.  Since leaving Tibet His Holiness himself had a dream regarding the same issue.  He said that whilst he is not normally afraid of death, He woke from the dream deeply concerned.  It was in response to this that He has concluded that the best remedy to the obstacles to both His life and the life of the Dalai Lama will be for his followers to preserve life and specifically to have less involvement with the killing of animals and the suffering that results from eating meat.


It was very clear that the Karmapa was not making a polite request. 

As head of the Lineage, He was investigating faults, making a diagnosis of obstacles and prescribing a remedy that must be followed.


With immediate effect:


         No meat is to be prepared in the kitchen of any Kagyu Monastery or Centre

         No one is to be involved in the business of buying and selling meat

        – for all of His followers this practice must stop

         There is to be no killing of animals on Kagyu premises – the slaughterhouse at Tsurphu must be closed

         He is aware of monks in robes going to buy meat and does not want to see this ever again.


His Holiness said that he knows that lamas and practitioners have always justified eating meat by saying that they make prayers for the beings that they are eating. 

This is not good enough.

He asked how many of them can truly liberate beings in this way?

Now we really do have a Karmapa and He is starting to make Himself heard.


The use of alcohol and meat for Tsok offerings is also not acceptable. 

His Holiness quoted spiritual masters from the past who had condemned the practice of using Tsok as an excuse for eating meat and drinking alcohol. 

Leaving absolutely no room for interpretation, He said that anyone who uses meat and alcohol as Tsok is not part of Karmapa’s lineage. 

If the practice is at the level where Mahakala really comes and actually drinks the alcohol and eats the meat then it may be justified but otherwise we should use fruit!


Throughout the Kagyu Monlam, many people took the Sojong vows at 6am each day.  This took place beneath the Bodhi tree, presided over by either His Holiness or other masters.  Early in the Monlam, His Holiness had explained the meaning and purpose of the Sojong precepts and at that point indicated that eating meat was a big subject and would be dealt with later. 

Apparently He had originally intended giving people a week to consider before making their commitment.  As events worked out He gave us the time during tea break to decide what we felt able to promise.  He said that sometimes it is better to be spontaneous.


Several options were made available and we were asked to raise our hands to indicate our choice of commitment and to witness each others’ decisions. 

His wish for each of us to make an individual vow was clear and decisive.  It applied just as much to the Tibetans who historically had little else available to eat.  His Holiness said that now “thanks to the kindness of the Chinese” (this is an exact quote) the Tibetans have vegetables and other food available.  The choices offered were:


         Eating no meat one day per week

         Eating no meat one day per month

         Eating no meat on special days such as moon days, Guru Rinpoche and Tara days

         Eating meat for only one meal per day

         Give up eating meat for ever

         Give up eating meat for a specified period of time such as one, two or three years.

         Reduce eating meat with a view to giving up completely.


Throughout the speech it was obvious that His Holiness wanted everyone connected with His Lineage to make some commitment for two main reasons:

The teachings of Lord Buddha require that we act with kindness and preserve all life. 

Because of our connection to His Holiness, by improving our conduct we can reduce obstacles to His life.

When we consider the unshakable Bodhisattva activity of the Karmapas, how can we not be pleased that for once we have been given a simple and practical opportunity to help?


Vin Harris

9th January 2007

Eskdalemuir (Scotland)


Kagyu Monlam