‘IF YOU EAT MEAT YOU ARE NOT KAGYUPA’: The 8th Karmapa and other Karmapas’ strict vegetarianism and the Great Encampment rules

On Days 13- 16, of the ‘Good Deeds’ teachings,  the Gyalwang 17th Karmapa gave detailed descriptions of the life of the 4th Karmapa and his founding of  the Karma Kagyu Great Encampment with its strict rules against meat eating and alcohol, as well as the reasons for the 8th Karmapa’s strong vegetarian stance. Today’s post focuses on his teachings about the previous Karmapas’ strict vegetarianism and the Great Encampment’s rules forbidding meat and drinking alcohol .

In addition, (on Day 16, see here) the Karmapa further explained that even though monastics are not supposed to actively eat meat at all, they have traditionally been allowed to eat meat offered to them by others, as long as they have not specifically requested it or sought it out and it is ‘pure’. However, even offered meat must be refused if it is not of the three-fold purity (i.e. has not been specifically killed for the purpose of offering it to monastics).  This second part will be written up and published tomorrow.

May we all follow the great example of the Karmapas and abandon the killing, butchering, selling, buying and eating flesh of murdered animals!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 13th March 2021.

17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje and vegetarianism
17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje

People often wrongly assume that vegetarianism in Tibet is a modern-day phenomenon. However, despite the great difficulties of being vegetarian in Tibet, due to climate and vegetation, there are many examples of great Tibetan Buddhist masters advocated vegetarianism, such as Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, Jonang Kunkhyen Dolpopa, 4th Karmapa, 8th Karmapa, Patrul Rinpoche and, more recently, Chadral Rinpoche and the 17th Karmapa.

The 17th Karmapa is one of the world’s leading Tibetan Buddhist advocates of vegetarianism and animal rights for compassionate, environmental and ethical reasons. He has spoken on this topic many times (see here and here). In addition, as a young adult, despite having been brought up as a meat-eater in a nomadic family in Tibet, he later abandoned meat and expressly discouraged others from buying, making and eating meat.

I was personally present at the speech the 17th Karmapa gave at the Kagyu Monlam in 2007 in Bodh Gaya, India (for a translation of it see here), in which he forbade the buying, cooking and consumption of meat in Karma Kagyu Dharma centres and monasteries. It sent some shockwaves through the audience at his direct and forthright insistence that it was neither Buddhist, nor part of the Karma Kagyu tradition, to eat the flesh of animals deliberately killed for food.

Not so much is known about the previous Karmapas and their stance on meat-eating though. In fact, recent academic articles on the topic of vegetarianism in Tibet, past and present, have overlooked the strict vegetarian lifestyle and attitude of previous Karmapas. As the 17th Karmapa explained, vegetarianism is not some modern phenomenon among Tibet, previous Karmapas were also passionate advocates of abandoning eating the flesh of murdered animals. Below are some excerpts of what the 17th Karmapa taught about them (Days 13-16), in particular, from the 4th to the 10th Karmapas.

4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje and the strict vegetarian rules of the Great Encampment
4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje (Palpung Sherabling)

The 17th Karmapa explained how the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje (1340-1383) was known for his strict adherence to Vinaya and encouraged his attendants to keep pure discipline. He said that “they all upheld virtuous discipline by eating only the three white foods – milk, sugar, butter, and so forth. Also, if they saw anyone with meat or bones, they would automatically criticize them. They would not allow any meat or alcohol in the encampment at all. The behaviour of his students was even stricter than that.”

9th Karmapa’s text

9th Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje

The 17th Karmapa elaborated on this (Day 16) that: “In general, the encampment had very strict rules on meat. They did not begin these rules during the time of the 8th Karmapa. They were ancient rules established long prior to that by previous Karmapas. How do we know this? There is a text by the 9th Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje (karma pa 09 dbang phyug rdo rje, 1559-1601/1603), called ‘The Great Rule Book for the Encampment: the Ornament of the World’ which says that:

“The examples of Drumzam Lingpa, 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa, 6th Karmapa, Thongwa Donden and 7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso are similar. In particular, they gathered only monastics around them. Those that were included in the encampment could not have any meat, not even so much as the hair of a deer, nor drink any alcohol, even as much as a tip on a blade of grass. They performed untold actions of the higher states and many customs of sutra and tantra and of the two traditions. Afterwards, Mikyo Dorje did not waver from such deeds and examples. Not only that, he also brought practitioners of these teachings into the methods of having revulsion for worldly activities and teaching debate and composition. He established new monastic communities, built statues, praised his students and wrote treatises beyond our conception. He guided his students to have confidence in our own and the oceans of the other schools. His influence and kindness are indescribable.’

What this says is that during the time of Rolpe Dorje (Drumzam Lingpa), Dezhin Shegpa and Thongwa Donden and Chodrag Gyatso, those four Karmapas,  there was no meat, not ‘even the hair of a deer’, and no alcohol that could ‘fit on the tip of blade of grass’ were allowed in the encampment.”

Karma Chagme’s text

Karma Chagme

“There is a text by Khedrub Karma Chagme, The Instructions of the Pandita Jamyang from the North : Meat: Distinguishing what is Allowed and What is Prohibited, which says that there were always 500 bikshus with outer robes around Rolpe Dorje, and he perfected the example of rules of not allowing meat, not even allowing the hair of a deer into his sight. From that time, most of the Dharma organizations of Mikyo Dorje, there were strict rules against meat. In addition, although the monasteries did not have rules against meat, the vegetarians had a separate stock that was given to them. The Karmapas and their heart sons were vegetarians and did not have any meat whatsoever. However, during the Ganachakras, a little meat was included and even the Karmapas and his heart sons ate a small amount of meat in order not to violate the secret mantra samaya.  In the colophon, it says that Ganachakra meat was distributed in accordance with the sutras and tantras and rules of the Great Encampment. That is what this text explains in detail. So, from the time of the 4th Karmapa onwards, meat eating was forbidden in the encampment. This example was preserved and spread by the following Karmapas.

6th Zhamarpa

In particular, most of the monasteries founded by the 8th Karmapa had very strict rules about meat. At Nyingling monastery, which was a shedra founded by the 6th Zhamarpa, Chokyi Wangchug. Karma Chagme studied there and knew it very well. At that monastery, he said  there was no rule against meat, but there was a vegetarian soup that was made separately for the vegetarians.

10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje

Likewise the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje and his hearts sons, including 6th Zhamarpa only had vegetarian food and no meat was ever allowed in their sights. However, during Ganacakras, even those who were normally vegetarian ate a small amount of meat, including the Karmapas and their heart sons.

If we look at these sources, what we can know is that from the time of Mikyo Dorje, the Great Encampment became bigger and there were very strict rules about eating meat. We could say that these rules were a distinctive feature of the Great Encampment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that.”

Liberation-stories on 4th Karmapa composed by his students

“What clear and reliable sources do we have that these rules originated at the time of 4th Karmapa ? In the Liberation Story of 4th Karmapa, Delighting the Scholars, written by Karma Khonchon, it states clearly that the entourage and the people around him lived off the three white foods. If the masters and disciples saw the bones of slaughtered animals where people had stayed, they would reprimand people. Even a whiff of alcohol was not allowed and he brought everyone into pure conduct within the encampment.

There is also a life-story written by the 4th Karmapa’s student, Tsurphu Kunpangpa, which says that ‘there was no way even the tiniest bit of meat or the mere scent of alcohol could be in the encampment. It says that his conduct was the perfection of purity and the power of his compassion extremely great. When people gathered of hundreds of thousands at most, or the minimum, 500, the greatest developed shamatha and insight, the medium developed certainty and they meaning of the words, even the least continually recited mantras, to give up the killing of sentient beings and to recite the names of the Buddhas. This example of benefiting beings is inconceivable. ‘

So, during the life of Rolpe Dorje, liberation stories by his direct disciples describe this very clearly and these are good sources.”

Meat-eating, slaughter and butchery forbidden and punishable by expulsion, even during festive or special occasions

“How strict were the encampment rules about meat? In the 9th Karmapa’s text, it says that even during the great festivals, such as Losar or larger meals, meat was not allowed. Forget about ordinary days, people were not allowed to bring meat even during festive or important days. It says that meat could not even be offered. This is very clear. That no-one inside or outside the encampment should slaughter an animal. If anyone did this, they would have to report to the Karmapa and his heart sons. If they still did not listen, they would be expelled from the encampment.

What this means is, if someone were to offer meat to the Karmapa and his disciples, meat could not be listed or included in the offerings listed in writing. Similarly, when the great encampment went to a sacred site, or when there were commemorations of the passing of previous Karmapas or Ganachakras, or even during other times, you couldn’t just say you were having a Ganachakra whenever you liked, so you could eat meat. Likewise, it was considered very important that no-one inside and outside the encampment slaughters, or even butchers an already slaughtered animal. If someone did that or had a connection with participating in that, they would have to take accountability for it with the Karmapa and his heart sons. If they still did not listen to them, they would be expelled and not allowed to remain. Or they would be demoted to the lowest rank. The punishment would be appropriate for the circumstances and time.

If we think about this, we might think well if someone was expelled they could go somewhere else. It was not so easy to do that if expelled from the Great Encampment. Once someone was expelled from the Great Encampment one would not be allowed to go into another Karma Kagyu monastery and was effectively expelled from Karma Kagyu.

What was the reason for these strict rules against meat in the Great Encampment? There were many reasons. The main reason was that there were also hundreds of thousands of people at the encampment and if they had to serve meat for all those people there would be the danger that they would have to kill thousands of animals daily. Yet animals that have been killed for them specifically is called impure in the Vinaya in the three ways. So it would be very harmful to allow that.”

8th Karmapa’s strict vegetarianism
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

The 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje was also a passionate and strict vegetarian. One of his main teachers was the 1st Sangye Nyenpa (whom the Karmapa had mentioned previously abandoned all meat from his diet, from the age of 22). On Day 13, the 17th Karmapa began to explain some of the reasons for Mikyo Dorje’s strict views on meat-eating:

“At that time, in large monasteries, many animals would be killed. Similarly, sometimes people wanted to give good food to the lamas and their entourage, and so a lot of meat would be offered. Mikyo Dorje saw this caused many difficulties, so wherever he went, he would very skillfully try to get others to give up eating meat. 

One reason he prohibited meat consumption, was he wanted to return to earlier traditions of the previous Karmapas, who did not allow meat or alcohol to be brought into the Great Encampment. A second reason is that when Mikyo Dorje was first enthroned as the Karmapa, he was very young and so he did not have much freedom or control. All the power was in the hands of those below him, the Encampment’s leaders. In fact, the power ended up in the hands of one of their wives. At that time, all the animals that were offered to the Encampment were killed and their flesh eaten. 

Also, when Mikyo Dorje was young, people would approach him saying they needed to have Ganachakra feasts and that should be done with meat and alcohol. They said: ‘How about if we have a big piece of mutton for it?’ Mikyo Dorje felt this wasn’t right  at all. Even though he was very young, he felt that those in the Encampment were no longer respecting the earlier rules, and just eating meat without any restraint and drinking alcohol. When Mikyö Dorje gained some control and influence in the encampment, he thus made a strict rule prohibiting the eating of meat and drinking alcohol. 

Likewise, if you read the 8th’s Karmapa’s commentary on the Vinaya, The Orbit of the Sun that Clearly Illuminates the World[ii],  it states that when doing the Gutor and Mahakala rituals  at the end of the year, meat should not be included in those offerings. He not only banned eating meat in the Great Encampment, but he promoted vegetarianism to Tibetans all over Tibet.

In the index of the 8th Karmapa’s Collected Works, there is also an advice to Tibetans as to why it is inappropriate to eat the meat of defenceless animals.  Currently, we do not have these texts but we hope we can get them soon so we can speak about them.  Thus, we can see that the 8th Karmapa not only forbade meat eating in the Great Encampment but also encouraged vegetarianism all over Tibet.”

Text by 5th Zhamarpa – ‘Letter to my Defenceless Mothers

5th Zhamarpa, Konchog Yenlag

Later, on Day 16, the 17th Karmapa elaborated on the 8th Karmapa’s strict vegetarian outlook, giving more citations to support this:

“In the catalogue of his Collected Works by 5th Zhamarpa, Konchog Yenlag, there is a text called A Letter to my Defenceless Mothers Primarily in the Land of Snows: How Eating Meat is Wrong. There is a text with this title, which is like an announcement that spread all over Tibet. I hope one day we will get a copy of it. Even though we don’t currently have the text, just seeing the title shows that he publicized widely that eating meat is inappropriate and wrong.”

Did not travel to regions where they offered mainly meat

“Also, as further citation and support, there is the commentary on Good Deeds by 8th Karmapa’s student Sangye Peldrub that says:

“No matter what region he travelled to, he skillfully prevented people from eating meat. In Kongpo, because of the region, he was unable to prevent people from eating meat. It was due to this that he did not go for alms in Kongpo or other regions where they only ate meat.”

This basically says the 8th Karmapa skillfully, not forcefully, tried to stop people eating meat. But in Kongpo, Northern regions, like Jangthang, where there was very little to eat other than meat, he would not go to those regions.  People said that’s why he didn’t go there.”

Meat forbidden from being included in Gutor or Mahakala rituals

“Not only that, we see this in the texts the 8th Karmapa wrote himself, in his Great Commentary on the Vinaya, it says it is forbidden to put meat in the Gutor or Mahakala rituals, that people are not allowed to do this. That if they did that, ‘you are not taking me  as your teacher and I do not think of you as my students and you should think about that’. He said this very forcefully and insistently.

Basically, the 8th Karmapa was saying you had to do this and follow that. Actually, many people said that I [the 17th Karmapa] said that ‘if you don’t give up meat you are not a Kagyupa’. They thought I said this and that it was really arrogant and excessive to say that. I cannot really say that, as I do not think I have the ability to decide who is a Kagyupa or not. However in 2007, in Bodh Gaya, when I gave a speech on stopping eating meat, I gave some scriptural quotes to support that, including this quote by Mikyo Dorje, and when I used those quotes they mistakenly thought I had said this.”

Meat is one of the eight impure things that must be abandoned by monastics

“Similarly, Mikyo Dorje also said in his Hundred Short Instructions, that as soon as people ‘go forth’ and become monastics, they must refrain from the eight impure things. There are different ways to count these eight things,  but for Mikyo Dorje, they are meat, alcohol, armour, weapons, riding animals, business and housing,  milking and animal husbandry. Particularly, in relation to meat, alcohol and weapons, one is not supposed to even look at them, forget about using them!  He taught in that text that if you do not give up meat you are not part of the Kagyu lineage, thus it is important to apply them in practice.

The 8th Karmapa is not just being excessively confident and making it up at will. What is the scriptural source for him saying that if you don’t give up those eight impure things you are not a Kagyupa? There are some words from a sutra that Dagpo Gampopa cited, that to be a genuine student of the Buddha’s teachings you have to give up the eight impure things. Thus, the followers of the Kagyu lineage must give up these eight things. There are many different ways in which these eight things are explained, other than Mikyo Dorje, I have not seen the others though. This is how 8th Karmapa explains them, but he is not just listing them saying it like a forceful order without reasons.

In Tibet, because of the geography, it is very difficult to give up meat, in our present way of living, there has been huge changes in the lifestyle. In Tibet, at the time of Mikyo Dorje, if one says don’t eat meat, then it is almost like saying don’t eat food at all. Because if you can’t eat meat there is not much left to eat. I saw an old book about Tibetan foods, about hundred foods were listed, yet 90 % were meat. In Tibet, I was born in a nomad family and if you didn’t eat meat then there was not much else to eat. One would have butter, cheese, milk and tsampa but nothing much else. As it was so difficult, the masters of the past did not particularly insist that people had to stop eating meat. However, the past Kagyu masters spoke a lot about how important it was not to eat meat and the faults of eating meat and drinking alcohol.

I will speak more about the Kagyu forefathers and other great masters who discouraged eating meat tomorrow”.

The 17th Karmapa then went on to discuss the Vinaya rules for monastics that allow monastics to only accept meat offered if it has the three-fold purity. In terms of the Mahayana texts, however, there is no mention of ‘pure’ meat in that way.

For the video of the teaching (Day 16), see here:

Contemporary Examples of Vegetarianism in Tibet

This was not mentioned by the 17th Karmapa but recently, more articles have been published that challenge the idea that vegetarianism was not a traditional part of Tibetan culture pre-Chinese invasion and foreign influences. [See Further Reading list below for articles on this topic]. In fact, in the 21st Century,  the Tibetan anti-slaughter/animal-release movement has been a significant part of contemporary Tibetan culture, not only as an extension of Buddhist ethics and practice, but also as a resistance to the mass development and colonization by the Chinese and the increased mass slaughter of yaks for consumption, see here .

Further Reading

‘Karmapa Mikyo Dorje’s Critique of Meat in Tantric Ritual’. In The Faults of Meat: Tibetan Writings on Vegetarian. Edited by Geoffrey Barstow. Boston: Wisdom Publications (2019).

Karmapa 17 Orgyen Trinley Dorje. 2007. Talk on Vegetarianism. 24th Annual Great Kagyu Monlam, Bodhgaya, India. Available online: http://www.shabkar.org/download/pdf/Talk_on_Vegetarianism.pdf.

Development as Entangled Knot: The Case of the Slaughter Renunciation Movement in Tibet, China on JSTOR

Yak politics: Tibetans’ vegetarian dilemma amid China meat boom | China | The Guardian

Saving yaks from slaughter criminalised by China | Free Tibet

The Longstanding Debate over Vegetarianism in Tibet – Lion’s Roar

Buddhism and Vegetarianism | Articles in PDF (shabkar.org)

[i] man ngag sha za byang bu gcig rgyug. In Collected Works of Karma Chagme. gsung ‘bum/_karma chags med/ (gnas mdo dpe rnying nyams gso khang /) Volume 13 Pages 135 – 144

[ii] ‘dzam bu’i gling gsal bar byed pa’i rgyan nyi ma’i dkyil ‘khor zhes bya ba glegs bam gsum pa This is a three-volume work contained in the Collected Works of the 8th Karmapa.  Vols 7-9, TBRC W8039. Lhasa edition (2004).

5 thoughts on “‘IF YOU EAT MEAT YOU ARE NOT KAGYUPA’: The 8th Karmapa and other Karmapas’ strict vegetarianism and the Great Encampment rules

  1. Does the Karmapa distinguish between veganism and vegetarianism?

    Is he aware that vegetarianism actually does not alleviate animal suffering, since once an animal can no longer be used for milk, eggs, etc. they are slaughtered just the same?

    Is he aware of the horrific suffering of animals in the dairy and egg industry? Especially in factory farms?

    I have read that in India the term “veganism” is not used, but the term “vegetarianism” means veganism. Is the Karmapa meaning that Buddhists should be vegan?

    Please clarify. It is an important distinction.

    Thank you!

    1. Thank you for your interest. Yes, the 17th Karmapa does distinguish and understand the difference between veganism and vegetarianism. Although he did not speak about veganism in Day 16 (which this report refers to). He spoke about veganism and how beneficial it was for animals and the environment in Day 17 of this teachings, see here https://youtu.be/pvfUOLglNGs. I am writing this up today so you will see it published here soon. Although it would be great if the whole world could go vegan, in some areas like Tibet that is very difficult indeed, even giving up meat there is difficult due to lack of plant food. However, despite this, the 17th Karmapa and other Karmapas before him have been strict vegetarians and encouraged others to do so as well. The Mahayana Buddhist teachings on eating animals are very clear that it is not OK and cruelty towards animals is of course not OK.

      However, as the 17th Karmapa also knows, it is not easy to get everyone (even when they know they should) to stop eating meat never mind dairy products! So he is aware of people’s limitations and does not think it beneficial or helpful to bully, shame or insistently lecture people who do not feel able to to do that. In fact, such insistence itself could become a cause of negative mind states and egoism if people are not careful, as the Karmapa also refers to in Day teaching.

      1. Thank you very much for your reply!
        Just to understand clearly, when it is said that the Karmapa is a pure vegetarian, a strict vegetarian, does this mean the Karmapa is a vegan, he does not eat animal foods like milk and eggs?

        Thank you🙏

      2. I have no idea! Ask HH Karmapa not me 🙂 I think the fact he is talking about these things publicly and reminding people of the harmful effect on animals and the planet is worthy of much celebration though. Don’t you? Have you actually watched the Day 17 teaching he gave on this at all?

        In Tibet it still is very difficult to be vegan in some parts due to no plant food, as they would have nothing left to eat except tsampa and tea if they gave up dairy products. But nomads live and work with their animals. It is not like factory farming dairy at all. Try and be mindful of that. Yes in India it is very easy to be vegan.

        Try and focus more on encouraging people rather than emphasising the fact they still have a long way to go with their diets. If you have ever brought up children you will understand that adults lecturing them continually does not work and makes them more stubborn. Try and lead by example.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s