UNBEARABLE GRIEF LIKE EATING THE FLESH OF ONE’S OWN CHILD: Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, Yogi Drugpa Kunleg and 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on abandoning meat; love and compassion more important than scriptures and logic

Meat being sold at Lithang market, Tibet

In the third part of Day 17 of the recent online teachings, Gyalwang 17th Karmapa went on to give more examples of great Tibetan Buddhist masters from the Kagyu lineages who made strong statements about eating murdered animals.

He first explained why some practitioners were called ‘dokar’ “veggie broth practitioners and then gave two more specific examples of Kagyu vegetarians, 19th Century master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) and the Drugpa Kagyu master and ‘crazy yogi’, Drugpa Kunleg (1455-1529), who described how eating meat should be as distressing and painful as having to eat the flesh of one’s own child. That if one really sees animals with love and compassion one would weep with sadness while eating them.

A note here on Tibetan terminology used by Karmapa to describe what in English we call ‘meat-eating’ and ‘vegetarianism’. The Karmapa uses the words ‘mar’ (red) for animal flesh and produce and ‘kar’ (white) for non animal produce. Those who do not eat animal flesh are called ‘kar kyong’ (guardians of ‘white’). Similarly, those who did not eat meat in monasteries are called ‘dogkar’ ‘white broth’. The use of ‘white’ and ‘red’ here may refer to the fact that meat produce contains blood of animals. Here in English these have been translated as ‘vegetarian’ but it would be good to remember that not all languages use the same concepts. I have thus finished this post with the ways in which different languages describe vegetarianism and veganism.

May we all be inspired by these examples and abandon all eating of animal flesh!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 23rd March 2021.

Kagyu Vegetarian Masters and the 17th Karmapa’s Attitude on Meat-eating (Day 17: Part 3)

“Also, if we think about the forefathers of Dagpo Gampopa and his student Je Pagmo Drupa and his disciples and so on, many of the Kagyu forefathers practiced vegetarianism. These students were called practitioners of the ‘vegetarian broth’ teachings (dokar: sdor dkar). This broth (sdor) is a stock that you put in the broth, which was vegetarian (kar) instead of meat-based stock. [I will write more about this tradition in another post].

If we think about the Karma Kamtsang tradition, as I said before, from 4th Karmapa onwards until 10th Karmapa, there were strict rules against eating meat in the Great Encampment. Also, in the supplications of Kagyu lineage, vegetarians were considered highly and praised.”

Jamgon Kongtrul’s Vegetarian Aspiration

The Karmapa then went on to share the example of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899) one of the main Kagyu lamas of the 19th Century and founder of the Non-Sectarian movement in Tibet with Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.

Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, Lodrö Thaye, was born in the village of Rong-gyap in Derge, in east Tibet. The coming of this great master was prophesized by the Buddha Shakyamuni, in the Samadhiraja-sutra[1], as well as by the Great Indian Vajra Master, Padmasambhava, in many of his termas (hidden teachings, for later revelation). He studied and mastered the teachings of the Buddha in general and tantrayana in specific including the Bön religion of Tibet. Among his many teachers, his primary teachers were the Fourteenth Karmapa, Situ Pema Nyinje Wangpo, the Great Khyentse, and many other masters of the time. He not only became one of the greatest masters and the lineage holder of Kagyu School but of all four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the Bön religion. Lodro Thaye co-founded the non-sectarian movement in Tibet with the Great Khyentse in 19th century. He became the teacher of the fifteenth Karmapa Khakhyap Dorje, giving him the full Kagyu teachings. He is renowned as an accomplished master, scholar, writer, poet, and artist, and authored and compiled more than 100 volumes of scriptures. Among these, the best known is the Five Treasuries, made up of The Treasury of Kagyu Mantras, Treasury of Key Instructions, Treasury of Precious Termas, Treasury of Vast Teachings, and the Treasury of Knowledge[2].

The 17th Karmapa shared a quotation by Jamgon Kongtrul on his own vegetarianism:

Jamgon Kongtrul citation on vegetarianism given by 17th Karmapa

“As devotees gave me many offerings, I definitely carry karmic debts. However, as I was able to encounter the kindness of the teachings of the Great Sage, in particular, the teachings of the Vajrayana Secret Mantra, my root vows and samaya have not degenerated. There is no way not to violate the secondary ones, so it is illogical to think the methods of confession are not important. Even though I do not have hope of being reborn in a pure realm, but it is possible I may be able to attain a mere human body. At that time, I hope that I will be re-born in a place where it is not necessary to eat meat. That is my aspiration.”

There are many other stories like that but I do not have time to describe them all. Jamgon Kongtrul made confessions again and again. Having no hopes to be born in a pure land, he nevertheless thought it possible to achieve a human body, and he made aspirations to be born in a place where it would not be necessary to eat meat.  There are many such examples like this”

Butchers set up shop next to monasteries for monastic meat-eaters
Butcher shop, downtown Lhasa, Tibet

The Karmapa then went on to explain how butchers set up shops near monasteries specifically to get the custom of meat-eating monastics:

“During the Buddha’s time, monastics practiced as had been exactly taught in the Vinaya, as they had all the facilities needed to do this. However, these days, if we look at the monastic way of life, it has changed greatly from how it was during the time of the Buddha. Other than in a few Theravada countries or countries of the Southern Transmission, in Tibetan Buddhism and the traditions of the Northern Transmission, the tradition of daily alms rounds ceased a long time ago. 

Nowadays. meals are prepared in the monasteries for the Sangha. So they need to keep many food provisions and buy and store them and if a monastery needed to buy a large amount of meat to feed the sangha, it would be difficult to say whether it was pure in the three ways or not.  During the time of the Buddha, however, when the monastics went on alms round, they did not have control over what was offered them and they had to eat what they had been offered.  When we buy food for the Sangha these days, it is under our control; we have the choice and that is our freedom to do so. For example, if you get the meat from a butchers for the monastic sangha, it would be difficult to say that was pure in the three ways.

In the past, if the monks and nuns in the monasteries ate meat, butchers’ shops were opened near that monastery and then later, when the monastics stopped eating meat, the butchers shops would close quickly. We can actually see this. The reason the butchers shops were opened there was because the monastics of the monasteries were customers who ate meat. So the butcher was thinking of doing it for the monastery to slaughter animals. So it would be very suspicious that it was pure in the three ways. Then if they ask the butcher: ‘was that slaughtered for our sake?’ The butcher would say ‘oh no, I did not kill that animal for you.’. Yet, inside they would be laughing because of course they know the only reason they are doing it is for the sake of the monastic customers in the nearby monasteries.

Thus, in terms of eating meat that is pure in the three ways, as the lifestyle of the monastics at the Buddha’s time and now has hugely changed, we need to understand this.”

17th Karmapa’s decision to become vegetarian after being raised a meat-eater in Tibet
17th Karmapa as a child in Tibet

“When I was a young child I really liked meat. Once a year, we would get Chinese butchers to come and slaughter the animals. They were not Han Chinese but from the Sala region and they would come to do it. We used to feel it was better to have someone else doing the killing, even though our ordering it to be done was the same.

Yet, when I the animals being suffocated, as they did not die immediately sweat broke out all over their bodies and they were in such an intense state of suffering. It was so difficult seeing them in that state, and so I would cry and scream and jump up and down. So later, when they were going to butcher the animals, they took me away somewhere else, so I would not see it.  I remember this, and other people told me this too.

Still after the sentient being was murdered, after the meat was cooked and served, I would eat it because it was placed in front of me and it was the local custom to do so; not only did I eat it I enjoyed it. At Tsurpu monastery, they had delicious dried meat. The governor of Lhasa would say ‘bring me the Tsurphu dried meat’ and nothing else. So it was well-known for being tasty.  Then, when I got to India, compared to Tibetan meat it did not seem to have much flavor. In Tibet, I never ate goat, yet in India when I was served goat meat a few times, it was not worthy of talking about.

However, my attitude completely changed when I saw a video in which animals were slaughtered. After that, it was no longer possible for me to eat meat, and I made the decision to give it up entirely and keep it distant from me. Some people say that my giving up meat was the influence of Master Hai Tao Fa Shi teacher (see image)[i]

17th Karmapa with Master Hai Tao Fa Shi

Whoever or whatever the influence was it does not really matter. Actually the main reason, was  when I saw that video, I realized that, in this lifetime, I have a body where I do not need to take the life of another sentient being in order to live.  As there is no guarantee that in the next lifetime, that will be the case. Thus, I made the aspiration that I would never be born in a body where he needs to take the lives of other sentient beings. At that time, I developed that resolve and composed a verse which said:

Thinking well about Mother beings in infinite space and

Their unbearable, wretched torments

WIth a love for the minds of all beings

May I never separate them from their lives.


So after abandoning meat (Karmapa calls it mar (red) I did not have a plan to encourage people to have a vegetarian diet but some people said it would be good to encourage people to do so. I thought it would be best for people to think for themselves on this, instead of ordering people to do it.

Then, at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, on the last day of the Kagyu Monlam in 2007 [the Karmapa says 2004 but it was actually 2007], a Tibetan vegetarian group [Tibetan Volunteers for Animals] asked me to speak about the importance of a vegetarian diet and encourage people to give up meat. So I advised that the best option was to give up meat entirely for life. Alternatively, if that is not possible, the average option would be not to eat meat at least once a week, or the very least, once a month. I stressed the importance of showing some interest in giving up meat. I did not think that many people would be keen to follow my advice, yet after I had spoken on the subject and asked the attendees to raise their hands if they were willing to give up meat for the rest of their lives, half of the people raised their hands. [Here is a video of that teaching in Tibetan with Chinese subtitles, the translation in English is here]:

Afterwards, some people warned me that eating meat would damage my health, because he was from a country where the consumption of meat is widespread. Others argued that being the Karmapa, I could make an important connection with those living beings whose meat he consumed, and that I would be able to guide all those sentient beings to the pure land of Sukhavati or another good rebirth.  People said that, but I felt that  if I was not even able to guide myself to a pure realm, how could I possibly bring anybody else there? Forget about that. So I insisted on it and it has been at least ten years now that I have been eating an entirely vegetarian diet. For me, the biggest difference between eating meat versus a vegetarian diet, is that normally when one eats meat one never thinks about the sentient being that was killed and so on. However, now, when I see meat or others eating it, due to a vegetarian diet, my compassion and empathy for other sentient beings has grown and I have more concern for the suffering of sentient beings. Eating meat, people generally do not really think about how that affects those living beings whose flesh one is consuming. “

Drugpa Kunley’s Tale of the Parents who were forced to eat their dead son’s flesh
Drukpa Kunleg (‘brug pa kun legs), (1455-1529)
also known as “The Crazy Yogi of the Drukpa” (‘brug smyon)

“In  Tibetan we have a saying: “The compassionate eat meat and those with samaya drink alcohol”. What this means is that eating the meat of an animal and reciting the names and mantras of the buddhas as well as making aspirations for them, is something that would benefit those sentient beings. There are texts that describe how to recite mantras and the names of the buddhas when eating meat. However, if we really think about it, there is Drukpa Kunley story in which he advises it is best not to eat meat, as it is extremely difficult to eat meat compassionately.

At one time, Drukpa Kunley went to a region in which there was a great drought, the crops did were not growing and the people there had a difficult time because of a great famine. One family—father, mother and son— they all had a really difficult time as they had nothing to eat. The parents initially thought that as they were already quite old, if one of them were to die, their child could eat their flesh and be able to live a little longer. The son, however, could not bear the thought of either of his parents dying, so he decided it would be better to die himself so that his parents could eat his flesh. So, the son committed suicide for this purpose and left a note which said that he had died so that his parents would not die of hunger, and insisted that his parents  eat his flesh, otherwise there would be no point in his death. Thus, the parents had no choice but to eat their son’s flesh. While they were eating, as it was their son’s flesh it was tasteless and so they wept continuously.

[This story reminds me of the quote from the Buddha in the Lankavatara Sutra:

“Mahamati, if I am endowed with the conception that all sentient beings are like my own child, how could I permit the sravakas to eat the flesh of my own child? How can we speak of I myself eating it? As for the statements, “I permitted it for the sravakas” and “I myself ate it,” Mahamati, they are without any basis.” (386.5-9).” ]

“Making the connection to the Mahayana tradition, there are no sentient beings that have not been your kind mother. Thus, one has to think of all sentient beings as one’s father and mother. If we think in this way, it becomes impossible to eat one’s father’s or mother’s flesh, no matter how desperate the situation. Even if there were no other choice, how could there be any taste to it? Tears would flow down our cheeks. We say we are eating compassionately, but where is our compassion? We might initially recite a short prayer, but then immediately we start wolfing down the food, without any feeling or restraint. 

On the other hand, it is not necessarily true to say that someone totally lacks compassion if they eat meat. There are in fact many great beings who ate meat and we certainly cannot say that they have zero compassion. However, even though we take those great beings as a model when it comes to eating meat, actions of great beings are different from ours. We cannot know what qualities of abandonment and realization such great beings have. If we are not at their level yet, we cannot take them as a guide for our own actions, it would just not work out the same way. The saying “the compassionate eat meat” sounds good, but in fact it is not easy to feel genuine compassion and eat meat. You wouldn’t really do want to eat it unless you had no choice.”

Having compassion and kindness is more important than scripture, rules and logic

Giving up meat does not depend on Buddhist scriptures or logic. Even ordinary people who do not practice the Dharma become vegetarian; they do not need quotes from scriptures and can give up meat easily. For example, If you need to go to the bathroom, do you need any scriptures and logic to prove that you need to go to the bathroom? You don’t! If their body tells them they have to go, then they just go.

Similarly, if someone thinks well, they understand why they should practice vegetarianism. On You Tube, for example, we can find videos in which little children aged four or five when they understand that animals need to be killed in order to produce meat, they refuse to eat it. Even children know this and can think about it. [For an example of such a video see here].

“Many children do not realise that meat comes from killing animals as nowadays,  the meat is wrapped up and sold in supermarkets. They don’t know if comes from killing a sentient beings For example, if you brought a live chicken in front of a child and said you were going to kill it, they would say no, it’s really beautiful and nice and not want to kill it or eat it.  So we don’t need quotations and logic.  If we need to use scriptures and logic as proof to make us do something that ordinary beings can easily understand, it is actually a bit of a disgrace. 

There are basically two types of people who do not eat meat: those who refrain from eating meat for their own sake, such as for their health or it being the tradition. Then there are those who give it up for the sake of other living beings and the environment.

In general, in the world today, Buddhism is often associated with loving-kindness, compassion, non-violence and peace. They don’t immediately think about emptiness and selflessness. Very few understand that. That is the impression most people have of Buddhism or Buddhists.

 If, as a Buddhist, one eats a lot of meat and blood, then people may wonder what is going on. So for that reason, we need to know what others’ opinions are and not only focus on our own thoughts and habits. We cannot totally disregard others’ habits and thinking. Particularly, in the Mahayana tradition, the primary work is to liberate all beings from suffering and bring them to happiness which shows in the aspirations that we make, such as, “May all sentient beings be happy and have the causes of happiness and be free from suffering and the causes of suffering …” If we say that and yet deliberately harm sentient beings for food, that is in contradiction with those aspirations and is something we really need to think about.  To eat meat or not is nothing complicated or profound like the concept of emptiness or selflessness. Actually it is very easy for anybody to understand it. 

If we look at the Vinaya, there are specific reasons given why meat should be pure in three ways and rice is not mentioned. A piece of meat and a cup of rice are very different situations. In terms of the Vinaya we need to consider it carefully. When it comes to eating meat, the way we usually think is that we ourselves have not killed the animal, nor do we think that we ordered someone else to kill that animal for our sake. So we think  it is not wrong. However livestock farming has expanded massively. It is not about not doing evil actions ourselves, we also need to consider others who commit negative actions and think about what we can do to stop that and how we are encouraging that in others.”

The word for ‘vegetarian’ in other languages

This final section was not part of the Karmapa’s teaching but is more a note on terminology. Sadly, as is typical for those whose first language is English, they often assume that all other cultures and countries use the same concepts and terminologies. Describing food and diet is no different.


The Chinese word for vegan is 纯素食者 (chún sù shí zhě) literally “a pure vegetable-ist” or “a pure vegetarian”. The word for vegetarian is 素食者 (sù shí zhě) literally “a vegetable-ist”. The 纯 “chún” (pure) defines the difference between vegan and vegetarian.


मैं शुद्ध शाकाहारी हूं

(main shuddh shaakaahaaree hoon)

“I am vegan.” Literally “I am pure vegetarian”

मैं दूध, दही, मक्खन, या पनीर का सेवन नहीं करता।

(main doodh, dahee, makkhan, ya paneer ka sevan nahin karata.)

“I do not consume milk, yogurt, butter (ghee), or cheese.”

A red dot on menu items and grocery products means nonvegetarian products, a green dot means lacto-vegetarian, but increasingly a green dot means vegan and a brown dot means lacto-vegetarian

Keep in mind that if you use the word for Buddhist Veganism in many Asian countries it also will not include garlic, onion, ginger, asafoetida and other pungent spices and plants.”

Further Reading

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region

Drukpa Kunle – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region

Tibetan Volunteers for Animals (TVA) (facebook.com)

HH Karmapa’s Speech on Vegetarianism (2007) Bodh Gaya, Part 1 of 5 – Tibetan – YouTube

[1] The birth of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche was predicted in the Larkauatara Sutra where the Buddha said:

“A great being and liberator by the name of Lodro Thaye,

Shore of the five fields of knowledge,

Will come into existence.

He will be a Bodhisattva of ineffaceable qualities.”

[2] Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche compiled the most important teachings of the Buddha common to all the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism; these teachings are called “Five Great Treasures (mDzod-lnga).

[3] Venerable Master Hai Tao is the founder of Compassion for Life Organization. He first became a monk in 1993 after visiting Huei-Rhi Lecture Hall in Taipei; an experience in which he was touched by the Buddha statue’s low brows and gracious eyes”; as well as the relaxing manner of the monks. After becoming a monk, Venerable Hai Tao actively preached Buddha’s teachings. He not only established Taiwan Life TV airing shows 24 hours a day; but also created many diverse social organizations in order to help the worldly bodhisattvas(people) gradually achieving Bodhisattva-hood. 

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