‘I DON’T EAT MY FRIENDS’: 78th birthday offering to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, meditator, teacher and nunnery founder, on eating animals

‘Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends’—George Bernard Shaw

‘In Tibetan Buddhism, where we are taught that all beings have been our mothers, if you really believe what you’re saying, then how can you sit down and eat your mother?’ — Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

For the 78th birthday of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo [celebrated yesterday, see photos here], as well as for the section on this website on Buddhism and vegetarianism, I offer this edited transcript of a short teaching she gave on eating animals as food in Buddhism (see video below).

Jetsunma is one of the most inspiring [and well-known] female teachers and practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism alive today. Her life-story, as Diane Perry, the daughter of a fishmonger from London’s East End, who spent 12 years alone in a cave 13,000 feet up in the Himalayas and became one of the first western ordained nuns in Tibetan Buddhism, a world-renowned spiritual leader and champion of the right of women to achieve spiritual enlightenment can be read in Vicki Mackenzie’s inspiring biography about her, Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment (1999) and in an online biography here.

“On her 21st birthday in June 1964, the school had a special guest: His Eminence the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, a great Drukpa Kagyu lama. Diane recognised him immediately as her Guru and asked him if she could become a Nun. Aged 21, only 3 months after arriving in India, the newly named Drubgyu Tenzin Palmo became one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monastic. In 1967 she received the sramanerika ordination at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim from H.H. the 16th Karmapa.”

Tenzin Palmo outside the cave where she meditated for 12 years

She is also the author of other books on Buddhist Philosophy and Practice, such as Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism (2002). There is also a free video film of her life and teachings here. As she says in it, ‘what is perfection? Many people are good and kind but that is not perfection.’

In addition, Jetsunma has been one of the most vocal and public advocates of gender empowerment and equality for nuns and women in Tibetan Buddhism. Her direct questions to the 14th Dalai Lama on this topic are evidence of that, as is her founding of a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery, Dongyal Gatsal Ling, near Palampur in Himachal Pradesh, India [which has one of the most stunning temples to Tara and female deities I have ever seen!]. She is a woman who practices what she preaches and demonstrates courage and integrity when push comes to shove, as we say in English!

In her short interview here on eating animals, Jetsunma mentions that some great lamas ate meat, however, as the 17th Karmapa also taught recently here, and in the work of scholar Geoffrey Barstow, there were also many great Tibetan masters who did not eat slaughtered animals and forbid their followers from doing so too, such as Jonang Kunkhyen Dolpopa, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo and  8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje. So one could say there was no excuse for eating animals even in Tibet.

In this degenerate era, as yet more sex scandals, hypocrisy and misconduct from male lamas to female followers surfaces, it is refreshing and healthy to see women such as Jetsunma taking a leading role as a teacher and advocate, not only of women, but also in not eating animals. Rather than focus only on what we dislike or not beneficial, it is good to promote what is beneficial and worthy of emulation and admiration. I hope this post achieves that, and inspires others to boycott sexism, misogyny, and unnecessary cruelty to animals, and follow and support female teachers, translators, practitioners and so on, bringing in a new era for Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana, with women doing it for themselves, at the forefront as full participants!

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo on her 78th birhday yesterday in the nunnery she founded in India.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo on her 78th birhday yesterday in the nunnery she founded in India.

In the final section of the interview, she says: “The point with vegetarianism is that in this modern day and age, where food is so easily obtained, there doesn’t seem to me to be too many excuses to eat any kind of food which has caused pain to another being. It doesn’t seem to fit in with our whole idea on compassion or bodhichitta. Does it?”

No, it doesn’t fit with that, Jetsunma la. Thank you for saying that and for being a living, breathing example of inspiration and integrity to girls, women, nuns and men. Thank you for asking those ‘difficult questions’ and not shying away from telling the truth on topics that some are not willing to look at. May your life be long and your activities flourish!

Musical theme? Sisters are doing it for themselves, rock on beautiful, laughing, dancing queens! 🙂

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 2nd July 2021.


Q: What’s the reason you became vegetarian?

A: Because of the idea in the quote of George Bernard-Shaw, “animals are my friends and  I don’t eat my friends.” Basically, the idea that just as I wouldn’t like it for someone to kill and eat me, I don’t think any being wants to be slaughtered and eaten, especially considering the manner in which animals are killed in this day and age, and the terror and trauma that they go through in the process. How can we sit down and eat them? Of course, in Tibetan Buddhism, where we are taught that all beings have been our mothers, if you really believe what you’re saying, then how can you sit down and eat your mother?

 Q: Do you think it’s controversial within Tibetan Buddhism eating meat?

A:  Oh, it’s extraordinarily hypocritical, that’s for sure. In Tibet, they had an excuse insofar as it was a very high altitude climate there,  and there really wasn’t much growing. Especially for the nomads, it would be very difficult to cultivate vegetation, so  the only thing which was available to be eaten was the barley flour, the tsampa, the meat, and products from the milk, from the dri and yak. However, Tibetans have been living for fifty years now, in exile in India and Nepal, and both those countries are primarily vegetarian. They have plenty of vegetables, they have plenty of protein in their lentils and their dal,  and in  their milk products and there’s simply no excuse anymore. In fact, the lamas themselves and ordinary people, know that by eating so much red meat they are getting diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, stomach cancer, and a lot of arthritis. They know now but they say ‘oh yes, this is because I eat the wrong kind of diet, but I can’t give it up’.  It also seems that for health reasons, only Tibetan Buddhist lamas need to eat meat, sometimes they eat meat and they say yes it’s because my doctor advised, it’s always for my health, but it’s not like that in other traditions.

Q.  Without being personal etc. , what does all this mean?

A. The point is Tibetans have it very strongly in their mind that if they go without meat for one meal, they feel weak and so in the next meal, they have to make it up by double the quantity. It’s cultural, but it’s a bit naughty, because they say ‘oh well you know we were brought up eating meat’. Now, that doesn’t necessarily have to be true, because most of the Tibetans in India and Nepal were brought up in India, not in Tibet, but also we Westerners were also often brought up eating meat. In an English breakfast you get bacon and sausages for breakfast. The main meal is centered around the meat, and also in the evening again, it’s all meat. If you take away the meat, all you’ve got is potatoes and squishy vegetables. There’s nothing left, the whole point of the meal is the meat. We were not brought up with vegetarians either, but as soon as we realize that what we are eating was actually  a living being, who wanted its life, and didn’t want to be killed, and was probably reared in the most ghastly of conditions before dying a very painful and traumatic death, how can one subscribe to that? And, in that way, approve of that torture for millions of animals by eating them?

Q: Did the Buddha forbid eating meat?

No, the Buddha did not forbid eating meat altogether, but the point is that the time of the Buddha, he and his monks were all going on alms rounds begging. They were supposed to have food without any discrimination. They couldn’t say to the laypeople: ‘look I I don’t need this and I’m not eating that’, they ate whatever was given them without discrimination.

For example, in the Sutras, there is the description of a leper offering a meal to one of the monks, and one of his fingers fell into the bowl and the monk ate it, because he was non-discriminating on alms.

So, the rule was made that if you [a monastic] didn’t kill the animal yourself, or you didn’t request it to be killed for you, and/or you are not aware that it was killed on your behalf, then karmically you are pure, as you were just wandering around through the villages, collecting whatever people happen to want to put in your begging bowl.

However, in a situation where you are actually in charge of what you can eat, and you go into butcher shops and buy meat, then, in a way, the very fact that you’re buying it says that you are subscribing to the whole culture that rears animals to be killed for consumption. People only raise and kill these animals because other people buy the meat. If we didn’t buy it, that particular industry would die out.

Nowadays, it is noticeable that in India the first Tibetans to become vegetarians were usually the nuns and the nunneries. Then, more recently, some of the very large monasteries in south India have gone vegetarian, at least within the monastery.  I’m not saying that is what the monks eat when they go out.  Yet, as a result, it means if there is a monastery with say eight thousand monks, how many animals would have been killed, especially for New Year celebrations and special occasions, who now are no longer slaughtered for the sake of the monastery? It’s an enormous difference.

There is also a [Tibetan] youth organization who campaign against meat-eating, who have horrific documentaries of what actually happens, especially in the West, to animals. On how they are actually reared, and the dreadful conditions they’re reared in. As well as, how the animals are actually slaughtered and their fear and terror. These films are shown when there are big gatherings of Tibetans for any special functions. They show these DVD films and it does have an effect on the people, because often people just haven’t thought about it. When they think about it, then they can say ‘Oh!’.

Of course, certain high Lamas themselves are vegetarian. HH Gyalwang Drugpa Kagyu, head of my tradition, and HH Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu tradition are now both vegetarian, and they encourage people that even if they cannot become completely vegetarian, at least they should eat less meat and they should only try to eat it at a certain meal in the day, or certain days of the week, or at least they should be able to cut down on it.

Some of the most carnivorous lamas I ever knew nonetheless radiated an aura of tremendous purity, and I’m a vegetarian.  I’m not defending meat-eating but while I think it would be wonderful for all the beings on earth if people would stop eating them, I don’t think it has anything to do with getting enlightened. [Why?] Because many of the greatest enlightened beings ate meat. The point with vegetarianism is that in this modern day and age, where food is so easily obtained, there doesn’t seem to me to be too many excuses to eat any kind of food which has caused pain to another being. It doesn’t seem to fit in with our whole idea on compassion or bodhichitta. Does it?”

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