Contrary to popular belief, and despite the difficulties of giving up meat in countries like Tibet (due to lack of plant food available), there are many examples of Tibetan Buddhist masters who advocated strict vegetarianism. One recent article, The Hidden Vegetarians of Tibet by Geoffrey Barstow (author of Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet) identifies more than 110 individual teachers who made the decision to give up meat in Tibet, prior to the Chinese invasion in the 1950s.
Inspired by these examples, and the recent teachings of HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism and other Buddhist traditions, this page is dedicated to relevant research, texts and Tibetan Buddhists who advocate vegetarianism and animal rights. There are brief profiles of well-known Tibetan Buddhist vegetarians, past and present, such as Jetsun Milarepa, Kunkhyen Dolpopa, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, 1st Sangye Nyenpa, 4th Karmapa, 8th Karmapa and contemporary examples such as Chadral Rinpoche, 17th Karmapa and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Although there are many more individuals that are vegetarians, I have listed those who have written or spoken extensively about vegetarianism.
17th Karmapa’s Teachings on Vegetarianism (March 2021)
THE ‘SINGLE-SITTING’ VEGETARIAN PRACTICE: Sakya Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo’s vegetarianism; Kālacakra master, Śākyaśrī and the four monastic communities (Joden Tshogpa Zhi); the Gedun Gangpa’s monastic ordination of the 4th-8th Karmapas
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
COMPASSION NOT COMPETITION: THE MAHAYANA VIEW ON EATING ANIMALS. Buddha’s vegetarian disciples, Devadatta, Mahākāśyapa and Bakula; Mahayana Sūtras on great compassion and Buddha-Nature; and Chinese Buddhist vegetarianism
Tibetan Buddhist Vegetarians – past and present
Jetsun Milarepa (1040-1123)
Famed yogi and founder of Kagyu lineage, Jetsun Milarepa was also a vegetarian who cared about animals out of great compassion. As can be seen in the articles below, one of Mila’s students was a former hunter whom he he had convinced not to kill animals.
Jigten Sumgon, founder of the Drigung Kagyu tradition, is one of the leading examples of vegetarianism in Tibet after Lord Atisa.
DRIGUNG KAGYU VEGETARIANISM: ‘IF YOU EAT MEAT AND CALL IT DHARMA, YOU ARE NOT MY DISCIPLE’ AND ‘IT DISPARAGES GREAT BEINGS’ Phagmodrupa, Jigten Sumgon and the ‘white’ food’ vegetarian tradition of Drigung Kagyu, past and present
Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361)
One of the main founders of the Jonang lineage and view of Empty-of-Other (gzhan stong), Dolpopa was a strict vegetarian from a young age.
Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1456)
Founder of the Karma Kagyu Great Encampment, the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje instituted strict vegetarianism both inside and outside the camp.
One of the main teachers of the 8th Karmapa, the 1st Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Paljor, was a strict vegetarian from the age of 22 years.
8th Karmapa (a student of the vegetarian 1st Sangye Nyenpa) was also a vegetarian who imposed strict rules on the Karma Kagyu Great Encampment and told people they were not his students, nor he their teacher if they ate meat.
In his Monastic Guidelines for Tsurphu Monastery, he wrote that “Monks gathered here should, in particular, not eat meat or eggs” (mi bskyod rdo rje 2004a, vol. 3, p. 709). Mikyo Dorje wrote in support of vegetarianism in several places, including an extensive work focused solely on the faults of meat. In addition to this standalone work, Mikyo Dorje included a critique of monastic meat eating in his commentary on Gunaprabha’s Vinayasutra (mi bskyod rdo rje 2004b, vol. 7, pp. 541-44).
“Shabkar was famous for his affection and concern for animals. His attitude was an expression not only of personal sympathy and aesthetic appreciation; it was rooted in his understanding of Buddhist teaching as can be read in the book Food for Bodhisattvas containing two works of Shabkar and his autobiography translated by Matthieu Ricard.”
A wandering yogi, Chadral Rinpoche was one of the most outspoken and passionate advocates of animal rights and vegetarianism: He says:
If you take meat, it goes against the vows one takes in seeking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Because when you take meat you have to take a being’s life. So I gave it up.
Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Gyatso (1961- present)
One of the most important proponents of contemporary Tibetan vegetarianism in Tibet is Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro, until recently the head of Larung Gar, among the largest monasteries in history. Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro is a personally committed vegetarian, and is well known for arguing extensively against meat eating, both in written works and recorded teachings.
Barstow explains in Monastic Meat: The Question of Meat Eating and Vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhist Monastic Guidelines (bca’ yig): “Yet Larung Gar does not have a rule banning the consumption of meat. Meat may not be purchased in the monastery, and communal events are certainly vegetarian, but individual monks may eat what they like in their own rooms. When I asked Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro why he did not ban meat, he responded that some religious leaders and scholars were quite fond of eating meat and if he banned it they might not be willing to come to Larung Gar to teach.”
Here is a video link to one of his teachings on vegetarianism:
Spiritual head of Karma Kagyu, the 17th Karmapa is one of the world’s leading spiritual masters advocating vegetarianism, animal rights and environmental protection. In a speech in Bodh Gaya, 2007, the Karmapa spoke strongly about people giving up eating meat, in particular monastics, and forbade all buying, cooking and consumption of meat within Karma Kagyu monasteries. He has given many teachings and talks where he speaks about the topic. He is also the founder of Khoryug, an environmental protection organisation.
HH Karmapa’s Speech on Vegetarianism Part 1 of 5 – Tibetan – YouTube (Video of Bodh Gaya speech, 2007 – Tibetan and Chinese subtitles )
Teaching on Not Eating Meat (rinpoche.com) (English translation of Bodh Gaya speech, 2007)
大寶法王噶瑪巴: 吃素開示 (一) The 17th Karmapa: Go Vegan 1 – YouTube (Video of Bodh Gaya speech, 2007 – Tibetan and Chinese subtitles. See below:)
British nun, formerly known as Diane Perry, who famously spent twelve years alone meditating in a cave, and set up a nunnery in India, is not only an advocate for gender equality and empowerment of female Buddhist practitioners, but also a strict vegetarian and advocate for animal rights. The dogs cared for at her nunnery are all fed vegetarian food too.
Buddhism and vegetarianism
Heimbel, Jorg. 2017b. Vajradhara in Human Form: The Life and Times of Ngor Chen Kun Dga’ Bzang Po. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute.
Lambert Schmithausen’s three-part study “Meat Consumption and Vegetarianism in Indian Buddhism until about the middle of the first millennium A.D.” was published by projektverlag in June 2020.
Personal blog and website of Geoffrey Barstow Publications – The Lost Yak, author of the following works:
Gayley, Holly. 2017. The Compassionate Treatment of Animals. Journal of Religious Ethics 45: 29-57.
Vegetarianism and politics
Khoryug – Environmental Protection Organisation founded by 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje