In Mongolia to prepare for the Second Compassion and Conservation Conference held by Mongolian Buddhists to talk about the environment, I had lunch yesterday with two delegates who had arrived as observers from the Karmapa’s environmental team in India . And I learned something wonderful.
The Karmapa – head of dozens of monasteries throughout the Himalayas and spiritual leader to more than a million Buddhists – has turned vegetarian. And so have all his monasteries and monks, and increasing numbers of his followers.
Tibetans and people of the high Himalayan plateau are traditionally huge meat eaters: at those altitudes, and with those barren landscapes, meat has always seemed the most obviously available food, especially in winter.
“At first when His Holiness said “Don’t eat meat” the monks thought “what do you mean?”, said 33-year-old monk Karma Gyaltsen Sonam, from Rumtek monastery, as he tucked into a cheese pizza at Millie’s Cafe. “But at the Kagyu Monlam he asked 1,000 monks how many of them wanted to take the vow, and they all said yes. It’s been three years now.”
There are plenty of ecological reasons for vegetarianism – and the Karmapa is one of the leading environmentalist religious leaders – but overwhelmingly it was because, as he has said on several occasions, every day Buddhists around the world say the same prayer, for all sentient beings, “only sometimes they forget that they are including all of them.”
The Karmapa, head of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, first became interested in promoting the environment at the urging of the Dalai Lama, head of the Gelukpa sect, and his mentor.
Lama Gyaltsen today presented this as a potentially viable idea to some of Mongolia’s most senior monks who were gathered at Gandan Monastery in UB to discuss what they can do for their environment. We will see whether they take the idea seriously.