Yesterday, a friend forwarded an email to me about a mass slaughter of dolphins in Denmark. Apparently, every year a mass slaughter of hundreds of dolphins takes place on the island of Feroe. The dolphins are herded into a shallow bay and killed slowly with hooks. The whole bay turns red as they slowly bleed to death and the air fills with their agonizing wails that sound like desperate cries of human babies. (If you feel brave click here for photos of the event.) Some say this annual event is part of an ancient rite of passage from youth to adulthood. Others say that it is not a rite of passage, but done every year to provide food for the winter, and that this type of dolphin is not endangered. Click here.
I don’t know which is true, but the pictures of the dying animals touched my heart deeply and I thought about the issue of whether we need to kill to live in this world. It brought up a lot of questions for me. I would be very happy if this killing would be abandoned, but can I condemn these people for wanting to sustain themselves and to continue their customs and heritage? How does this compare to the customs of some of the American Indian tribes who were hunters and had a culture I consider to be in tune with nature? Although they killed animals for their survival, the American Indians had a very spiritual culture and deep respect for the lives and souls of the animals they killed. I have also heard that one of their methods of hunting was to drive herds of buffaloes over cliffs. So, how does the slaughter of the dolphins compare to this event that was necessary for the survival of the Indians? It was probably a similarly heart wrenching event, but I find it justifiable because they needed the meat as food, the leather for clothes, and the bones for tools.
So, is it still necessary for our survival to continue practices like these nowadays?
I don’t feel I have any real answers to this dilemma. Reflecting on this also made me think about modern civilization in general. If we were to really look closely at how modern life impacts our world, I believe it would be very disturbing. For example, if we were to ask ourselves questions like: Where does our meat comes from? How much damage is done to nature and animals by all the modern industries whose products we happily buy and consume? How do the chickens live who lay the eggs we eat? How are the animals that we eat every day raised and slaughtered? How do the cows live that produce our milk and cheese? How many animals get killed by toxic industrial waste or get killed by poisons that enter the food chain? What about the young kids that work in sweat shops in the Third World making many of the clothes we buy? How many Calderon dolphins get killed as a by product of catching the tuna we buy and eat? Aren’t these things as worthy of our protest as the killing of the dolphins on Feroe Island? If we just focus on the dolphins, aren’t we just picking one aspect of our civilization to focus upon?
We live in a very cruel world. My wife mentioned to me that the animal realm is predominantly a prey and predator cycle with the exception of a few vegetarian animals like elephants and gorillas. The lizards on the walls of the house I live in eat the insects. Birds eat lizards, cats and foxes eat the birds…and so the cycle goes on. If I wanted animals to stop doing this, they would all die.
My wife reminded me that this is why the teachings tell us that our human birth is so precious, because we have the ability to make conscious choices about our lives. There are no easy solutions to these problems in our complex world, and I think the best way is to begin with our own actions and choices in life. My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche often repeats the slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” meaning that the best way to change the world is to begin with oneself.
Personally, the story of the dolphins also made me think about being vegetarian because this is one place where I can begin. One of the choices we can make as human beings is whether to eat animals or become vegetarian. I am in no position to judge anyone on this issue as I used to be a heavy meat eater for most of my life. If you had asked me a few years if I could imagine becoming a vegetarian, I would have said “no way!” But life took a different turn. I had some health problems that motivated me to stop eating meat. It was just a practical decision not even a moral choice or difficult process. It was easy to give up and now I don’t miss it at all.
Although my choice to become a vegetarian was not motivated by ethical reasons, I am glad I took the step. In Tibet, even though its culture and religion was Buddhist, most people ate meat because of the climate and conditions in the high mountain environment. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche was one of the teachers that came to Lerab Ling last year while I was on the three year retreat program. He mentioned that he feels there is one thing that the Tibetans should learn from the Chinese: how to cook vegetarian so they would eat less meat. Conversely, he thought the Chinese should re-translate the word of the Buddha back into Chinese as it seems that a complete set of these scriptures no longer exists in the Chinese language.
Sometimes when the thought of eating meat comes to my mind, I just think of the animal that would need to die if I were to make that choice. I naturally like animals and now that I now longer have the habit and strong cravings for meat, sympathy naturally comes forth and reinforces my choice to not to eat meat.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, another teacher who visited last year, also made a statement on the topic that really stuck in my mind. He said when we eat meat we make a conscious choice. We decide that to gratify our taste another being has to die. That our enjoyment is more important than their life.
One way that people justify eating meat is by by saying that even as vegetarians we kill countless animals because they die in the process of crops being grown, harvested, and processed. For example, there are vivid reflections in the teachings on the countless beings who suffer in the process of producing the tea leaves we use to make tea. I think there will always be some unavoidable killing that is part of being alive, but, when we have a choice, it seems to me the most beneficial option would be to minimize killing.
I think being vegetarian is a personal choice. It is something everyone has to decide themselves. I don’t want to judge others. Some people may not be able to change right now, as I know from my own experience, and others may need to eat meat for health reasons. There are also stories of great masters who used to eat animals, but were able to liberate these beings in the process. For example, I have read stories of the great Indian master Tilopa catching fish, grilling them, and eating them while liberating them. The famous Tibetan master Do Khyentse was a hunter and it is said that when he killed deer he would eat all the meat, but keep all the bones and put them back into the animal skin. Then he would snap his finger and the animal would jump up and run away.
Personally, I have to come to the conclusion that until I am a highly realized being, it might be more beneficial to choose to avoid killing and, as much as possible, to make choices that do not require others to kill animals as well.