Is the Dalai Lama a Hypocrite?

This past weekend, I went with some friends to see the Dalai Lama speak in Long Beach.

Outside the Long Beach Convention Center was a small group of protesters railing against the Dalai Lama, claiming he is a hypocrite for simultaneously preaching compassion while eating meat. The protestors were all vegetarian (possibly vegan, it wasn't clear) and are upset that the Dalai Lama isn't.

They feel it's impossible for someone to be compassionate while killing animals for food. More than that, was the way that they protested. Not only did they have the usual litany of signs but they also had a bullhorn connected to a portable speaker through which a couple of them took turns angrily shouting and denouncing His Holiness as crowds of ticket holders walked by. They yelled supposed quotes from the Buddha--I wasn't able to hear them clearly enough confirm their authenticity-- and tried to convince the crowd to turn on the Dalai Lama once we got inside.

It was a classic scene, an almost direct parallel on a much smaller scale to that very memorable passage in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where Ken Kesey attends a Viet Nam war protest and then realizes that the protestors were every bit as violent and hateful as the people whom they were protesting against. It was interesting and I think instructive to hear the vengeful sounding hateful tones of the Dalai Lama protestors as they excoriated him for a lack of compassion towards animals, all the while showing a phenomenal lack of compassion themselves for humans. The complete lack of awareness on behalf of the protestors of their own total hypocrisy would be funny if it weren't so sad. It's an important lesson: just because we think we have a "good cause" doesn't exempt us from needing to abide by the same universal principals of truth, goodness, and compassion that we demand from others. If anything, we must be held to a higher standard.

Still, despite the hypocrisy of the protestors protesting the Dalai Lama's supposed hypocrisy (surely Judd Apatow or someone of his ilk could work up one hell of a funny movie scene around this premise), we still haven't answered the original question: is the Dalai Lama himself a hypocrite because he preaches compassion yet is not a vegetarian?

As someone who has been a vegetarian since my teens, teaches spiritual topics including compassion (which occupies an entire chapter of my book, The Bliss Experiment), and has a strong background in the academic and intellectual history of philosophy and religion, including a detailed understanding of Buddhist scripture and practices, I feel I'm about as qualified to answer this as anyone.

So here's the short answer: No, the Dalai Lama isn't a hypocrite.

First of all, in his autobiography, which I read many years ago, His Holiness explains that he wanted and tried to be a vegetarian for about 18 months but became very, very ill. After what can only be called a genuine and fair attempt at being vegetarian, he was so weakened that his doctors implored him to eat a little meat. So he started eating meat again--not huge quantities, just what he needed--and started to feel better almost immediately. There is no reason not to take him at face value here. I've no reason to think he's lying. He admits the value of being vegetarian, would like to be vegetarian, tried to be vegetarian, yet his body struggled. This happens. It's real. Some people--a small percentage of the population to be sure but still a very real number of people--just don't do well on a vegetarian diet. The Dalai Lama might well be one of those people.

It's also possible that because no one around him, including his doctors, is vegetarian, they didn't really understand the principals behind maintaining a healthy, balanced, and successful vegetarian lifestyle. It's possible that if he were to try again, under the guidance of nutritional experts with a better understanding of vegetarianism, he might fare better. But that's not really the point. I advocate a vegetarian diet as much as anyone but the truth is, in the scheme of things, it's not that important. I do think that, all things being equal, it's generally beneficial on every level: physical, mental, and spiritual. But the flip side is that there are many other things that we can do to improve our inner and outer lives and the world around us, that are more important and maintain a higher priority. The Dalai Lama is a very busy dude. He keeps just about the busiest schedule of anyone, including that of Presidents and world leaders. Almost all of which is much more important than worrying about his diet.

Most importantly, above all, compassion is an inner attitude, understanding and feeling. Not eating meat doesn't automatically make us compassionate. Hitler was a vegetarian after all. Many of the greatest spiritual people in history--probably including Moses, Jesus (though that's not for certain), Mohammed, and countless saints and sages--ate meat. (To be fair: It's also true that many of them did not.) Ultimately, when it comes to the outer world, there's always a line we must draw. For example, I noticed that those protesting the Dalai Lama were not wearing masks or being careful where they stepped. They probably drove to Long Beach, too. Think how many insects they killed on their windshields to get there, or accidentally inhaled while they were shouting, or squished under their feet as they angrily circled back and forth. One could argue that if they really cared about being compassionate, they would be like the Jains, wear masks, refuse to drive, watch their every step.

Of course, most of us would find that unreasonable and unnecessary. I'm sure that's what the protestors would argue. But that's the point: in our world, there are always external or outward compromises. Few things are ever so cut and dried.

You can indeed be compassionate beings to the best of our ability, even if you eat meat. Try to be vegetarian if you can but if you can't, there are a lot of higher priority ways to express your compassion. First and foremost, start with being compassionate toward your fellow humans! It makes no sense to hate people in the name of loving animals. That's always a cop out. The truth is, in many ways, it's easier to love animals than humans. Most animals don't have the capacity for willful, intentional maliciousness and evil as humans do. It's actually harder and more spiritually advanced to feel compassionate towards humans.

Perhaps above all, be slow to judge others. The moment we judge another, we've almost surely made hypocrites of ourselves. And truly, there is just about nothing worse than spiritual hypocrisy. Give people a break. Make an honest effort to understand them before condemning them. Try to put things in perspective. And don't ever delude yourself into thinking your advocacy of a "good cause" gives you license for anger, hatred, or violence. If we can do that, we are truly embodying compassion in action, no matter what foods we happen to eat.