The Plot Doesn’t Thicken Without Troublemakers

Steve Roberts black ink drawing: wizard standing on a butterfly
I just found out the Dalai Lama, who as the world’s number one Buddhist monk I always took to be a vegetarian, eats meat, and has for a long while.  What a hoot!: a nice lesson in pliancy for us all, embellished I wouldn’t be surprised by man’s twinkly sense of humor.

The 1997 film, “Seven Years in Tibet,” starring Brad Pitt, is based upon the “real life” relationship between Austrian adventurer and mountain climber Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama as a boy and young teenager.  Soon after they meet, the young Dalai Lama, whose rather cloistered life kindles a special fascination with cinema as a means of learning about the world, asks Harrer to put his engineering skills to work building a movie theater.  Harrer’s construction crew is comprised of monks whose reverence for life makes digging the theater’s foundation an unexpected challenge since the monks feel it imperative to tenderly relocate each and every earthworm uncovered.  Harrer runs to the Dalai Lama with the hope that His Holiness will intervene to curtail this costly inefficiency.  But the Dalai Lama points out that, to a Buddhist, every sentient being may have been one’s mother in a previous life and should be treated accordingly.  The theater is eventually built and in the process Harrer comes to tutor the Dalai Lama in worldly subjects such as Geography, and so a relationship ensues that expands the horizons of them both.

Now, fast-forward 60 years to the recent profile of His Holiness in The New Yorker that states, in passing, that he eats meat.  Google “Dalai Lama eats meat” as I did and you find this isn’t new news at all.  For example, ardent vegetarian Paul McCartney, among others, has been offended by it for years.  That His Holiness’s doctors advised the practice as being essential for his particular body chemistry cuts no ice with them.  Eating animals contributes to their unnatural and painful demise, period.

If the delightfully creepy Charles Addams were still among us, we might be treated to a cartoon depicting His Holiness queued up at Bubba Burgers where scrawled on the menu board the day’s special reads: “Your mother, fries and a Coke.”

I’m not a Buddhist but the Dalai Lama is on my short list of people I’d love to sit across the kitchen table from and share tears and laughter.  To me, he’s a pretty good manifestation of what I consider to be the spirit of the universe: playful, loving and deep.  And while I have no idea what his perspective is on being a “Buddhist carnivore” (besides, of course, the label’s potential as the name of a rock band), I trust that he is well aware of how his eating of animals can, believe it or not, serve to grow kindness within the human family––today, and for generations to come.

At the very least, the Dalai Lama’s culinary preferences, like every other life experience, is primarily a mirror showing us ourselves.  Whatever thoughts and feelings we have on the matter says all but nothing about him and perhaps all but everything about us.  Is he responsible for Mr. McCartney’s pique?  Has anyone ever made us angry?  Not that I’ve noticed.  Whom do you suppose creates all those buttons of ours we allow to get pushed?

Another reminder may be the value of guiding our life by principles rather than by laws or rules: “reverence for life,” in this case, versus “not eating animals.”  The former requires that we continually listen to our heart and follow its guidance; the latter can be achieved by a robot.

And on top of all that is simply his role as “revered spiritual teacher.”  Just the other day I met a fellow who, if I had to guess, would barely know a Buddhist from a boa constrictor, yet said of His Holiness, “He always seems to say something that’s worth listening to.”

But perhaps the biggest gift of His Holiness’s seemingly idiosyncratic diet is simply the idiosyncrasy itself.  Whatever prompts our mind to say “Huh?” can be a heck of a teacher.  And you can bet this truth isn’t lost on the Dalai Lama.  Indeed, I like to think he’s buddies in spirit with Ramakrishna, a 19th century Hindu saint who said, “The plot doesn’t thicken without troublemakers.”

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The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth