Buddha was probably a vegetarian. Or at least his recorded teachings suggest as much: according to traditional Buddhist philosophy, eating the flesh of another sentient being is quite the sacred bungle. While modern interpretations propound such teachings as heirloom standards that agree with the pro-vegan lifestyle, these traditions—and the fight to protect them—run far deeper.
In a constitutional theocracy like Bhutan, religionization of politics functions as a tool for nation-building. As researchers Mari Miyamoto, Jan Magnusson, and Frank J. Korom point out, there’s no explicit link between citizenship and Buddhism in Bhutan. Yet “the constitution establishes Buddhism as Bhutan’s state religion and spiritual heritage,” making it “the duty of every citizen to adhere to Buddhist values.”
Among those values, Miyamoto et al. focus on specific key Buddhist practices: tsethar, the “practice of saving the lives of animals destined for slaughter”; ahiṃsā, “the teaching that views killing as one of the greatest sins a human can commit on earth”; and happiness, which “in Buddhist doctrine refers to an enduring kind of happiness”—inimical to, say, “selfish[ly] craving and grasping for material things, such as the taste for meat and the slaughter of animals for profit.”
Happiness is a unique variable here, used anomalously by the state as a measure for growth: the Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a “Bhutanese alternative development index that is rooted in national traditions and heritage,” write Miyamoto et al., involving a historical connection rooted in religious and cultural standards.
Despite the GNH, though, the government continues to beef with its people. The nationalizing of Buddhist tenets has put the methods and activities around meat slaughter and consumption in tension with good citizenship. For example, the Livestock Act of Bhutan 2001 requires slaughterhouses to reduce the slaughter, import, and sale of meat based on the Bhutanese calendar, which is heavily shaped by Buddhism. The production and sale of fresh meat is prohibited on several “auspicious” days of each month, in addition to the entirety of the first and fourth month of the year.
The Livestock Act has had “unexpected outcomes contrary to its intentions,” reports the research team. Some restauranteurs stock up on meat before auspicious days, which actually shortens the lives of animals. Some shops, fresh out of fresh meat, sell rotten meat—and the food poisoning that comes with it. The prohibitions also mobilized public stigma against rural communities who still follow traditional slaughter practice and schedules. People began importing meat privately from India, repositioning the livestock market in a way that benefited neighboring economies. Moreover, the government has failed to meet its original goals; despite redlining animal-eating practices, slaughter and consumption are on the rise, even as the actual killing takes place beyond the nation’s borders.
Using Buddhist doctrine—the concepts of tsethar, ahiṃsā, and happiness—as a framework to define “good Bhutanese citizenship” has forced a shift in meat production and consumption. But Miyamoto’s team also observes that the prohibitions have encouraged people to find “covert” ways of circumscribing those values in order to be considered good citizens. To not do so, to adhere to traditional slaughter and meat-eating traditions, is to be marginalized as ideologically different, despite being a legal citizen of Bhutan.
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