Is it possible to practice vajrayana without partaking in meat offerings?
I attend a Karma Kagyu centre, and am considering asking the lama there if I can start doing ngøndro. Then I read in Becoming Vajrasattva, by Thubten Yeshe, about meat offerings, and strong doubts about this practice arises, as violence against animals is contrary to what I belive in.
What is the purpose of meat offerings anyway?
Is it unwholesome to have doubs about vajrayana?
On the one hand I'm drawn towards vajrayana, it feels like I can't avoid it, on the other hand there is fear, aversion and doubts. How can I resolve this situation when I don't yet have connections with a living teacher that I trust completely?
First, I wanted to mention that I've been practicing in the Nyingma tradition for about 10 yrs and I've been a vegetarian for about the last six or so, with the exception to my vegetarianism being a tiny bit a meat at tsok four times a month. Also, some Kagyu traditions have eschewed meat even in tsok.
For your main concern, the violence toward animals: originally, in ancient times the meat in a tsok puja was only to come from beings who had died of natural causes. In other words, it has always been unacceptable to kill beings to use their flesh in a Buddhist offering. Nowadays, times are a bit different and the custom has evolved in both Tibet and here in the West to use meat from the market that would sit on the shelves whether we used it or not... in other words, it wasn't killed specifically for me, Brian, or you Inge, for us to use in our tsok; it was killed just for anonymous, general consumption. Now normally, I use the law of supply and demand as reason enough to consider that even if the meat I'm buying this instant wasn't killed specifically for me, my buying it contributes to the demand just the same. But in the case of tsoks, it's such a tiny amount and so infrequent (I usually buy a large bag of beef jerky and use just a small amount at a time, so it lasts for a good many tsoks) and I also have to consider the fact that many, many beings - insects, worms, rodents, foxes and many kinds of animals- die in the process of creating and maintaining fields for agriculture and in harvesting fruits, veggies, grains, etc, so there's no less loss of life involved in vegetarianism. For me it's worth it to be veggie, though, simply because meat eating directly
necessitates animals' deaths and eating veggie only indirectly involves their deaths.
Now, for the meaning of using the meat: I can't say too much about this because Vajrayana vows specify that higher Vajrayana practices must be explained by a qualified, living master to students who have received empowerment, reading transmission, and thorough explanations. These prerequisites for the student are for three reasons. The empowerment introduces you through actual firsthand meditative experience, the reading transmission creates and interdependent link with the words of the practice, and the explanation of the practice brings about thorough conceptual understanding and the necessary background info.
Anyhow, I'll try to give you just a little explanation to give you something to wrap your mind around for now. Originally in tsok, the meat of several different animals which were commonly viewed as not fit to be eaten was used, along with some other substances which were normally considered unclean, were arranged in a particular way, then blessed through mantra, mudra, and samadhi(meditative absorption) and mentally transformed into wisdom nectar to be offered, and then one would consume a small portion oneself an an inner offering. The offerings and the consumption have special significance on many levels, in terms of meditative experience and the view of emptiness, but this needs to be explained to you by a living lama. To try to remove your doubts and worries for now, I will explain one aspect of the purpose for this practice, though.
Just one of the reasons for this practice was to enhance realization of emptiness: all conventional phenomena are compounded (i.e. interdependently arisen and not truly single, separate things) so upon analysis, no individual objects can be found on which to validly place ultimately true labels of pure and impure, delicious and nauseating, which are mere concepts and ideas that we cling to and falsely believe. So basically, we're constantly reinforcing this mistaken view of the solidity and realness of phenomena and these ideas of good, bad, delicious, gross, so one function of this practice is destroying those concepts through previously having reasoned this truth of emptiness, and especially the powerful meditative experience that is evoked when we allow the mental energy normally pent up in adhering to concepts of attachment and aversion and ignorance to release itself and reveal their empty, wisdom nature. So this is one aspect I feel it's ok to explain, in order to dispel doubts and leery feelings.
Lastly, it's not unwholesome to have doubts. It's normal to have doubts when we don't understand something and it's only healthy to go about resolving those doubts. Vajrayana is not something to take lightly. There's no provision in the vows for dabbling or trying it out and later deciding it's not for you, so you're right and wise to take things very slowly, inform yourself as best you can, and really take time to find a teacher who you can observe and get to know and come to trust and feel a real connection to. Also, tsoks that include meat and alcohol are exclusive to Highest Yoga tantra, so although you may attend a "white tsok" which is a lower tantra tsok with no animal products or alcohol, you won't be doing HYT tsok until you eventually take on a Vajrayana teacher and receive empowerment, transmission, and explanation of the practice.
Hope this helps a little.