What I never understood, and have no real hope of ever understanding, is why these enlightened practitioners must actually participate in killing a sentient being to improve its lot. Surely such a practitioner can benefit such a being by simply saying mantras, or another practice - other than participating in killing it.
Killing, the taking of life, requires the intent to take life, an object, the carrying out of the action and satisfaction in doing so.
In other words, a human that is so advanced that he or she can actually directly choose to benefit another being should be able to do so through other means than participating in the killing of that being.
Eating meat does not equate with killing unless you killed the meat you are eating, or asked that it be killed for you.
However, whenever we eat anything at all we are participating in the death of something else. This is a simple fact of life. When we harvest grain, we destroy the homes and lifes of many creatures. We participate in their death when we eat oats, wheat, not to mention the death of the plants in question, etc. To live is to participate in the death of other beings, both plant and animal.
Many vegetarians argue the deaths caused by agriculature is unavoidable. And I agree with them. But they never accept responsibility for the deaths of creatures caused by agriculture, and do their best to pretend they have no karmic responsibility for them.
When a peice of meat is available in a resturant, its death is unavoidable. Why? Because it is dead. It has been slaughtered already. It has been packaged and sold. But I did not kill that animal. I no more killed that animal that our vegetarian friends killed all the insects and birds that die in the large scale production of rice harvested by machines in Lundberg Farms. For example, feathermeal is one of the main products Lundberg Farms uses in organic rice production. Feathermeal, in case you were wondering, is described as follows:Feather meal is a byproduct of processing poultry; it is made from poultry feathers by partially hydrolyzing them under elevated heat and pressure, and then grinding and drying. Although total nitrogen levels are fairly high (up to 12%), the bioavailability of this nitrogen may be low. Feather meal is used in formulated animal feed and in organic fertilizer.
Now, how can vegetarians, who suppose they eat a diet free from animal products, possibly excuse themselves when they eat rice and other kinds of large scale organic produce? Feathermeal is pervasively used in the cultivation of organic crops. Feathermeal is a by-product of the poultry industry. The feathers of those chickens in those truly hellish chicken factories get ground up and used in "organic" fertilizer. Feathermeal is also fed to steers in industrial beef operations.
Another common organic fertilizer is blood meal. Another one is bone meal. What about manure? All of these are used pervasively in growing organic produce. What about Biodynamic farming? This is another form of organic food production that depends heavily on the use of animal products in production of organic foods.
I can refuse to eat that peice of meat or fish, but that organic bread too comes at the cost of life, as does the rice, and the asparagus. All food comes at the cost of life. The cost of life is death. There is no food that does not come at the cost of life.
One need not be "advanced" to benefit some animal whose meat you are consuming. In fact, to benefit those with whom one does not have direct contact in some way is impossible on a merely mental level unless you are an awakened person. For example, this is the reason ordinary people cannot successfully do Phowa for others. They simply do not have the yogic capacity to eject the consciousness of another being from its body (these days there are many arrogant people who run around and pretend to do phowa for others, deceiving the relatives and accepting money for their deceptions)
When you eat meat with compassion, presence and awareness, and use a mantra like the six spaces of Samantabhadra, you create a positive cause for that animal specifically, and if you are eating a vegetarian meal, a specific positive cause for any animal who was killed during the harvesting of that crop. This works for ordinary people best because one is making a concrete physical connnection with those animals through tsal.
I no longer believe that plants are insentient because I beleive the distinction between sentient and insentient is a false distinction. At least, it is a false distinction from a Dzogchen perspective. From the Dzogchen point of view, everything is made of five elements, all sentient beings, even consciousness, even the buddhas. Plants are every bit alive as animals. As Garab Dorje says "The color of rtsal is green". But because it is convenient and because they are ignorant of the principles of the basis, ideological vegetarians make a false distinction between sentient and non-sentient. There is, according to Dzogchen teachings, no true distinction to be made between the sentient and the non-sentient. Therefore we must respect all life, not just the life that is convientient for us to respect. Even though we must respect all life, life must be taken for other life to flourish. This is simply how samsara is. Therefore whenever we eat, and no matter what we eat, we must do so with compasion, pressence and awareness because all food comes at the cost of something's life.
Everytime we consume the flesh of something we are incoporating that being's vital energy into our own, whether it is plant or an animal. When we die, our vital energy, our rtsal, contributes to the growth and health of other creatures. This is the natural cycle of life.
Thus one simply has to be mindful and attentive, present and aware. If one eats without presence and awareness, even eating a tomato becomes a non-virtue. If one eats with presence and awareness, even eating meat becomes a virtue.
...but let's just be very honest about this popular "defense" of eating meat.
I am being very honest about this extremely unpopular advocacy of meat-eating -- because in the end it is not about meat, it is about compassion, presence and awareness. I know that many people with more conventional Mahāyāna views about meat-eating, not to mention fanatical vegans and so on, will find this principle, if not just counter-intuitive, completely unacceptable.
So people like to mention Chatral Rinpoche, and so on. But they are not speaking from the point of view of Dzogchen. They are speaking from the point of view of common Mahāyāna. As I have said many times, this is fine. But it is not the point of view of Dzogchen teachings.