Hollywood actor Richard Gere has thrown his support behind a plan to transform the site of Buddha's enlightenment into a vegetarian zone to spread the message of peace.
The activist, who is taking part in a five-day training session with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, in the Indian town of Bodhgaya, took part in a candlelit march this week highlighting the campaign.
"Bodhgaya is a pious place and I want to come here again," the star of movies such as An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman told reporters, after joining around 500 monks and activists who took part in the march. "I am with the people who have launched this campaign."
According to Buddhist tradition, Bodhgaya, in the state of Bihar, is where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment around 500BC. Starting in the 19th century, the area gradually become a site of pilgrimage and is now visited by Buddhists from all over the world, whose presence gives it a very different character from the rest of north India's impoverished "cow belt".
Since the Dalai Lama's flight into India from Tibet in 1959, Bodhgaya has become the winter pilgrimage destination for thousands of Tibetans who live in India, and is the site of a large Tibetan market. While not taking life is the first Buddhist precept, it is not essential to be vegetarian to be a Buddhist. The Dalai Lama himself sometimes eats meat while he is away from his purely vegetarian kitchen in Dharamsala. Indeed, because of the climate and the difficulty of obtaining fresh vegetables and alternative sources of protein, many Buddhists in Tibet are not vegetarian. Neither is Gere.
The plan to turn Bodhgaya into a vegetarian zone is the project of a group called Tibetans for a Vegetarian Society that believes doing so would help spread a message of peace. Speaking last night from Bodhgaya, the group's founder, Tenzin Kunga Luding, said Gere's participation in the event had been a morale booster for the activists. "We have been calling for this since 2006 and slowly the campaign is building up," said Mr Luding. "He really was very supportive and very good to us. It has helped the cause a lot."
Mr Luding, born in India, was himself a meat-eater until the age of around 10, when he discovered how animals were raised and then slaughtered. He said that in Tibet the climate worked against a vegetarian diet but he said turning Bodhgaya into a meat-free zone would send a powerful message to the world. "In such a sacred place as this, people come to promote peace and non-violence and I think that if you kill an animal here and then sell it, then the sanctity will be spoiled," he explained. "This most sacred land will act as a model for other places to emulate and will impart more positive influence for the well-being of all humans, animals and the environment."
With the encouragement of Gere's support, the campaigners have also launched a signature campaign near the Mahabodhi temple, the world heritage-listed building said to sit on the precise spot of the enlightenment. They will next submit a petition to Bihar's chief minister, Nitish Kumar, asking him to order the city be turned into a meat-free zone.