On Tulpas, Tulpamancers and Alexandra David-Néel

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Yesterday, Chris Bell’s Facebook feed alerted me to an article by Vice, describing the phenomena of ‘tulpas’ and the ‘tulpamancers’ who create and nurture them.  For those of you who may not be familiar (as I was not), tulpas are beings created in the imagination of the tulpamaner, but which acquire their own sentience.  According to Vice, tulpamancers spend some 200 to 500 hours in intense focus ‘forcing’ their tulpas to appear.  Once that happens, though, tulpamancers are convinced that their creations have independent mental lives of their own.  They can hold conversations with their host, dictate letters and even fall in love.

Really, there’s too much to describe. Go read the article, then come back.  You won’t regret it.

Alexandra David-Néel.  Image from Wikipedia.

Alexandra David-Néel in Tibetan dress. Image from Wikipedia.

I’m going to refrain from commenting on wether this is weird or not (Vice certainly thinks it is).  Instead I’m going to focus on the Tibet angle.  Because there’s a Tibet angle.  Again, according to the Vice article, creating tulpas is believed to be a Tibetan practice, brought back by Alexandra David-Néel and described in her 1929 book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  Vice quotes David-Néel, and while it fails to provide page numbers, it does provide a quote.  With that quote and the search function in Google Books, I can tell you that the relevant passages are on pages 313-315 of the 1971 Dover reprint.  I have to admit, I was kind of surprised to find that Vice had not misquoted her: David-Néel does, in fact, claim to have created a tulpa, described as a phantom that she created in her mind over several months of meditation, but which, once created, had a mind of its own.  While many contemporary tulpamancers seem to prefer anime characters, David-Néel’s tulpa was, in case you were wondering, a fat monk.

Needless to say, I have never heard of anything like this from any Tibetan.  The term is certainly Tibetan (སྤྲུལ་པ་).  And the term is closely related to the common idea of the tülku (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་), that particular individuals are born as the emanations of deities or the reincarnation of previous masters.  To me, however, there is a pretty big difference between saying so-and-so is the reincarnation of such-and-such previous master, and conjuring independent entities out of thin air, who then proceed to live entirely within their creator’s minds.

So what to make of all of this?  David-Néel was a pioneer, and we should all be grateful for her work.  While the term tulpa certainly exists in Tibetan, and the practice does bear some resemblance to the theories that account for tülkus, I have never heard of a Tibetan creating, ex nihilo, a being with its own consciousness that only lives in the host’s mind.  My suspicion, as you have probably guessed by this point, is that this is yet another instance of western pop culture picking up a Tibetan idea and then running with it on their own, far beyond its original context.  (See also: Batman does Tögal).  Or maybe I’m just ignorant.  If so, let me know in the comments.  I’d be fascinated to see or hear of something like this in a traditional Tibetan context.

(Mis)using Buddhist Imagery in Advertising

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Mavi jeans - in Tibetan

Mavi jeans – in Tibetan

A couple days ago I was out shopping for new jeans. As I was going through the selection at our local Nordstrom Rack, I came across this pair, made by Mavi. Yes, that’s Tibetan script decorating the back of a pair of jeans.  When I was in college, lots of t-shirts used Chinese characters for decoration (usually in really bad fonts).  Now I suppose its Tibetan’s turn in the spotlight: Tibetan tattoos are all over the place, I’ve seen Tibetan on t-shirts, and now it’s being used on the butt of a pair of jeans. All seemingly to little point: there’s certainly nothing ‘Tibetan’ about these jeans, and I doubt that most people would have any clue the script is Tibetan at all.  Certainly the designer, or whoever decided to turn the ཟ into an ‘m,’ had no idea what they were doing.  At least they used some decent calligraphy.

While it might not make the jeans any more ‘Tibetan,’ use of Tibetan script to decorate someone’s ass certainly has the power to offend. About ten years ago I attended a series of empowerments given by Trulshik Rinpoché in Kathmandu. I would carry my seating cushion back and forth from my apartment everyday in a canvas back from The New Tibet Book Store, which happened to have some Tibetan writing on it. In order to save time, I would just leave the cushion in the bag when I got to the empowerments, sitting on the whole thing. After a couple days, a monk who sat beside asked me to take the cushion out of the bag before I sat. The Tibetan script on the bag, he explained, was sacred (even though it did not say anything religious), and it was inappropriate to treat it disrespectfully by sitting on it. His remonstrance was quite kind, and I happily complied. I don’t have to think too hard to know what he would think if he saw these jeans.  I wonder if the Mavi marketing department thinks the aesthetic value of the Tibetan script is worth it?

Buddha Bowl - Enlightening Snacks

Buddha Bowl: Enlightening Snacks?

Nor are Mavi jeans the only such example of the potential mis-use of Tibetan or Buddhist imagery in advertising. While driving through Virginia this summer, Eliza and I found this bag of popcorn in a Wegman’s grocery store. According to their website, it “exemplifies the true meaning of simple snacking.” I think that’s supposed to sound Buddhist-y. Over at the Columbus Zoo, Buddha statues and prayer flags are used to decorate the dinosaur boat ride. I’m not sure what the connection here is; I guess the Buddhist imagery is supposed to give the ride an exotic flair.

Some of you may recall the Keds scandal from a few years back. Apparently, someone (not actually Keds, but sold under the Keds brand) produced a bunch of canvas Keds sneakers with images of the Buddha, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan flag. Presumably, said person did not know that in many parts of Asia, the feet are considered unclean. oops. The sacred imagery on shoes caused great consternation among many of my Tibetan friends. People were shocked. Angry letters were written to the folks at Keds. There was talk on Facebook of boycotting all Keds products. Two days after the story broke, Kristin Kohler Burrow, then the president of Keds, issued an apology, removing the offensive shoes from the websites and ‘sincerely apologizing for any discomfort.’ Keds clearly meant no disrespect. Nor do Mavi Jeans, LesserEvil (makes of Buddha Bowl popcorn), the Columbus Zoo or any of the other companies who have used Buddhist imagery to promote themselves. They simply had no idea that what they were doing could be considered offensive. As Robert Mayer pointed out during the Keds imbroglio, you can go to a western wear store online and see lots of pairs of cowboy boots with crosses on them (try here, here and here). Presumably there are lots of Christian cowboys out there that don’t find these offensive.

Dalai Lama Sneakers - image via Phayul

Dalai Lama Sneakers – image via Phayul

So here are my questions: What responsibility do companies have to make their products non-offensive? If no offense is meant, does that mean that none should be taken? Do we—academics, but also informed people in general—have a responsibility to alert companies when we feel their products might cause offense?

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this.  If you have opinions, please make use of the comments section below!

An Old Lama’s Affection

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Today’s post concerns a short passage from the biography of Changlung Paṇḍita Ngawang Lozang Tenpé Gyeltsen (1770-1845).[1] Changlung Paṇḍita became a vegetarian in 1783, at age thirteen. This is kind of young, but is not in and of itself a big deal: I’ve found dozens of biographical references to Tibetan vegetarians. The fact that Changlung Paṇḍita was 1) a Mongolian and 2) a Gelukpa makes it a little more interesting, but still not enough to warrant a post. What’s really striking about this passage comes right after Changlung Paṇḍita becomes vegetarian:

One day Changkya Rinpoché caressed Changlung Paṇḍita’s head and said, “My Mongolian son doesn’t eat meat!” He was wonderfully pleased.[2]

I find this to be a really touching passage, cutting through the many layers of formulaic language that so often characterize Tibetan biography and giving us a glimpse of a simple moment of personal affection. The Changkya Rinpoché mentioned here is the famed Changkya Rolpé Dorjé (1717-1786), preceptor of the Qianlong Emperor and veteran of countless political skirmishes. He was roughly sixty-six at the time: an old man by Tibetan standards. Changlung Paṇḍita was thirteen, and a devoted pupil. In my mind’s eye I see a grizzled old lama, proud of his student, reaching out his hand to rub his young disciple’s head in a playful benediction. This is a lovely image, and I thought I would share.

Thanks to Sherab Chen of Ohio State for suggesting I look at Changlung Paṇḍita’s Biography.
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[1] The text itself can be found in vol 6 of Changlung Paṇḍita’s Collected Works, pages 31-476. TBRC ID: W1KG1338 The passage in question is on page 64.
[2] ཉིན་གཅིག་ལྕང་སྐྱ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་ནས་རྗེ་ཉིད་ཀྱི་དབུ་ལ་ཕྱག་གིས་བྱིལ་བྱིལ་མཛད་ཅིང་སོག་པོའི་བུ་ཤ་མི་ཟ་བ་ཞེས་ཤིན་ཏུ་མཉེས་མཉེས་མཛད།

Defining Vegetarianism in Tibet

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When I first started researching vegetarianism in Tibet, some colleagues warned me that vegetarianism in Tibet would be very different than vegetarianism in the U.S. After doing this for a few years now, it seems like high time to come back and confront this issue by laying out and defining how I’ve come to understand Tibetan vegetarianism. This is not a new project (the specific definition below was part of my presentation at IATS this past summer), and this post is not at all meant to be the final word on the matter. On the contrary, I’m putting this up on the blog in the hopes that others will critique, and thereby enhance, the definition I’m proposing. So, please, correct my mistakes in the comments below!

With that in mind, I would tentatively define vegetarianism in Tibet as the combination of two criteria:

1) The individual or group in question understands eating meat to be wrong in some way (as I’ll discuss below, this does not have to be an ethical, or even religious decision).

2) Based on that understanding, the individual or group modifies their diet by either reducing or eliminating meat.

The first part of this definition functions to eliminate what we might call ‘unintentional’ vegetarianism. If someone is too poor to afford meat, for instance, they might not eat it even though they would like to. By my definition this would not qualify as vegetarianism. A more complicated possibility would be someone who refuses meat on cultural grounds, but without any actual conviction that meat eating is wrong. Perhaps such a person belongs to a caste that is traditionally vegetarian. A member of this community might refuse meat out of allegiance to caste norms, but might not actually be convinced that eating meat is wrong in and of itself. Such an individual would not be considered a vegetarian by my definition, though this may be something of a moot point, as I have never encountered or heard of someone like this in Tibet.

On the other hand, the first part of this definition is intended to be broad enough to encompass motivations beyond Buddhist ethics. While Buddhist inspired concerns have certainly dominated discussions of vegetarianism in Tibet, other motivations are present, particularly in the modern period. Examples of this include environmental concerns or concerns over ritual purity. Further, even within Buddhism, the concern is not always with the suffering of the animal: for some Tibetan monks, the primary motivation for vegetarianism seems to be concern with breaking either their monastic vows (when these are understood to forbid meat) or their tantric vows (by, for instance, violating the wishes of a revered tantric master). In all of these cases, the individual or group understands meat to be problematic in some way, and I have tried to word my proposed definition in a way that allows for all of these varied motivations, but which still requires a specific belief that meat is wrong in some way.

The second aspect of this definition requires the individual or group in question to actually do something about their convictions. Simply believing that eating meat is problematic does not, I would argue, qualify someone as a vegetarian. They also need to take that belief and do something to alter their diet. This is important because while vegetarianism was and is rare in Tibet, many people will readily accept that eating meat is less than ideal. For most of these people, however, that conviction never gets put into practice, so I would find it hard to include them in the category of ‘vegetarians.’

The actual degree to which vegetarian ideals are implemented in daily life can vary dramatically, however, and I have tried to word the second criterion to reflect that. Some Tibetans completely reject meat, making it easy to think of them as vegetarians. For others, however, the rejection is not so complete, making the issue much less clear. If someone who rejects meat only on certain auspicious days, or only during Saga Dawa, should we consider that person to be a vegetarian? What about an individual who refuses to eat slaughtered meat, but who is happy to eat the meat of animals that have died naturally? From a definitional standpoint, this is not idle speculation: there have been quite a few Tibetans who claim to adhere to such a diet.[1] In proposing the above definition, I have tried to include all such practices. Thus, we can still think of someone as at least a partial vegetarian even if they only give up meat for a single day, or a single meal, as long as that decision was based on a conviction that meat eating is problematic (as in the first criteria above). It is here, then, than we can see one of the key distinctions between vegetarianism in Tibet and vegetarianism in the U.S. In the U.S., vegetarianism is usually thought of as a long term diet, not simply the contents of an individual meal. In Tibet, I argue, the situation is more fluid and such a definition would be too restrictive; we need to allow room for practices that are of short duration, but which are still motivated by concern over meat’s problematic nature.

Overall, the definition I am proposing is quite broad, but not so broad, I hope, as to render it meaningless. It preserves the idea that vegetarianism cannot be accidental; it must be based on a conviction that meat eating is wrong in some way. It also, I hope, preserves the idea that vegetarianism has to be an active practice. It is not enough to merely believe that meat is negative, that belief also has to manifest in practice. This, then, is the definition I propose. As I mentioned above, I put this out on the blog in the hopes that others will critique it and offer suggestions for how it could be improved. Perhaps my definition leaves out a type of practice that you think should be included, or perhaps it is over broad, including some diets that should not really be considered vegetarianism. If so, please let me know in the comments below!

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[1] There have been some suggestions that claiming to adhere to such a diet is merely a euphemism for unrestricted meat consumption, and certainly that is the case in some instances. (See: Childs, “Methods, Meanings and Representations” p.2; also my discussion here) This is not the place to discuss this in detail, but suffice it to say that I believe enough Tibetan have actually adhered to this distinction—refusing all slaughtered meat but eating naturally dead meat—to justify including it here.

Between Abstinence and Indulgence: Vegetarianism in the Life and Works of Jigmé Lingpa

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Click here to download the article directly from JBE.

I’ve been pounding the keys pretty hard the last few months trying to get my dissertation finished. Hence no new posts since January. Instead of the new blog content I don’t have time to create, however, I thought I would post a link to my first bona-fide, peer-revied academic article, published today by the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Download a free pdf above, of by clicking here. (Kudos to JBE for posting all of their articles online, and not behind a paywall. No subscriptions or academic affiliations required.)

Abstract:
Tibetan Buddhism idealizes the practice of compassion, the drive to relieve the suffering of others, including animals. At the same time, however, meat is a standard part of the Tibetan diet, and abandoning it is widely understood to be difficult. This tension between the ethical problems of a meat based diet and the difficulty of vegetarianism has not been lost on Tibetan religious leaders, including the eighteenth century master Jigmé Lingpa. Jigmé Lingpa argues repeatedly that meat is a sinful food, incompatible with a compassionate mindset. At the same time, however, he acknowledges the difficulties of vegetarianism, and refuses to mandate vegetarianism among his students. Instead, he offers a variety of practices that can ameliorate the inherent negativity of eating meat. By so doing, Jigmé Lingpa offers his students a chance to continue cultivating compassion without having to completely abandon meat.

Tibetan Vegetarianism: A Translation of “Words to Increase Virtue”

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Download the Translation Here

Anti-meat flier distributed by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and widely distributed across Kham.

Anti-meat flier distributed by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and widely distributed across Kham.

I’m turning over a new leaf on this blog and posting, for public consumption, a translation of Words to Increase Virtue, a short text by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö, encouraging vegetarianism and humane slaughtering practices. For those who do not know him, Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö is one of the most important lamas currently active in Kham. He has been vegetarian for many years, and is one of the most important people driving the current vegetarian movement. Somehow, I hope this little translation, despite its flaws, brings some benefit to beings. Download via the above link.

Feel free to make suggestions in the comments below.

Who Wrote “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”?

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Possible photo of Patrül.[4]


The Words of My Perfect Teacher (tib: ཀུན་བཟན་བླ་མའི་བཞལ་ལུང།) is one of the most famous and popular works to emerge from nineteenth century Kham. It was written by Patrül Rinpoché in the late 1840s or even 1850.[1] Patrül, however, does not take credit for authoring this text, insisting that all he did was to reproduce what his teacher, Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu, had taught (hence the work’s title: The Words of My Perfect Teacher). Such attribution in Tibetan works can often feel like something of a trope, an attempt to gather legitimacy by associating the work with a famous forebear. Thus, both Tibetans and westerners usually refer to “Patrül’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher,” rather than “Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher.”

In this case, however, I wonder if Patrül was actually telling the truth, and if we should speak of the ideas in The Words of My Perfect Teacher as Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu’s, only nominally filtered through Patrül. In suggesting this, I’m thinking primarily of this work’s strident denunciations of meat eating:

At the time a sheep or other animal is to be slaughtered, it first has inconceivable terror as it is taken from the flock. Blood blisters form wherever it is seized. Then it is flipped upside down, its limbs are bound with cord and its muzzle is tied.[2] The in and out flow of the breath is cut off, and it experiences the terrible suffering of death. If it requires a little time to die, the evil butcher beats it, calling out angrily, ‘This one won’t die!’. … Anyone who can eat such things is a true demon![3]

One would think that the author of this passage (and the many other anti-meat passages in The Words of My Perfect Teacher was probably a vegetarian. And yet, there is no indication in the third Dodrubchen’s Biography of Patrül that Patrül ever adopted vegetarianism (though he is credited with preventing nomads from offering meat to lamas during rituals). Further, I have found nothing in Patrül’s other writing to indicate that he was particularly opposed to meat. The Words of My Perfect Teacher, it seems, stands alone in this regard.

Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu, on the other hand, was a vegetarian (or at least was remembered as one). In his own Autobiography, Khenpo Ngakchung claims that Jigmé Gyelwé Nyügu became vegetarian during an early retreat at Mt Tsari, and never touched meat again. Being vegetarian was not unheard of in pre-modern Tibet, but it was not easy and took a certain measure of dedication. Presumably, those who adopted the diet did so out of strong convictions, of the type that could produce an emotionally laden diatribe like the one above. So perhaps we should take Patrül Rinpoché at his word when he claims that The Words of My Perfect Teacher should be attributed to his perfect teacher, rather than to himself.
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[1] These dates are my own calculation: In his Short Biography of Patrül Rinpoché, Dodrubchen 03, Jigmé Tenpé Nyima writes that Patrül wrote this text while in retreat at Dzokchen monastery. In the next line, Dodrubchen says that Patrül left Dzokchen to see Shabkar, who, unfortunately, died before the two could meet (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting.) Hence, my suggestion that The Words of My Perfect Teacher was written just prior to Shabkar’s death in 1851. If I’m wrong, please let me know!

[2] Refers to a popular method of slaughtering where the animal is suffocated by binding a cord around its muzzle. The meat produced by this method, still rich with blood, is said to be particularly tasty.

[3] དཔལ་སྤྲུལ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ། ༼ཀུན་བཟན་བླ་མའི་བཞལ་ལུང།༽ in དཔལ་སྤྲུལ་གསུང་འབུམ། དེབ༼ཉ (སི་ཁྲོན:སི་ཁྲོན་དཔེ་ཚོགས་པ། དང་སི་ཁྲོན་མི་རིགས་དཔེ་སྐྲུན་ཁང། 2009) 314-315.
See also: Patrül Rinpoché: The Words of My Perfect Teacher Padmakara, trans. (Boston: Shambhala, 1998) 203.
ཁྱད་པར་བཤའ་ལུག་སོགས་གསོད་པའི་སྐབས།་དང་པོ་མང་པོའི་ཁྱུ་ནས་བཟུང་བའི་ཚེ།་དེ་ལ་འཇིགས་སྐྲག་གི་སྣང་བ་བསམ་གྱིས་མི་ཁྱབ་པ་ཡོད་པས།་དང་པོ་གང་དུ་བཟུང་ས་དེར་ཤ་ལ་ཁྲག་ཚོམ་འབྱུང།་དེ་རྗེས་ལུས་གནམ་ས་བསྒྱུར།་ཡན་ལག་འབྲེང་པས་བཀྱིག་མཆུ་ཐ་གུས་དཀྲིས།་དབུགས་ཕྱི་ནང་གི་རྒྱུ་འགྲུལ་བཅད་དེ་གནད་གཅོད་ཀྱི་སྡུག་བསྔལ་དོས་དྲག་པོ་མྱོང་བའི་སྐབས་སུ་ཡང་ད་དུང་ཅུང་ཟད་འཆི་བ་འགོར་ན་ཤན་པ་ལས་ངན་ཕལ་ཆེར་ཞེ་སྡང་ལངས་ནས་འདི་ལ་འཆི་རྒྱུ་མི་འདུག་ཟེར་ཏེ་བརྡུང་རྡེག་སོགས་བྱེད།་…་ཟ་ཕོད་པ་འདི་ལས་ཀྱི་སྲིན་པོ་དངོས་སོ་འདུག།

[4]I saw an old (pre-1950) print of this photo in Kham recently, with Patrül’s name written underneath, though that certainly does not confirm the photo beyond doubt. According to Rigpa Wiki (where I got this photo) Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoché thought that it was actually one of Patrül’s incarnations. There can’t have been too many cameras in Kham prior to Patrül’s death in 1887.

The Future of the Academic Blog

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I just read that after four years and one thousand posts, The China Beat is shutting down. For those unfamiliar, The China Beat is (was?) an excellent blog covering modern China. Posts were written by people both inside and outside of academia, but were almost always excellent and informative. For those of us on the fringes of the blogosphere, it was something to aspire to.

As I understand it from their final goodbye post, part of the reason The China Beat is shutting down involves changing currents in the technological dissemination of information. The blog is passé, twitter and Facebook are in. I hope this is not true. Part of the idea behind blogs such as The China Beat was to bring intelligent, reasoned and supported discussion of contemporary issues beyond the walls of academia. What happens when we try to bring that discussion to twitter and Facebook? Twitter may be great for sharing news quickly, but how much intelligent commentary can you really provide in 140 characters?

I have enjoyed The China Beat, and I wish them well. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that the blog sticks around for a while longer as a viable format for disseminating ideas and provoking discussions.

How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra

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I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.

Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.

Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.

Fish Liberation

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Fig 1: Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö blesses the fish prior to release.

Over the past several months, a group of Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö’s chinese disciples have been releasing fish into a lake just south of Chengdu. And not just a few fish either. Each day for one hundred days, they released something on the order of half a million small fish. That’s a lot of fish that will no longer become part of someone’s dinner. In line with traditional Tibetan tsetar practices, prior to releasing them, Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and his disciples offered extensive prayers for the fish’s present and future well-being (see fig 1). They were then loaded on a boat and transported out into the lake and released (slowly, so as not to harm them in the process. see fig 2). Two points are also worth noting at the outset: first, I was assured that the fish were of a species native to the region, and second, each day they were released into a different part of the lake, so as to minimize the impact on specific areas. Still, releasing half a million fish a day into a lake, even a large one like this, is bound to have an impact on the local ecosystem.

Fig 2: A basket of fish ready for release.

And therein lies one of the more interesting things this practice reveals: a difference between Tibetan and Western attitudes towards the natural environment and the animals living in it. When I discuss these fish liberation episodes with Tibetans, they are overwhelmingly pleased with the number of fish being rescued. My foreign friends, on the other hand, tend to be horrified at the presumed damage being done to the lake’s ecosystem. Admittedly, these have not been formal, statistically rigorous surveys, and I’m sure I’m opening myself up to charges of simplification, essentializing Tibetan culture, and other grave academic faults. But I do think I’ve spoken with enough people to observe a basic pattern: Tibetans are primarily concerned with the individual animals while foreigners are more concerned with the well being of the ecosystem. It could be suggested that this difference is due to scientific ignorance on the part of the Tibetans, who might be unaware of the impact of releasing fish, but from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t think this is the case. Several of the Tibetans I’ve spoken to (including Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö) have understood that releasing fish into the lake impacts the lake overall, but have argued that the benefit to the fish being released outweighs this concern. So I think I’ll stick with my guns and my oversimplified, stereotyped distinction.

Fig 3: Slowly pouring fish into the lake.

What makes this even more interesting, to me at least, is that it largely (if imperfectly) mirrors a debate in western environmental ethics. Some ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that it is an animal’s ability to suffer (or experience happiness) that gives it moral value, and that justifies it’s protection.[1] Thus, an ecosystem (lacking an ability to suffer in its own right) is not inherently valuable in itself, but only in it’s ability to impact the lives of the animals that live in it. We save ecosystems for the sake of the animals, not vice versa. Deep Ecologists (and others), on the other hand, see primary moral value lying in the healthy functioning of an ecosystem as a whole.[2]Individual animals are only a part of that system, and their individual suffering is secondary to the health of the ecosystem. Often, these two approaches line up well. After all, usually what is good for the ecosystem is also what’s good for the animals concerned. But every now and then conflict arises. A classic example is the culling of overpopulated animal populations, where a great deal of suffering is inflicted on a few individual animals so that the ecosystem as a whole can prosper. I might suggest that the release of fifty million fish into a lake is another example. You have a very significant reduction in suffering for fifty million individual animals (they don’t get cooked), but also the risk of destabilizing an entire lake’s ecosystem. Given that the overwhelming majority of my western friends expressed more concern about the ecosystem than the fish, I think I am safe in suggesting that something akin to the Deep Ecology perspective (if not necessarily as radical as a true Deep Ecology position) has become fairly standard among educated westerners.

So what is the point of this long ramble? Not much really. Merely to observe an interesting similarity between what I have been hearing from Tibetans and Singer’s perspectives on animals. Obviously, these are just observations, so I don’t want this to be construed as a definitive statement of ‘Tibetan thought’. I do, however, want to suggest that there might be an interesting kinship between at least some aspects of Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards animals and Singer’s approach. The Deep Ecologists have long invoked Buddhist notions of dependent origination (give skt / Tibetan) to support their theoris of a deeply interdependent biosphere, and to underscore the importance of using ecosystem health as the baline for making environmental decisions. Perhaps Singer and his followers could also look to Buddhist thought in support of their theories.

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[1]This comes out in Singer’s most famous work, 1975′s Animal Liberation, but is more explicit in his 1979 book Practical Ethics.

[2]This idea has its roots in Aldo Leopold‘s thought, but is now widely represented by many different strands of environmental ethics. It is perhaps the Deep Ecologists who take this idea to its extreme, arguing not only that a functioning ecosystem is the baseline unit of moral value, but that the nature of that functioning is beyond the range of scientific thought.

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