Teaching Animals to Meditate

RaloRa Lotsawa is famous primarily for his willingness to use ritual violence against those who opposed him.  Less well known is his opposition to violence against animals.  But The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat—Ralo’s biography, recently translated by Bryan Cuevas—recounts numerous instances where Ralo either personally ransoms the lives of animals, or induces his disciples to do so. (p. 140, 299)  On other occasions, Ralo induces villagers to give up hunting and fishing, often giving them enough resources that they were able to establish themselves in less sinful occupations. (p. 43)

More remarkably, The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat recalls an episode in which Ra Lotsawa moves beyond easing animal’s physical suffering, and actually teaches them the dharma:

Likewise, Ralo established many dogs and mice in meditation, and did the same also for the flocks of sheep that belonged to al the landowners in the area.  He established in meditation about six hundred young female and male sheep…  Then a religious scholar names Geshé Yönten Drakpa approached Ralo to dispute him.  He said, “To be established in meditation you first have to obtain a body as support with human freedoms and advantages.  Animals are in a miserable state, and so it’s impossible to establish them in meditation.  Saying you’ve done so is a lie!”  The Great Lama Ra responded, “Yes, generally, I admit that’s true, but in some particular cases nothing is certain. …”  (p. 108)


Animals are, according to pretty much all Tibetan religious leaders, dumber than humans.  They are so dumb, in fact, that they are simply incapable of learning the dharma.  If you want to help them, all you can really do is ease their physical suffering (ie: stop eating them), and pray that they will achieve a better birth next time around.  But here’s Ralo, teaching a bunch of sheep to meditate.  Moreover, he’s actually successful!  The remarkableness of this passage is underscored by the presence of his geshé critic, embodying the standard assumptions about animals along with a healthy skepticism towards Ralo generally.  And Ralo does accept his critique, at least in most circumstances.  Most people can’t teach sheep, only someone with Ralo’s level of mastery.

Still, despite this (admittedly large) caveat, this passage opens up the possibility that animals could, under the right circumstances, learn to actively practice Buddhism.  And that possibility represents a striking anomaly in Tibetan narratives about animals.  Perhaps, Ralo seems to suggest, the distinction between animals and humans is not quite as hard and fast as most Tibetans assumed.  Perhaps it is not that animals are too stupid to learn dharma, but that most humans lack the skills to teach them.  And this is a point worth considering in our modern world, as science continues to reveal that animals are, in fact, much more intelligent and emotionally complex than we have often assumed.

Book Review: The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel

If you're going to shell out the $110, might as well buy direct from the publishers (same price as Amazon).
Click the image to buy direct from the publishers (there’s no discount at Amazon).

A couple months ago I turned over a new leaf on this blog and posted a short book review of My Tibetan Childhood.  Today I’ll continue that trend with a short review of Yudru Tsomu’s The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel in Kham: The Blind Warrior of Nyarong (Lexington Books, 2015).  As with the earlier review, this is not meant to be full, formal book review such as one might encounter in a peer reviewed academic journal.  Instead, it is simply some of my own thoughts on the book (which, fortunately, I quite enjoyed).

Gönpo Namgyel is not an unknown figure to the Tibetological community, particularly to those interested in Kham.  Indeed, his shadow looms large over many discussions of recent Khampa history, seeming to mark a line of demarcation, so that it often feels natural to speak of pre and post Gönpo Namgyel periods.  Further, the basic outline of his story—military conquest of Degé, Litang and much of the region, followed by a fiery death at the hands of Lhasa based troops—is reasonably well know.  Yudru Tsomu, therefore, is not introducing a new figure, or telling a wholly new story.  What she does do, and does with admirable skill as both a historian and a writer, is to flesh out that basic story with a wealth of detail and to situate those events in the broader context of the time.  The latter point is where she really shines, arguing convincingly that Gönpo Namgyel should not be understood merely as a provincial figure from the remote borderlands.  Instead, she shows the degree to which Gönpo Namgyel’s rise was only possible because of weakness in both Central Tibet and Qing Dynasty China.  Further, Yudru Tsomu demonstrates that Gönpo Namgyel’s success conquering neighboring chiefdoms and principalities posed a direct threat to the economic and political ties between Lhasa and Beijing, ultimately reshaping the political landscape of the border.

In broad outline, The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel consists of two major sections.  In the first, consisting of chapters 1 through 4, Yudru Tsomu lays out the background necessary for understanding Gönpo Namgyel’s life and extraordinary success.  To me, this was some of the most interesting material in the book, particularly chapters one and four, where she discusses Nyarong culture. She argues convincingly that Gönpo Namgyel was not on a search for wealth, or trying to advance a political agenda.  Instead, “family feuding, a tradition of vengence taking, banditry, and matrimonial alliances and estrangements were the ingredients that fomented crisis in Nyarong.” (244)

Following this are three chapters that lay out the details of Gönpo Namgyel’s various military confrontations and his eventual defeat.  Some of this material was a little dry and repetitive to me, but it will be gold for those interested in the military and political culture of Kham.  For this discussion, Yudru Tsomu relies heavily on oral accounts and official government documents, and she does an admirable job of creating a nuanced storyline from minimal materials.  I also applaud her inclusion of multiple accounts, when different sources sometimes contradict each other.  I was struck, however, by the near absence of biographical sources (rnam thar and rang rnam).  The events surrounding Gönpo Namgyel are given significant discussion in Jamgön Kongtrül’s Autobiography, for instance, but while this text appears in her bibliography, it was not cited in the text itself.  I don’t know that including this or similar sources would have changed Yudru Tsomu’s conclusions at all, but they might have added something.

Finally, prior to concluding, Yuru Tsomu presents a chapter that looks at the ramifications of Gönpo Namgyel’s activities for Sino-Tibetan relations from the time of his fall through the collapse of the Qing.  This chapter may be the most interesting to those who are interested in Tibetan history, but are not specifically interested in Kham.

On the whole, then, Yudru Tsomu’s work is a standout contribution to the study of Tibetan history.  She has taken a well known (but not well enough known) figure and presented his life with as much depth and clarity as possible.  Perhaps more importantly, she clearly demonstrates why his life and activity matter.  Indeed, if I have any real complaints they are not with Yudru Tsomu’s work, but with the cost of the book and its production values.  I am aware that publishing is expensive, and publishers need to recoup their costs.  But $110 is a lot to spend on a book that is neither antiquarian nor a large format art book.  (In all fairness, I should note that Lexington is hardly the only press to go this route—I’m looking at you Brill and Routledge.)  Further, my copy of the book had a few printers errors.  The margins were off a bit, and there was an annoying black line along the bottom of each page.  More significantly (and amusingly), the entire text block was glued into the binding upside down, leading to situations where I would be sitting in a coffee shop, reading a book that looked upside down to all observers.  Kind of fun, if not exactly classy.

Book Review: My Tibetan Childhood

So I haven’t been writing much recently, at least for the blog.  I’m working on cranking out my book on Tibetan vegetarianism as fast as I can, and that hasn’t left much time for side projects like blog posts!  But I thought I’d try to fix that by kicking off a series of occasional book reviews.  These aren’t going to be formal reviews, suitable for publication in a journal.  But sometimes a book comes along that really makes me think (or that I simply really enjoy), and this blog seems like a good place to share some of those thoughts in a relatively informal way.

I can’t tell you how refreshing this book is.  Religious life writing certainly has its own beauty, but it is really nice to read an autobiography that depicts the actions and concerns of people who are not elite religious practitioners.  Naktsang Nulo writes with the attention to narrative and emotion of a natural story teller.  And the the translators and editors, Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo (whose names do not, unfortunately, make it onto the cover), do a wonderful job of transforming his Tibetan into English prose that is both clear and compelling.

My Tibetan Childhood[1] is marketed as an account of “the lived experience of the forced and violent incorporation of the Tibetan heartlands into the People’s Republic by Chinese troops in the 1950s.” (so sayeth the back cover)  And the author’s depictions of atrocities committed by Chinese forces are indeed heartrending.  These stories, however, comprise only the second half of the book.  To my mind, the first half of the work, where the author speaks about everyday life as a nomadic child, is just as important as the second, if not more.  Naktsang Nulo provides a detailed, rich account of social customs, regional expressions and vocabulary, and the values that sustained nomadic life.  As regular readers know, I’m primarily interested in vegetarianism, so Naktsang Nulo’s depiction of nomadic eating habits was particularly welcome.  To give just one example, he recalls that after his father kills and antelope, his Aunt tells him, “don’t worry, its not a sin if it keeps us from going hungry.” (89)  Other scholars with other preoccupations with no doubt also turn up valuable material.

It’s also worth noting the publication history of this text.  Naktsang Nulo composed his autobiography in Tibetan, and published it in 2007 in China.  I don’t know how official this publication was (ie: from an official press or not) and 2007 may have been the last of the relatively relaxed years prior to the unrest in 2008, but it is still remarkable that this book appeared within China.  This simple fact means that the text not only gives us insight into what happened in the fifties, but also into the kind of material that people felt comfortable publishing (again, officially or not) in 2007.

So who should read this book?  I’d say pretty much everyone interested in Tibet.  It is obviously valuable for those interested in the history of twentieth century Sino-Tibetan conflict, but also gives important insight into pre-communist nomadic life.  And pilgrimage.  The author provides a fifty plus page description of a year-long pilgrimage to Lhasa, pure gold for those interested in Tibetan pilgrimage, and destined to be included in courses I teach on Tibetan religiosity.

As far as complaints go, I have few.  I would obviously like Naktsang Nulo to dwell more on dietary choices and possibilities, but that simply reflects my own obsessions.  The one thing I would really like are better maps.  Naktsang Nulo includes an fifty plus page description of a year long pilgrimage to Lhasa, but the accompanying maps are not nearly detailed enough.

For another, more thorough review, see Jonathan Mirsky’s review in the High Peaks, Pure Earth blog.  Also Woeser’s article on the Chinese version on the same site.


[1] Buy the book directly from Duke University Press by clicking here.  You could probably save a few dollars by buying it from Amazon, but surely its worth putting those dollars into the presses that publish this material.

On Tulpas, Tulpamancers and Alexandra David-Néel

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

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

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.
[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

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!

[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.