Herding Yaks off Cliffs

Herding Yaks in Khumbu

The story goes something like this: killing is bad, and no one wants the karma of intentionally killing an animal. But you gotta eat, and that means meat. So what’s a poor Tibetan herder to do? It’s simple, really. You take your yaks out to graze, and lead them close to some high cliffs. If all goes well, one of them will lose its footing and fall. You get the meat, and since the yak died ‘accidentally’ you gets a clean conscience to boot. I’ve heard this story on a couple of occasions, and have always wondered if it is true, or if it might fall into that amorphous category we call urban (rural?) legend.[1]

Recently I came across a reference that would seem to provide an answer: urban legend it is. Mari Albert Johan van Menen (1877-1943) was a Dutch Theosophist, avid reader of Tibetan texts, longtime resident of Darjeeling, and eventually General Secretary of the famed Asiatic Society of Bengal. In the nineteen twenties he convinced three of his Tibetan friends and research partners to write autobiographies. Thanks to the efforts of Peter Richards, translations were finally published in 1998, in Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies.[2] There is a wealth of interesting material in these texts, but for now I’m interested in a quote on page 100. There, Karma Sudhön Paul recalls that:

A European once told me he had read that Tibetans never killed animals. He added that, if any meat was needed, they would drive one or two yaks up a mountainside, shout at them from behind. Because this frightened the animals they fell, meeting their death in an abyss. The yaks could now be eaten – no sin was committed because they had killed themselves. However, I never came across this practice and never met a Tibetan who had.

So there we have it, a well-travelled Tibetan, writing in the mid nineteen twenties, who claims that this story is bunk. Not quite enough to completely dismiss such stories, but better than anything else I’ve got. Fortunately, Karma Sudhön Paul gives us a clue about where this story might have come from. The unnamed European said he had read about this. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tibet was largely inaccessible and, to European eyes, shrouded in mystery. Needless to say, may of the books about Tibet that were circulating at the time had only a tenuous connection to reality. So perhaps it was one of these authors, trying to reconcile Tibetans’ love of meat with a nineteenth century view of Buddhism as fundamentally pacifistic and docile, who came up with this story, which has since be retold often enough to pass into the realm of urban legend? Or perhaps not, but stranger things have happened.

Do you know which book this story might have come from? Or do you have any evidence that this might be a real practice after all? Let me know in the comments section below.


[1]For more information (and graphic photos) about actual Tibetan slaughtering practices, see: Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Cynthia M. Beall. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), especially pages 96-99. Somewhat incredibly, the whole book appears to be available from google books.

For a recent appeal by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö, one of the foremost lamas in Kham today, to make those practices more humane, see: tshul khrims blo ’gros. “dus su bab pa’i gtam lugs gnyis gsal ba’i me long [Timely Advice: the Mirror Illuminating the Two Systems].” In dpal bla rung gi mkhan po tshul khrims blo ’gros kyi gsung ’bum bzhugs so. Vol. 2. (ya chen o rgyan bsam gtan gling, [2004]). This latter text might be hard to find, but should be available through Inter-Library Loan.

[2]Richardus, Peter, ed. Tibetan lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies. Richmond: Curzon, 1998. Preview available on Google Books.

3 thoughts on “Herding Yaks off Cliffs

  1. Check out the paper “Methods, Meanings, and Representations
    in the Study of Past Tibetan Societies” by Geoff Childs in Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): 1-11. Childs describes the practice in Buddhist communities like Nubri, Nepal, where they don’t have butchers. Although I know in other places like Spiti Valley where they didn’t have butchers had other ‘low caste’ groups like Beda (traditional musicians and blacksmiths) who did most of the work.

  2. Neanderthals used to drive animals over cliffs or into bogs.

    Teachers like Shabkar have visited a place and successfully encouraged reforms around eating meat. It would seem to depend largely on their individual consciences how long they kept up the practice. So, Tibet is a big place with a long and colourful history. You could leave and come back to a village 20 years later and find the whole place abandoned. What can one say about its practices.

    Father Ippolito Desideri doesn’t mention this practice. He visited around the early 18th century.

  3. This reminds me of the “shabbas goy” in Jewish culture. You find a non-jew, and say something really (un)subtle like “My, how very cold it is in here. How nice it would be to have more heat” and he understands that he should turn up the heat (forbidden on shabbat).

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