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.

2 Replies to “Defining Vegetarianism in Tibet”

  1. One quick quibble:
    This definition CAN’T be right, since it precludes from being a vegetarian someone who has never eaten meat one’s entire life. Such a person would automatically fail criterion 2, as there is no modification of his or her diet. There’s no modification, since their diet has always excluded meat. But surely, there can be such vegetarians. They wouldn’t be vegetarians from birth (since it would take some sort of mature understanding in order for criterion 1 to obtain), but once they consciously decide that eating meat is wrong, it would seem that they should be considered vegetarian even if no modification of their diet is required.

    Two cases:
    1) Imagine a group adopting the view that “eating anything that has locomotive powers (i.e., the ability to move)” — call this L — is morally wrong.
    Because the group believes L is morally wrong, members of the group modify their diet so as to avoid L. Let’s further assume that this modification of their behavior leads the group to, de facto, avoid consuming any meat. (It might also lead this group to avoid eating certain other living things like (I’m just making this up) running vegetables like strawberries.
    Should we say that members of the group are vegetarians? If we should, then your definition is too narrow, as it requires an understanding of MEAT EATING to be wrong. But these people might not have any conscious understanding of meat eating at all, and yet for moral reasons they have, de facto, eliminated meat from their diets.

    2) Imagine a group adopting the view that “eating meat” — call this M — is morally wrong. But this group also believes that only raw animal products are considered meat. That is, the group maintains the belief that once an animal product is cooked it is no longer meat. As a result of holding these beliefs, the group members modify their diets so as to avoid eating raw meats…so they stop eating raw fish sushi and beef tartare.
    Given your definition, this group should count as vegetarians. But some people might be inclined to conclude that your definition is too broad. Modification of your diet under the belief that eating meat is wrong is not enough for vegetarianism, for if the group gleefully continues to eat roasted pork because they think it’s not meat once it’s been cooked, there is something they are still missing about what it is to be vegetarian.

    Anyway, I’m not certain about these two cases, but I do want to throw them out there as some examples aimed at trying to show that the definition you provide is both too narrow and too broad.

  2. Thanks, Jon, for the very thoughtful comments, they are much appreciated! I’m always happy when this blog can generate some new ideas! I’m going to deal with your points more or less in order.

    You’re absolutely right that my definition would not cover someone who has been vegetarian their whole life. In part, I may have neglected this because I have never actually met a Tibetan in Tibet who has been vegetarian their entire lives. It is certainly possible, however, particularly as the current wave of new vegetarians have children, so I’m going to have to change the wording of part 2 in order to account for this. New wording is not immediately jumping out at me, however, so it might take a couple days before the changes are actually made!

    Thanks again for pointing out this discrepancy, it is appreciated!

    As for you examples:
    1) I’m ok with leaving such a person or group out of this definition. In some ways, they are very similar to the accidental vegetarians that I want to exclude (like the person who is too poor to buy the meat they would like to eat). Someone who gives up meat on grounds that are not actually about meat, it seems to me, should not be included in this definition. If someone has a stomach illness that prevents them from eating meat, we would not include them under this definition, and I’m ok with that. Others may object, but in as much as this definition is an attempt to help isolate and understand vegetarianism as it is practiced in Tibet, I think this is a reasonable line to draw.

    2) Your second example turns on how we define meat for the purposes of this definition, and whether we need to privilege a generally understood usage of the term, or allow individuals or groups to redefine the term as they see fit. This is a pretty complicated issue, and I don’t necessarily want to take a firm stand one way or the other, though I’m leaning towards asserting that the term ‘meat’ has a certain well understood meaning within the culture in question.

    Let’s say, for instance, that a Tibetan comes across a text that asserts people should become vegetarian by not eat meat. For whatever reason, he thinks that meat refers only to broccoli and so he proceeds to stop eating broccoli. This person may think that this makes him a vegetarian, but in the eyes of the broader community it does not. He is simply mistaken about the meaning of the term meat. I think something similar is going on in your example. Given that ‘meat’ (aha) is a well understood term in Tibet (to the extent that none of the otherwise erudite scholars I have read ever felt a need to define it), I think we can conclude that the people in your example are not vegetarians, they are simply mistaken about the meaning of the term ‘meat.’ I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory, however, and would welcome your further comments!

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