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.

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།

Who Wrote “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”?

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.

[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.

[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.

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.

Samuel Turner, the Daeb Raja and Tibetan Vegetarianism

When foreign observers comment on the Tibetan diet, they usually remark on the large quantities of meat being consumed. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to come across the following passage in the ‘Tibet’ volume of Frederick Schoberl’s 1824 encyclopedia, The World in Miniature: “Hence we may infer that all sorts of animal food are forbidden to the religious, who abstain also from every kind of strong liquors.” In 1824, at least one English encyclopedist believed that all Tibetan monks were vegetarians. Schoberl himself had never been to Tibet (or most of the other places he wrote about), but, remarkably for this time period, he cites his sources.

An Engraving from the 1800 edition of Turner's Embassy to the Court of The Teshoo Lama

In this case, Schoberl is drawing from Samuel Turner’s epic Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama (available free on Google Books). Turner was the second British diplomat to visit Tibet, making a trip to visit the Panchen Lama at Tashilhunpo in 1783 (‘Teshoo Lama’ = ‘Lama from Tashilhunpo’ = ‘Panchen Lama’). The first British diplomat, the celebrated George Bogle, died before he could publish an account of his trip, making Turner’s work, published in 1800 and reprinted in 1806, the most significant work on Tibet available to Schoberl.

On the way to Tibet, Turner stopped over in Bhutan, where he hung out with a lama-official he calls the Daeb Raja. Turner’s ‘Daeb Raja’ is, presumably, the Deb Raja, also known as the Druk Desi (འབྲུག་སྡེ་སྲིད།), the secular half of the Bhutan’s ruling partnership. A quick look at Wikipedia lets us know that the Druk Desi at the time of Turner’s visit was Jikmé Senggé (འཇིགས་མེད་སེང་གེ།), who ruled from 1776 to 1788. It is from Turner’s account of his meeting with this individual that Schoberl gets his ideas about Tibetan Buddhist vegetarianism. Turner quotes the Daeb Raja as follows:

“My food consists of the very simplest articles, grain, roots of the earth, and fruits. I never eat of any thing that has had breath, for then I should be the indirect cause of putting an end to the existence of animal life, which, by our religion, is forbidden.”

Jikmé Senggé’s refusal to eat meat on religious grounds is a pretty remarkable thing. While vegetarians were by no means unknown to Tibetan Buddhists of this time, they were few and far between. Which leads to the obvious question: was Jikmé Senggé alone in his vegetarianism, or was there a broader movement afoot in Bhutan at this time? Alas, I have no answer. I’ve looked through the usual compliment of online biographies, bibliographies and finding aids, but have come up empty. In fact, I write this post with the hope that someone reading it will know more about Bhutanese history than I do, and might be able to point me towards some other sources for Jikmé Singyé or other Bhutanese vegetarians of this time.

Until further information emerges, I will simply leave the reader to reflect on the remarkable coincidences that allowed a seemingly chance encounter between Turner and this vegetarian monk-official to cause a British encyclopedist (and who knows how many others of his generation) to believe that all Tibetan monks were vegetarian.

Antique Graffiti

Click to Enlarge

One of the joys of working at an old and well-preserved university are the little traces of the past that sometimes manage to survive the fires, renovations, new paint schemes and other hazards of time. A few of the buildings at UVA are almost two hundred years old, and some of their previous occupants have left their mark. The above pencil inscription is one of those traces, recalling a moment, the Spanish-American War of 1898 to be precise, when Cuba was a friend to the United States, and Spain a hated enemy (my, how times change). While this little remnant doesn’t necessarily add anything to our understanding of that time, it does remind us that history was lived by real people, with real emotional investment in the events of their time. Someone (probably a white man, UVA was all-male and segregated at the time) was invested enough in this war to take the time and trouble to write this note, and a hundred and twelve years later I can still read it. That’s pretty cool.

I’ve been asked to keep the precise location of this particular graffito secret, but if you’re walking around UVA, or anywhere else for that matter, keep your eyes open, and see what you find.

Japanese Swords in Tibet

When I was in Kham three years ago, I saw a Japanese knife for sale in a store in Ganzi (tib: དཀར་མཛེས།; ch: 甘孜). It was a tanto, the knife-sized little brother of Japan’s famous katana, or samurai sword. This particular knife had a nice hamon, the pattern that emerges along the edge of a hand-made blade. When I expressed interest in it, the shop keeper happily removed the ray-skin handle to show me the maker’s signature on the hilt. While I don’t know much about these things, this was clearly a real, hand-made Japanese knife blade, not something mass-produced for the tourist trade. Such knives are not common. Which leads to the obvious question, what on earth was it doing in a little shop in remote eastern Tibet?

A few days ago, I may have found the answer. I was reading A Tibetan Revolutionary, by Melvyn Goldstein, Dawei Sherap and William Siebenschuh. This book presents the memories of the Tibetan Phüntso Wangye (Phünwang), a devout communist who dedicated his life to establishing effective communism in Tibet. It’s a good book, and offers some valuable insight into the strategies and internal debates surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s involvement in Tibet in the 1950s.

One of the tasks Phünwang undertook for the CCP was to travel to Central Tibet with some People’s Liberation Army Generals in an attempt to convince the Tibetan aristocracy to accept Chinese rule without a fight. Part of this effort involved distributing bribes. As he describes it, “Since Deng Xiaoping had stressed the importance of building good relationships with the Tibetan upper classes, I brought gifts – Japanese swords, radios, brocade silk, and so on – to be distributed when appropriate.”[1]

While it seems unlikely that the particular tanto I saw in Ganzi was one of those brought to Tibet by Phünwang, the fact that such weapons could be effective presents for currying favor with the Tibetan elite does indicate that wealthy Tibetans knew about and valued Japanese swords. There must, therefore, have been some trade in these blades going on between China (where they had presumably been captured from Japanese soldiers during WWII) and Tibet. It seems reasonably likely that the knife I saw in Ganzi was part of this trade, and may have arrived in Kham during the period between the end of WWII and the upheavals of the 1950s. Or maybe not, but it’s a fun theory.


[1] Goldstein, Melvyn C., Dawei Sherap, and William R. Siebenschuh. A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. p. 137.