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.

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

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.