As regular readers know, for several years I’ve been working to turn my dissertation into a book. I’m happy to report that this process is finally nearing fruition!
Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet, will be published by Columbia University Press, with a tentative release date of October 24, 2017. That’s less than six months from now! In fact, it is already available for pre-order from both Columbia University Press and Amazon!!
So feel free to go to those sites and get yourself a copy. You can also get updates by following my Amazon author page and Twitter feed. It’s been a long road, but it’s almost there!
Here’s the blurb, straight from the Columbia University Press website:
Tibetan Buddhism teaches compassion toward all beings, a category that explicitly includes animals. Slaughtering animals is morally problematic at best, and, at worst, completely incompatible with a religious lifestyle. Yet historically most Tibetans—both monastic and lay—have made meat a regular part of their diet. In this study of the place of vegetarianism within Tibetan religiosity, Geoffrey Barstow explores the tension between Buddhist ethics and Tibetan cultural norms to offer a novel perspective on the spiritual and social dimensions of meat eating.
Food of Sinful Demons shows the centrality of vegetarianism to the cultural history of Tibet through specific ways in which nonreligious norms and ideals shaped religious beliefs and practices. Barstow offers a detailed analysis of the debates over meat eating and vegetarianism from the first references to such a diet in the tenth century through the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. He discusses elements of Tibetan Buddhist thought—including monastic vows, the Buddhist call to compassion, and tantric antinomianism—that see meat eating as morally problematic. He then looks beyond religious attitudes to the cultural, economic, and environmental factors that opposed the Buddhist critique of meat, including Tibetan concepts of medicine and health, food scarcity, the display of wealth, and idealized male gender roles. Barstow argues that the issue of meat eating was influenced by a complex interplay of factors, with religious perspectives largely supporting vegetarianism while practical concerns and secular ideals pulled in the other direction. He concludes by addressing the surge in vegetarianism in contemporary Tibet in light of evolving notions of Tibetan identity and resistance against the central Chinese state. The first book to discuss this complex issue, Food of Sinful Demons is essential reading for scholars interested in Tibetan religion, history, and culture.
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. 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. 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!
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’sBiography 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.
 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!
 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.
 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.
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.
I just read that after four years and one thousand posts, The China Beat is shutting down. For those unfamiliar, The China Beat is (was?) an excellent blog covering modern China. Posts were written by people both inside and outside of academia, but were almost always excellent and informative. For those of us on the fringes of the blogosphere, it was something to aspire to.
As I understand it from their final goodbye post, part of the reason The China Beat is shutting down involves changing currents in the technological dissemination of information. The blog is passé, twitter and Facebook are in. I hope this is not true. Part of the idea behind blogs such as The China Beat was to bring intelligent, reasoned and supported discussion of contemporary issues beyond the walls of academia. What happens when we try to bring that discussion to twitter and Facebook? Twitter may be great for sharing news quickly, but how much intelligent commentary can you really provide in 140 characters?
I have enjoyed The China Beat, and I wish them well. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that the blog sticks around for a while longer as a viable format for disseminating ideas and provoking discussions.
This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.
Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.
I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years. The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.
For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.
For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.
A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.