Between Abstinence and Indulgence: Vegetarianism in the Life and Works of Jigmé Lingpa

Click here to download the article directly from JBE.

I’ve been pounding the keys pretty hard the last few months trying to get my dissertation finished. Hence no new posts since January. Instead of the new blog content I don’t have time to create, however, I thought I would post a link to my first bona-fide, peer-revied academic article, published today by the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Download a free pdf above, of by clicking here. (Kudos to JBE for posting all of their articles online, and not behind a paywall. No subscriptions or academic affiliations required.)

Tibetan Buddhism idealizes the practice of compassion, the drive to relieve the suffering of others, including animals. At the same time, however, meat is a standard part of the Tibetan diet, and abandoning it is widely understood to be difficult. This tension between the ethical problems of a meat based diet and the difficulty of vegetarianism has not been lost on Tibetan religious leaders, including the eighteenth century master Jigmé Lingpa. Jigmé Lingpa argues repeatedly that meat is a sinful food, incompatible with a compassionate mindset. At the same time, however, he acknowledges the difficulties of vegetarianism, and refuses to mandate vegetarianism among his students. Instead, he offers a variety of practices that can ameliorate the inherent negativity of eating meat. By so doing, Jigmé Lingpa offers his students a chance to continue cultivating compassion without having to completely abandon meat.

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.

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.

The Future of the Academic Blog

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.

How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra

I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.

Feet are not the only inappropriate places to tattoo a respected religious symbol such as the maṇi mantra. The maṇi is about compassion, not sex (despite what you may have heard about the meaning of ’jewel in the lotus').

Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.

Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.

Fish Liberation

Fig 1: Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö blesses the fish prior to release.

Over the past several months, a group of Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö’s chinese disciples have been releasing fish into a lake just south of Chengdu. And not just a few fish either. Each day for one hundred days, they released something on the order of half a million small fish. That’s a lot of fish that will no longer become part of someone’s dinner. In line with traditional Tibetan tsetar practices, prior to releasing them, Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and his disciples offered extensive prayers for the fish’s present and future well-being (see fig 1). They were then loaded on a boat and transported out into the lake and released (slowly, so as not to harm them in the process. see fig 2). Two points are also worth noting at the outset: first, I was assured that the fish were of a species native to the region, and second, each day they were released into a different part of the lake, so as to minimize the impact on specific areas. Still, releasing half a million fish a day into a lake, even a large one like this, is bound to have an impact on the local ecosystem.

Fig 2: A basket of fish ready for release.

And therein lies one of the more interesting things this practice reveals: a difference between Tibetan and Western attitudes towards the natural environment and the animals living in it. When I discuss these fish liberation episodes with Tibetans, they are overwhelmingly pleased with the number of fish being rescued. My foreign friends, on the other hand, tend to be horrified at the presumed damage being done to the lake’s ecosystem. Admittedly, these have not been formal, statistically rigorous surveys, and I’m sure I’m opening myself up to charges of simplification, essentializing Tibetan culture, and other grave academic faults. But I do think I’ve spoken with enough people to observe a basic pattern: Tibetans are primarily concerned with the individual animals while foreigners are more concerned with the well being of the ecosystem. It could be suggested that this difference is due to scientific ignorance on the part of the Tibetans, who might be unaware of the impact of releasing fish, but from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t think this is the case. Several of the Tibetans I’ve spoken to (including Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö) have understood that releasing fish into the lake impacts the lake overall, but have argued that the benefit to the fish being released outweighs this concern. So I think I’ll stick with my guns and my oversimplified, stereotyped distinction.

Fig 3: Slowly pouring fish into the lake.

What makes this even more interesting, to me at least, is that it largely (if imperfectly) mirrors a debate in western environmental ethics. Some ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that it is an animal’s ability to suffer (or experience happiness) that gives it moral value, and that justifies it’s protection.[1] Thus, an ecosystem (lacking an ability to suffer in its own right) is not inherently valuable in itself, but only in it’s ability to impact the lives of the animals that live in it. We save ecosystems for the sake of the animals, not vice versa. Deep Ecologists (and others), on the other hand, see primary moral value lying in the healthy functioning of an ecosystem as a whole.[2]Individual animals are only a part of that system, and their individual suffering is secondary to the health of the ecosystem. Often, these two approaches line up well. After all, usually what is good for the ecosystem is also what’s good for the animals concerned. But every now and then conflict arises. A classic example is the culling of overpopulated animal populations, where a great deal of suffering is inflicted on a few individual animals so that the ecosystem as a whole can prosper. I might suggest that the release of fifty million fish into a lake is another example. You have a very significant reduction in suffering for fifty million individual animals (they don’t get cooked), but also the risk of destabilizing an entire lake’s ecosystem. Given that the overwhelming majority of my western friends expressed more concern about the ecosystem than the fish, I think I am safe in suggesting that something akin to the Deep Ecology perspective (if not necessarily as radical as a true Deep Ecology position) has become fairly standard among educated westerners.

So what is the point of this long ramble? Not much really. Merely to observe an interesting similarity between what I have been hearing from Tibetans and Singer’s perspectives on animals. Obviously, these are just observations, so I don’t want this to be construed as a definitive statement of ‘Tibetan thought’. I do, however, want to suggest that there might be an interesting kinship between at least some aspects of Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards animals and Singer’s approach. The Deep Ecologists have long invoked Buddhist notions of dependent origination (give skt / Tibetan) to support their theoris of a deeply interdependent biosphere, and to underscore the importance of using ecosystem health as the baline for making environmental decisions. Perhaps Singer and his followers could also look to Buddhist thought in support of their theories.


[1]This comes out in Singer’s most famous work, 1975’s Animal Liberation, but is more explicit in his 1979 book Practical Ethics.

[2]This idea has its roots in Aldo Leopold‘s thought, but is now widely represented by many different strands of environmental ethics. It is perhaps the Deep Ecologists who take this idea to its extreme, arguing not only that a functioning ecosystem is the baseline unit of moral value, but that the nature of that functioning is beyond the range of scientific thought.

Seriously Dodgy Street Tattooing in Chengdu

Update: August 20, 2012

Fig 1 - Making a selection.

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.

Fig 2 - Yes, this man is getting a tattoo in a dingy alley.

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.[1] 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.

Fig 3 - The completed outline. The box behind him contains the tattooist's supplies. His own personal disease transmission kit.

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.


[1]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.