Vegetarianism and Animal Ethics in Tibetan Buddhism
For most of the last decade, my research agenda has focussed on the practice of vegetarianism in Tibet. This project began as my dissertation, and has led to a series of publications, including my monograph, Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet, and the more recent Faults of Meat: Tibetan Buddhist Writings on Vegetarianism, which collects translations of fourteen Tibetan texts on vegetarianism into a single volume. Most of my other publications are available over on my publications page, so if you’re interested in these things feel free to head over there.
Throughout this research, I examine the interaction of Buddhist ethical ideals and Tibetan culture. I do not want to see Tibetan Buddhist thought as a static, timeless philosophy, but rather as the product of a shifting series of negotiations between religious ideals, cultural norms, and climatic realities. My goal, therefore, is to introduce and sort through as many perspectives as I can in order to make some sense of messy and complicated topic.
With the publication of Faults of Meat in the fall of 2019, this broad project has entered its final stages. As I will discuss in a moment, I’m turning my attention to new projects. That said, vegetarianism will always be a topic dear to my heart, and I doubt that I will ever fully put it down. In particular, I remain interested in exploring areas in which Buddhist perspectives on animal ethics or meat eating might profitably be introduced to other, non-Buddhist, debates on these issues. I am convinced that Buddhism offers some unique perspectives and tools which can take the broader discussion of animals ethics in new directions, and I look forward to continuing to contribute to this process.
Guru Devotion in Practice
As my research into Tibetan vegetarianism winds down, I’m now shifting my attention to a new project: a study of the practice of guru devotion in pre-1950 Tibet. As with my study of vegetarianism, my goal here is to bring as many different perspectives together as I can. I am, therefore, interested in the normative literature on guru devotion, as well as interrogating less obvious sources, such as the biographical and historical literature. In the end, I hope to produce work that takes a lived religion perspective on this issue, illuminating how actual Tibetans interacted with their religious masters, and the potential tensions between this lived practice and normative ideals.
Guru devotion has been a controversial topic over the last couple of years as a series of scandals involving Tibetan Buddhist masters, some of quite high stature, abusing their students’ devotion. My research focusses on the pre-1950 period: I do not have the time or skill to do extensive fieldwork. I am, therefore, not planning to directly engage the recent scandals. I do hope, however, that my research will help illuminate historical practice, and that this will help complicate ideas about what it means to be a good disciple. Finally, a disclaimer: I am a Buddhist myself, and consider myself to be devoted to more than one of my teachers. I’m not out, therefore, to tear down the practice of guru devotion, or to tell people that they should not be devoted. I simply hope to provide some historical context for this practice.