In this first in-depth study of the history of vegetarianism in Tibet, Geoffrey Barstow clearly shows that vegetarianism has always existed in Tibetan culture and was essentially motivated by compassion for the animals. Food of Sinful Demons is a welcome contribution to the important debate over the relationships between and among vegetarianism, health, and religion.
A creative and nuanced exploration of an aspect of Tibetan religiosity that has heretofore remained largely in the dark. An important and exciting book.
A very welcome and entirely novel work on the place of vegetarianism in Tibet, Food of Sinful Demons will make a solid scholarly contribution to religious studies, Buddhist studies, and Tibetan studies. Covering a topic of broad interest in fields from ranging religion to animal rights, it offers something new for specialists but is also accessible to undergraduates as well as educated Buddhists trying to understand the role of vegetarianism and meat eating in Tibetan Buddhism.
Ra 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.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.
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.