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.
Today’s post concerns a short passage from the biography of Changlung Paṇḍita Ngawang Lozang Tenpé Gyeltsen (1770-1845). Changlung Paṇḍita became a vegetarian in 1783, at age thirteen. This is kind of young, but is not in and of itself a big deal: I’ve found dozens of biographical references to Tibetan vegetarians. The fact that Changlung Paṇḍita was 1) a Mongolian and 2) a Gelukpa makes it a little more interesting, but still not enough to warrant a post. What’s really striking about this passage comes right after Changlung Paṇḍita becomes vegetarian:
One day Changkya Rinpoché caressed Changlung Paṇḍita’s head and said, “My Mongolian son doesn’t eat meat!” He was wonderfully pleased.
I find this to be a really touching passage, cutting through the many layers of formulaic language that so often characterize Tibetan biography and giving us a glimpse of a simple moment of personal affection. The Changkya Rinpoché mentioned here is the famed Changkya Rolpé Dorjé (1717-1786), preceptor of the Qianlong Emperor and veteran of countless political skirmishes. He was roughly sixty-six at the time: an old man by Tibetan standards. Changlung Paṇḍita was thirteen, and a devoted pupil. In my mind’s eye I see a grizzled old lama, proud of his student, reaching out his hand to rub his young disciple’s head in a playful benediction. This is a lovely image, and I thought I would share.
Thanks to Sherab Chen of Ohio State for suggesting I look at Changlung Paṇḍita’s Biography.
_______________________________________________  The text itself can be found in vol 6 of Changlung Paṇḍita’s Collected Works, pages 31-476. TBRC ID: W1KG1338 The passage in question is on page 64.  ཉིན་གཅིག་ལྕང་སྐྱ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་ནས་རྗེ་ཉིད་ཀྱི་དབུ་ལ་ཕྱག་གིས་བྱིལ་བྱིལ་མཛད་ཅིང་སོག་པོའི་བུ་ཤ་མི་ཟ་བ་ཞེས་ཤིན་ཏུ་མཉེས་མཉེས་མཛད།
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.
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.
When foreign observers comment on the Tibetan diet, they usually remark on the large quantities of meat being consumed. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to come across the following passage in the ‘Tibet’ volume of Frederick Schoberl’s 1824 encyclopedia, The World in Miniature: “Hence we may infer that all sorts of animal food are forbidden to the religious, who abstain also from every kind of strong liquors.” In 1824, at least one English encyclopedist believed that all Tibetan monks were vegetarians. Schoberl himself had never been to Tibet (or most of the other places he wrote about), but, remarkably for this time period, he cites his sources.
In this case, Schoberl is drawing from Samuel Turner’s epic Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama (available free on Google Books). Turner was the second British diplomat to visit Tibet, making a trip to visit the Panchen Lama at Tashilhunpo in 1783 (‘Teshoo Lama’ = ‘Lama from Tashilhunpo’ = ‘Panchen Lama’). The first British diplomat, the celebrated George Bogle, died before he could publish an account of his trip, making Turner’s work, published in 1800 and reprinted in 1806, the most significant work on Tibet available to Schoberl.
On the way to Tibet, Turner stopped over in Bhutan, where he hung out with a lama-official he calls the Daeb Raja. Turner’s ‘Daeb Raja’ is, presumably, the Deb Raja, also known as the Druk Desi (འབྲུག་སྡེ་སྲིད།), the secular half of the Bhutan’s ruling partnership. A quick look at Wikipedia lets us know that the Druk Desi at the time of Turner’s visit was Jikmé Senggé (འཇིགས་མེད་སེང་གེ།), who ruled from 1776 to 1788. It is from Turner’s account of his meeting with this individual that Schoberl gets his ideas about Tibetan Buddhist vegetarianism. Turner quotes the Daeb Raja as follows:
“My food consists of the very simplest articles, grain, roots of the earth, and fruits. I never eat of any thing that has had breath, for then I should be the indirect cause of putting an end to the existence of animal life, which, by our religion, is forbidden.”
Jikmé Senggé’s refusal to eat meat on religious grounds is a pretty remarkable thing. While vegetarians were by no means unknown to Tibetan Buddhists of this time, they were few and far between. Which leads to the obvious question: was Jikmé Senggé alone in his vegetarianism, or was there a broader movement afoot in Bhutan at this time? Alas, I have no answer. I’ve looked through the usual compliment of online biographies, bibliographies and finding aids, but have come up empty. In fact, I write this post with the hope that someone reading it will know more about Bhutanese history than I do, and might be able to point me towards some other sources for Jikmé Singyé or other Bhutanese vegetarians of this time.
Until further information emerges, I will simply leave the reader to reflect on the remarkable coincidences that allowed a seemingly chance encounter between Turner and this vegetarian monk-official to cause a British encyclopedist (and who knows how many others of his generation) to believe that all Tibetan monks were vegetarian.
Most of us who think about Tibetan history are aware of the longstanding activities of missionaries in that country. From António de Andrade‘s mission in the early seventeenth century through today, missionaries have long sought a foothold in Tibet. And sometimes they leave a relic behind to remind us of their dedicated and industrious efforts to spread the gospel. Case in point: my new copy of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress translated into Tibetan by by the Revered Evan Mackenzie, F.R.G.S. and published in London by the Religious Text Society, sometime before 1931 (more on the dating of the text later). Translating from Tibetan is a difficult task, but translating into Tibetan is something else again, and the Rev. Mackenzie deserves credit for this difficult work. I also can’t help but feel that Bunyan’s epic allegory is an interesting choice for translation in this context. Offhand, I can’t think of any Tibetan works that rely on the same type of extended allegory (I’m sure my ignorance will soon be corrected by an alert reader out there somewhere). At the same time, some of the images, such as a man burdened by his past, or the idea of treading a religious path, resonate with Tibetan religious notions, so perhaps it is a good selection.
The book itself is well made, printed on good paper, and includes several wonderful illustration (interestingly, the figures are dressed in Indian garb, and some show captions in Devanagari. Perhaps they were cribbed from a Hindi edition?). Clearly, the Religious Text Society cared about what they were doing and invested the time and money in turning out a good product. As for the translator, I have been able to find out very little about him. The only reference I have found, in fact, is a brief note of thanks printed in Adventures and Travels in Tibet, a 1901 account of missionary travel, where he is listed as residing in Kalimpong, India (thank you, Google Books). The Kalimpong connection is interesting, as it was also the home of the Tibetan Christian G. Tharchin’s Tibet Mirror, the first regular Tibetan language newspaper, published from 1925-1961. The literary arts, it seems, were flourishing among the Kalimpong missionaries and their converts.
As far as the impact of the work, I have no idea if it was ever widely distributed in Tibet, but it does seem that at least one Tibetan, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, received a copy. The volume I bought on ebay contains two separate typewriter-typed translations of a letter from the Great Thirteenth, dated the tenth day of the tenth month of the iron-sheep year (1931; this is how I know the book must have been published prior to 1931). In the letter, the Dalai Lama thanks the Religious Tract Society for sending him a copy, though, as he points out, “it is difficult for us who accept and spread the doctrine of those who wear the Yellow Hat to accept and live that religion” (see image 3 for the rest of the letter). So not only did the Tibetan missionary community have the linguistic ability to make the translation and the economic ability to have it published nicely, they also had the connections to get a copy into the hands of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. That seems pretty impressive to me. Or perhaps not, perhaps these contacts were fairly routine. So I don’t know if this little textual relic actually tells us anything new about the history of missionary activity in Tibet. Perhaps it does, but more likely not. In any case, its pretty neat.
If you happen to know anything about the Reverend Evan Mackenzie, have a similar text sitting around, or have any other information on early twentieth century missionaries to Tibet, please leave a comment!
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And now a quick note about my new ‘Liebster Award’ (that would be German for ‘favorite’). Apparently, this is an award to recognize and bring attention to good, small-time blogs. Each recipient is nominated by a peer in the blogging community and in turn is supposed to nominate three other blogs. My award comes courtesy of Dan Martin, of Tibeto-Logic fame. The whole system has a vaguely ponzi-scheme feel to it, but it is certainly gratifying to receive encouragement from someone of Dan’s caliber. In the interest of not exacerbating the pyramidal tendencies of this particular phenomenon, I’m going to restrict myself to nominating two blogs, rather than three to five. They are Sam van Schaik’s excellent Early Tibet and Robert Mayer and Cathy Cantwell’s equally excellent kīlī kīlaya. So, for whatever my endorsement is worth, please enjoy these sites, and encourage them to write more!