The Faults of Meat: Tibetan Buddhist Writings on Vegetarianism

Cover Image.  Links to Wisdom Publications Website.

Today is World Vegetarian Day. It’s also the day that The Faults of Meat, my new collections of Tibetan texts on vegetarianism, is officially published. Coincidence? Actually, yes. But no doubt an auspicious coincidence!

In compiling these texts, my goal has been to provide readers with as many different Tibetan perspectives on the question of meat eating as I can. These texts include reflections on the importance of compassion, on meat in the Vinaya, on the five meats in Tantric ritual, and on the karmic consequences of meat eating. But they also demonstrate an awareness of the difficulty of maintaining a vegetarian diet in both pre-modern and contemporary Tibet, and at least one text—by Khedrup Jé—is an extended defense of meat eating. Together they provide a nuanced view of Tibetan attitudes towards vegetarianism and meat eating, largely in favor of the former, but also sympathetic to the latter.

The Faults of Meat collects fourteen Tibetan language texts on the question of vegetarianism, by twelve different authors. It includes canonical passages from the Laṅkāvatāra and Mahāparinirvāna Sūtras, as well as writings by the Tibetan masters Dolpopa, Ngorchen Künga Sangpo, Khedrup Jé, Gorampa, the 8th Karmapa, Shabkar, Karma Chakmé, Shabkar, Nyala Pema Dündül, Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen, as well as the modern lamas Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö and Arjia Rinpoché.

As of today, The Faults of Meat is available directly from Wisdom Publications, and for a few dollars less from Amazon.

If we aspire to live with compassion toward all beings, how should we approach meat eating? In Tibetan Buddhism, this question has been debated since the eleventh century. The texts compiled and discussed in The Faults of Meat shed light on conversations about vegetarianism in ways that are at times surprising and always illuminating. This book is highly valuable for scholars of Buddhism, but also for people in the vegan, vegetarian, reducetarian, and omnivore communities who care about animals and grapple with the ethics of our current food system. ~ Barbara J. King, author of Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat

This book explores the historical debate over vegetarianism in Tibet and breathes life into the important issuessurrounding the relationship between compassion in action and the more subtle aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist perspective. To read these well-presented accounts, some from centuries long past and others more recent, highlights the fact that today there is more need than ever for people to treat the world around them with respect, and to approach ethical and ideological conundrums with an open, courageous heart rather than an opportunistic, self-serving attitude. Just as important, however, is to be wary of turning the bodhisattva path into a dogmatic ideology that elevates puritanical morality over the wisdom and skillful means that are so essential to it. In particular, it is the vast array of wisdom-based skillful means that makes the Vajrayana so extraordinary and profound. ~ Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche

This book presents an excellent array of texts, all translated for the first time, addressing the gamut of issuesrelated to animal slaughter and meat eating within the context of Tibetan Buddhism, from the cultivation of compassion for animals to the ritual mis/uses of meat. It reveals a long tradition of reflection on the ethics of meat abstention in a climate where it had to have been particularly challenging, given the narrow range of food options. A superb resource both for teachers and students of Tibetan Buddhism and for practicing (or wouldbe) vegetarians and vegans from any climate. ~ Janet Gyatso, author of Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet

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Book Release: Food of Sinful Demons is in the Wild!

Food of Sinful Demons CoverAs regular readers know, I’ve spent the last seven years researching the history of Tibetan vegetarianism, first for my dissertation and then for a book.  After all these years, I’m happy to announce that my book, Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet, is now available from Columbia University Press!  You can follow this link to the CUP website for more info, including a table of contents, description, and so forth.  If you want to order yourself a copy, use the code ‘Barsto’ to get 30% off.

Or you can click below to download the the introduction!

Barstow – Food of Sinful Demons [Introduction]

Finally, some promotional blurbs:

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.

 ~Matthieu Ricard

A creative and nuanced exploration of an aspect of Tibetan religiosity that has heretofore remained largely in the dark. An important and exciting book.

~Andrew Quintman

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.

~ Gray Tuttle

Teaching Animals to Meditate

RaloRa 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.

An Old Lama’s Affection

Today’s post concerns a short passage from the biography of Changlung Paṇḍita Ngawang Lozang Tenpé Gyeltsen (1770-1845).[1] 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.[2]

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.
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[1] 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.
[2] 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།

Defining Vegetarianism in Tibet

When I first started researching vegetarianism in Tibet, some colleagues warned me that vegetarianism in Tibet would be very different than vegetarianism in the U.S. After doing this for a few years now, it seems like high time to come back and confront this issue by laying out and defining how I’ve come to understand Tibetan vegetarianism. This is not a new project (the specific definition below was part of my presentation at IATS this past summer), and this post is not at all meant to be the final word on the matter. On the contrary, I’m putting this up on the blog in the hopes that others will critique, and thereby enhance, the definition I’m proposing. So, please, correct my mistakes in the comments below!

With that in mind, I would tentatively define vegetarianism in Tibet as the combination of two criteria:

1) The individual or group in question understands eating meat to be wrong in some way (as I’ll discuss below, this does not have to be an ethical, or even religious decision).

2) Based on that understanding, the individual or group modifies their diet by either reducing or eliminating meat.

The first part of this definition functions to eliminate what we might call ‘unintentional’ vegetarianism. If someone is too poor to afford meat, for instance, they might not eat it even though they would like to. By my definition this would not qualify as vegetarianism. A more complicated possibility would be someone who refuses meat on cultural grounds, but without any actual conviction that meat eating is wrong. Perhaps such a person belongs to a caste that is traditionally vegetarian. A member of this community might refuse meat out of allegiance to caste norms, but might not actually be convinced that eating meat is wrong in and of itself. Such an individual would not be considered a vegetarian by my definition, though this may be something of a moot point, as I have never encountered or heard of someone like this in Tibet.

On the other hand, the first part of this definition is intended to be broad enough to encompass motivations beyond Buddhist ethics. While Buddhist inspired concerns have certainly dominated discussions of vegetarianism in Tibet, other motivations are present, particularly in the modern period. Examples of this include environmental concerns or concerns over ritual purity. Further, even within Buddhism, the concern is not always with the suffering of the animal: for some Tibetan monks, the primary motivation for vegetarianism seems to be concern with breaking either their monastic vows (when these are understood to forbid meat) or their tantric vows (by, for instance, violating the wishes of a revered tantric master). In all of these cases, the individual or group understands meat to be problematic in some way, and I have tried to word my proposed definition in a way that allows for all of these varied motivations, but which still requires a specific belief that meat is wrong in some way.

The second aspect of this definition requires the individual or group in question to actually do something about their convictions. Simply believing that eating meat is problematic does not, I would argue, qualify someone as a vegetarian. They also need to take that belief and do something to alter their diet. This is important because while vegetarianism was and is rare in Tibet, many people will readily accept that eating meat is less than ideal. For most of these people, however, that conviction never gets put into practice, so I would find it hard to include them in the category of ‘vegetarians.’

The actual degree to which vegetarian ideals are implemented in daily life can vary dramatically, however, and I have tried to word the second criterion to reflect that. Some Tibetans completely reject meat, making it easy to think of them as vegetarians. For others, however, the rejection is not so complete, making the issue much less clear. If someone who rejects meat only on certain auspicious days, or only during Saga Dawa, should we consider that person to be a vegetarian? What about an individual who refuses to eat slaughtered meat, but who is happy to eat the meat of animals that have died naturally? From a definitional standpoint, this is not idle speculation: there have been quite a few Tibetans who claim to adhere to such a diet.[1] In proposing the above definition, I have tried to include all such practices. Thus, we can still think of someone as at least a partial vegetarian even if they only give up meat for a single day, or a single meal, as long as that decision was based on a conviction that meat eating is problematic (as in the first criteria above). It is here, then, than we can see one of the key distinctions between vegetarianism in Tibet and vegetarianism in the U.S. In the U.S., vegetarianism is usually thought of as a long term diet, not simply the contents of an individual meal. In Tibet, I argue, the situation is more fluid and such a definition would be too restrictive; we need to allow room for practices that are of short duration, but which are still motivated by concern over meat’s problematic nature.

Overall, the definition I am proposing is quite broad, but not so broad, I hope, as to render it meaningless. It preserves the idea that vegetarianism cannot be accidental; it must be based on a conviction that meat eating is wrong in some way. It also, I hope, preserves the idea that vegetarianism has to be an active practice. It is not enough to merely believe that meat is negative, that belief also has to manifest in practice. This, then, is the definition I propose. As I mentioned above, I put this out on the blog in the hopes that others will critique it and offer suggestions for how it could be improved. Perhaps my definition leaves out a type of practice that you think should be included, or perhaps it is over broad, including some diets that should not really be considered vegetarianism. If so, please let me know in the comments below!

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[1] There have been some suggestions that claiming to adhere to such a diet is merely a euphemism for unrestricted meat consumption, and certainly that is the case in some instances. (See: Childs, “Methods, Meanings and Representations” p.2; also my discussion here) This is not the place to discuss this in detail, but suffice it to say that I believe enough Tibetan have actually adhered to this distinction—refusing all slaughtered meat but eating naturally dead meat—to justify including it here.

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.)

Abstract:
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.