Herding Yaks off Cliffs

Herding Yaks in Khumbu

The story goes something like this: killing is bad, and no one wants the karma of intentionally killing an animal. But you gotta eat, and that means meat. So what’s a poor Tibetan herder to do? It’s simple, really. You take your yaks out to graze, and lead them close to some high cliffs. If all goes well, one of them will lose its footing and fall. You get the meat, and since the yak died ‘accidentally’ you gets a clean conscience to boot. I’ve heard this story on a couple of occasions, and have always wondered if it is true, or if it might fall into that amorphous category we call urban (rural?) legend.[1]

Recently I came across a reference that would seem to provide an answer: urban legend it is. Mari Albert Johan van Menen (1877-1943) was a Dutch Theosophist, avid reader of Tibetan texts, longtime resident of Darjeeling, and eventually General Secretary of the famed Asiatic Society of Bengal. In the nineteen twenties he convinced three of his Tibetan friends and research partners to write autobiographies. Thanks to the efforts of Peter Richards, translations were finally published in 1998, in Tibetan Lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies.[2] There is a wealth of interesting material in these texts, but for now I’m interested in a quote on page 100. There, Karma Sudhön Paul recalls that:

A European once told me he had read that Tibetans never killed animals. He added that, if any meat was needed, they would drive one or two yaks up a mountainside, shout at them from behind. Because this frightened the animals they fell, meeting their death in an abyss. The yaks could now be eaten – no sin was committed because they had killed themselves. However, I never came across this practice and never met a Tibetan who had.

So there we have it, a well-travelled Tibetan, writing in the mid nineteen twenties, who claims that this story is bunk. Not quite enough to completely dismiss such stories, but better than anything else I’ve got. Fortunately, Karma Sudhön Paul gives us a clue about where this story might have come from. The unnamed European said he had read about this. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tibet was largely inaccessible and, to European eyes, shrouded in mystery. Needless to say, may of the books about Tibet that were circulating at the time had only a tenuous connection to reality. So perhaps it was one of these authors, trying to reconcile Tibetans’ love of meat with a nineteenth century view of Buddhism as fundamentally pacifistic and docile, who came up with this story, which has since be retold often enough to pass into the realm of urban legend? Or perhaps not, but stranger things have happened.

Do you know which book this story might have come from? Or do you have any evidence that this might be a real practice after all? Let me know in the comments section below.


[1]For more information (and graphic photos) about actual Tibetan slaughtering practices, see: Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Cynthia M. Beall. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), especially pages 96-99. Somewhat incredibly, the whole book appears to be available from google books.

For a recent appeal by Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö, one of the foremost lamas in Kham today, to make those practices more humane, see: tshul khrims blo ’gros. “dus su bab pa’i gtam lugs gnyis gsal ba’i me long [Timely Advice: the Mirror Illuminating the Two Systems].” In dpal bla rung gi mkhan po tshul khrims blo ’gros kyi gsung ’bum bzhugs so. Vol. 2. (ya chen o rgyan bsam gtan gling, [2004]). This latter text might be hard to find, but should be available through Inter-Library Loan.

[2]Richardus, Peter, ed. Tibetan lives: Three Himalayan Autobiographies. Richmond: Curzon, 1998. Preview available on Google Books.


Samuel Turner, the Daeb Raja and Tibetan Vegetarianism

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.

An Engraving from the 1800 edition of Turner's Embassy to the Court of The Teshoo Lama

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.