Vegetarianism in Tibet

A review of Food of Sinful Demons: A History of Vegetarianism in Tibet, by Geoffrey Francis Barstow

Geoffrey Barstow’s dissertation is a comprehensive and extensive work on vegetarianism based on biographies, autobiographies, and religious teachings by Tibetan Buddhist leaders. Barstow traces the history of vegetarianism in Tibet from the imperial period through to recent times. His analysis focuses mainly on texts written by Buddhist leaders from the fourteenth century to the twentieth century in the Kham area of the Tibetan cultural region. Despite the fact that the vegetarian movement has been a marginal one among Tibetans and meat is a staple part of the diet for the majority of Tibetans, including monks and religious leaders, Barstow convincingly argues that eating meat has been a hot topic of debate among Tibetan Buddhist elites for a long period of time. He contends that the ideals of pro-vegetarianism have competed with other cultural elements, such as the idea that eating meat means gaining physical strength. He suggests that rejecting meat fits well with the cultural process of Buddhist taming of non-Buddhist norms, mostly targeted to the old Tibetan Bon tradition. He also argues that from the nineteenth through the twentieth century, political turbulence and sectarian competitions over places and patrons were the main driving forces behind the adoption of vegetarianism by religious elites as a strategy to legitimate individual sincerity and lineage superiority over other schools in the Tibetan Kham region.

In Chapter 1, Barstow provides the religious and historical contexts within which the Tibetan vegetarianism movement arose. He presents the vegetarian movement in China and India, and shows that vegetarianism in India played a significant role in the debates over the issue of eating meat in Tibet. Although the historical document The Testament of Ba suggests that non-Buddhist vegetarianism was evident in the Tibetan imperial era (ca. 650–850), other texts provide evidence that it was during the second dissemination of Buddhism (ca. 1100 onward) that the issue of vegetarianism left a significant cultural mark on Tibetan Buddhism. Among many religious leaders, two of the most important individuals in promoting vegetarianism were Jigme Lingpa (1730–1798) and Shabkar (1781–1851). Both became real forces for the vegetarianism movement when the latter reached its highest peak in the Kham Tibetan region, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vegetarianism was also relatively popular in Central Tibet between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, preceding the movement in Kham from the nineteenth century onwards (p. 84). While the Nyingma School and Bon School took prominent positions in promoting vegetarianism, adherents of the Kagyu, Sakya, and even Geluk schools have all participated in the movement to various degrees.

In Chapter 2, Barstow addresses the question of why individuals and communities decided to adopt vegetarianism, given that eating meat is so important in the Tibetan diet. He argues that the answer lies primarily in the Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all sentient beings. This concerns the belief that when one eats meat, that person is responsible for the animal’s slaughtering and suffering. The notion of karmic consequence, according to which the consumption of meat will eventually lead to rebirth in one of the hell realms, is also regarded as another type of rhetoric promoting vegetarianism. The author further complicates the argument by exploring the Tantric vow—that often supersedes the Bodhisattva vow—which mandates the use of meat during ritual feasts, a practice that erases dualistic thinking of pure and impure.

Chapter 3 explores why meat continues to be a part of the diet for the majority of Tibetan monks and lamas. Barstow argues that cultural ideas of physical strength and masculinity are embedded in the practice of eating meat and that this competes with Buddhist ethical ideals of compassion and karmic consequence. As a consequence of this cultural politics, meat consumption became the norm for most Tibetans, and this was criticized by a minority of Buddhist leaders who were trying to tame non-Buddhist beliefs and cultural practices. Barstow thus promotes the idea that a combination of forces has led to the persistence of meat consumption among Tibetans. In the inconsistency of the Buddha’s teachings, the Vinaya (monastic discipline) permits monks to eat meat that upholds the threefold-purities (p.140). This aligns well with contemporary Tibetans’ differentiation between the sin of killing and the sin of eating meat. Various factors, such as permission for monks to eat meat through Buddha’s teachings, the harsh environment of the Tibetan plateau, where vegetable and fruits are difficult to grow, and attachment to the tastiness of meat have generated a habit of wide consumption of meat among Tibetan Buddhists.

In Chapter 4, Barstow makes that argument that the phenomenon of vegetarianism was tightly related to the practice of monasticism in Tibet, despite the fact that Vinaya, the rules for monks, permit monks to eat meat insofar as they are not personally responsible for the death of the animal. Barstow points out that pro-vegetarian authors based their claim for the rejection of meat among monks upon the concept of compassion integral to the Bodhisattva vow, a Tibetan monastic vow that all Tibetan monks adopt alongside the Vinaya (p. 221). He argues that many pro-vegetarian authors used vegetarianism as a strategy to distinguish themselves from other religious leaders and thus perceived vegetarianism as an important marker of individual superiority over monks who consume meat. At the same time, Barstow also suggests that the practices of mantrins, lay practitioners who are required to consume meat, do not fit in the broader Buddhist idea of taming masculine practices such as the consumption of meat.

In Chapter 5, Barstow situates the development of the vegetarian movement into a larger political and religious scene, with a focus on the instability in Kham in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this period, a rime or non-sectarian movement was very popular in the region. Barstow correlates the frequent conversions of religious schools and the debates over Buddhist teachings and practices among different schools with the relative popularity of the vegetarian movement in Kham, a place that has often been characterized by political power struggles and sectarian conflicts. He convincingly argues that the vegetarian movement worked as one strategy among many through which religious leaders tried to legitimate their religious sincerity in their struggle over places, patrons, and resources for both worldly and religious goals. He also suggests that the religious leaders’ emotional responses to animal suffering during slaughter should be taken seriously. Nonetheless, at the same time, he points out that those responses should also be situated in the context of political and sectarian competitions in which religious legitimacy was considered to be one of the key factors for the continuity of lineages.

This dissertation is a pioneering study of a previously unexplored topic. It makes a welcome contribution to the field of Tibetan studies, particularly to the history of Tibetan Buddhism in the Kham region. It will also appeal to those who are concerned with the interdisciplinary studies of religion and politics, ethical issues around the consumption of meat, and the cultural politics of food consumption in general.

Gaerrang (Kabzung)
Associate professor
Center for Tibetan Studies at Sichuan University
Chengdu, China

Primary Sources
’Jigs med gling pa. ’Jigs med gling pa’ gsung ‘bum. Sde dge: sde dge dpar khang, n.d.
Shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan. Mang thun sha zos pas nyes dmigs mdor bsdus [The Shortcomings of Eating Meat]. Chab mdo: chab mdo par ‘debs bzo grwa, 1988.
Zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol. Zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol gyi bka’ ‘bum. Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2003.
Interviews with contemporary Tibetan lamas and scholars.

Dissertation Information
University of Virginia. 2013. 317 pp. Primary Advisors: Kurtis Schaeffer and David Germano.

Image: A monk and his pet, Amdo, 2011. Photo by Geoffrey Barstow.

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