Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Tibet’s Vegetarian Debate

A shepherd on the Tibetan Plateau. Photo by DaiLuo | https://tricy.cl/2oJwKQs

The issue of vegetarianism has been a vexed one for Buddhists in Tibet, where the high alpine landscape is suitable for nomadic herding and a meat-and-dairy-based diet. A folk tale recounted by American author Lama Surya Das in the book The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane illustrates the tension between the Tibetan diet and Buddhist ideal of compassion. In the story, a sheep, an ox, and a goat listen from outside the monastery’s walls to the great lamas and scholars debating the issue of vegetarianism. The animals are inspired to reverence and faith by the compassionate outlook articulated in the debate, only to be chosen one by one for slaughter during the lunch break. Ideals and practicalities clash as it gradually dawns on the animals that the compassionate outlook espoused in the Buddhist teachings does not always apply to “all sentient beings” in practice.

In the Food of Sinful Demons: Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet, Geoffrey Barstow of Oregon State University tackles the history of vegetarianism in Tibet, surveying the multifaceted arguments of its proponents across the centuries. His comprehensive study is based on a wide swath of texts, including biographies of eminent masters, rulebooks for individual monasteries, and literature on the “three vows,” which discusses the relationship between the monastic code (Vinaya), the bodhisattva vow to benefit all sentient beings, and the samaya vow taken by Vajrayana initiates. These vows offer different and often contradictory views on meat-eating, complicating the formulation of a coherent Buddhist position on this issue in Tibet. Barstow dedicates one chapter to each vow and its implications for meat-eating according to leading Buddhist masters from different Tibetan traditions. This allows him to delve into specific facets of the vegetarian debate in detail, but at the cost of a chronological sense of these ideas’ development and the lived contexts in which specific positions emerged.

For Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in North America, what might be most surprising is the pointed critique of consuming meat in daily life based on a tantric paradigm. The first two vows, associated with monastic life and the bodhisattva path, are more clear cut. As Barstow shows, the monastic code allows monks and nuns to eat meat as long as they have not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal has been killed specifically for them (the tale above clearly violates this rule). But the bodhisattva vow supersedes this in its compassionate concern for all sentient beings and the call for vegetarianism in several Mahayana sutras (such as the Lankavatara Sutra and Mahaparinirvana Sutra). This is, in large part, why Buddhist monastics in China have predominantly been vegetarian. Further complicating matters, the samaya vow mandates the consumption of meat and liquor in tantric feasts as a way to transcend the ideas of purity and impurity. This creates a tension with Mahayana ideals by appearing to sanction meat-eating, even though the mandate only applies in specific ritual contexts and to certain rare and repulsive types of meat.

In addressing these contradictions, Barstow deftly illuminates a range of positions: from advocacy for vegetarianism that nonetheless requires the consumption of a token amount of meat during tantric feasts (by the 18th-century Nyingma visionary Jigme Lingpa and 17th-century Kagyu master Karma Chakme) to allowing meat-eating as medicine when ill (most famously, the19th-century Nyingma hermit Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol) to strict vegetarianism in all contexts (for example, Norchen Kunga Zangpo, the 15th-century founder of the Ngor branch of the Sakya tradition, and the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje, the 16th-century head of the Karma Kagyu lineage).

Outside the monastery, the parameters were different. Not only did non-monastic tantric practitioners have fewer restrictions on behavior and diet—they often married, and lived as householders—but other cultural orientations held sway.

Barstow breaks new ground in his discussion of the consumption of meat for medical purposes and as part of a heroic masculine ideal. The Tibetan medical tradition asserts the necessity of meat for vitality and recommends the consumption of specific types of meat to address particular illnesses. Meanwhile, a masculine ideal exemplified in the Gesar epic valorizes the control and consumption of animals in constituting strength and virility.

In the final chapter, Barstow illustrates how Tibetans have balanced these varying perspectives by distancing themselves from the act of slaughter or practicing partial vegetarianism by giving up meat on special holy days or during retreat. Overall he provides a well-rounded and comprehensive account of why meat-eating has remained the norm among Tibetans, even monastics, despite the strong Buddhist ethos of compassion for all beings.

Things have changed in recent decades, however. Improved transportation and the introduction of greenhouses have made a greater variety of vegetables and alternative forms of protein available. Since the mid-2000s, vegetarianism has gained momentum among Tibetans, promoted by prominent Buddhist teachers like Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro at Larung Buddhist Academy in eastern Tibet, and one of the two claimants to the throne of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, in exile in India.

In an epilogue, Barstow delves into the potential impact of and controversy around contemporary vegetarianism but neglects to outline the broader context that includes an ethical reform movement and a new set of ten Buddhist virtues promulgated by leaders at Larung Buddhist Academy. This new set of virtues contains novel pledges not to sell livestock for slaughter; not to drink, smoke, or gamble; not to visit prostitutes; not to fight with weapons or deal in arms; not to steal or hunt; and not to wear fur, all of which refocus Buddhist ethics on contemporary social issues.

At this point, vegetarianism is being adopted primarily by Buddhist monastics, with devout lay people giving up meat on special holy days. So it remains to be seen whether Tibetans will make a significant shift in diet and what impact this may have on their nomadic way of life. For those following the vegetarian debate as it unfolds on the Tibetan plateau and as Buddhism spreads to new contexts, Barstow’s book provides essential reading.