SAI Kathmandu Office Lecture Series -- January 2015
Tibetan Buddhism idealizes the practice of compassion. On a basic level, it asks adherents to actively seek to lessen the suffering of all sentient beings, a category which explicitly includes animals. And yet most Tibetans ate meat.
This talk will explore the place of meat-eating and vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism prior to 1950. It notes that the incongruity of preaching compassion while simultaneously chewing a leg of mutton was not lost on Tibetan religious leaders, who consistently argued that eating meat was morally compromised at best, and at worst completely unacceptable. Despite this position, however, vegetarianism remained a minority practice. In order to understand why vegetarianism remained rare this talk will also explore factors that restricted the spread of such a diet, including Tibet’s unique ecology, medical assumptions about the body and idealized notions of masculinity. Finally, this talk details how some Tibetan religious leaders, well aware of the forces opposing vegetarianism, adjusted their message, seeking a middle ground that critiqued meat consumption while also acknowledging the difficulties of giving it up entirely. By doing so, this exploration of vegetarianism reveals the importance of context in shaping Tibetan religious practices.
Geoff Barstow is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio, USA. He received a BA from the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in 2005, then went on to complete a Master's degree at the Harvard Divinity School and a PhD at the University of Virginia.