Buddhism Between Abstinence and Indulgence: Vegetarianism in the Life and Works of Jigmé Lingpa

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Tibetan Buddhism idealizes the practice of compassion, the drive to relieve the suffering of others, including ani-mals. At the same time, however, meat is a standard part of the Tibetan diet, and abandoning it is widely under-stood to be difficult.
  Journal of Buddhist Ethics ISSN 1076-9005 http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/ Volume 20, 2013   Buddhism Between Abstinence and Indulgence: Vegetarianism in the Life and Works of Jigmé Lingpa Geoffrey Barstow Otterbein University Copyright Notice:  Digital copies of this work may be made and distributed  provided no change is made and no alteration is made to the content. Repro-duction in any other format, with the exception of a single copy for private study, requires the written permission of the author. All enquiries to: cozort@dickinson.edu.    Buddhism Between Abstinence and Indulgence: Vegetarianism in the Life and Works of Jigmé Lingpa Geoffrey Barstow 1   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 eight-eenth 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 1  Department of Religion and Philosophy, Otterbein University. Email: gbarstow@otterbein.edu.    75  Journal of Buddhist Ethics  his students a chance to continue cultivating compassion without having to completely abandon meat.  2  Tibetan Buddhism has long argued for the sanctity of life, condemning the killing of humans and animals alike. For just as long, however, meat has  been a staple of the Tibetan diet. Individual religious leaders have dealt with this tension in different ways, but few have done so as revealingly as the eighteenth century master Jigmé Lingpa ( ‘jigs med gling pa , 1730-1798). In his religious and autobiographical writings, Jigmé Lingpa draws on Buddhist ideals promoting compassion towards all beings and his own unusually strong love of animals to praise vegetarianism and condemn the killing of animals for meat. Jigmé Lingpa also recognizes, however, that vegetarianism is a difficult ideal. Rather than insisting on vegetarianism, therefore, he offers his students a variety of means through which to mod-erate the negativity of eating meat without fully abandoning it. By doing so, Jigmé Lingpa offers his disciples a method to resolve the tension be-tween Tibetan Buddhism’s compassionate ideal and the practical difficul-ties of a vegetarian diet, allowing one to practice compassion without be-coming vegetarian. Tibetan Buddhism adheres to the Mah ! y ! na school of Buddhist thought, and, as such, largely defines itself through the persona of the Bo-dhisattva and the cultivation of compassion. Individuals are called upon to 2  At the outset, I wish to extend my appreciation to the Fulbright U. S. Student Program, The Julian Green Fellowship and the University of Virginia, whose generosity support-ed this research. I would also like to thank Professor Janet Gyatso of Harvard Divinity School, who generously granted me access to her notes on Jigmé Lingpa’s  Autobiog-raphy , and Kurtis Schaeffer of the University of Virginia, who commented on an earlier draft. Finally, I would like to thank my research assistant Yeshé Drolma and the many other Tibetans who generously offered their insights to this project, but whose names I am withholding to protect their privacy.     Barstow, Between Abstinence and Indulgence 76  practice religion not out of concern for their own suffering, but out of con-cern for the sufferings of others. In addition, practitioners are expected to  put this compassionate orientation into practice, striving to relieve the suf-fering of all sentient beings—a category that explicitly includes animals— through both religious and worldly means. Concerns over the compatibility of this compassionate attitude with a meat-based diet arose early in the history of the Mah ! y ! na, and several early Mah ! y ! na texts contain explicit critiques of meat. Among these, the text most commonly cited by later Tibetan authors is the  La ! k  " vat  " ra S  # tra , which D.T. Suzuki notes could have been composed no later than the third century (5). The  La ! k  " vat  " ra S  # tra  contains an en-tire chapter devoted to the flaws of meat, focusing on the contradiction  between meat and the compassionate attitude a Mah ! y ! na practitioner should display. Ultimately, the text concludes, “Because they cultivate the idea that all beings are their only child, Bodhisattvas possess the nature of compassion and do not eat meat” (Shakyamuni lang kar gshegs pa’i mdo 153b). 3  Despite these concerns, however, vegetarianism does not seem to have become normative in Indian Buddhism. The seventh century Chinese monk Yijing, in fact, returned to China after fifteen years in India and ex- plicitly reported that vegetarianism was not found in Indian Buddhist monasteries (Yijing 213.a06-213.a10; I-Tsing 58-59). Yijing’s emphasis on this point was likely prompted by the preva-lence of vegetarianism among his own contemporaries in China (Benn 316). By the late seventh century, when Yijing was writing, vegetarianism had become normative for Chinese Buddhist monks (Kieschnick 201). Supported by a conviction that meat eating leads to a negative birth, vege-tarianism spread steadily in China and eventually all devout Buddhists,  both monks and laity, would be expected to adhere to a meat free diet 3    sems can thams cad la bu gcig gi 'du shes su bsgom pa'i phyir byang chub sems dpa' snying brtse ba'i bdag nyid can gyis sha thams cad mi bza'o/  77  Journal of Buddhist Ethics  (Kieschnick 187). By the late nineteenth century, vegetarianism had be-come so closely associated with Buddhism that Christian missionaries in Shanghai saw an individual’s willingness to eat meat as proof that they had forsaken Buddhist beliefs (Reinders). In contrast to the situation in China, meat remained common in Ti- bet. Despite the emphasis on the practice of compassion for all beings, the traditional Tibetan diet includes large quantities of meat. Meat is eaten dried and raw, steamed in dumplings or boiled in soup. Indeed, along with roasted barley flour and butter tea, meat is a key staple in the diets of most Tibetans, resulting in the death of many animals. 4  The apparent contradiction between Tibetan Buddhism’s idealiza-tion of compassion and the fact that Tibetans consume large quantities of meat has not been lost on Tibetan religious leaders, known as lamas ( bla ma ), and several reasons have been advanced to explain the importance of meat in the Tibetan diet. Foremost among these is the negative impact of vegetarianism on personal health. Tibetan medicine speaks of a need to maintain balance among the three bodily humors of wind ( rlung  ), phlegm ( bad kan ), and bile ( mkhris pa ), and asserts that a meatless diet can result in an increase in wind, disturbing the balance and resulting in weakness and diminished energy. 5  In addition to concerns over health, interviews conducted among contemporary Tibetans in the eastern region of Kham make it clear that the pervasive presence of meat in the Tibetan diet makes the adoption of a vegetarian diet difficult. Almost all informants, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, agreed that meat tastes good. Seeing it on a daily basis, there-  4  The anthropologists Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall note that a moderately wealthy nomadic family of five can consume the meat of as many as forty-five to fifty animals a year (99). 5  I base this brief description on a series of interviews with contemporary Tibetan doc-tors and medical students in Amdo during the summer of 2012.  
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