Food of Sinful Demons: A History of Vegetarianism in Tibet

Barstow, Geoffrey, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation is a social and religious history of vegetarianism in Tibet. Drawing on a wide variety of Tibetan language sources as well as contemporary ethnographic fieldwork, I examine the practice of vegetarianism itself, the arguments used to support it, as well as the social and cultural framework in which it occurred.

I begin by arguing that while vegetarianism never became normative for Tibetan Buddhists, it was widely debated by religious leaders. Further, from at least the eleventh century onwards, many individuals have responded to this debate by both personally adopting vegetarianism and by promoting a meat-free diet among their followers. Most, if not all, of these individuals were motivated to adopt vegetarianism by their understanding of Tibetan Buddhism’s call to have compassion for all beings. Each individual understood this call differently, however, and I explore and delineate the various approaches different authors have taken in their arguments for vegetarianism.

Given the strength of these arguments, and the importance of compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, I then turn to an analysis of why vegetarianism did not become more prevalent. Some of the reasons for this were practical: the Tibetan environment made the cultivation of vegetables difficult and meat tastes good. Other factors impeding the spread of vegetarianism were cultural: meat eating was part of a vision of masculinity that celebrated strength and the ability to dominate others. This dissertation, therefore, explores the intersection of and conflict between religious ideals celebrating compassion for animals and the practical and cultural factors that opposed the adoption of a vegetarian diet.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tibetan Buddhism, Vegetarianism, Animals
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