Food of the Faithful

Tibetan studies scholar Geoffrey Barstow explores the limits of Buddhism


May 11, 2018

“Available sources almost universally agree that meat is delicious. Perhaps more importantly, meat is often considered necessary for human health.”

“Compassion, placing the needs of others before one’s own, lies at the very center of Tibetan religious rhetoric and self-conception.”

Food of Sinful Demons, Geoffrey Barstow

By Nick Houtman

What’s for dinner? The question is repeated daily in households and languages across the world, and the answers come back in endless variety. Whether we grab a burger on our way to a meeting, enjoy a steak or a stir fry with family or gather in a circle around a shared meal eaten with our hands, what and how we choose to eat reflects our traditions and religious beliefs.

In Islam, the holy month of Ramadan calls for believers to fast during daylight hours to honor the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad. In Judaism, keeping a kosher diet means following the rules of food preparation as revealed in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Torah. For many Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, the practice of vegetarianism stems from principles laid down in sacred texts.

Illustration by Nicole Xu

In a new book, Food of Sinful Demons (Columbia University Press, 2018), Geoffrey Barstow has opened a window on how culture and Buddhism in Tibet have interacted for more than a thousand years to influence food choices — specifically the decision about whether or not to eat meat. Through documents and interviews, he explores the tensions that have shaped the historical and the contemporary debate in that country. The first of its kind in Tibetan studies, Barstow’s analysis offers a model for considering the values that underlie such choices elsewhere.

“I’m not the first to think about all this,” he says. “People have made careers connecting food, ethics, religion and culture. But Buddhism has been largely outside of that conversation, and so I hope this work will contribute to remedying that.”

The Tibetan studies scholar and assistant professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University grew up in a Christian household. Barstow is also affiliated with OSU’s Asian Studies Program. He became fascinated with other religious traditions as a teenager, and during his undergraduate studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, he spent a year abroad studying Buddhism in India, China and Nepal.

A chance to travel to Tibet that year gave him a new perspective on a culture that has been romantically perceived in the West since at least 1933, when British writer James Hilton depicted an idyllic, secluded valley he called Shangri-la in Lost Horizon. “I had naïve first impressions about this exotic culture,” Barstow says, “without any of the intellectual tools at that point to analyze or reflect. It seemed like a wild world of the mind that I was fascinated by philosophically and practically. Since my junior year in college, I never really thought about doing anything else.”

Nuns turn prayer wheels at Yachen Gar in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet. (Photo: Geoffrey Barstow)

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, Barstow returned to Asia to study Buddhism. For four years, at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal, he delved into Buddhist history and principles. He learned to speak Tibetan and became familiar with the many faces of a faith tradition followed by about 10 percent of the world’s people.

The knowledge and skills he gained would become invaluable in his investigation of vegetarianism, which he undertook for his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.

Barstow began his research by visiting monasteries in eastern Tibet, a region known as Kham where Westerners rarely traveled. “I would go to a monastery and just sit and wait for someone to approach me,” he says. “Often the fact that I could talk to them in Tibetan would get them interested. Pretty soon they would be asking me what I was doing there, and I would tell them and ask if they ate meat at this monastery. They would say ‘no’ or ‘yes we do’ and that would prompt a whole other set of questions.”

By asking monks about their knowledge of written commentaries on eating meat, Barstow found perspectives that allowed him to trace religious leaders’ positions on the topic back nearly to the introduction of Buddhism to the Tibetan plateau.

An Ongoing Debate

In 2011 and 2012, as Barstow was interviewing monks and scholars, the issue of vegetarianism had re-emerged as a hot topic in Tibet. Major lamas were advocating abstinence from meat and linking it to the core Buddhist principle of compassion for all sentient beings. However, the push to avoid meat was meeting resistance from people who regarded vegetarianism as a foreign import at odds with the country’s traditionally nomadic culture. In Tibet’s grasslands, herds of goats, sheep and yaks are an important source of wealth and food.

Historically, in pre-Communist Tibet, most vegetarians were also monks and nuns, Barstow writes. Not eating meat — showing compassion for animals — aligned with other practices, such as celibacy, avoiding alcohol and not touching money. For the religious community, these and other commitments were seen as a path of awakening to the enduring truths of the world.

However, Buddhist scriptures do not uniformly agree, and in his book, Barstow separates three distinct perspectives on meat eating, each of which is derived from a particular set of religious vows. In the first of these, the Monastic Code, meat is seen as acceptable as long as the animal was not killed specifically for the monk in question.  The second, known as the Boddhisattva Vow, emphasizes compassion and sees meat in a largely negative light.  The third set of vows, the tantric commitments, actually mandates eating a small amount of meat, but only within a particular ritual context.

While monasteries adopted practices that aligned with their tradition, most Tibetan people ate meat as a matter of course. “For most Tibetans, meat was simply a necessary part of a normal diet,” writes Barstow. “They may not have eaten it on a daily basis, but it remained an important part of the ideal diet, understood to be necessary for optimal health. Without it, an individual would weaken physically and become susceptible to illness.”

Meat was also seen as a symbol of wealth and masculinity. Tibetan medicine recommended meat consumption to treat specific illnesses.

Horse races are popular among Tibetans. Here, a competitor reaches to snatch a white scarf from the ground. The racer with the most scarves wins! (Photo: Geoffrey Barstow)

“The question of meat was never a settled or simple issue in Tibet,” writes Barstow, “a fact that spurred a variety of attempts to promote vegetarianism while also acknowledging the difficulty of adopting such a diet.”

Impact Beyond Tibet

In a review of Food of Sinful Demons, Holly Gayley, a writer for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, says the book is “essential reading … for those following the vegetarian debate as it unfolds on the Tibetan plateau and as Buddhism spreads to new contexts….”

But Barstow hopes that his work has an impact beyond the Tibetan sphere as well. “This is a Tibetan story,” says Barstow. “But I would hope that people who read it would self-reflect about their food choices and consider what narrative they’re buying into. When I refuse to pay more for the ‘ethical’ meat,’ what choice is that reflecting? What is that saying about my values? I’d be happy if people read the book and think about where their food comes from.”

Barstow maintains connections with many of those he interviewed and with others who debate the role of vegetarianism in Tibet. He is translating a volume of Tibetan texts on the subject under contract with a publisher that serves Buddhist communities.

Meanwhile, he is starting a new project to explore the interactions between students and teachers in monasteries and schools. “The tradition suggests that students should have complete devotion to their teachers and do everything they say,” he says, “but what happens when the teachers say something the student might not agree with?”

With support from the OSU Research Office, three Oregon State undergraduates are working with Barstow on the project. Barstow is also arranging for OSU students to study abroad at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal, where he first gained his foothold in Tibetan studies.

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