Of all peoples, Tibetans might seem the least likely to take to a vegetarian diet. The altitude of the Tibetan Plateau averages four kilometres above sea level. The land is ideally suited to yaks, hardy sheep breeds and goats; but vegetables grow only in sheltered valleys.

Yet Tibet not only has vegetarians, but an energetic  vegetarian movement coming from Serthar Larung Gar challenging Tibetans to assert their distinctive identity in  the most embodied way, by adopting a vegetarian diet, perhaps for life, but often at regular intervals as a reminder of  difference and distinctiveness, in contrast to China’s appetite for anything that moves, to be consumed even if the animal is alive.

Body, speech and mind unite to produce the new “real Tibetan.” Khenpo Tsullo, following his master Khenpo Jikphun, challenges all Tibetans to abstain from meat on at least a few days each month, not only for ethical but, implicitly, for national reasons as well.

In a land of nomadic herders, the Khenpo’s zeal in propounding the merits of vegetarianism, where yaks and sheep graze the rich pastures of eastern Tibet, far above the Sichuan basin, puts some cosmopolitan Tibetans offside. Tibetan bloggers energetically debate this latest union of daily behaviour and national identity, some going so far as to call him coercive, even fascist. They accuse him of imposing an extreme political correctness on a population whose economy and income come from raising animals.

The more China dominates the public sphere, permitting no independent Tibetan voices any space, the more Tibetans reclaim the person, behaviourally and mentally. The Khenpo is energetic, even forceful,  in making the case for vegetarianism with Tibetan characteristics, yet highly flexible in defining a wide range of ways abstention from meat can be done. He draws on Tibetan traditions of fasting and sacrifice, such as the common practice of forswearing meat for a year after a beloved has died. He holds public meetings vigorously expounding the classic Buddhist ethics of not taking life, and asks people there and then to raise their hand and take the vow to refrain. He dwells on the passion of southern Chinese for all manner of life, describing graphically the excesses of traditional Chinese Medicine such as eating the brains of live monkeys, frying living chickens and boiling live fish. He confronts the drivers of China’s global demand for exotic animal parts, in making his case for Tibetan difference. This is remarkably direct, and challenging, compared to the endless polite reports of the Convention on Traffic in Endangered Species (CITES) or Traffic reports on China’s insatiable, global market for shark fin, tiger bone, rhino horn and myriad other potency boosters cut from animals.

The khenpos and the lamas are regaining public space. Most do so very quietly and skilfully, attracting neither the attention of Chinese authorities, nor an outside world attuned to tales of Tibetan victimhood but not Tibetan success. Not far from deeply troubled places, lamas skilfully maintain productive, harmonious communities that quietly prosper.  But Khenpo Tsullo comes from a community which has already gone through state persecution quite recently, not only surviving mandatory dismantling and destruction of a Buddhist teaching and practice community, growing stronger than ever. Serthar Larung Gar pioneered new ways of doing the Buddhist practices that transform body, speech and mind, outside the state’s regime of monastic governance and close surveillance, and compulsory “patriotic education” for all monastics. From the outset, Larung Gar bypassed state scrutiny, setting up a nomadic camp on a remote mountain slope in a corner of Sichuan few Chinese ever heard of. For years, they remained under official radar, an ostensibly temporary gathering which nonetheless was dedicated to intensive meditation practice, each participant, Tibetan or Han, female or male, nun, monk or lay, all doing the deep inner plunge into the nature of mind that retreatants do, undistracted yet under guidance, each in their own wooden cell hut. Only after this had grown steadily, over a decade, did state power grow uneasy, fearful and violent, invading the camp as a new millennium dawned, forcing the meditators to tear down their tiny homes. State authority was especially alarmed that so many sincere Buddhist practitioners were Han, who had discovered in Tibet an authentic gateway and guide to the inner world. This mixing of categories, mingling of nationalities, Han learning from Tibetans, was clearly intolerable, although no law was broken. The huts were smashed. Tibetans in exile protested at yet another assault on Tibetan cultural autonomy, and after a month or two, the issue faded from view.

On the ground, at Serthar, the charismatic Khenpo Jikphun, creator of this space of introspective realisation, was detained and died. Yet far from collapsing, in the absence of a charismatic and far sighted leader, Larung Gar rebuilt and is now bigger and stronger than ever, a magnet attracting from near and far those whose sole objective is to fully awaken. Death has no sting for them, nor the state.

Now they are reclaiming the public sphere as well. When, after endless debate, confusion and resistance, it became clear that the time has come for women to have as much right as men to full monastic ordination, the first such ordinations were not at an old institution, but at Larung Gar, where most practitioners are women. The new vegetarianism movement originates in Larung Gar, the nomad camp high in the alpine pasture meadows of Serthar.

The appeal to go vegetarian strikes chords in Tibetans. A Tibetan social scientist, Kabzung, of Sichuan University, reports that many Tibetans he interviewed readily related the call to their own circumstances and found a fit. A government worker says this is her way of controlling high cholesterol. Another woman says her husband has chronic illness, and this is her way of making merit she can dedicate to him. Those grieving a loved one say it is their way of showing  the departed they live on the hearts of the living. Kabzung  (Ga’errang in Chinese) told the 2013 conference of the International Association for Tibetan Studies that the new veg movement appeals most to educated Tibetans, who are aware that international visitors are sometimes shocked at Tibetan meat consumption, especially on festive occasions, when many animals are slaughtered.

On reflection, Kabzung says, Tibetans never saw religion as a lifestyle statement, or a public stance, or a declaration of identity. Religion was life, as water is to fish, without any self-conscious distance. It was China’s presence in Tibet, bringing with it religion as a category of behaviour and attitude, to be defined and governed, that made Tibetans begin to see religion as an icon of culture and identity.

If Kabzung is right, China’s strenuous effort to define, regulate and establish boundaries around religion, to banish it from the public sphere, to demand its adherents denounce the Dalai Lama, are all counter-productive. In seeking to control and diminish the role of religion in Tibetan life, China has only made it stronger and more central to all aspects of identity and cultural difference, the ultimate reference point defining what it means to be Tibetan. By strenuously confining religion to the private life of the individual, China has only expanded its centrality in Tibetan minds.  The vegetarians of Tibet, in each mouthful, now embody a confident Tibetanness that no coercion can control.


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