Food of Sinful Demons

Meat, Vegetarianism, and the Limits of Buddhism in Tibet

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Geoffrey Barstow
Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With Food of Sinful Demons, Geoffrey Barstow offers a path breaking cultural history of vegetarianism in Tibet. Countering long-standing assumptions on the lack of a vegetarian diet amongst Tibetans, this work convincingly details how the abstention from meat was pivotal to expressions of Tibetan religiosity, despite the fact that this lifestyle disrupted cultural and social norms regarding the importance of meat-eating for health reasons. However, this study is not only relevant to Tibetan cultural studies; it contributes to the growing body of academic literature on the intersection of animal studies and religion, such as Ken Stone’s Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies (Stanford University Press, 2017) and Reiko Ohnuma’s Unfortunate Destiny (Oxford University Press, 2017) on animals in the Indian Buddhist imagination. It is not surprising to see so many titles on animal studies published in this last year as this subfield of religious studies is emerging with strong scholarship in pace with the increased awareness of the plight of animals in contemporary society more generally. Food of Sinful Demons is exceptionally relevant in how it explores tensions between compassionate concern for animal welfare grounded in Buddhist ethics, perceptions of health, and Tibetan cultural values.

The book is divided into two main sections following an introduction. The first part places vegetarianism in the context of Tibetan religiosity. The second looks at the social and cultural norms that accounted for the rarity of meatless diets in Tibet. The extended epilogue with its insightful observations on newly emerging vegetarian movements in contemporary Tibet imbues the rich textual detail with a sense of vitality.

The introduction defines what is meant by vegetarianism, identifies the Tibetan sources mined for this study, and also lays out the book’s objectives. As stated in the author’s own words, “I argue that vegetarianism was located at the nexus of a three-way tension between religious ideals, perceived medical need, and alternate perspectives that ignored (or diminished) religious ideals and saw meat as a good thing, part of a well-lived life” (21). This reader was not only persuasively convinced by this analysis, but also riveted by the compelling narrative that intersected Tibetan textual studies and Buddhist ethics with analysis of cultural norms on health, animal welfare, and perceptions of masculinity.

The first chapter paints a broad Buddhist history of vegetarianism focusing on relevant passages from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Foundation of the Vinaya. The latter tells the story of how Śākyamuni Buddha responded to a critique of meat-eating by developing the vow of threefold purity whereby monastics are permitted to eat an animal as long they did not see it killed for them, hear that the animal was killed for them, or suspect that the animal was killed for their enjoyment. The subsequent three chapters take up the idea of threefold purity and explore the tensions between Buddhist ethical ideals of vegetarianism and factors and circumstances that sometimes prohibited and sometimes accepted meat-eating vis-à-vis vows commonly adopted by Tibetans: monastic vows (chapter 2), the bodhisattva vow (chapter 3), and tantric commitments (chapter 4).

The second section of the book analyzes the cultural norms on how meat-eating could be viewed as both a necessary evil (chapter 5) and a positive good for heroic masculinity and health (chapter 6). The final chapter weaves together the three-fold tension between Buddhist ideals, perceived health concerns, and non-Buddhist cultural values.

Although his topic-driven method could potentially be critiqued for its tendency to elide situating texts culturally and historically in its application, Barstow peppered the pages with just the right amount of context to cogently show off Tibet’s literary masterpieces in historical time. For example, 19th century Buddhist authors from eastern Tibet, such as Shabkar in his Nectar of Immorality, ramped up their rhetoric to implore their readers to heed vegetarianism, an increasing trend at that time and place. As Shabkar wrote, “The killers and buyers, working in dependence on each other, directly kill thousands of goats, sheep, and other beings. If this is meat with threefold purity and does not involve a fault, then these people must have all gone where everything is all-encompassing purity” (55). Similar literary gems can be found throughout this study. The rich array of textual data may also pave the way for future studies to examine in more detail the socio-economic reasons for the rise in vegetarianism in eastern Tibet in the nineteenth century.

This study is uniquely positioned as grounded solidly in Tibetan historical texts and pertinent to present-day societal concerns. Written in straightforward accessible prose, this book could certainly be read by undergraduates as well as graduate students interested in animal welfare, applied Buddhist ethics, Tibetan cultural history, vegetarianism, and cross-cultural understandings of social justice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicole Willock is Assistant Professor of Religion at Old Dominion University.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Geoffrey Barstow is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Oregon State University.


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