Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851) is revered by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Living mostly on retreat in the mountains surrounded by a few close and hardy disciples, or on pilgrimages to the holy places of Tibet, he lived an austere life, with no fixed abode and possessing only the most meager of possessions, attaching himself to no monastery, adhering to no school, and remaining free from dependence upon benefactors. Shabkar was famed for his concern with animals, and lived strictly by a vegetarian diet: a rare accomplishment in the harsh climate of Tibet. In fact the practice of vegetarianism is still rare not only in Tibet itself but in Tibetan Buddhism in the West despite the relative ease of adopting a vegetarian diet here, and it this incongruity that this book addresses.
This book presents two of Shabkar’s works along with an introduction by the translators. The introduction is a fascinating work in itself, which gives an account of Shabkar and offers an overview of the historical relationship between Buddhism and vegetarianism from a Tibetan perspective. The translators are anything but impartial on vegetarianism, and advocate a meat-free diet as an expression of compassion for living beings.
The first translated text, The Faults of Eating Meat, is a compendium of extracts from Mahayana and Tantric scriptures and teachings by Indian and Tibetan masters. These are of interest primarily in giving a sense of how widespread the advocacy of vegetarianism was throughout the Mahayana and Vajrayana world. Moreover, many of these texts, such as the Angulimala Sutra, the Sutra of Close Mindfulness, and various tantras, are not readily available to the average western practitioner, and any exposure to them is to be welcomed. Moreover, the wealth of material from authoritative sources may well be effective in motivating followers of Tibetan Buddhism to reexamine their relationship to meat-eating. However, because there is a bare minimum of material connecting the extracts, Shabkar’s voice and personality are only dimly heard, which led to some disappointment for this reviewer.
The arguments against meat eating found in The Faults of Eating Meat are basically the same as those in the second text, The Nectar of Immortality, which is an engaging essay addressing in a more personal way the reasons why meat-eating should be avoided by those following the Bodhisattva path. Many of these arguments are typically Tibetan, such as the idea that all beings have, at some point in the endless rounds of rebirth, been one’s own mother, and that in eating meat one is in effect devouring a parent.
Shabkar also warns of a hellish rebirth for those who consume meat and tackles the idea that one can benefit a slaughtered animal by “compassionately” chanting mantras while eating it. Arguments for or against such propositions will necessarily lack persuasive force for all but followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
However, for a wider audience there are still arguments that may sway opinions. Shabkar writes, for example, that the notion – formulated originally for bhikkhus who lived by accepting whatever was put into their begging bowls – that it’s acceptable to eat meat as long as one doesn’t see, hear, or suspect that the animal was killed especially for the recipient, is not applicable in a market economy. Instead, he argues, the meat-eater creates the demand that the butcher merely fills. Thus, he argues, it is the meat-eater who is mostly at fault and who must take responsibility for his actions if he sincerely wishes to reduce the amount of suffering his diet entails.
The fact that many arguments that Shabkar makes are framed in a Tibetan world view does not of course invalidate the book. Shabkar was a Tibetan writing for Tibetans, and his arguments will remain potent for present-day Tibetan practitioners. This book will hopefully have the effect of encouraging more Buddhists in the West (and not just the followers of Tibetan schools) to become more aware of the suffering that meat eating entails, and at least to begin moving towards adopting a diet that helps avoid unnecessary suffering by animals.