Compassion for Animals

Liberated YakThough the 17th Karmapa may be more well-known in the west for his promotion of vegetarianism at the 2007 Kagyu Monlam, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro has campaigned for the compassionate treatment of animals on various fronts since the early 2000s.

A renowned khenpo (cleric-scholar) at the helm of Larung Buddhist Academy in Serta, Tsultrim Lodro has called on ordinary Tibetans in nomadic areas to stop selling their livestock for slaughter, to minimize the suffering of animals when killing for their own consumption, and to reduce their own meat consumption with further encouragement for monastics to become vegetarian.

Due to his advocacy and that of the Karmapa, many Nyingma and Kagyu monasteries in eastern Tibet no longer serve meat from their monastery kitchens, though individual monks and nuns are free to follow their own dietary choices outside of communal meals. In some areas, ordinary Tibetan families observe meatless days on holiday occasions.

Tsultrim Lodro also promotes the protection of wildlife habitats and the traditional practice of “liberating lives” (tshe thar), which involves releasing fish into lakes or tying a ribbon to a yak to mark it as forever “liberated” from slaughter (as the photo above shows). Read more about Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro’s advocacy for animal welfare in my article, “The Compassionate Treatment of Animals: A Contemporary Buddhist Approach in Eastern Tibet” in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics. 

Modern Miracles

Pema GarwangWhen traveling in Padma County, a Tibetan friend took me to meet her great uncle, Pema Garwang, a Tibetan doctor who survived eighteen years of prison during the Maoist period. To bolster his courage, he composed this aspiration prayer to Khandro Tare Lhamo:

Oh, from Tara’s pure and spontaneous display, Yulo Kopa,
Arises a magical emanation of noble Tara, mother of buddhas,
I supplicate the holder of secret mantra, Tare Lhamo;
Over many lifetimes without separation, you have accepted me.
Producing the wisdom of the four joys, bliss emptiness,
You are ultimately Kuntu Zangmo; in the land of the dakinis,
May I be liberated through dissolving into a rainbow body of light.

During that time, as protection, Pema Garwang stitched a piece of Tare Lhamo’s hair into his coat, and miraculously a gold ring that she had given him could not be forcibly removed.

I tell Pema Garwang’s story of his faith in Tare Lhamo in “Modern Miracles of a Female Buddhist Master,” for Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, edited by Jeffrey Sameuls, Justin McDaniel, and Mark Rowe (University of Hawai’i Press, 2016).

Listen to this recording of his prayer, which varies slightly from this translation above of his written version:

New Conversations on Buddhism & Feminism

Last fall, The Arrow Journal dedicated a special issue to Buddhism & Feminism, revisiting some of the stands taken by the late Rita Gross, one of the first feminist theologians to write about Buddhism.

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The issue centers on an article by philosopher Alexis Shotwell, “‘Like Water into Water’: If Buddhism, then Feminism. But What Sort of Feminism.” Shotwell explores the ways that Buddhism and feminism are compatible with an emphasis on thinking through what sort of feminism would best serve contemporary Buddhist communities in North America in their ongoing diversity work.

I was asked to be one of three respondents to the article, alongside Judith Simmer-Brown, who offers a compelling account of feminist struggles during the 1970s and 80s within Buddhist convert communities in the US, and Sara Lewis who tackles gender issues within a Buddhist framework of relative and ultimate truth. My own response, “Where Do We Look for Buddhist Feminism,” addresses a broad question about methodology, asking what sources we use to construct a “Buddhist” position on a given contemporary ethical issue, particularly gender given the complex array of Buddhist representations in art, texts, and ritual performance. This is the third year for The Arrow Journal, co-founded by Gabe Dayley and Kai Beavers as a site of engagement between contemplative practice, politics, and activism.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is charting another conversation on the topic with her next edited volume, Buddhist Feminism(s) and Femininities, forthcoming from SUNY Press. The volume includes contributions by Karen Lang, Lisa Battaglia, Jeff Wilson, Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, and others. My contribution to the volume, “Gendered Hagiography in Tibet: Comparing Clerical Representations of the Female Visionary, Khandro Tare Lhamo,” explores salient differences between three biographies of Tare Lhamo by monastics in Golok with distinct perspectives on her identity.

Cover of The Arrow 3:1 featuring original artwork by Alicia Brown.

Dharma Gathering at Nyenlung

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Photos © Holly Gayley

Since 1996, each year Nyenlung Monastery holds a dharma gathering (chos tshogs) during the auspicious month of Sagadawa. When Tare Lhamo was alive, the couple sat side by side on a peacock throne in the outdoor pavilion to give teachings to large gatherings of a thousand or more seated on the hillside below. These photos come from the dharma gathering I attended in 2006 with Namtrul Rinpoche presiding. It shows the crowds gathered and its varied activities, including an elaborate procession to consecrate anew the sacred structures on the monastery grounds. Today, Namtrul Rinpoche’s son, Tulku Laksam, presides over ritual occasions at Nyenlung.

Read an excerpt from Love Letters from Golok describing this event:

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Ethical reform in eastern Tibet

circumambulating-at-larung-garBuddhist ethical reform has become a major force in eastern Tibet, spearheaded by Larung Buddhist Academy in remote Serta, also known as Larung Gar. A new set of “ten virtues” (dge bcu), first formulated in 2008, have spread to neighboring areas in Kandze Prefecture and beyond. In “Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau,” I trace the ideological basis for this reform movement in the writings of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro, one of the main successors of Larung founder, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933-2004).  And, with Professor Padmatso in “Nonviolence as a Shifting Signifier on the Tibetan Plateau,” I explore a new articulation of nonviolence in the “amulet for peace” (zhi bde rtags ma) introduced by Khenpo Rigdzin Dargye in 2012.

Sadly, the state-mandated demolition of numerous monastic residences has been underway at Larung Gar since July. For the most up-to-date information, visit Radio Free Asia. For more photos and a short essay on the importance of Larung Gar, see my “Why Larung Gar, the Buddhist institute in eastern Tibet, is so Important” on The Lion’s Roar.

Monks circumambulating the Jutrul Temple at Larung Gar, photo by Holly Gayley.

Himalaya Issue on the Secular in Tibet

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Nicole Willock and I co-edited the May 2016 issue of Himalaya on the theme,  “The Secular in Tibetan Cultural Worlds.” The issue examines Tibetan responses to secularism in diverse geographic contexts from Himalaya to Central Asia with contributions by Tsering Gonkatsang, Matthew King, Leigh Miller, Emmi Okada, Annabella Pitkin, Françoise Robin, Dominique Townsend, and the co-editors. Our introduction, “Theorizing the Secular in Tibetan Cultural Worlds,” discusses the categories of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in Tibetan discourse as they emerged historically and places them within the context of the varieties of Asian secularisms. My own article, “Controversy over Buddhist Ethical Reform: A Secular Critique of Clerical Authority in the Tibetan Blogosphere,” examines the blogosphere debate over ethical reform inaugurated in eastern Tibet by Larung Buddhist Academy.

Cover of Himalaya 36:1, artwork by Dedron (Luciano Benetton Collection).