Food of Sinful Demons

An Interview with Dr. Geoffrey Barstow

Interviewer: Could you tell us about your background and what drew you to the study of Buddhism?

Dr. Geoffrey Barstow: Sure, like a lot of people, I was interested in religious questions from my teenage years onward. In high school, I got into Daoism and New Age religions. I went off to college and wanted to study religion, and I took some classes in Daoism, whatever I could take. At that point, I hadn’t had much exposure to Buddhism, but I had the opportunity to go to India for a month in January of 1999 and spend a month in the Tibetan Institute in Sarnath. That was my first introduction to Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan people, and Buddhist culture.

Interviewer: What was your path to Rangjung Yeshe Institute (RYI)?

Dr. Geoffrey Barstow: When I came back to the US, I wanted to keep up with Buddhism and took all the classes I could. I was studying Chinese, and then during my junior year, I studied abroad in mainland China and went to Lhasa. I then went on the Antioch program, and that’s where I met Rinpoche. During that program, I did independent research and traveled to Kathmandu during the fall seminar. I got hooked on Rinpoche, of course, and the RYI community. I really wanted to stay, but Rinpoche advised me to finish my BA and then come back. When I came back, I entered the BA program in the fall of 2002 and completed it in the spring of 2005. It was a challenging experience, but overall, it was very rewarding. Most of my memorable experiences were about the community. It was a really wonderful thing to be in a community of Buddhist practitioners who were all united in studying and practicing.

Interviewer: How did you like living in Boudha, and what did living there teach you?

Geoffrey Barstow: The thing I got the most out of living in Boudha is the lived experience of being surrounded by Buddhism. Everyone is mostly Buddhist, but they’re also people, and we would go out with our friends for tea and joke around. Now, as a teacher, that is the hardest thing for me to communicate to my students, the sense of what lived Buddhism is like. You go do kora and go to make merit, but you’re also chatting with your friends. For me, that was a lot of what happened; it turned Buddhism into a real thing rather than the abstract proposition you read in a book. It was good to be a part of it. That’s a lot of what I try to communicate to my students. My students can come here in the fall, and really the goal of that is the combination of the classes and the lived experience. They can talk to people and see how people live their lives.

Interviewer: I know you have done extensive research on vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhist traditions, can you say more about this research interest and how you got interested in the topic?

Dr. Geoffrey Barstow: Sure, about two years into my PhD, I was reading Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, and there were several lines in there where he was critical of eating meat. I was surprised by this, as I was a vegetarian myself, but hadn’t met many Tibetan vegetarians at that point. So I became interested in the question of how many vegetarians there had been in Tibet, what they had to say on the matter, and why more Tibetans weren’t vegetarian.  I quickly discovered more texts where eating meat was being criticized in Tibetan literature, but, when I looked into the academic literature, there was nothing on this topic. Since I was vegetarian myself and it was a topic that meant something to me, I decided to explore it further for my research.

Most of my research was in Kham and Sichuan, and I realized that there was a vegetarian movement and Tibetan culture was changing around us. I got to connect with some of the lamas driving that movement and had so many great conversations about the different perspectives on vegetarianism. My time doing fieldwork was a very rich period of my life. I eventually wrote two books on the topic: Food of Sinful Demons and The Faults of Meat.

Interviewer: What is it like introducing these ideas to students who may have never encountered Buddhism before?

Dr. Geoffrey Barstow: I find teaching super rewarding. While some students may be there for a general education requirement, most of them are there out of interest and curiosity. I feel privileged to teach and am happy to have set up a program with RYI. We’ve run three cohorts of students, and all of them have reported that it’s been a great, life-changing experience for them. Seeing the moment when something clicks for a student is incredibly satisfying, and I enjoy introducing these ideas to people who may not have encountered Buddhism before.

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