Article 1 of 7 Virtues and imperfections of Beer-Chang

The Dispute between Tea and Chang.


The Dispute between Tea and Chang  is a classical Tibetan text[1]. Personalised by two female godheads, the Tea and the traditional Tibetan Barley Beer (chang) confront each other in a verbal joust. The dispute concerns the primacy of one beverage over the other regarding their compliance with the Buddhist moral virtues. Each boasts the support it gives to human engaged in the Buddhist Path of liberation : strength, wisdom, insight, concentration of mind, etc.

A Tibetan king, who was in doubt about the legitimacy of drinking beer for human beings, stirred up this dispute. He will also have to arbitrate it, in accordance with Buddhist canons.

This text was written at the beginning of the 18th century by Bon Drongpa, a Tibetan scholar and wise minister serving Sangye Gyatso (1653-1705), regent of the 5th Dalai Lama. Bon Drongpa is the author of numerous šastras, a Sanskrit term denoting a treatise or a compilation of technical knowledge. In the Buddhist tradition, a šastra comments, explains, discusses an idea or a matter exposed by the Buddhist sutra initial corpus[2]. A šastra remains a secondary text given to clarify the pillars of the Buddhist faith. It can take the form of a story, a didactic tale or a fable, but always carries a Buddhist moral or teaching. It does not aim at simple popular wisdom. Bon Drongpa composed other tales, one of which was written in 1726-1727 and takes as its didactic theme fews animals and birds.[3].


Nature and source of the Dispute

The contradictory debate between Tea and Chang refers to the rule of abstinence from alcoholic beverages forcefully expressed by the historical Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) for the benefit of his disciples, monks and those seeking Enlightenment. This rule will never be extended to the whole secular society. It was relaxed or reinforced according to schools, places and times, but always reaffirmed as a precept of religious life and spiritual quest. In the 7th century, the late introduction of Indian Buddhism in Tibet does not alter this precept of renunciation. It gives the debates surrounding its application a particular twist because the consumption of beer (chang) is a very ancient Tibetan tradition which precedes by far the Lamaic Buddhism among the Tibetan peoples[4].

La Dispute also tells us about the measure and intelligence of things: each beverage will want to exile the other, abolish its use, or even make it disappear. Worse than the excesses of tea or alcohol, the intemperance of the mind is condemned by Buddhism.


A royal dilemma about beer

The Dispute between Tea and Chang is set in the royal court of Rje Rangrig Gyalpo ( King Lord-of-Self-Consciousness), an imaginary king in the unspecified past of Tibet. The sovereign offers a banquet, a common social activity of Tibetan royal courts. In addition to the king, two spirit-geniuses or female entities intervene: one personifies Tea (Tibetan ja/tsa), the other Beer, the Chang (Tibetan čan), the traditional cereal beer (barley, wheat, millet or rice) of the peoples living in the Tibetan highlands and the Himalayas. The Tibetan king is also a religious leader and guardian of the Buddhist Doctrine.


Aristocratic assembly and beverages in Ladakh
Frescoe in the temple at Alchi, Ladakh 9è siècle, Dro clan tied to Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055)


At the very moment of serving the beverages, the king wonders whether the consumption of beer-chang is still, despite the tradition, in accordance with the Buddhist canons of self-control. " If someone drinks too much chang, one might feel delight for a short period, but later on one's mind is certain to become clouded. It seems chang brings only displeasure, therefore even I should limit myself in drinking it. But if others want to drink, I will not restrict them. Nevertheless, I will never encourage them to abuse chang. Perhaps I should order the chang to be replaced by tea? " (Dispute trans. Fedotov & Sangye Tandar Naga, p. 3).

The doubts are formulated in accordance with the sutras relating to abstinence from alcohol and above all the practical cases provided for by them (General History / Buddhism). A practical and moral difference is drawn as to the abuse of beer. Protecting oneself through knowledge of the intoxicating effects of chang-beer and self-control does not prevent one from indirectly inflicting this excess on others. If the king possesses knowledge (drinking beer leads to intoxication) without the power to curb the excesses of his Tibetan subjects, he is guilty in the eyes of Buddhist morality.

Hence the dilemma. The hospitality of the court cannot be restricted. The king, generous by function, cannot banish the chang from the palace. But the king-defender of the Buddha's Doctrine should command that tea should replace beer, at least among the monks.

Coming from China, tea made its appearance on the Tibetan plateau between the 10th and 11th centuries. The Tibetan caravanners barter skins and wool for tea from the merchants of Yunnan in the East. The tea is suitable for monastic communities who take a vow of abstinence from alcohol. Tea is valued for its medicinal properties. Soon adopted by the booming Tibetan royal power, the import of tea bricks became a mean to collect taxes for the royal treasury. The monasteries also financed and even organised commercial caravans between the eastern and central regions of Tibet. Over the centuries, tea made its way into the monasteries and palaces of the Tibetan kingdoms. It competes with the very ancient beverage of the Tibetan people, the chang of the barley, wheat and millet farmers. The beer-chang accompanies every moment of their lives: family reunions, village festivals, agrarian rituals, birth, marriage, funerals. Beer and milk are the two traditional beverages of the country.

Bon Drongpa composed his šastra at the beginning of the 18th century, but it echoes the debates which agitated the Buddhist communities of Tibet a few centuries earlier. They concern the freedom to consume fermented beverages in the vicinity of royal houses and among the religious communities that flourished in Tibet. The text places the Dispute in the distant past, inside the palace of Daljor Lhundrub Tse in the Bagchag Nangwa city. The king must arbitrate the Dispute and legislate from a Buddhist point of view. His decrees demonstrate his vast knowledge of Buddhist traditions and his profound Buddhist wisdom - that of Bon Drongpa indeed.


[1] Fedotov Alexander, Sangye Tandar Naga Acharya, The Dispute Between Tea and Chang. Ja-chang Iha-mo’I bstan-bcos by Bon-grong-pa, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA), 1993.

[2] A sutra refers to the putting in writing of the oral teaching of the Buddha. There are several of them: Lotus Sutra, Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Sutra of the Buddha's garland ... Sutra means "thread" in Sanskrit: thread of thought, but also weft of the threads composing the Teaching.

[3] Published in Tibetan Didactic Tales on Animal and Bird Themes, by Damchoe Sagpoe, 1978-79.

[4] The life of Jetsün Milarepa, wise and great Tibetan mystic living in the 11th century, is enamelled with reference to the beer-chang. It is part of his familiar universe and is not banned from the religious practices of his time (Milarepa or Jetsun-Khabum. Life of Jetsün Milarepa. Translated from Tibetan by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup. Edited by Dr. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, French translation by R. Ryser, 1980). "Tibetan People" in the broadest sense at a time when the Tibetan empire of the 8th century, long before the writing of the Dispute, dominated almost all the Himalayan highlands and foothills, from the sources of the Indus River to the fringes of China, i.e from today Kashmir and Ladakh to Sichuan.

Article 1 of 7 Virtues and imperfections of Beer-Chang