Chinese Vegetarianism: Buddhist Roots

Following The Path

If you want to lead them to the Buddha's wisdom,
first you ought to give them something good to eat!

- the commentary of Tripitaka Master Hua on The Sixth Patriarch's Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra

Although, in the minds of many, vegetarianism is commonly associated with Buddhism, the link is far from absolute. Of the two major lines of Buddhist practice, Northern School (often called Mahayana and chiefly in India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan) and the Southern School (often called Hinayana and practiced in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka), only Northern School scriptures expressly forbid the eating of flesh. Also, vegetarianism is not a standard practice in Tantric Buddhism, which includes Vajrayana Buddhism practised by Tibetans - e.g., H.H. the Dalai Lama does not practice vegetarianism (But that's changing: see UPDATE below).

The new emphasis on Buddhist vegetarianism arose in 3rd century India under the Gupta kings, who were worshippers of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Ascetics following Vishnu were required to abstain from animal food of any kind. Thus, Buddhist scriptures of that time presented a sort of 'moral parity' argument: if those on a lesser path forbid meat, shouldn't we?

When the Chinese Fa-hsien visited India early in the 5th century, he found that in the whole of the Middle Country 'the people abstain from taking life. They drink no wine nor do they eat onions or garlic...they do not breed pigs or poultry or sell any animal food' . The earliest prohibition against meat is found in the Mahaparinirvana sutra (3rd century). The theme is expanded in the Lankavatara sutra. Fa-Hsien returned to China with these scriptures, which were then translated to Chinese.

In 507, the Buddhist Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty convened a conference to discuss the question of meat-eating. He also, wrote an essay entitled "Forsake Alcohol and Meat" in which he urged Buddhists to become vegetarians. Emperor Wu is traditionally said to be responsible for the institutionalization of vegetarianism in Chinese Buddhism.

Today in Hong Kong and Singapore though full-time vegetarianism is not common, vegetarian restaurants are often full on "prayer days" - the first and fifteenth of the Chinese month (usually corresponding to the dates of the new and full moons, respectively). Taiwan hosts a number of Buddhist sects that emphasize vegetarianism and run vegetarian eateries (the most well-known is The International Supreme Master Ching Hai Meditation Association). These groups have found recruits throughout Southeast Asia.

10/2005 UPDATE - feedback from a well-informed source:
> Oh! And another outdated factoid is at
> http://www.headcity.com/uptown/bigmouth/hungry/chinese/middle.html ,
> where you talk about the Dalai Lama not being vegetarian. The update
> is that over a year ago he switched to eating veggie every other day,
> and last April he made a public statement that he has now returned to
> being 100% veggie (as he was before he got Hepatitis years back). He
> has also stepped up his gentle, non-judmental pro-veggie advocacy. On
> a related note, all the Gelugpa Tibetan monasteries in India have now
> transitioned their mess halls to veggie fare.
REFERENCES

Text mostly derived from Waley, Arthur, "Did Buddha die of eating pork? : with a note on Buddha's image"

Art taken from "The Enlightenment Of Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin (Avalokiteshvara)" and "Guan Yin in White Clothes".

More of Fa-Hsien's account of his visit to India: "...they only have their right hands cut off."


Last Updated: 25 Oct 2005