Buddhist vegetarianism: the roots

Bodhisattva Helping
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 1

Buddhist vegetarianism: from India to China

Although, in the minds of many, vegetarianism is commonly associated with Buddhism, the link is far from absolute. 2

Of the two major lines of Buddhist practice, Northern School (also known as Mahayana, practiced chiefly in India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan) and the Southern School (also known as Theravada or Hinayana, 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. Up until the early years of the 21st century, H.H. the Dalai Lama did not practice vegetarianism.

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 Buddhist monk Faxian (formerly written as Fa-Hien or 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 3

The earliest prohibition against meat is found in the Mahaparinirvana sutra (3rd century). The theme is expanded in the Lankavatara sutra. Faxian 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.

References

  1. Page 170, "The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, With the Commentary of Tripitaka Master Hua" (English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society)
  2. Text mostly derived from Arthur Waley's 1932 article, "Did Buddha die of eating pork? : with a note on Buddha's image"
  3. More of Faxian's account of his visit to India, from page 53 of "Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, by Fa-Hien" (James Legge translation): All south from this is named the Middle Kingdom. In it the cold and heat are finely tempered, and there is neither hoarfrost nor snow. The people are numerous and happy; they have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rules; only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the grain from it. If they want to go, they go; if they want to stay on, they stay. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances (of each case). Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off. The king's body-guards and attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic. The only exception is that of the Chandalas. That is the name for those who are (held to be) wicked men, and live apart from others. When they enter the gate of a city or a market-place, they strike a piece of wood to make themselves known, so that men know and avoid them, and do not come into contact with them. In that country they do not keep pigs and fowls, and do not sell live cattle; in the markets there are no butchers' shops and no dealers in intoxicating drink. Only the Chandalas are fishermen and hunters, and sell flesh meat.