Contrary to common assumptions, not all Buddhists are vegetarians.
The consumption of meat was not prohibited even for monks and nuns in the early tradition. The Indian monastic codes state instead that monks and nuns may not eat the flesh of an animal that was slaughtered specifically to feed them. The promotion of a vegetarian diet seems to have developed in Buddhism some centuries after the death of the Buddha, and is extolled in such famous Mahaydna texts as the Lankavatara Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra, both of which were very influential in East Asia, where a strict vegetarian diet was required of monks and nuns and encouraged among the laity. In other Buddhist societies, such as Tibet, however, those sutras were also known, but meat was widely consumed by monks and nuns who could afford it.
The promotion of vegetarianism was impeded in China by the pre- Buddhist practice of animal sacrifice (referred to in the translations below as blood sacrifice ’). The killing of animals was a standard element of many ritual occasions, both grand and modest, from imperial commemorations to birthday celebrations. Blood sacrifice was also considered essential for the sustenance of departed ancestors, as well as for placating evil spirits. Thus, Buddhist monks who spoke out against the killing of animals had not only to condemn a venerable practice but were required also to provide alternative means of assuring the well-being of the ancestors and of dealing with evil spirits. Among the many virtuous practices proposed was the vegetarian feast, in which a layperson would invite a group of monks and nuns to a vegetarian meal for a certain number of consecutive days (often seven), with the merit accrued through this offering dedicated to a particular purpose, such as the cure of a family member or the welfare of a departed ancestor. Many tracts were composed on the topic by monks for the laity, two of which, composed five centuries apart, appear here.
The first work is an excerpt from one of the more famous and celebrated of these lay tracts. It is entitled Verses on Resolving Doubts and Replacing Blood Sacrifice with Vegetarian Feasts and Fasts and was composed by the monk Ciyun Zunshi (964-1032). He is revered not only as a reviver of the Tiantai school, but also as an active evangelist of the lay populace, renowned for his efforts to promote vegetarianism. He compiled a number of Buddhist ritual tracts and homilies that were designed to convert the local populace from traditional forms of blood sacrifice to Buddhist observances. His work takes the ancient Chinese form of questions and answers. He begins with questions about ghosts, the evil spirits who were said to haunt those who did not offer them blood sacrifices. Do such ghosts exist? He answers that ghosts do exist; the realm of ghosts is one of the places of rebirth. However, they cannot harm humans. Instead, they seek to frighten humans into making offerings to them by causing supernatural events (anomalies’); such events should simply be ignored. Some may assume that a sacrifice is efficacious because a negative situation ended after its performance. However, this is simply coincidence; it is virtuous deeds done in the past (and not the sacrifice of animals) that bring about present happiness. Once convinced of the sinfulness of animal sacrifice, one would naturally be concerned about all of the negative karma one and one’s family had accumulated in the past prior to learning that it is an evil practice. How can such karma be eliminated? In a section of the text not included below, Zunshi counsels each household to produce a handwritten copy of the Sutra of Golden Light, enshrine it in the home, and make offerings to it, dedicating the merit of doing so to the animals slain. If the members of the family recite the names of the three jewels and recite the name of the sutra, they will be safe and their prosperity will increase.
The second work, simply entitled Tract Against Taking Life, was composed by Yunqi Zhuhong (1535-1615), the author of the rite for releasing life that appears in the previous chapter. Zhuhong’s tone is very different from that of Zunshi. Instead of citing Buddhist texts against blood sacrifice, he proceeds through the various ordinary occasions in which it is common to sacrifice an animal: a birthday, the birth of a son, an offering to the ancestors, a marriage, a meal for a guest, to avert calamity, or in the occupation of a hunter or butcher. In each case, he provides a reasoned argument why killing is unnatural and inappropriate. His essay concludes, as many such tracts do, with an admonition to the reader to disseminate the tract widely, describing the many benefits that will result for all concerned.
Verses for Resolving Doubts about Replacing Sacrifice with Vegetarian Feasts and Fasts
Recently we have seen many people turn from rites of [blood] sacrifice and vie to cultivate meritorious blessings through vegetarian feasts and fasts, or choose to give up meat and desist from taking of life in favour of true faith and recitation of the Buddha’s name. Truly this is an extraordinary thing! Yet among these persons there are some who, not yet knowing what makes the difference between benefit and harm, perversely set out to undermine [their faith], claiming that sacrifice [to the local gods] historically came first among the common people. Others say that vegetarian fasts and the observance of moral precepts cannot deliver one from crises. When they spy other people keeping a vegetarian diet or reciting the Buddha’s name, they question how future generations [of descendants] could possibly benefit from wholesome karmic roots acquired through individual restraint of the mind and listening to accounts of good and evil retribution. Persons whose faith is not yet deep end up being misled and confused by these [people], so that many lapse from their initial resolve.
Here I have drawn clear proof from the scriptures in order to resolve their doubts. I have also composed homilies to go along with them, so that people may remember them easily. They should rely on these sincere and true words and not believe in depraved and heterodox preachings. And yet, faced with the fact that ordinary people’s doubts and speculations are beyond count, I have here merely distilled the essential ones and sketched out briefly a set often verses [four of which are translated here].
First Doubt: Do ghosts exist or not; and [if so] can they cause fortune or misfortune?
Explanation: The sutras teach that ghosts or demons constitute one of the six realms [of existence]. How could one think that there are no ghosts? The Agama sutras state that all inhabited places such as houses, streets, alleys, paths, city wards and markets, as well as [abandoned places] such as graveyards and mountains, are filled with ghosts, demons and spirits. However, they cannot visit benefit or harm on human beings.
The Sutra of the Parables states that ghosts and spirits of this world can neither kill people nor extend their lives. Nor can they bring people wealth and nobility, poverty or meanness. However, taking advantage of a person’s degenerate or base character, they will create awe-inspiring anomalies in the hope of obtaining sacrificial offerings from them. If one seeks good fortune [through such practices] it will definitely never come. But incognizant of the fact that such practices are pointless, common people are easily taken in, some [going so far as to] kill living creatures and commit evils [in the hope of realizing blessings from the spirits]. The verse reads:
Ghosts and spirits are to be found everywhere,
Tricking and deceiving ordinary people.
Offering sacrifices to ghosts brings no blessings whatsoever,
But merely increases the evil karma of killing other creatures.
Second Doubt: Even today one finds people who have obtained relief from illness and calamity through offering [blood] sacrifice. How can you say that it brings no blessing or good fortune?
Explanation: The poverty, illness, natural calamity and blessings that are experienced by ordinary people are all the product of [karmic] cause and effect. They are not something that ghosts or demons can effect. The misfortune that the ghosts and demons do cause people is invited on them by the spurious seeking brought on by their own depraved religious beliefs. The Treatise on Distinguishing the Orthodox says that older ghosts teach new ghosts to create anomalies in order to obtain food [from sacrificial offerings]. Initially they will go to one or two households [and create disturbances]. If a household worships the Buddha its members will not place any credence in these anomalies. Later [the ghosts] may enter a household given to depraved beliefs, causing its white dog to rise up and move about in the air. The family considers it an extraordinary event, kills the dog, and sets it out as food [for the spirits]. Through means such as this [the ghosts] obtain nourishment.
You should know to have faith in the Buddha and not put your trust in anomalies. Should anomalies occur, just recite the Buddha’s name with concentration, and the anomaly will disappear by itself. The verse reads:
With correct faith in the protection of the gods and dragons
What can depraved spirits possibly do to you?
If you simply know to maintain mindfulness or recitation of the
Buddha Disasters and anomalies will vanish of their own accord.
Third Doubt: After a member of one’s household has died, will they or will they not obtain food and nourishment [in the afterlife] through [the practice of] sacrifice?
Explanation: If one falls into the realm of hungry ghosts, in some cases one will be able to obtain nourishment through sacrificial offering. But if one is reborn among the flamingmouthed hungry ghosts one will be unable to obtain food even if sacrifice is offered. The Agama sutras say, ‘If one distributes offerings to one who has died, the deceased will be able to receive them if he or she has been reborn among the hungry ghosts. But if [he] has been reborn any place else, he will not.’ The different species of creatures within the six realms of rebirth experience [physical] retribution differently. When parents die how could they unilaterally be born as hungry ghosts? Not recognizing this fact common people offer sacrifice to them exclusively. This is pointless in the extreme. The verse reads:
When a person dies, he rises or sinks among the six destinies
Depending on the valence of his prior deeds.
What good does it do [to] make offerings indiscriminately
When the ordinary person is utterly ignorant of the deceased’s rebirth?
Fourth Doubt: The practice of [blood] sacrifice is discussed widely in the [Confucian] classics of ritual. Shrines for seven generations of ancestors are specified for the emperor; shrines up to five generations for marquises [and other feudal lords].
Ministers of state and scholar officials, down to the commoners, all likewise engage in sacrifice. From the round [dome of the heavens] and the square [quarters of the earth] to the hills and the swamps, [offering sacrifice to] the gods above and below has always been the accepted norm of the state. How can you urge people to give up sacrificial offering? Won’t this do terrible harm to the customs of our land?
Explanation: The rites of sacrifice come from profane religious texts. The idea of prohibiting the practice of [blood] sacrifice is based on the Buddhist scriptures. The profane religious texts have yet to avoid the problem of taking life. The Buddhist scriptures place sole esteem in [the values of] loving-kindness and compassion; if one takes life or does harm to others, one will suffer retribution in the three muddied destinies. By practising lovingkindness and compassion myriad virtues are ultimately realized.
By persuading them to renounce evil for good and leading them from the shallow to the profound – this is how the Buddha delivers living beings. At no point have things ever been different from this. Having now become a faithful adherent of the Buddha’s teaching, it is proper that one practise the Buddha’s lovingkindness. It is not permissible to go on killing sentient beings and still call oneself a disciple of the Buddha.
To make matters worse, the vulgar people of today do not confine themselves to offering sacrifice to their ancestral forebears. There is no spirit or god that they won’t worship. Truly this can be called ‘excessive cult’. When one does not even cultivate [Confucian] luminous virtue but only engages in rituals that involve taking life it is pitiful in the extreme. It is difficult to exhaust this subject in such a brief discussion, but it is for this reason that Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty ordered that the realm give up sacrifice and put an end to the taking of life. How can one claim that this esteeming of Buddhism is something unique to the present day? Fortunately we have the orthodox and excellent blessings of vegetarian feasts, the practice of which is perfectly suited to the task of benefiting the deceased, and will also enable one to avoid doing harm to other creatures. Why should one belabour oneself with future misery by clinging to the [Confucian] ritual canon? The verse reads:
For want of slaughtering an ox one is ashamed of the [lowly] yue sacrifice,
[Thinking that] sorghum or millet are in themselves not sufficiently fragrant.
Vegetarian fast and recitation [of scriptures] are the true bright virtue [of which the Confucians speak].
Why cling so stubbornly to the [Confucian] canons of ritual?
Translated by Daniel Stevenson from Ciyun Zunshi, Gaiji xiuzhai jueyi song, from Jinyuan ji, published in [Wanzi] Xuzangjing. Facsimile reprint of Dai Nippon zoku zokyo. (Taiwan: Xinwenfeng chuban she), vol. 101, pp. 125a-127a.
Tract Against Taking Life
When ordinary people of today eat meat they consider it justified as a natural principle of things, and so they indulge freely in taking life, accumulating extensive karma of resentment and ill- will. Through mutual habit it soon becomes customary, to the point where people are no longer aware that it is wrong. People of former times had a saying, ‘when something is truly painful you will weep and wail endlessly with grief’. This truly fits the case. In order to point out how deludedly attached [we have become to this practice] I have sketched out the following seven points. Any other applications can be inferred from their example.
Whatever has sentient awareness must share a common substance [tongti], so people’s [habit of] eating meat is a very strange thing, indeed. Yet, through received family practice, the idea to not regard it as strange eventually becomes the norm. Neighbouring villages begin to imitate it, and it becomes common custom. Once its practice has been customary for so long, people will not even be aware that it is wrong but instead think it is right. Isn’t this stranger still?
If a person today were to murder a human being and eat him, it would be a shocking thing, indeed, and the offender would be summarily put to death. Why? Because it is not a customary practice. Should murder not be prohibited, after a few years of this sort of practice the world would be filled with households whose kitchens were stocked with human flesh. Thus I say that, when the whole world kills by custom and does not awaken to the error of it, this is what we mean by ‘something so painful that one weeps and wails endlessly with grief’.
Point one: Birthday celebrations are not suitable occasions for taking life. [The Book of Odes says] ‘how grievously our parents suffer in order to give us life’. For the hour that our own life begins marks another day that they slide towards death. On such an occasion it is right [zheng] to refrain from taking life. Instead one should keep a vegetarian fast and sponsor virtuous activities in order to ensure that parents already deceased will achieve speedy salvation or to increase the blessings and extend the lives of parents still alive. How could one be so callous as to forget a mother’s pain and take the life of living souls? Above, the sin accrues to your parents, and below, it provides no benefit to you. The fact that the whole world engages in this without realizing its wrong can surely be considered something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief.
Emperor Taizong of the Tang was lord and master of ten thousand chariots, but on the occasion of his birthday he still would not engage in celebrations. Old men from the neighbouring fields gathered bushels of grain, and guests offering felicities filled his gate, providing festivities that went on for days. However, he never thought himself entitled to it. When there are birthdays today, some people choose to provide meals to monks, recite sutras and do good deeds – they are the virtuous ones!
Point two: It is not right to kill living creatures in order to celebrate the birth of a son. Nearly everyone is sad when they don’t have a son and is happy when they do have one. They do not stop to think that every bird and beast also loves its son. How could one rest comfortably with the idea of celebrating the birth of one’s own child by causing the death of another’s? When a child comes into the world they don’t strive to accumulate blessings for it, but instead create evil karma through taking life. It is the height of stupidity, indeed! The fact that the whole world engages in this without realizing its wrong could be considered a second example of something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief.
There was a hunter who one night became exceedingly drunk. When he spied his young son he mistook him for a roebuck. He sharpened his knife and prepared to kill him. His wife pleaded tearfully with him, but he would not listen. Finally he slit open the boy’s abdomen and took out his intestines [as though to dress his carcass]. When he was finished he went peacefully off to sleep. At the break of day he awoke and called for his son to go to the market to sell the roebuck meat for him. His wife, weeping, said, ‘The creature you killed last night was your own son.’ The father flung his body [to the floor] and his five viscera burst into pieces [at the grief]. Alas!
Humans and animals, different though they be, are united in heart by the love for their children. How could one condone killing?
Point three: It is not appropriate to take life in order to make sacrificial offerings to ancestral forebears. On death anniversaries, and at the spring and autumn grave-side offerings, one should refrain from killing in order to provide blessings in the netherworld. Taking life in sacrificial offering merely increases [evil] karma, nothing more. When the eight precious objects are arrayed before you, how are you ever going to raise their bones from the nine springs and enable them to eat it? This kind of offering is utterly without benefit, and in fact causes harm. Those who are wise do not engage in it. The fact that the whole world engages in this without realizing its error is surely a third example of something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief.
Some say that Emperor Wu of the Liang replaced live animal sacrifice with dough. The world jeered at his refusal to allow the royal ancestors to partake of blood offering.
Alas, bloody foods are not necessarily precious. Vegetarian foods are not necessarily evil. In discharging one’s [obligations as] a son, it is far more noble to neglect the offerings to ancestors for assiduous cultivation of one’s person. This is true goodness. Why must we hold to the idea that sacrifice necessarily requires use of blood? [The Confucian Classic of Changes and Record of Rites claim] that to perform the [lowly] yue sacrifice [which uses nothing but millet] is superior to slaughtering an ox [under inappropriate ritual circumstances]. If we are ready to alter received inclinations in the interest of clarifying [moral] instruction, then animal sacrifice should be seen as more unfilial still. [Even] the [Confucian] sages commended this line of reasoning.
Why must one cling to the idea that sacrifice requires the use of blood?
Point four: In marriage celebrations it is not appropriate to take life. From the preliminary rite of asking names, to betrothal and, finally, to the wedding, innumerable creatures are killed for these ceremonies. Now marriage is the beginning of reproduction of human life. To practise taking life at the beginning of life is simply contrary to principle. Moreover, marriage rites are auspicious rites. To use inauspicious actions on an auspicious day, isn’t this also cruel? The fact that the whole world engages in this practice without realizing its error, surely this could be considered a fourth example of something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief?
Whenever a person gets married, it is required by custom to offer prayers that the husband and wife will grow old together. But if we wish [human couples] to grow old together, does this mean that animals wish that they should die first? When a girl is sent off to her husband’s house in marriage, her household does not extinguish [her] lamp for three days out of grief for her departure. But if we consider mutual parting to be a painful thing, are animals to consider parting a happy thing? You should firmly believe that it is not right to take life on the occasion of marriage.
Point five: It is not appropriate to take life in order to entertain guests. When you have a timely occasion with lovely setting, a virtuous host and honourable guests, even vegetarian fare and a broth of greens will not hinder the pure rapport. What need to destroy so many lives in quest of rich and exotic [flavours]? People gorge themselves from cup and tray to the music of reed pipe and song, as butchered animals scream on the chopping block. Alas! Could anyone with a human heart be so insensitive as this? That the whole world engages in this without realizing its error, surely this is a fifth example of something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief?
When you know that the creatures on your tray come, struggling and squealing, from the chopping block, then you are making their extreme anguish your greatest delight. You would never be able to get them down, even if you tried to eat them. Is it not [the height of] insensitivity?
Point six: It is not appropriate to take life when praying to avert disaster. When ordinary persons are faced with a crisis they kill animals in spurious offering to the gods, all in the hope of seeking blessings and protection. They do not consider the fact that through their sacrifices to the spirits they themselves hope to avoid death and seek life. This amounts to taking the lives of others in order to seek extension of one’s own. Nothing is so contrary to heaven or so in violation of principle as this. Now, if the gods become gods by being upright and correct, since when would the gods be so selfish? Life surely cannot be extended [by blood sacrifice], and the evil karma of taking life remains in its stead. The multitude of perverse cults are all of this sort. The fact that the whole world engages in it without realizing its error, surely this could be considered a sixth example of something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief?
The Sutra of the Medicine Buddha says, ‘If you slaughter animate beings in order to dispatch petitions to the gods or to invoke lowly sprites, all for the purpose of seeking blessings and protection in the hope of extending your life, in the end it will come to naught.’ This is what we mean by saying that life cannot be extended and that evil karma remains in its stead. When followers of perverse and depraved cults take life to seek sons, take life to seek wealth, take life to seek office, should they happen to obtain sons, obtain wealth, obtain office, in all cases it is something that is determined by one’s karmic endowments and not something brought about by demons and spirits.
And yet, when people find their prayers fulfilled, they rush about claiming that such- and-such god is potent. Their faith becomes even firmer; their practice more fervent than ever; and their depraved views blaze like a conflagration, to the point where nothing can save them. It is pitiful to the extreme!
Point seven: It is not appropriate to take life in order to make one’s living. In the quest for food and clothing, some people may take up hunting, others fishing, others the slaughtering of oxen, sheep, pigs, dogs in order to make food and clothing, all with the thought of obtaining a regular livelihood. And yet, I find that persons who do not engage in such professions still have clothing and still have food to eat. By no means are they fated to die of exposure or starvation. To make one’s living by taking life is something that in principle is condemned by the gods. There is not one person in a hundred who has received prosperity and divine help from killing. On the contrary. There is no more certain means than this when it comes to planting the seeds for [rebirth in] the hells and evil retribution in lives to come. How could you face such pain and not seek a different livelihood? The fact that the whole world engages in this without realizing its error, surely this can be considered a seventh example of something so painful that one weeps endlessly with grief?
I have personally seen butchers of sheep who, on the deathbed, have made bleating sounds from their mouths, or the heads of eel-sellers writhe and gasp like eels as they near their end. These two events took place right in this very neighbourhood, so they are not a matter of hearsay. I tell you people that, if [you] have no other means to make a living, it is far better to beg for your meals. To live by killing is no match for bearing your hunger and dying of starvation. How could you not restrain yourself?
The points laid out above go strongly against common sentiment. But when religiously accomplished persons peruse them they are sure to consider [them] sound reasoning. Should one be able to keep the precept[s] in full, there is nothing better than this. But for those who are not up to it, they should assess their abilities and reduce [their sins] as best they can. Perhaps they can foreswear four or five such occasions for killing, or prohibit two or three. With each activity eliminated, one occasion for karmic sin is abolished. By taking one less life, they forestall [the creation of one more] knot of resentment. If you are not renouncing fresh meat altogether, then at least you should begin by buying [prepared] meat from the market and not slaughter it yourself. In doing so you will also avoid great transgression. As you build up and nurture a heart of loving-kindness you will gradually enter a truly wonderful condition.
Persons who obtain this tract should strive to pass it on repeatedly to others, thereby promoting one another’s mutual reform. If you are able to encourage one person to renounce killing, it is equivalent to actually saving [the lives] of a million creatures. Encourage ten or a hundred persons [to give up killing] and it will reach to a thousand or ten thousand millions. Your unpublicized good deeds will be vast, and the rewards you reap will be inexhaustible. But you must embrace this practice with faith and absolutely not be deceptive about it.
With each new year you should write out the names of the twelve months and paste the sheet on the wall of your room. For each month that you refrain from taking life, write the… words ‘I did not kill’ beneath the respective month. If you refrain from taking life for one month, it constitutes a lesser or inferior good. If you refrain from taking life for a whole year, it amounts to a middling level of good. If you avoid killing for an entire lifetime, it is the highest degree of good. If, for successive generations, [a family] refrains from taking life it is the most excellent of moral excellences. I pray that all will refrain from taking life, and that household after household will observe vegetarian fasts. The buddhas will be filled with joy, and the myriad gods and spirits will extend their protection to you. Armed conflict will for ever cease; punishments may never need be applied; the hells will be emptied; and people will for ever depart from the causes [that produce] the ocean of miseries.
Translated by Daniel Stevenson from Zhuhong, Jiesha wen, from a longer tract known as Jiesha fansheng wen, in Lianchi dashi (Zhuhong), Lianchi dashi quanji (Taipei: Dongchu chubanshe, 1992), pp. 3345-54.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.