Go Green with Compassion

Speaker: Venerable Zhi Tong

FGS Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to all Dharma friends around the world. I’m Miaozang from Fo Guang Shan Hsi Fang Temple, San Diego. Today is October 1st, which is also the World Vegetarian Day, and kicks off October as Vegetarian Awareness Month. To celebrate this event, I would like to share the topic “Go Green with Compassion” with you today by discussing Sutta 55 from Majjhima Nikaya. This sutta highlights the development of vegetarianism, focusing on the right intention and embracing the practice of compassion in our everyday diet.

Many of us might have question on why Chinese Buddhism emphasis on vegetarianism and how this practice develops over time. This all happened 2600 years ago.

II. Three Instances Which Meat Should Not Be Eaten

On one occasion, when the Buddha was living at Rajagaha in the Mango Grove. Jivaka, who was the Buddha’s personal physician, asked the Buddha about the three instances in which meat should not be eaten. The Buddha explained,

“Jivaka, I say that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard, or suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat should not be eaten in these three instances…”

As we know, during Buddha’s time, all monastics went from one house to another for food everyday. They catered to the local customs when begging for alms and giving people the convenience of offering what they had. They accepted what was given, not differentiating between meat and vegetables but having a mind with equanimity in receiving the food offered. Thus, the Buddha does not require his disciples to observe a vegetarian diet, stating the meat may be consumed if they are confident that the animal has not been slaughtered specifically for them. This is also known as “pure in three aspects,” because it is not seen, heard, or suspected to come from an animal killed specifically for the monastics. However, one should not kill or harm others.

How and why most of the Mahayana Buddhist monastics observe vegetarian diet? When Buddhism was first introduced in China in the 1st century, alms begging was not feasible due to the local customs, climate and the environment. Eventually, the monastics settled in monasteries to share the Dharma. Living in a monstery means facilities like kitchen and storage became available. Thus, the practice of going for alms begging gradually evolved into having meals at the temples. When this adaptation was made, vegetarianism that advocates the practice of compassion was made possible.

During the reign of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, which is around the first half of the 6th century, the emperor laid down the rule that all Buddhist monastics must adhere to a vegetarian diet and abstain from alcohol. In his famous article, “On Abstinence of Meat and Alcohol,” the emperor describes how abstaining from meat is a compassionate practice which all Buddhists should follow. Furthermore, the practice of vegetarianism was also influence by Confucius, and this practice was well received by many until today. The Confucian once said, “Having seen [the animal] alive, how can one bear to see it die? Having heard its noise, how can one bear to eat its flesh?” Hence, vegetarianism became a daily practice for the Chinese monastics.

III. Cultivating an Immeasurable Mind

In this sutra, the Buddha continues,

“Here, Jivaka, some bhikkhu lives in dependence upon a certain village or town. He abides pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; so above, below, around, and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he abides pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.”

When we accept food from others, we should be grateful for all the efforts put into preparing the meal. We should not give rise to hatred or ill will to the giver.

Our intention of eating is to nourish our physical body. No matter how our loved ones cook for us, we try to give rise to a mind of loving-kindness and appreciation. Everything comes about only when there are the right causes and conditions. Thus, cherish what we are given. It might not easy sometimes but if our mind is filled with ill will, what will happen to our body?

IV. Eating with Gratitude

The Buddha continues,

“Then the householder or householder’s son serves him with good almsfood. He [Bhikkhu] does not think: ‘How good that the householder or householder’s son serves me with good almsfood! If only a householder or householder’s son serves me with such good almsfood in the future!’ He does not think thus.”

How would we usually react when we were served delicious food? Most of us will appreciate eating and we might give rise to thoughts of having seconds. Sometimes, we might also get carried away by the greed for the taste and keep repeating this reaction mindlessly. Thus, it is important for us to have reminders to ourselves.  In Fo Guang Shan’s dining hall, there is a couplet that says, “A bowl of congee or rice comes arduously,” reminding us that we should appreciate whatever we receive by others.

In addition, we have the practice of the Five-Meal Contemplation in every meal. The Five- Meal contemplation is as follows:

  1. Assess the amount of work involved, weigh up the origins of the food.
  2. Reflect on one’s own moral conduct, perfect or not, take this offering.
  3. Safeguard the mind against all errors, do not give rise to hatred or greed.
  4. Regard this food as good medicine, so as to treat the weakened body.
  5. In order to accomplish the Way, one deserves to accept this food.

This contemplation constantly reminds us to appreciate all the work involved in preparing the food, observing our daily conducts to align with the Dharma, no focusing on the taste of food but the nutrients from the food will help sustain our daily practices.

Even though Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastics no longer practice alms-round, we have formal Buddhist meals everyday where all practitioners receive what are given in bowls and plate and dedicate merits to the donors and all efforts being put into this meal. Before the meal, we say our prayers by offering the meals to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and patrons and conclude our meals with the Meal Completion Verse.

In today’s society, many people opt to have vegetarian meals for many reasons, like compassion for animals, health, global warming issues, and etc. I’ve included a few people whom you might have known in different countries who opt to be a vegetarian. According to the Research Gate data, there are an estimated 1.5 billion vegetarians globally, which is about 22% of the world’s population.

If you haven’t tried a vegetarian meal, you can pledge to have one “Meatless Monday” or any day which is convenient for you. By doing so, not only you practice compassion towards the animals, you will help in the reduction of tree cutting 0.65 tree, reduction of carbon emission by 156 kgs (344lbs), saving 83772 liters (22130 gallons) of water, and reduction of food waste by 1061 kg (2340lbs).  The Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) has launched a website www.vegdays.org, encouraging everyone across the globe to pledge to have vegetarian/vegan meals and you can see for yourself the impact you are making for this planet earth.

V. Conclusion

To conclude, our intention in our everyday conduct matters. Thus, in this sutra, the Buddha reminds us the practice of compassion towards others and a mind of gratitude towards the sharing and offering of others in our everyday meal. Although Buddhism is not against the consumption of meat, its advocacy of not killing demonstrates the equanimity, compassion, and oneness befitting all lives. This is in perfect accord with the modern ideals of environmental preservation and animal protection. Thank you for listening to our weekly Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Service. May the Buddha bless you and family. See you next week. Omituofo.