What Are the Health Implications of Buddhist Vegetarianism?


Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD

Special RHACS Introduction: This is an English translation of a contemporary (2015) Chinese language research article concerning the issue of the convention of Buddhist vegetarianism in China.  As a section of this research covers ageing in the body-cells, the content of the article is also relevant for Daoist practice.  This is an example of ancient Buddhist (and Daoist) thought being proven ‘correct’ through the rigours of modern science.  Of course, even if there was no science (in the modern sense) behind the practice, genuine practitioners would still be motivated by a pure compassion (and loving kindness) toward all living beings (and especially animals) as a reason to abandon the eating of meat.  This attitude agrees with that of the great Ch’an monk – Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) – who adamantly believed that effective and correct Buddhist practice (that has the power to enlighten both the individual and society in general), stems entirely through the observation of the Vinaya Discipline as received in China from India.  As within the Ch’an tradition there is no real difference in essence between the laity and monk-hood (although each performs a specific function within society), it is incumbent upon the Monk-hood to set a strong example through their virtuous and moral conduct, which the laity must emulate or even transcend. ACW 2.8.2016

Translator’s Note: This is an English language translation of the original Chinese language text entitled ‘佛教素食养生带给我们哪些启示?’, which has been rendered ‘What Are the Health Implications of Buddhist Vegetarianism?’.  It was issued in 2015 by the Shanxi Buddhist Network (PRC). The research in both the West and the East agrees that a vegetarian diet is better for human health and development than a meat diet.  This contradicts the propaganda of the meat industry that treats animals appallingly, and injects their bodies with copious amounts of anti-biotics, food dye, and water, in an attempt to make the raw meat appear appealing to the consuming public.  As vegetarianism is far more nutritious than meat-eating, the current assumption within evolutionary thinking – that meat-eating somehow facilitated a new and advanced state of human development – must surely be questioned, and be brought into closer scrutiny, as it seems illogical to assume that a less nutritious diet (i.e. meat-eating) would have a transcendent evolutionary effect above and beyond the already established and more nutritious diet of vegetarianism.  Although this article is primarily from a Chinese Buddhist perspective, it has important connotations for the Daoist diet known as ‘bigu’ (辟穀), or ‘avoiding grains’.  Bigu avoids eating any cooked food, meat and the ‘five grains’, as a means of expelling ‘hot’ qi energy from the body.  This article quotes modern research linking the consumption of rice, to rising acidic levels in the blood, which is thought to accelerate ageing and encourage cancer.  ACW 1.8.2016

Since the transmission of Indian Buddhism into China during the Han Dynasty (221–206 BCE), the principle of vegetarianism (素食 – Su Shi) has been considered a core element of Buddhist culture.  From the Buddhist perspective, the practice of vegetarianism is the ‘Way’ (道 – Dao) of good health.  Buddhist vegetarianism forbids the consuming of food referred to as ‘Hunxing’ (荤腥).  The Chinese ideogram ‘荤’ (hun1) refers to meat and fish.  It also refers to strong smelling herbs such as onions, leeks, or garlic, etc.  The Chinese ideogram ‘腥’ (xing1) refers to raw or undressed meat that smells strongly of blood, or of strong smelling fish.  When taken together and used within the Buddhist context, the concept of not consuming ‘荤腥’ (hunxing) refers to not eating raw or cooked meat and fish, as well as the five strong smelling (or pungent) herbs (such as spring onions, leeks, shallots, chives and garlic).  The former prohibition (against meat and fish) is premised upon the Buddha’s compassion and loving kindness towards all living beings, whilst the latter probation (against the five pungent herbs) prevents desire rising within the blood, and the Buddhist monastics causing trouble to themselves or other people.

As stated, Buddhists are prohibited from eating meat, fish and pungent herbs in China, but within the teachings of early Indian Buddhism, there are a number of reasonable exceptions to the rule of upholding a strict vegetarian diet.  For instance, ancient Indian Buddhist monastics could partake in the eating of the ‘Three Clean Meats’ (三净肉 – San Jing Rou’).  The Buddha instigated this rule because his ordained monks and nuns had to sustain themselves by begging their food from the laity (who could be rich or poor).  A monk or nun had to remain indifferent to whatever was placed in their bowls, which sometimes included left-over scraps of meat. The Buddhist monastics could eat this ‘pure’ offering if the animal concerned had not been killed in their presence, killed with their knowledge, or killed specifically to feed them at an earlier time.  These are the three ‘pure’ conditions that allow meat-eating within the early Buddhist rules.  In poor areas, many people had very little to share with the Buddhist monks, and so would give a little leftover meat.  If the monks did not eat this meagre offering, they would die of starvation.  However, if any one of these conditions was not met, the meat would not be considered ‘pure’ and could not be eaten.  In fact, this tradition is still followed by the Buddhist monastics of the Theravada School, which is prevalent in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and amongst the ‘Dai’ (傣) ethnic minority which lives in China’s Yunnan province.  Within Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet and China, as well as Inner Mongolia, the Buddhist monastics do not beg, but as they often live in harsh conditions or poor areas, they participate in meat-eating.  It is only within the Han Dynasty transmission of Indian Buddhism into China, that the ‘Three Pure Meats’ tradition was not upheld.  Instead, the Mahayana School emphasised compassion for all living beings, and as China already had a very well developed agricultural system, the eating of meat was completely forbidden for all monastic Buddhists, and expected to be followed by all members of the laity.  By 551 CE, the natural conditions were such, that devout Mahayana Buddhist Emperor Liang (of the Wu Dynasty), issued an edict ‘Prohibiting Drinking Wine and Eating Meat’.  This strict system of vegetarianism was applied throughout Wu Dynasty China for the spiritual and physical health of the nation.  Given China’s long history of Buddhist vegetarianism, it would be beneficial to research the effects of such a diet upon the human body.

Section One: A vegetarian diet is rich in nutrition.  To healthily survive, the human body needs a regular intake of sugar, fat, protein, multivitamins and minerals, and so on, and all this can be obtained from a vegetarian diet.  Sugar is present in many plants and fruits, and so is readily available.  Altogether, there are 13 types of fats and fatty acids, but a meat diet only contains 6 as animal fats.  On the other hand, a good vegetarian diet contains all types.  This includes vegetable fat and unsaturated fat, which can increase bile acid secretion, and cause a reduction in cholesterol build-up.  This helps to avoid heart disease and various vascular disorders.  Many people are concerned about the protein content of a vegetarian diet, but within plants, its content is high.  This is particularly true of soy protein, the content of which is more than twice that found in pork, and nearly triple that found in eggs. Not to mention ample amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Professor Chen Ruisan (陈瑞三) of Taiwan National University Hospital spent two years visiting 49 Buddhist temples, analysing the blood content of 249 Buddhist monastics.  He compared these Buddhist vegetarian blood results, with the blood results taken from 1057 meat-eaters.  This research arrived at three broad conclusions:

a) Vegetarian cholesterol content was very low, and incidents of high blood pressure was seldom observed. As a consequence, there was little evidence of heart or vascular disease.

b) Malnutrition was not observed amongst the vegetarian population.

c) Vegetarianism did not cause anaemia, but when vegetarians were compared to meat-eaters, meat-eaters, as a distinct group, suffered higher levels of anaemia than do vegetarians.

(This research result appears to be mirrored in America, as in 1991, the US government strongly advocated a new combination of basic foods including: whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits. Later, the US Department of Agriculture announced: in a variety of ways, a nutritious vegetarian diet can achieve ‘recommended national dietary standards’.)

Section Two: Vegetarians tend to be very smart and mentally agile.  In the Classic book entitled ‘Great Sustaining Rites Record’ (大戴礼记 – Da Dai Li Ji), it states: ‘Those that eat meat are brave and fierce, whilst those who eat fruit and vegetables are clever and wise.’  According to the scientific findings of brain physiology, the activity observed in the human brain is the consequence of two interacting (bio-electrical) chemical forces – one pole positive and one pole negative – which continuously collide (and fall away) within the physical structure of the brain cells, creating the conditions for the process of instantaneous ‘self-aware thought’ (思考 – Si Kao) to arise.  This (evolutionary) process has resulted in the highest development of human perception through the function of ‘rational thought’ (决定 – Jue Ding).  However, for the positive and negative bioelectrical chemical reactions to create the function of ‘thought’ in the brain, the brain cells require ample and continues supplies of crucial nutrients, such as glutamic acid, vitamin B and oxygen, etc.  However, whereas whole grain and legumes are abundant in glutamic acid and vitamin B, meat, by comparison, contains only very small amounts of these substances.  Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have reported similar findings, healthy eating, especially of whole grain foods, has the effect of facilitating the combination (in the brain cells) of positive and negative biochemical reactions that are linked to the production of ‘thought’.  Not only this, but when this process receives ample nutrition, an enhanced sense of peace and tranquillity is experienced by the individual.

The late Mr Zhao Puchu (赵朴初), for instance, the devout lay-Buddhist scholar, and former President of the Chinese Buddhist Association, was a vegetarian throughout his life, and lived into his 93rd year.  Not only was he physically fit at that advanced age, but his thinking processes reminded clear and sharp.  This fact may well explain why many philosophers, writers, artists, scientists and celebrities are vegetarians, and why vegetarianism is highly recommended.

Section three: A vegetarian diet may fight cancer, as being able to prevent and treat many other diseases. Blood plays a pivotal role in the health of the body, and according to medical research, good blood should be slightly alkaline, and rich in calcium, potassium and other minerals. By comparison, animal foods tend to make the blood more acidic, whereas most plant foods contain many more minerals.  A vegetarian diet makes the blood become slightly alkaline, and in so doing contributes to good health.  However, there are exceptions, such as in the case of rice which can contain more phosphorus, and turn the blood acidic.  According to the research of Professor Pian Laidan (片濑淡) of Japan’s Osaka University, when the blood is continuously acidic, the body cells begin to age, and there is the risk of the development of cancer, whereby the growth mechanism of the cell begins to malfunction.  To prevent and control the development of cancer cells, it is preferable that the blood is slightly alkaline.

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.

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