Food is embedded with cultural meaning beyond the physical need of survival. The most significant historical factor to prompt vegetarian practice arises from the integrated essence of Confucius’ “curbing desires” and Buddhist’s “compassion for all sentient beings.”
Shih De-Yin and Yu-Mei Tsai
The Tzu Chi College of Technology launched an international exchange program to promote a vegetarian diet and Tzu Chi sign language musical performance in March 2011. Thanks to an invitation by the Ming Ai (London) Institute, the delegation presented lectures on a vegetarian diet, Buddhists food rituals, and sign language musicals to local audiences in London, including the University of College London, Hult International Business School, Westminister Academy, Wembley High College of Technology, and the Reading School, as well as the Islington Chinese Association. One Croatian graduate student at the Hult International Business School shared her comments on the lecture topic “Vegetarian Diet as Spiritual Sustainability,” stating that she was curious to learn why a vegetarian diet would give rise to spirituality.
Spirituality, if defined in simple words, refers to the mindfulness of reaching suffering beings. Recently, global warming effects have caused tremendous disasters around the world that we, as human beings with spirituality, feel empathy towards suffering to take action to help relieve suffering. In order to elevate or sustain higher spirituality, a vegetarian diet is considered an important nutrient.
A common expression for spirituality in Chinese carries the lexical essence of “mind,” “heart,” and “soul,” which echoes the wholesome view of spiritual intelligence, as indicated by the school of transpersonal psychology. The contents of spirituality vary from existential meaning, mission, feeling sacred, justice, compassion, service, goals, feeling interconnected, etc. A religious motif to practice vegetarian diet, as Buddhists address, highlights an empathy with the animals being slaughtered, and that no killing is the expression of compassion, a spirituality transcending dietary craving.
As more global disasters strike more frequently due to the greenhouse effect, the issue of livestock farming has become controversial as too much farming land and rain forest are used to raise cattle for the meat industry. Ironic scenes show starving people in developing countries, such as Haitian and African people, in sharp contrast to overweight people in developed countries, such as American and European people. In addition, warming gases, caused by water and electricity to process the excrement and meat of dead bodies, is a leading accomplice to irreversible global warming as meat demands continue to grow. Therefore, meat products and a meat-based diet encourage meat cravings, which denigrate the spiritual feeling of being connected to other forms of being, and consequently lead to more environmental disasters caused by warm gases of animal excrement and farming facilities.
Chinese and Western Vegetarian Cultures
Food is embedded with cultural meaning beyond the physical need of survival. The most significant historical factor to prompt vegetarian practice arises from the integrated essence of Confucius’ “curbing desires” and Buddhist’s “compassion for all sentient beings.” Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (502-549 A.C.) wrote On Abstention from Wine and Meat that all monks and royal people must practice a vegetarian diet, while ordinary people mainly relied on grains and vegetables, whereas, the dignitaries had access to meat dishes. A common luncheon in traditional Chinese society serves eight different vegetables (called Ba Su in Chinese) and seven different stinky vegetables (called Chi Huen in Chinese). The Chinese character “Su” means “vegetables and fruits,” and the Chinese character “Huen” means “strong smelling vegetables.” Buddhist monastic practitioners not only shy away from meat, but also culinary cooking of onion and garlic. According to Buddhist scriptures, the five forbidden stinky vegetables refer to onion, garlic, leek, hotbed chives leek, and Chinese bulbous onion, which monastic practitioners should not consume in order to maintain a peaceful mind and pious disposition.
Ancient Greek philosophers, like Pythagoras of Samos (570–495 BC), practiced a vegetarian diet out of the reincarnation belief that a spirit after death might be reborn into the animals’ dead bodies. In modern Western societies, after the Industrial Revolution, people promoted a vegetarian diet from the different perspectives of economic interests, ethical motivations (animal welfare or environmental), and health concerns of nutrition. Three common vegetarian dietary behaviors are vegans (i.e. strict vegetarians who abide by religious doctrines and eat vegetables, fruits, and beans, but avoid all animal products), lacto-vegetarians (i.e. vegetarians who eat vegetables, fruits, beans, and dairy foods, such as cheese, but omit eggs), and lacto-ovo-vegetarians (i.e. vegetarians who eat vegetables, fruits, melons, grains, dairy foods, and unfertilized eggs).
New Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle
During the time when Taiwan encountered the SARS epidemic (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, the fact that the corona virus originally found in pigs and chickens were transferred to humans awakened the public to the bad karma caused by humans’ harming living beings, to the proliferation of epidemics. Tzu Chi volunteers followed Master Cheng Yen’s teaching and launched a fasting month in May 2003, which has been practiced in Taiwan and Malaysia ever since. Campaigns included encouraging the public to sign up for vegetarianism on the web site and a series of prayer gatherings. In the following year, Master Cheng Yen elevated the simple concept of a vegetarian diet to a comprehensive change in lifestyle intertwined with spirituality, health, environmentally friendly, and cultural significance. This so called “New Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle” encompasses vegetarian eating focused on health concerns, spiritual cultivation, environmental responsibility, and the cultural heritage of art. Creative mnemonic chant rhymes were composed to promote the campaigns.
Pledge of the New Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle
Broaden your mind and try something NEW
Eat more fruits and vegetables to stay HEALTHY
Respect Life and become a VEGETARIAN
Dine with etiquette to create a new LIFESTYLE
Pledge of the New Food Plan
Try eating foods that are less salty, less sugary, and less oily.
Do not smoke, drink, or do drugs, and do not eat meat or seafood.
Do not be picky, and do not waste food.
Pledge to Create New Habits
Say no to disposable utensils, and bring your own—it is more sanitary and environmentally friendly.
When eating with others, use serving utensils.
Using and cleaning your own dishes and utensils is not only hygienic, it can help keep infectious diseases at bay.
Pledge to Set New Goals
Be healthy, and eat more vegetables, fruit, and fiber.
Stay slim and fit, and eat foods with less sugar, less fat, and fewer calories.
Eat regularly and in smaller portions.
Speak softly and gracefully.
Remember to chew thoroughly and swallow slowly, because each morsel of food comes from the hard work of many individuals.
What seemed to touch the audience watching Tzu Chi delegates performing sign language musical and food rituals was the atmosphere of feeling serene, attentive, and graceful, which bears a mirror image reflecting one’s mindfulness and goodness. The ultimate goal of a sign language musical performance is to extend the graceful performance experiences to the daily life practices of walking, sitting, standing, and lying, which showcases the cultural significances of etiquette and elegance attributable to spirituality through the pledge actions under the New Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle. Where there is spirituality, there is etiquette. More specifically, spirituality is born with a controlled appetite of “less salt, less sugar, less oil, no alcohol, no beetle nuts, no meat, no seafood, no excessive eating, no picky eating, no greedy nature, and no wastefulness,” as claimed by the New Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle. A controlled appetite means a humble attitude towards the collective efforts to produce food, such as planting, harvesting, manufacturing, and cooking. One of the pledges calls for abandoning the use of disposable utensils, which is a reminder of hygienic and resource concern that we carry our own bowel, cup, and chopsticks. A mindful reflection of nature and humans making a meal possible would help nurture feelings of gratitude and piety, which consequently acts out dignified movements, such as holding a bowel as a pearl in a dragon’s mouth, and holding chopsticks as a phoenix lowering the head to drink water. Accordingly the disciplines of a partly full stomach, or silent eating, or mindful chewing during the food ritual are also considered expressions of gratitude and piety, and direct the body to perform respectfully, and the people involved to use our own utensils.
As industry and manufacturing technologies thrive, food production is conveniently accessible and food consumption becomes impromptu. Yet the 2011 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization produced disturbing statistics of 1.3 billion tons of food wasted around the world every year, whereas, the starving population is approximately 10 billion. The alarming contrast of food waste and food demand between developed countries and developing countries demands urgent attention. If we can remind ourselves of starving people when about to throw food away, we would not so easily dispose of food, have leftovers, or buy more than we can eat. The disciplines emphasized in the food ritual reveal the moral to cherish food and the related chain of efforts of food production. Rituals are performed as salient expressions of morality and spirituality, that food is less material, and more spiritual energy to cultivate gratitude, respect, and love.
Meal Service as a Blessing
The popular mnemonic rhyme during the meal service chanted by Tzu Chi volunteers reads “a pearl in a dragon’s mouth, a phoenix’s lowering the head to drink water,” symbolizing the gesture of holding a bowl and chopsticks is very much like the nobility, as the dragon and the phoenix carry auspicious messages. Dharma Master Cheng Yen teaches Tzu Chi volunteers to practice a blessing during meal service; the middle finger of the left hand touches the end tips of chopsticks as back up to keep chopsticks from slipping, while the middle finger of the right hand lifts up the head tips of the chopsticks. At this time, the right hand is seen as the head of the phoenix and the chopsticks are seen as the peaks of the phoenix. To pick up the bowl, you may hold the chopsticks to lift up the bowl at the bottom, keeping the bowl from slipping. In the meantime, you use the four fingers, not the thumb, of the left hand to scoop the bowl. At this time, the left hand is seen as the dragon’s mouth and the bowl is seen as a pearl. The meal service presents a dignified act of eating, a cultural practice, as well as the art of eating. During Tzu Chi luncheon functions; serenity and table manners are the top principles to practice mindfulness and feel spiritual so that the food energy will be prompted to inspire good intentions and good deeds. Meal service is elevated into a higher level of spiritual blessing.
Dharma Master Cheng Yen also reminds the Tzu Chi volunteers to practice the Five Contemplations at meal time, following the Buddhist Meal Ritual. The purpose of chanting contemplations is to curb excessive eating and to cultivate spiritual mindfulness.
The first contemplation is to count merit and appraise the sources, meaning self examination, whether there are any contributions to help the world, as well as a grateful mind to the people preparing the meal and producing food.
The second contemplation is to assess personal virtues, whether perfect or deficient to deserve the bestowal, meaning self examination, whether there are more contributions than others involved in food production and meal preparation. Therefore, one should feel shameful because one does not work hard enough to help the world.
The third contemplation is to guard his/her mind against one’s own faults, greed in particular. It means one should self examine, whether one has accomplished virtues in that one must be mindful of disturbing thoughts of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and suspicion.
The fourth contemplation is to have the right thing and good medicine for curing a weakening body. It means one sees each meal as medicine to provide treatment to the physical needs of the body.
The fifth contemplation is to receive this food in order to accomplish spiritual work, meaning the purpose of having the meal is to absorb the nutrients from the food to produce and sustain physical strength to accomplish work demands. Therefore, one needs to have each meal with a peaceful mindset.
Although the five contemplations reveal the Buddhist principles showing etiquette and humanity, the manner of holding a bowel and chopsticks reveal a disposition of grace and gentleness, and more importantly, the moral of compassion and an artistic temperament of group discipline, which showcases the impact of humanistic education, family harmony, and social etiquette.
In conclusion, the New Healthy Vegetarian Lifestyle promotes a cultural practice of education, hygiene, and group aesthetics, where health and spirituality are beautifully integrated. Vegetarianism and meal etiquette are closely related to spiritual cultivation, in that humanistic mindfulness is the core essence of etiquette in vegetarian practices.
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