Vegetarianism – An Intergral Factor of Spiritual Practices in Asia

Taoism

The word “Tao” is derived from a Chinese character meaning “The Way” or “The Truth.” Taoism is a search for a Universal Truth, and Taoists primarily follow the teachings of the philosophers Lao Tse and Mencius, as well as paying homage to Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mohammed. Taoists are vegetarians in accordance with the teachings of nonviolence to other living creatures. In fact, Taoism considers vegetarianism to be essential for the progression of spiritual maturity.

“So is the superior man affected toward animals that, having seen them alive, he cannot bear to see them die, and having heard their dying cries, he cannot bear to eat their flesh. This is the nature of true benevolence.”
-Mencius

Many Taoists love to eat a variety of cooked mushrooms in their meals. On one occasion in Hong Kong, my husband and I were invited to dinner by some Taoists who lived in a small village that could only be accessed by rowing a boat across a lake. The village was at the foot of a tall, imposing mountain and looked just like a scene from a Chinese painting. Our friend’s wife greeted us shyly and served a feast of mushroom preparations with rice. When it was time to leave, our Chinese friend rowed us back across the lake. It was late at night by now and the full moon rays were picturesquely dancing across the surface of the lake. It was then that we both realized that unfortunately there must have been a few magic mushrooms picked and cooked in the meal because we had never seen such colorful fish playing under the surface of the water and swimming around our little boat! Does this account for the smiling faces of some Taoists?

In Malaysia I was invited to a Taoist temple that had many young students training there. I spoke with them about the understanding of the form of God. Taoists teach that God is Truth and Universal Love, but formless. Lao Tse, the founding father of Taoism, taught this formless understanding of the Supreme, but toward the end of his life he came to realize that inside this formless white light was the form of God. He was just starting to be able to perceive the form of the Supreme Lord that is the source of the light.

These students had never studied this aspect of Lao Tsze’s teachings. We then talked about other great teachers that Taoists recognize, such as Jesus Christ and Mohammed, who directly spoke of the Supreme Lord in His personal aspects. In the Bhagavad Gita, which the Taoists respect as a guiding light to inspire men, the Supreme Lord Himself says:

“I am the basis of the impersonal Brahman.”
-Bhagavad Gita 14:27

Buddha is famous for His teaching of ahimsa (“himsa” means “acting violently to any living creature” and “a” means “non” or “the opposite of”) and therefore vegetarianism is embedded in Buddha’s teachings.

There are countless vegetarian restaurants in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Many Chinese respect the vegetarian diet, but unfortunately not all are successful in practicing it. As a result, it is traditional in these societies that on the 1st and 15th day of each month many will be vegetarian and on those days the vego restuarants are more crowed than usual.

Although Chinese people know it is pleasing to Buddha to be vegetarian, some try to justify their eating of meat by saying that when Buddha’s monks went begging for food, they were instructed by Him to eat whatever they were given even if it included meat.

But in fact, in the Buddhist scripture Mahaparinirvana Suta, Mahadasyapa asked Buddha, “When we beg and are given vegetables mixed with meat, can we eat this food? How can we clean the food?” Buddha replied, “One should clean it with water and separate the vegetables from the meat; then one can eat it.”

Hinduism

Hindus are instinctively vegetarians. This is because in the Vedic scriptures, from which Hinduism is derived, the Supreme Lord states that He will accept only vegetarian foods that are offered to Him with love. This is why if you visit a Hinud temple you will see only vegetarian foods such as milk, bananas, rice and coconuts being offered to their Deities such as Lord Vishnu.

Respect for all forms of life is encouraged in the Vedic scriptures to the extent that the cow is revered throughout the land and is allowed to roam the streets at will. What a sight it is to see them proudly walking down the street wearing a flower garland! For the person who condones the incarceration, maltreatment, and eventual slaughter of cows for his personal eating pleasure, this must be difficult to understand.

Even Hindu political leaders speak on spiritual life and vegetarianism. Shri Morarji Desai, who was the prime minister of India in 1977, explained the relationship between spiritual life and vegetarianism very nicely:

“Great cultures of the past have become only a matter of interest to the archaeologists. They have fallen when they became too materialistic, acquiring all manner of material things but neglecting the spirit. Not that matter doesn’t matter. But spirit must be given priority. Vegetarianism helps people to think of these things.”

Sikhism

Sikhism is a combination of aspects of Hinduism and Islam. The Sikhs we knew in Malaysia were a friendly, fierce, family-loving people.

Sikhs practice vegetarianism and always offer their guests delectable vegetarian sweets and a cooling drink. Their temples are the center of their community and they regularly gather there in great numbers, where the men prepare huge vegetarian feasts in the largest pots I have ever seen. This food is distributed to anyone who comes along.

Islam

When I lived in Malaysia, an Islamic country, I read many books about Mohammed and Islam as well as the Koran.

Many Muslims are not vegetarians, but on examination of their scripture Al-Koran and their Sunnahs (sayings and practices of their Prophet, Mohammed), one can see that there are restrictions placed on the meat they can eat.

In Islam, everything, including food, is categorized as Halal (permissible), Haram (prohibited) or Mukruh (disapproved but not prohibited) according to instructions in the Koran.

The prohibitions (Haram) placed on the eating of meat are comprised of four major and ten minor categories, which are summarized in verses 3 and 4 of the 5th surah (chapter) of the Koran:

“Forbidden to you are the flesh of dead animals and blood and the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to any other than Allah, and that which has been killed by strangling or by beating or by falling or being gorged, and that which has been (partly) eaten by a wild beast except that which you make lawful by slaughtering (before its death), and that which has been sacrificed to idols…”

With regard to instructions on foods that are permissable (Halal), vegetarian foods are described as being most suitable for those who are introspective:

“Therewith He causeth crops to grow for you, and the olive and the date-palm and grapes and all kinds of fruit. Lo! Herein is indeed a portent for people who reflect.”
-Koran 16:11

“And on the Earth are neighboring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands, and date-palms, like and unlike, which are watered with one water. And We have made some of them excel others in fruit. Lo! Herein verily are portents for people who have sense.”
–Koran 13:4

“And of the fruits of the date-palm and grapes, whence ye derive strong drink and (also) good nourishment. Lo! Therein is indeed a portent for people who have sense.”

“And thy Lord inspired the bee, saying: Choose thou habitations in the hills and in the trees and in that which they thatch. Then eat of all fruits, and follow the ways of thy Lord, made smooth (for thee). There comes forth from their bellies a drink diverse of hues, wherein is healing for mankind. Lo! Herein is indeed a portent for people who reflect.”┬áKoran 16:66-69

Only in those verses regarding the eating of fruits, vegetables and honey are the words “for those who reflect” used. In the other verses regarding the eating of slaughtered animals, this phrasing is not included. Intelligent, introspective people are clearly being encouraged to eat vegetarian foods.

Vegetarianism has been part of the religious heart of Asia for thousands of years. Even in the comparatively short history of the developing Western civilization, there have been many wise men echoing the same timeless truths to be found in the wisdom of the East. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Origen, St. Augustine, St. Francis, Albert Schweitzer, Leo Tolstoy and Leonardo da Vinci were just some of the numerous men who helped define Western philosophy. All these great philosophers listed, as well as others, were vegetarians.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote:

“Whatever my practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

What you have in your mind?