Chinese Buddhists Don’t Eat Meat. Can They Convince Others to Do the Same?
Every Saturday evening, the monks of Wenshu Monastery in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu offer visitors of all faiths a seat at their table. The sumptuous — and free — spread comprises dozens of dishes, from Sichuanese staples like the hot pot-esque maocai and boboji skewers to dumplings, steamed buns, congee, and drinks. In keeping with the tenets of Buddhism, all the dishes are strictly vegetarian and are cooked without the “five pungents,” or wuxin, including onion, garlic, and chives.
Founded by one of Wenshu’s monks in 2018, the weekly dinner is an attempt on the part of the monastery to promote the vegetarian lifestyle. It goes hand in hand with the monastery’s free vegetarian cooking program, itself started by a monk in 2009. Students in the class prepare the weekly meals under the watchful eyes of their teachers, who pay as much attention to their state of mind slicing vegetables as the shape of the slices themselves.
Western-style vegetarianism and veganism have become a global phenomenon in recent decades, as eaters wake up to the health and environmental costs of the meat on their plate. Yet meat consumption continues to rise, especially in developing countries like China. A 2023 report found that 57% of Chinese eat meat regularly, higher than in much of Europe, though still lower than the United States.
Not everyone is committed to the carnivorous lifestyle, however. Curious about China’s own vegetarian traditions, I began researching Buddhist vegetarianism in the country in 2019 before enrolling in Wenshu’s cooking program this spring. The more I learn, the more convinced I’ve become that the practice of Buddhist vegetarianism has much to offer us today — not just to our health or environment, but also to our state of mind.
In the West, vegetarianism is often intertwined with concerns over animal welfare. The ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras advocated a meat-free diet, in part because he believed all animals had souls. In the 1970s, environmentalists advocated for cutting meat to save the planet, while philosophers such as Peter Singer criticized the entire system of modern industrial agriculture as morally wrong.
Buddhist vegetarianism shares some of those concerns, but it is not merely about not eating meat. Historical sources from the 4th century attest to monks cultivating monastery-owned farmland; the earliest written description of a monastery kitchen dates to the 6th century and references daily meals of rice and congee. The “Rules of Purity in the Chan Monastery,” written by the Chinese monk Changlu Zongze in the 12th century, describes the eating habits of monks in greater depth. Purity and frugality were prized, but while their meals largely consisted of rice and congee accompanied by vegetables, monks did attempt to ensure a diversity of ingredients. (Chan Buddhism is better known in English in its Japanese form: Zen.)
Governing these dietary practices was the Brahmajāla Sūtra, which began circulating in China in the 5th century. The sutra established a number of dietary restrictions that remain in effect today, such as the abovementioned ban on the “five pungents,” whose intense flavor rendered the consumer’s body odor impure and might elicit desire.
Over time, monastic vegetarianism gradually transformed into a culinary artform all its own. For instance, during the 6th century reign of Emperor Wu of Liang, the monks at Jianye Temple in the eastern city of Nanjing were said to know how to “transform a melon into several dishes and produce dishes combining dozens of flavors.” Centuries later, the Buddhist Chan master Fanqi wrote a poem describing an elaborate meal of “wild mushrooms violet and ginger red,” carefully presented on “golden plates with jade utensils.” In the 18th century, the Emperor Qianlong travelled in disguise to the Hanshan and Tianning temples to sample their cooking. He preferred the latter, declaring that its “vegetable dishes were particularly delicious, far surpassing even dried venison and bear paws.”
That dichotomy — between simple, frugal meals on the one hand and exquisite delicacies on the other — still exists today. Culinary culture takes two forms in monasteries like Wenshu, depending on the context. The first is bare-bones rice and congee recipes like those described in the “Rules of Purity,” which are part of monks’ daily diet. There’s no menu for these dishes: Cooks simply make what they can with seasonal ingredients, using only oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar for seasoning. The second consists of vegetarian delicacies that are much more complicated to make and more elaborate in their presentation. These aren’t served to the monks, but rather to visitors and benefactors, typically through a canteen operated by the temple, but also on special occasions such as a memorial service for a temple donor.
Monasteries such as Wenshu have incorporated both versions into their public outreach work. In Wenshu’s cooking classes, students learn to prepare both a humble peanut congee and more extravagant imitation fish cooked in fermented bean paste — the monastery restaurant’s signature dish since it reopened to the public in the 1980s. Students also learn vegetarian versions of local Sichuanese delicacies that have become popular nationally, such as boboji, as well as different styles of dumplings and steamed buns. The half-year full-time training program boasts an even more eclectic repertoire, promising to teach students more than 100 “standard Chan monastery dishes.”
The courses mix culinary basics with spiritual guidance. In one class, on knife skills, our teacher had us spend two hours cutting a single potato into strips. “Every slice requires your complete concentration,” the instructor, Liu Li, explained. “Students in the last group hacked the potatoes up without a care, so their teacher made them correct each slice until it was the correct thickness. If you want to avoid that, you have to give every motion your full focus.”
The point of the exercise was not to chop the fastest — finish your potato too quickly and you’ll have nothing to do — or even produce the finest potato strips, but rather to act with intention and enter a meditative state, one slice at a time.
Liu, herself a lay Buddhist and former cooking student at Wenshu Monastery, believes that popularizing Buddhist vegetarianism is one way to make Buddhism more relatable and accessible. The idea is to show students that Buddhist philosophy can be found even in the most banal of things, such as slicing potatoes. Though in any other context it’d be absurd to spend two hours cutting up one potato, in the classroom it helps students to enter a state of tranquility and mindfulness.
The lessons extend beyond the kitchen. Prior to each class, students must wash their hands, burn incense, and recite the Heart Sutra and Ming dynasty monk Zibai Zhenke’s “On Cooking” — the earliest text to expound upon the spiritual principles of cooking in a monastery. In keeping with a roughly millennium-old tradition that monks must earn their meals through daily work, students must also perform voluntary labor in the monastery, such as copying sutras.
The program tends to attract an eclectic mix of students, from middle-aged women motivated largely by a desire to prepare healthier meals for their families to young vegetarians interested in turning their lifestyles into a career. Gu, a former baker, hoped the class would open up a new path in life. “I don’t want to work just to survive anymore,” she explained. “From now on, I only want to do things that are meaningful.”
Other students are devoted Buddhists who jump at any chance to train in a monastery. Many, like Liu, go on to become long-term volunteers or employees for the monastery, or to study Chan tea ceremonies and other Buddhist traditions in greater depth. Of course, there are a few who, after a couple of lessons, realize that it’s not what they’d imagined and quit. As the monastery’s head, Master Yizhi, put it, “Our job is merely to scatter some seeds — whether they ultimately take root depends on where they land.”
Though perhaps not as well-known as its Western counterpart, Chinese Buddhist vegetarianism remains relevant. Its emphasis on the connection between diet on the one hand, and spiritual and moral cultivation on the other, links vegetarianism, not just to modern causes such as environmentalism and animal welfare, but also to age-old spiritual needs. It’s not for everyone, but in the right context, it can be a powerful tool for understanding and connecting with our foods and our world.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Buddhist vegetarian foods for the Hungry Ghost Festival, Chengdu, Sichuan province, August 30, 2023. Courtesy of the author)