Beggars Can't Be Choosers

Yudofu, traditionally prepared tofu in Kyoto
Within groups of foreigners who have come to Japan to study the culture or history, I am often called upon as a representative of Zen Buddhism to vouch for the delicious vegetarian cuisine served in Buddhist temples. I've sat through not one but two University lecture classes on Japanese culture in which the very well-meaning professors wanted me to explain to the class about shojin ryori, the specialized vegetarian food served mostly in Kyoto. Shojin ryori is like haute cuisine of traditional Japan; it's roots stem from vegetarian temple cooking but it has since evolved into an incredibly expensive collection of delicacies, using only fresh and seasonal ingredients. It's usually served on a red laquer tray, like a work of art, and there will sometimes be dishes which taste like fish or meat but are made from beans and ground vegetables. Tourists and students of Zen both usually want to try shojin ryori at least once while they're in Japan, and so lots of people ask me about it.

These conversations put me in an awkward situation because a) shojin ryori is expensive food for guests, and that's not at all what we usually eat in the monastery and b) the most delicious pork, as well as the only lobster, and the only scallop on the shell I've eaten has been in a Zen monastery.

Because of the precepts that prohibits killing, it comes as a surprise to most people that Buddhist monks and nuns across traditions and cultures are for the most part not vegetarian. Since monks rely on alms, the Buddha and his followers were careful to accept anything that was given to them, to make no distinctions among the kinds of offerings they received. The Buddha wrote specific guidelines and procedures for how to go about begging for food. The reason monks beg in the morning and don't eat in the evening is because it was considered too great of a tax on the local community to beg twice a day; that's why in Zen monasteries to this day, dinner is an abbreviated meal, usually leftovers. The eating habits of monks evolved out of mutual-cooperation with the community that supported them.

This is true still today for monks in Southeast Asia. I've personally eaten several delicious chicken, lamb and fish curries with Burmese and Thai monks (well, not with them, but in the same room). When I did temporary ordination in the Burmese tradition in India, we would eat a big, donated lunch before noon. The villagers would come and donate lots of different kinds of dishes, and the monks would chant a blessing for the lay people. For dinner we'd drink hot lemon water. It's mostly the same practice in the Thai Wat I sometimes visit.

When Buddhism spread to China, it encountered a culture and climate vastly different from India. Unlike in India, the local population had no tradition of almsgiving, and the climate and geography was not suitable for making begging rounds. Because of this, monks had to find different ways to feed themselves, and developed agriculture, kitchens, and cooking practices like those laid out in the Tenzo Kyokun (much of which is based on an earlier Chinese manual). It was in this environment that the first idea of vegetarianism as a specifically "Buddhist" virtue arose.

The Bonmokyo sutra, also known as the Brahmajala Sutra or Brahma Net Sutra, is a Mahayana text from 5th century China, and it is the earliest text I've read that talks about vegetarianism as an actual rule for monks and nuns. I'm not a historian or a scholar so there may be earlier instances of codified vegetarianism, but I'm not sure. It seems that Buddhist vegetarianism arose within a Chinese, Mahayana context in this period.

When Buddhism went to Japan, though, everything went to hell. Sorry! I shouldn't say that. If I'm trying to be fair and scholarly I should probably say something like, "Specific historical factors and cultural elements caused the foreign importation of Buddhism to blend with the local religions and customs to create a syncretic mix of native and foreign which served the needs of the Japanese people at that particular moment in history etc. etc. etc."

When Dogen Zenji was writing Zuimonki in 13th century Japan, it was still expected that Buddhist monks and nuns remain celibate and avoid eating meat. Dogen writes very explicitly about "pure" and "impure" types of food for monks-- impure food being not only meat, but any food that has been grown within the monastery on a farm or purchased. Across Buddhist sects in Japan, monks and nuns were prohibited by law (meaning the government's law, not just monastery law) from eating meat and getting married. However, this changed in in 1872 when the government ended the mandatory ban on marriage and meat eating (nikujiki saitai). There's an entire book written about this called Neither Monk Nor Layman, which is a very good historical account of the changing government legislation. Most historians agree that the government lifted the ban to reflect what was already an obvious trend of clergy having sex and eating meat, though specific monks I've talked to in Japan believe it was a government conspiracy to weaken the legitimacy of the Buddhist clergy. Probably both reasons are true.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying: I eat meat. So does every teacher I've had in Japan, and now that I think of it, so does every single Japanese monk or nun I've met in my entire life. When meat shows up in a monastery it's usually because it's donated. Eating, like everything else, is a practice and a discipline. When people refused to eat certain things, I often heard senior nuns say, "Taberu mo shugyo desu": eating is a practice, too. It's actually an incredibly transformative practice to eat whatever you are given, with gratitude, without distinguishing. The monks and nuns I've asked to explain the practice of meat eating usually tell me that like the followers of the Buddha, monks and nuns in Japan eat what's been offered to them, no matter what it is. Basically, beggars can't be choosers.

Shojin ryori in Kyoto
So I was surprised by my reaction this week to an invitation I received to go out to dinner at a specific sushi restaurant with my Japanese language class. We're having an end of the semester party at a restaurant where you catch your own fish. When I heard that the restaurant's specialty was "do it yourself killing," I immediately knew I was not comfortable with that.

I've eaten every kind of meat imaginable in a monastery and out, but I draw the line at killing my own food. I suppose you could argue that it's more "morally responsible" to kill your own food than just buy it at the supermarket without knowing where it came from, but at least within the context of Buddhist monasticism, receiving meat is not a violation of the precepts. But killing a live animal definitely is.

I've noticed that in the West, Buddhist centers and monasteries have for the most part adopted practices of vegetarianism. This is probably good, because among other reasons, eating meat is terrible for the environment. I'd like to stop eating so much meat, but at least in Japan, it's incredibly difficult to avoid meat altogether. I think it's important to eat what's there-- especially in a monastic context when that meat is donated, or if you are a guest at someone's home.

I'm not sure what to do about this dinner party. I'm going to call the restaurant and see if they have vegetarian dishes, or failing that, some fish that's... uh... already dead ("Hi. Excuse me, I'm a Zen nun and I'm wondering, do you sell already dead sashimi? K thanks."). A friend suggested that I get somebody to "donate" me their fish, but I wouldn't want to inconvenience my friends in that way especially because the dinner costs about $25. But I do know that I won't be killing any fish. It's a wonderful practice to accept what's being offered, but what I do with my own money and my own hands is my own choice and my own karma.

P.S Speaking of begging, I'm still supported entirely by donations and scholarships, so I encourage you to donate using the paypal button on the side. I paid my summer tuition today; it was scary and a whole lot of money.


  1. The Laṅkāvatāra Sutra is pro-vegetarian and it is maybe/probably older than the Brahmajala Sutra.


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