The confluence of Karma and Hygiene: Vegetarianism with Renewed Meanings for Modern Chinese Buddhism
From the 1920s onward, Master Taixu, the prominent monastic leader known for his reformist stand, came to be an endorser of a product, 和合粉, a gourmet powder. His advertisement of the product appeared in both secular press, such as Shanghai News 申报, and in Buddhist periodicals like The Sound of Sea Tide 海潮音. This interesting linkage between a Buddhist monastic, the press, and a seasoning product advertised to vegetarians denotes the intricacy of vegetarianism as a discourse standing at the crossroads of the Chinese tradition and a modernizing society. Vegetarianism, a practice closely associated with but not solely monopolized by Buddhism, is a prism reflecting the entangling issues of the emerging scientific rationale, the preservation of the Buddhist practice, and the fusion of a Chinese tradition with Western progressive ethos. My article hence explores discussions that took place in the Buddhist periodicals regarding vegetarian practice, and illustrates how the confluence of scientific rationale and the continued Buddhist karmic argument ultimately renews the discourse of vegetarianism in modern China.
Taixu’s advertisement for 和合粉 captures some of the key themes in the renewal of Buddhist vegetarianism discourse in modern China: (1) the emphasis on the benefit of vegetarianism from a Buddhist morality perspective while criticizing the consumption of meat, (2) the illustration of the scientific and industrial manufacturing processes, (3) and employing the term “evolution” to justify the superiority of the product. These themes frequently appeared in the promotional texts for vegetarianism in the Buddhist periodicals closely associated with Taixu.
(An Advertisement of 和合粉 in The Sound of Sea Tide, 1932-09-15)
(An Advertisement of 和合粉 in Shanghai News, 1925-08-16)
However, besides embracing the vogue trend of scientific reasoning, the Buddhist masses were more concerned about their day-to-day religious practice. Therefore, represented by Yinguang and Dixian, another cluster of Buddhist authors in the periodicals resorted to the karmic argument and personal experience to justify the practice. The emphasis on the daily practice came with innovation as well, exemplified by the promotional campaign for a vegetarian soap. Yinguang was one of the main initiators, and his disciples, such as Desen 德森, made great efforts to continue the campaign after Yinguang passed away in 1941. This vegetarian soap movement infused the karmic discourse of vegetarianism with a uniquely modern consciousness.
(An Advertisement of Vegetarian Soap on Awakening News Monthly 覺訊月刊, 1949-08-01)
The article finds convergence in the case of Lü Bicheng, who interacted with both Taixu, Yinguang, and Dixian. Lü’s writing frequently appeared in the Buddhist periodicals, through which she introduced the Western vegetarianism and animal protection movements, thus enabling Chinese Buddhists to perceive their vegetarian practice in light of the international progressive ethos. Lü underpinned the rationale of vegetarianism through Buddhist apologetics and evaluated the Western counterpart movement through such lens, coinciding with the vision of the reformist Buddhists, who posited Buddhism as the ultimate solution to their perceived world civilization crisis.
(The Advertisement for Lü’s book The Light of Europe and the Americas 歐美之光 in Buddhist Semi-monthly 佛學半月刊, 1932-01-16)
Essentially, this article argues that various authors, through the Buddhist periodicals, jointly contributed to form a large repertoire of updated interpretations and legitimatizing rhetoric for Buddhist vegetarianism with hybrid characteristics of both modern Western knowledge and traditional meanings, hence resulting in a modern Chinese Buddhist discourse of vegetarianism with lasting influence till this day.