Home » Excerpts » Queries On Abstention From Killing (& Meat-Eating)

(Upasaka Zhou Anshi was an eminent Qing dynasty Buddhist and author of Anshi Quanshu (安士全書). His masterpiece fully captures the spirit of Chinese Buddhism and the vision of the Buddha and sages.  The 13th Pure Land Patriarch Great Master Yinguang thus printed over three million copies of it.)


Whenever slaughter and death comes calling, it is always a pitiful scene. A human being may not meet violence or conflict for tens of years or even hundreds of years. However, the horror of slaughter happens daily to animals. Everyday, as soon as sunrise, knife wielding butchers loom over livestock while hunters prowl the land. Even though animals cry out for help, their efforts are always in vain. These rakshasas masked as humans repeatedly disembowel and boil, inflicting great pain and suffering on animals of all kinds. It takes only a short span of time for hundreds of millions of animals to lose their lives.

As animals have no recourse against the never-ending slaughter, they must silently swallow their grievances. This leads to a dismal atmosphere of mounting evil karma. Eventually, as the evil karma of killing accumulates to the limit, demon kings will descend into the human realm as a response.

The Chan Master Cishou once said: “As a result of the sin [misgiving] of animal slaughter, violence and wars will break out. Those who have taken life will in turn lose their lives. Those who have maliciously refused to repay their debts will lose their homes in the chaos. Furthermore, those who have destroyed burrows and nests will have their family members scattered. Each sin will result in the appropriate retribution. Thus, do not fail to heed the Buddha’s words.”

Therefore, violence and wars are caused by the evil karma of killing. If we are faced with impending violence or conflict, the only recourse is to abstain from killing. The merits from such abstinence is the most potent and materializes speedily. Other good deeds cannot match it.

Thus, I have composed this scroll of questions and answers regarding non-violence. I wish to answer people’s doubts regarding this matter and convince everyone to abstain from killing animals. Furthermore, I hope everyone will recite Namo Amituofo and dedicate the resulting merits to the consciousnesses of the animals we have killed in the past. We should never again kill. Moreover, we should give rise to the heart of Great Compassion and vow to exercise great forbearance. Henceforth, we should not dare to kill even the smallest creature. I vow that if you do as instructed but are unable to avoid conflict and violence, the Celestial Dragons and Vajra Dharma Protectors may have my head!

 Upasaka Zhou An Shi (周安士居士)

[Selections From] Forty-Eight Queries On Abstention From Killing (戒杀四十八问)

[1] Question: The ancients have said that Heaven and Earth [or ‘Mother’ Nature] are the mother of all living beings, and mankind is the paragon of all beings. Therefore, animals are certainly created by Heaven for the benefit of mankind. Thus, why not kill?

Answer: As Heaven and Earth are the mother of all living beings, all animals are the beloved offspring of Heaven and Earth. No mother can be happy if among her children, the strong bully the weak and the successful exploit the poor. If you eat meat and feel that it is your right to do so, then by this logic, as tigers can eat humans and mosquitoes suck our blood, are humans not created by Heaven to nourish beasts and pests?

[2] Question: If animal slaughter is an offense, why does Heaven not inflict punishment to deter such conduct?

Answer: Heaven is definitely against animal slaughter. Thus, the karmic retributions for hunting and slaughtering are actually numerous and fully visible. However, the foolish fail to heed these warnings and the intelligent willfully refuse to change their behavior. Thus, there is really nothing more Heaven can do.

[For instance, in 1851, a native of Quanjiao County dreamed of a celestial deity who warned him that: “An army is fast approaching your residence! If you do not cease slaughtering animals, you cannot hope to escape death!” After he awoke, he and his entire household burned incense and vowed that they would never slaughter or hunt again. No one breached their vows… except for one dissenting matron. She said to him: “You simply had a dream, we cannot be sure if it is true or not.” A few days later, the violence of the Taiping rebellion spilled into their hometown. Everyone managed to escape except for the matron, who had delayed leaving the family compound and was killed.]

[3] Question: There are so many animals in the world. If no one hunts or slaughters, wouldn’t their populations grow out of control?

Answer: There are plenty of insects and animals that humans do not eat or kill; their numbers are numerous without issue. Furthermore, the reason there are so many beasts and animals is due to the karma of killing. Animal rebirth is caused by the cycle of retribution and revenge. People who kill animals are reborn as animals to even up the debt. If everyone abstains from taking animal life, the karma that supports the realm of animals will gradually dissipate while the ranks of devas and men will increase. For instance, if people do not trap frogs, the population of frogs will decrease. Likewise, if people do not fish for crabs, the population of crabs will gradually decrease. Thus, the laws of karma are quite clear.

[4] Question: If Heaven wishes for mankind to refrain from eating meat, then why isn’t the meat of animals disgusting and foul as a deterrence?

Answer: The truth is that Heaven already considers meat to be foul and disgusting. However, people believe the taste of meat to be delicious — like how maggots revel in putrid feces. As this is a matter of deep-rooted habits, it is difficult to change perceptions. For instance, if a man was a cat in his past life, he would have craved for rodents during that life. Likewise, if a man was a crane in his past life, he would’ve craved for snakes. However, as they are now men, they no longer yearn for rats and snakes. Thus, each body has its own habits. Variations in preferences and habits are due to karma, causes and conditions. Differences in karma, causes and conditions are in turn caused by differing intentions. If people’s hearts and intentions can accord with Heaven’s will, they will naturally understand that meat is indeed foul and disgusting.

[5] Question: There are many who eke out a living by fishing or working in the meat packing industry. If we exhort them to change professions, we would be causing them financial ruin? Isn’t it unreasonable to favor animals over humans?

Answer: Those who support themselves in such a manner are like a man who eats poisoned meat to satiate his hunger. Even though they may be able to live comfortably off the earnings for a while, they will soon have to undergo many kalpas of excruciating karmic retribution. The reason we urge hunters, fishermen, ranchers, butchers and so forth to change professions is because we are concerned about them. Thus, how can we be considered unreasonable? Aren’t there plenty of people who support themselves very well without having to kill animals?

[6] Question: Cows help plow the fields and dogs loyally guard our homes. Thus, they have utility and should not be killed. However, pigs and lambs have no other uses. If we do not eat them, what should we do with them?

Answer: One abstains from meat and liberates life in order to cultivate compassion. It has nothing to do with whether the animal is useful to humans or not. If one abstains from eating a type of meat simply because the animal has utility, then such thoughts are selfish. Such selfishness exists because evil habits and defilements still cover up our Buddha-nature.

[7] Question: It is true that when animals such as chicken, sheep and cattle are about to be slaughtered, they will cry out and show fear. Thus, killing them would be cruel. However, no such distress is shown by small fish? Therefore, why should we abstain from them?

Answer: Even though animals and fish come in different sizes, their Buddha-nature is all the same. For instance, both the killing of old men and babies are considered murder. If you insist on thinking that certain animals feel no pain because they do not shed tears or scream, then imagine the reaction of a mute person being attacked. Would you hear screams?

[8] Question: It is indeed cruel to personally slaughter animals. However, if we only eat the meat that others have slaughtered, wouldn’t that make us blameless?

Answer: Such logic is nothing more than self deception. If you think that you can escape blame by delegating the task of slaughtering to others, then shouldn’t a wrongfully executed man blame only the executioner and not the magistrate? Plausible deniability can fool some, but you cannot fool your conscience.

[9] Question: Liberating life is virtuous, but what should we do if the liberated animals are captured again?

Answer: Let hunters and fishermen do as they please. No one should cease doing good just because others do evil. For instance, a dedicated doctor cannot guarantee that the patient he heals today will live to see tomorrow. Likewise, those bringing relief in a famine cannot be sure if they can successfully avert starvation. The world is full of uncertainty, why do people only have doubts regarding life liberation? Moreover, how could you be sure that all the animals that are liberated will be recaptured? Lastly, the truth is that if we simply attempt to do good, our merits are already complete.

[10] Question: Virtue is simply a good heart. Thus, isn’t it enough that we are good people? why must we also abstain from meat?

Answer: Such a statement makes no sense whatsoever. How can you be virtuous if you inflict unspeakable pain on other living beings? There is no malice greater than the heart that tolerates slaughter. Mencius said: “Humanity is based on mercy and compassion.” Thus, a virtuous man will not kill or slaughter. People who inflict torturous pain on animals cannot be truly benevolent. There is not one virtuous manor noble gentleman under Heaven that is partial to slaughter.

[11] Question: I am indifferent to this matter. I neither intentionally slaughter nor deliberately avoid doing so. I simply go with the flow… is that wrong?

Answer: If you slaughter when it is convenient to do so and refrain at other times simply out of caprice or absent-minded indifference, you will not receive any merits. However, you will still incur karmic retribution for the living beings you do kill. For instance, if a bandit misfires a crossbow bolt while plundering someone’s household, and if the stray bolt then hits you, will you consider him guiltless?

[12] Question: Animals are killed or boiled because of their past evil karma. Even if we refrain from slaughtering them, someone else surely will? Thus, what harm could possibly result from slaughtering?

Answer: Even though animals must undergo their own karmic retributions, we are in a different position — we can choose. If you slaughter and hunt because you feel that they deserve it, then you will sink to their level. You will be reborn as an animal to be slaughtered. Thus, as we currently possess human rebirth, we have the ability to change our karmic situation for the better through the way we act. Hence, why delay in adopting virtue and humaneness?

[13] Question: Animals are often killed because of the karmic debts they owe. Thus, why is it wrong for us to collect our due?

Answer: It is true that animals are killed as repayment for past karmic debts. However, there is a difference between simple karmic retribution and the retribution of maturing debt. The former is when an animal’s past evil karmic seeds ripen in the form of random slaughter. The latter situation refers to when an animal is slaughtered by someone who had been killed by it in past lives. In a typical banquet, the number of animals killed is countless. For instance, caviar contains numerous consciousnesses. As people are so indiscriminate in their eating habits, how can anyone be certain that every piece of meat they eat is their rightful due? Most likely, only a few out of the multitudes of animals you eat actually owe you. The rest are now your karmic creditors!

[14] Question: If we kill animals who actually do owe us their lives, doesn’t that cancel out the debt? Surely, there can be no further retribution?

Answer: Have you never seen a feud? How many rivals instantly become best friends after bouts of savage fighting? Bodhisattvas can clearly see how today’s causes and conditions will play out in the future. Thus, Bodhisattvas never engage in vengeance.

[15] Question: The Buddha has said that anything that has life had once been our parents or relatives in previous rebirths. How is this true?

Answer: Sentient beings have been turning in the Samsara since time immemorial.Even if we take only one kalpa, the number of beings we would have been associated with during that time period would be countless. In fact, some of the animals currently in your household may be someone you knew in this life!

For instance, I have personally witnessed the following case: When Liu Dao Yuan (the former magistrate of Pengxi County) was on his way home after retiring, he lodged at the home of the Qin family. That night, a tearful matron appeared in his dreams. She told him that she was the recently deceased wife of his host. Moreover, she revealed that King Yama had sentenced her to be reborn as a sheep for the offense of having beaten a servant girl to death. She also revealed that she was currently in the Qin family livestock pen and would be slaughtered the next day.

Liu Dao Yuan immediately rushed to inform his host of what he had just witnessed.However, it was already too late. The whole Qin family was grief stricken! Such situations happen often in this world, however, common people without spiritual attainments remain oblivious to such workings of karma.

[Furthermore, in 1853, a native of Zhejiang named Li was known to have committed all kinds of evil. His evil karma eventually ripened and he turned into a pig while alive. His family members then rehomed him at a Buddhist temple. Magistrate (Sima) Xu Ying Ting personally witnessed this.]

[16] Question: What should we do if we find ourselves powerless to stop acts of fishing, trapping and slaughtering?

Answer: Anyone who finds themselves in such a situation should sincerely recite whatever mantra they are familiar with, or sincerely recite Namo Amituofo. They should repent the animals’ sins on their behalf and dedicate the merits of the recitation to them. This way, the animals will naturally receive karmic benefits. If you see someone fishing or trapping, then focus your attentions on that person. Do not entertain other thoughts. Wholeheartely recite Namo Duo Bao Rulai (南無多寶如來) for a few dozen times. If you do so, the fish and animals will all be able to evade capture. This Buddha’s name is very potent, so do not fail to do as instructed.

[17] Question: When we ask the gods to bless us with children, wealth, offices and long life, how can we not offer sacrifices as a show of respect?

Answer: Every deity adores life and abhors slaughter. Furthermore, how can we expect long life and good fortune if we take away the lives of animals? How can we expect healthy children if we kill the offspring of animals? Not only does killing offend Heaven, it also betrays our conscience. We must remember that we are also made of flesh. There is no benefit in offering meat. In fact, doing so will bring only great harm.

[18] Question: There is no question that those who are vegan should make vegan offerings to deities and their ancestors. However, if those who normally eat meat were to make vegan offerings, wouldn’t that be cheap and disrespectful?

Answer: The I Ching states: “A family that sacrifices a cow to honor their ancestors derive inferior merit compared to the family that regularly makes modest offerings.”Moreover, the Zuo Zhuan states: “Even the wild plants next to the mountain streams or the algae can be offered to gods and spirits.” Thus, do you think the gods and spirits who dwell in the skies will quibble over a few pieces of meat?

[19] Question: Will gods and deities who accept meat offerings be reborn in the evil realms?

Answer: Sentient beings are reborn as gods and deities because they have cultivated virtue in their past life. Even though they are all virtuous, some are more merciful than others. The more merciful gods will reject offerings of meat. However, the gods that still have habits of anger will accept meat offerings. The merciful gods have more wisdom than blessings; the angry gods have more blessings than wisdom. Therefore,once the heavenly blessings of the merciful gods end, they will not be reborn in the evil realms. However, the gods that are given to anger will most likely be reborn in the lower realms. Everyone must understand that Heaven cherishes all living beings, not just human life.

[20] Question: It is wrong to slaughter animals for the purpose of making meat offerings to gods and deities. However, is it also wrong to slaughter animals to feed one’s parents?

Answer: It is even worse! The Book of Rites clearly states that: “Filial sons and daughters offer all that which is good to their parents and retain only the inferior for themselves.” Therefore, if we slaughter animals for the sake of offering meat to our parents, we would be saddling them with undesirable karmic offenses. How could we do something so unfilial? If we must provide our parents with meat, we should offer only thrice clean meat [i.e. meat that did not come from an animal suspected, seen or heard killed for one – which is hard to find today due to supply-demand]. Meat from an animal that died naturally is permitted as well. These are the only two exceptions.

[21] Question: For the sake of repaying our parent’s kindness, we must make rich offerings to them after they pass away. However, if someone’s deceased parents ate meat, and they offer vegan food, wouldn’t that be against their parents’ preferences?

Answer: If the spirits of our parents and ancestors actually depended on these offerings to live, they would all be starving. The official memorial days number only a few days out of a year. These rites are simply a sign of respect. However, if we insist on slaughtering animals on these occasions, we would only be adding to the negative karmic burdens of our beloved parents and ancestors. How could we do such a thing?

[22] Question: Surely the spirits of someone’s ancestors will enjoy and receive the offerings made by their descendants? Why would they not?

Answer: The Medium Agama Sutra states: “If one’s ancestors have been reborn as ghosts, they can eat offerings that are sincerely offered. If they are in the heavenly realms, they live in bliss and will not bother to come and eat it. If they are in the three evil realms, their acute suffering prevents them from eating it. If they have been reborn as humans, then they have new families and will certainly not show up.”

Thus, the duty of a descendant is to sincerely make vegan offerings and refrain from transferring new karmic burdens by slaughtering animals. As long as they are vegan before the memorial ceremony and sincere during the ceremony, they have done their filial duty. People should not worry about whether the offerings will be actually consumed by their intended recipients or not.

[23] Question: Emperor Wu of Liang used vegan food made to resemble animals for sacrificial offerings. Scholars have interpreted his refusal to sacrifice animals as the cause of the declining fortunes of the Liang dynasty. Thus, isn’t this a clear sign that vegan offerings are a breach of etiquette?

Answer: The reason men have faults is because of their biases and partialities. If you could recognize your own biases and mistakes, you will be able to separate kindness from cruelty. Emperor Wu of Liang’s killing of the Liu Gui (six noblemen) and his scheme to flood Shouyang City were his faults. However, his use of vegan offerings prevented the spirits from incurring evil karma and allowed animals to live in peace. Therefore, such a policy should certainly be counted among his merits. The decline of the Liang dynasty has nothing to do with vegan offerings. If the decline was caused by vegan offerings, then why did the Chen dynasty and Sui dynasty (whose leaders offered animal sacrifices) end so quickly?

Moreover, Master Lianchi said: “Confucius has said that even those who use mannequins as funeral sacrifices are still incurring an offense of cruelty that will cause their families to become extinct.” Thus, is it not enough that the vegan food is made to resemble animals? Must you so cruelly demand real animals be slaughtered?

Furthermore, after Emperor Wu of Liang ascended the throne, he abstained from meat and alcohol. He took care of the people and kept wars to a minimum. Yearly harvests were also good. From the Jin dynasty to the Sui dynasty, no one could match Emperor Wu of Liang’s era in prosperity. His virtues allowed him to rule for 49 years and live for 86 years. Moreover, eight of his descendants served as Prime Minister during the Tang dynasty. Thus, these scholars who compose libel against him do so because they discriminate against his faith in the Buddhadharma. They are covering up his merits out of malice.

[24] Question: When we host banquets in honor of our kinsmen or offer hospitality to dear friends, only meat dishes can convey our sincerity and please our guests. Isn’t it unreasonable to sacrifice sincere hospitality to save animals?

Answer: If your guests are virtuous, they will rejoice in your compassion and will certainly not feel disrespected. If your guests express displeasure over the lack of meat, then such guests are nothing more than petty gluttons. Why should anyone incur the heavy karma of killing simply to please petty gluttons?Furthermore, when Song dynasty statesman Su Dongpo was feasting with his guests, he wrote a poem to Chen Jichang:

“I pity the clams in the basket, who desperately yearn for moisture. I pity the fish in the pot, who are on the verge of asphyxiation. When fish are gutted, they suffer immensely. How could I do such a thing? Thus, this is why I offered you exhortations on non-violence in the place of warm greetings when we first met! Chancellor Luhuai detested banquets — in the pot was a steamed duck, and when the lid was lifted, everyone held back as they noticed the cruelty. However, whenever Minister Wang Wuzi ate, the cutting boards were drenched with blood. He even served piglets on cameo glass platters. Virtuous Lu lived modestly and where his cap did not cover, white hair flowed. The gods wept as Wuzi dined sumptuously on meat and fish. The gods pleaded: why do you not abstain from tainting your excellent virtues with these acts of gluttony and slaughter?… Human life is truly as short as a guest’s stay! Please do not forget what I am saying, archive it into the Chronicle of Poems.”

Thus, if even eminent statesmen like Su Dongpo did not offer meat at his banquets, why should you feel that vegan foods are not good enough for hospitality?

[25] Question: The Sovereign Fuxi taught people to weave nets, he also taught people to farm and fish, are you implying that Fuxi was wrong?

Answer: This is a misconception. In the prehistoric era, birds and other animals often interfered with human settlements. Thus, Fuxi taught people to make nets so they could trap animals and release them away from their homes. He never told people to fish or hunt. To claim that the Sages would teach people to kill is as egregious as slandering the virtuous and passing off sinners as saints!

[26] Question: When Confucius practiced mercy, he only refrained from fishing with nets and shooting sleeping animals. He did not say we could not use fishhooks or shoot at animals that are awake. Thus, as you completely prohibit both hunting and fishing, are you saying the teachings of Confucius are no good?

Answer: You are missing the point. Confucius clearly wished for everyone to completely refrain from taking animal life. When he prohibited the use of nets, he meant to shame us for our avarice. When he prohibited the shooting of sleeping and resting animals, he was pointing out our cruelty. Humans often kill without restraint and give peace to no creature. As Sages teach by example, Confucius’ diet consisted only of spring water and fresh vegetables. He never fished or shot at any animal during his life. In fact, he offered only vegetable offerings to his ancestors. If you think Sages would cruelly hook fish and shoot birds, you are too shallow to understand their profound teachings.

[27] Question: An eminent man must first love his family and then the people; finally, he must show kindness to animals. Thus, kindness must be shown first to kinsmen and last to animals. Therefore, liberating life and practicing veganism are obviously the least important virtues. Are they not?

Answer: When Mencius spoke of hierarchy and precedence, he was referring to courtesy and etiquette within the family structure. Mencius did not ever intend to limit our compassion. Furthermore, by your logic, an orphan with no family could never show kindness to the people or animals without breaking the rules of precedence. It is not possible that compassionate Mencius would make such restrictive and frivolous rules.

[28] Question: You are correct, we should all observe vegan attha-sila (fasting). However, did Confucius observe such precepts?

Answer: The sutras state: “When fasting, you must eat only one meal of pure food at the proper time.” They also say: “When observing such precepts, you must exercise the utmost care and prudence.” The Book of Rites states: “When fasting and holding the precepts of abstinence, your heart should be pure ; when the fasting ends, do not discard your purity.” The standards of these teachings are high. Thus, even though today’s people are inferior in every way when compared to Confucius, they foolishly feel that emulating Confucius involves slaughtering animals and eating meat.

[29] Question: Observing the strict precepts of vegan attha-sila is indeed virtuous. However, wouldn’t fasting make us weak and thin?

Answer: Our spirituality is more important than the impure body of blood, feces and skin that we temporarily inhabit. When Heaven bestows karmic rewards or punishments, do you think they care more about your external appearance or the virtuousness of your heart?

[30] Question: As the five pungent plants (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, chives, asafoetida) all grow from the soil, why do Buddhist sutras prohibit them?

Answer: The Surangama Sutra gives five reasons for the prohibition: 1) These five plants are pungent and noxious. 2) These five plants will prevent cultivators from gaining Bodhi. 3) Auspicious gods and devas despise the smell of these plants. 4) When the five pungent plants are eaten cooked, they stir up one’s lust. When they are eaten raw, they stir up one’s wrath. 5.) Demons and ghosts will hover around and lick the lips of those who eat the five pungent plants.

[31] Question: Some people say that even though they are not vegan and do not observe the fast, they are still better than those who have fasted but later broke the precepts. However, those who have fasted but could not hold the precepts say that the fact they have fasted makes them superior to those who have never observed the fast. Which one is correct?

Answer: Let’s use the example of holding office: Does a man who has never held office hold more advantages than the magistrate who was dismissed from office?

[32] Question: I wish to become vegan, but I cannot resist the temptation of meat. What should I do?

Answer: Once those with excellent roots of virtue make the vows of Great Compassion, they will never be able to tolerate eating the flesh of living beings. However, if you are not this advanced, you should meditate on the five impurities: 1) The bodies of animals are dirty, hairy, impure and have odors. 2) Animals and livestock are often fed putrid food waste. 3) The places that livestock and animals live in are filthy. 4) The intestines and bladders of animals are full of fluids, feces and urine. 5.) The flesh of animals decay as soon as they die. If you contemplate thus everyday, you will soon be able to become vegan.

[33] Question: The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas swiftly respond to the suffering of sentient beings. Emperor Wu of Liang was a devout Buddhist, yet he starved to death. Why wasn’t he saved?

Answer: Emperor Wu of Liang did not starve to death. According to historical records, even when Hou Jing took the palace, he was overawed by the regal countenance of Emperor Liang and thus deferred to him… The 86 year old emperor then died of old age a few moments later… Therefore, faithlessness in the Buddha is the reason that so many learned scholars gloss over important details and spread their own false conclusions. Their habits of doubt and partiality towards slaughter clouds their judgment.

– Upasaka Zhou An Shi (周安士居士)
Translated By Brian Chung

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