China: Meat-free diet good for a healthy planet

China Daily | 04/08/10

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EIJING, April 8 -- Former physicist Li Yu runs the city's first vegetarian restaurant.

In 2008, Li Yu embarked on what some may perceive as a rather daunting mission: To convince as many people in China as he can not only to stop eating meat but drop animal products from their diets altogether.

"I am trying my best to succeed," said Li. "I am trying my best."

Li is the owner of a restaurant called Vegan Hut. Tucked away on the second floor of one of the buildings in the Jianwai SOHO Beijing complex, the eatery is the first vegan restaurant to open in China, according to Li.

The cutesy space with modest decor and mint green walls serves a plethora of vegetable dishes with a Chinese twist: Braised eggplant with a succulent soy-tinged sauce; ultra-healthy spring rolls; lotus and tofu wraps; brown sticky rice with a tangy tomato puree.

Almost all of the ingredients are organic. There is no MSG, no salt, no preservatives and certainly no animal products anywhere on the menu. (Unlike vegetarians, vegans follow a strict plant-based diet that prohibits eating anything derived from animals.)

Li, who has a PhD in physics, was working for a telecommunications company in Shanghai when he decided to quit his job and refocus his career on educating people about the impact meat consumption has on the environment.

It was a drastic change but one he says he felt was imperative in order to raise awareness of how human consumption of chicken, beef and pork is destroying the environment.

"We can help save the planet if more people eat less meat," Li said. "That will be very helpful. Eating beef and other animal products has a huge impact on natural resources. Most people don't know that."

The livestock sector is one of the top two or three contributors to serious environmental problems, according to a 2006 report issued by the United Nations.

Not only does raising cattle and other animals contribute to deforestation and strain water resources, it also is responsible for nearly 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than transportation, the report said.

"Another thing to mention is if we are talking about the total production of grain in 2008, only 46 percent of grains go to humans while 36 percent goes to livestock," said Li.

"So I calculated that if we eat a plant-based diet instead of feeding livestock, we actually can feed millions of people."

Li is full of facts and figures on the impact our meat-eating lifestyles have on the environment.

He talks about the issues during weekly lecture series at his restaurant or occasionally on university campuses and on local radio and television programs. He is working on several books about being a vegan and how eating vegetables helps the earth.

He is also trying to spread the word about the health benefits of plant-based eating. Vegan Hut offers a special 28-day healthy diet program for those seeking to lower their cholesterol, lose weight or improve their overall general health.

It includes a medical consultation, regular meetings with nutritionists and a full supply of ingredients and recipes for those who take part.

"There are so many benefits," said Li, who completed a special plant-based nutrition course at Cornell University in New York.


"The diet can reduce heart disease, type two diabetes and some types of cancers."

Li says he hopes to open more restaurants in Beijing and someday around China while he continues to promote a meat-less lifestyle to both Chinese and expat audiences. Though it will be an uphill battle, he acknowledges.

"I am just trying to do something meaningful," said Li. "Once we save the planet, I can go back to the telecommunications industry. But we won't have any industry if there is no planet. The logic is very simple."



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Although it is an agnostic moral philosophy (i.e., no recognition of a personal God) a few centuries older than Christianity, Buddhism teaches a consistent ethic of reverence for all life. No wars have ever been waged in the name of Buddhism. Similarly, the act of abortion is explicitly condemned in the Buddhist canonical scriptures. Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic biography on Siddhartha Gautama, The Light of Asia, caused quite a controversy in Victorian England: centuries before Jesus, an earlier teacher lived “the Christ life.”

The ethical teachings of the Buddha are quite similar to those found in the Gospel of Jesus: One must never be proud nor harbor anger against anyone. He who humbles himself shall be exalted, while the one who exalts himself shall be degraded. Harsh language must never be used against anyone.

Avoid lust, anger and greed. One should not scrutinize the mote in a neighbor’s eye without first noticing the beam in one’s own. One must “turn the other cheek” if attacked or abused. One’s own possessions must be shared with the less fortunate. If a man obtained the whole world and its riches, he still would not be satisfied, nor would this save him.

In 261 B.C., the Indian emperor Ashoka witnessed firsthand the innumerable casualties he caused during one of his many military campaigns. His heart was filled with grief. He converted to Buddhism. 19th century scholar and writer H.G. Wells considered Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism one of the most significant events in world history.

Ashoka, formerly a bloody and ruthless emperor, became a remarkably kind and gentle leader. Ashoka established some of the first animal rights laws. He stopped the royal hunt, stopped the sacrifice of animals in his capital city, stopped the killing of animals for food in the royal kitchens, and gave up the eating of meat. Ashoka made it illegal to kill many species of animals, such as parrots, ducks, geese, bats, turtles, squirrels, monkeys and rhinos. He forbade the killing of pregnant animals, or animals that were nursing their young. He declared certain days to be “non-killing days,” on which fish could not be caught, nor any other animals killed. He established wells and watering holes, places of rest and hospitals for humans and animals alike.

Ashoka educated his people to have compassion for animals, and to refrain from killing or harming them. He sent missionaries to all the neighboring kingdoms to teach mercy, compassion and nonviolence. Through Ashoka’s patronage, Buddhism was spread all over the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism would eventually reach the rest of Asia; today there are an estimated 300 to 600 million Buddhists worldwide.

The first precept of Buddhism is: “Do not kill, but rather preserve and cherish all life.” There is an ancient poem, reputed to be the only text ever written by the Buddha himself, which states:

“Let creatures all, all things that live, all beings of whatever kind, see nothing that will bode them ill. May naught of evil come to them.”

The Buddhist emperor Ashoka (268-223 BC) declared in one of his famous Pillar Edicts: “I have enforced the law against killing certain animals..The greatest progress of Righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favor of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.”

The Dalai Lama has said, “I do not see any reason why animals should be slaughtered to serve as human diet when there are so many substitutes. After all, man can live without meat.”

Mahayana Buddhism supports the vegetarian way of life. According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra: “The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion.”

The Lankavatara Sutra says:

“For the sake of love of purity, the bodhisattva should refrain from eating flesh, which is born from semen, blood, etc. For fear of causing terror to living beings let the bodhisattva, who is disciplining himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh…It is not true that meat is proper food and permissible when the animal was not killed by himself, when he did not order others to kill it, when it was not specifically meant for him…Again, there may be some people in the future who…being under the influence of the taste for meat will string together in various ways many sophisticated arguments to defend meat-eating…But…meat-eating in any form, in any manner, and in any place is unconditionally and once and for all prohibited…Meat-eating I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit…”

The Surangama Sutra says:

“The reason for practicing dhyana and seeking to attain samadhi is to escape from the suffering of life. But in seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict it upon others? Unless you can control your minds that even the thought of brutal unkindness and killing is abhorrent, you will never be able to escape from the bondage of the world’s life…After my parinirvana in the final kalpa different kinds of ghosts will be encountered everywhere deceiving people and teaching them that they can eat meat and still attain enlightenment…How can a bhikshu, who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings?”

Contemporary Hindu spiritual masters have taught us that if one wishes to eat cow’s flesh (or the flesh of any other animal for that matter), one should wait until the animal dies of natural causes, rather than take the life of a fellow creature. This indicates that we are vegetarian first and foremost out of nonviolence toward and compassion for animals, rather than because we follow “dietary laws.”

Avoidance of onions and garlic is not limited to Hindus in India; there is a tradition of avoiding these foods in China, antedating the arrival of Buddhism. ‘Enjoy’ Vegetarian Restaurant in San Francisco, CA is run by Chinese Buddhists, and they do not serve onions or garlic in any of their preparations. However, they do serve mushrooms!

In Theravada Buddhist countries (Burma, Ceylon, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Tibet, Malaya), although the monks are forbidden to kill animals, they beg for food and are expected to eat whatever is offered them. Contrasting the Mahayana Buddhist countries (e.g., China) with the Theravada, in A Vegetarian Sourcebook, author Keith Akers writes:

“In the Mahayana countries, the custom regarding monks is completely different, reflecting a different attitude towards meat consumption. The Mahayana Buddhist monks do not beg for food at all; they prepare their own food, which is either bought, grown, or collected as rent. The Mahayana monks in China were strictly vegetarian in ancient times and remain so today.

“Dietary abstinence from meat was an ancient Chinese tradition that antedated the arrival of Buddhism. In China, all animal foods, onions, and alcohol were either forbidden or customarily avoided. Animal products were avoided in dress as they were in diet. There was a prohibition on the use of silk or leather (not observed in Theravada countries).

“Not only are the Mahayana Buddhist monks vegetarian, but so are many Buddhist lay people in China. Lay people usually receive a lay ordination, in which they must take from one to five vows. Almost everyone takes the first vow, which is not to take the life of any sentient creature.”

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