Happy Year of the Dog! This year I wasn’t with my family for the Lunar New Year, and instead celebrated with my girls and this delicious bowl of eggplant vermicelli at Au Lac in LA.
After removing my chopsticks and soup spoon to drink my bowl dry, I realized that Lunar New Year would be one of the times during the year where I wasn’t the only family member not indulging in the roasted duck. It made me want to investigate more on why this was the case, and share my findings on what a plant-based lifestyle means from the Vietnamese side of my identity- from a cultural, spiritual, and philosophical perspective.
Growing up, I would be at family gatherings and occasionally see my “uncles and aunts” avoid dishes because they were “ăn chay”- or eating vegetarian for different reasons. The reasons would range, whether it be out of respect for the death of a loved one, during a time of great hardship, or when they were hoping for something positive to happen- like a child to come back home from the military. Many of them also ate vegetarian before and after the Lunar New Year. I would be confused when I saw them eating meat weeks later, though, because I was interpreting “ăn chay” in the common American sense, which implies a more long-term diet. But Vietnamese kids are repeatedly told not to question the wisdom of their elders- so I met their inconsistencies with a Kanye Shrug.
Recently, my uncle reached out to me. He had started practicing frequent deep meditation, visiting temples in order to learn from monks more extensively, and even more recently- became a long-term vegetarian. My uncle told me that I should fly home from San Francisco and meet a famous monk that was coming to town. He said that because I was a “long-term vegetarian” and that I “có duyên” (which google translate will define as “grace”, “cute”, or “engaging”) -I’ll take them all, I would be in luck for a great blessing from the monk.
It all made vegetarianism seem related to accruing positive energy and karma somehow, and as a child I didn’t fully understand how being vegetarian related to all this. As an adult, I hadn’t done any research, but it began to make sense logically to me. Since being vegetarian is often associated with being more pure, and being pure was a common spiritual aim, it made sense that the people I saw being vegetarian around critical times wanted to be as pure as possible when they were facing hardship or uncertainty- in order to be as spiritually righteous as possible, and to come out of these tough situations in a favorable fashion.
I could’ve asked my uncle for more details on vegetarianism and Buddhism, but I’m a second generation Vietnamese speaker and he rambles - so instead I turned to the internet. After some research, I now understand that it is part of a popular Buddhist belief that living a plant-based lifestyle is necessary in order to abide by the First Precept of Buddhism, which is to abstain from taking life, or murdering anything that lives. Buddhaghosa describes taking life as “the will to kill anything that one perceives as having life, to act so as to terminate the life-force in it, in so far as the will finds expression in bodily action or in speech.” This confirmed my rationale that people were trying to follow their buddhist beliefs way more closely than trying to avoid eating meat.
So if it was so favorable and well-aligned with the first precept to be vegetarian, which the inconstancy? Why not aim to be vegetarian all the time or at least the majority of the time?
I found a great explanation from monk Ap Tich of Vinh Nghiem pagoda in District 3. In the Vietnamese culture, the Vietnamese word ‘chay’ means to not eat meat, this simple translation “fails to communicate the spiritual undertone of the word. The Vietnamese perception of chay is loose and can either mean a long-term commitment or an intermittent bid to a spiritual and religious discipline.” Hence, why I would see grilled pork chops on my family’s plates one week and tofu on them another.
Ap Tich goes further to explain that “‘chay’ is the common term used more loosely, but extending from the concept of ‘trai’ or ‘trai tinh,’ a transcription of the Sanskrit word ‘Upavasatha.’ Upavasatha means to keep oneself pure and clean from worldly taints.”
While this research has me feeling like I’m poppin’ on the road to enlightenment - I definitely am not fully embodying trai tinh, even as I plan to be plant-based for the rest of my life. Buddhist undergoing trai tinh also “abstain from extravagant meals, sweet pastries, wine and spirits of any kind. Their meals are reduced to only two or in some cases one per day and the portion is just enough to sustain the body.”
The motivation behind my plant-based life can definitely be summarized as wanting to “create as little harm and waste to the world as possible,” but I know I have a ways to go. I am still struggling with self-control when there’s guacamole at parties and buffet lines at work events. Nonetheless, it’s still dope to understand the significance of growing up plant-based in my culture and the spiritual implications surrounding it.
If you’re curious about plant-based lifestyles, I encourage using a cultural, spiritual and philosophical lens when doing your research in additional to scientific one (please don’t just rely solely on Netflix documentaries). The documentaries may get your foot through the veggie door, but maybe the journey to enlightenment may make you stay.