Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

Jun 17th
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Home Our Founder Master's Teachings The Meaning Behind the Vegetarian Fast (Zhai Jie)

The Meaning Behind the Vegetarian Fast (Zhai Jie)

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[Master's Teachings]
"I am truly worried about our world. Since the start of 2011, many historic disasters have happened, signaling the distress our Mother Earth is in and how out of balance Nature already has become. Humankind has brought this about. All of us must reflect on this deeply and begin anew. The way to put this into concrete action is to undertake a vegetarian fast ("zhai jie" in Chinese). This is an expression of our utmost sincerity. It will create a most powerful prayer for our world."—Dharma Master Cheng Yen

In English, it is difficult to find one word or phrase to capture the meaning of "zhai jie". The term "vegetarian fast" has been used to denote it, but there are many facets to what the Dharma Master Cheng Yen means by "zhai jie".

"Zhai jie" is a practice that contains both inner and outer elements. The inner element concerns our state of mind, our mentality, and our attitude. To purify our heart and mind, the Master tells us, we must begin by giving rise to a heart of sincerity. Sincerity means genuinely striving to be a better person, from the bottom of our hearts. It is about being sincere in our interactions with others as well as in our handling of day to day affairs. Being sincere, we conduct ourselves with a sense of piety, with a pure heart. When we are like this, impurities of mind will not arise. "Zhai jie" is an inner nurturing of pious sincerity.

Besides pious sincerity, "zhai jie" also involves cultivating what Buddhists call "Right View". To have Right View is to have a true understanding of a situation and correctly discern right from wrong. The Master continually speaks of the need to eliminate afflictions. These afflictions are impurities of mind. When impurities such as greed or anger arise, we cannot see things clearly. As a result, our view becomes blurred—what is wrong seems right and what is right is interpreted to be wrong. Put simply, we confuse wrong and right. This has considerable consequences, for our thinking guides our decisions and actions. This is why it is vital that our thinking be correct, not skewed.

How can we ensure correct thinking? By purifying our mind of impurities such as greed, anger, hatred, arrogance, distrustfulness, and selfishness. The Master often describes the mind as being like a mirror. When the mirror is clean, it can clearly reflect everything around it. But when layers of dust and grime cover it, nothing can be seen in the mirror. In the same way, when our mind is pure, it can perceive everything clearly and correctly without distortions. It can penetrate the principle underlying things. With a pure mind, we will have insight and true understanding. When our mind is pure, our innate wisdom will come forth. "Zhai jie" is about purifying our mind. This is the inner practice.

The outer practice of "zhai jie" involves wholesome action. This includes living more frugally and in an environmentally-friendly way in order to protect our planet . Instead of a lifestyle of consumption where we pursue material comfort and convenience at the expense of damaging the environment, we live more simply, content with less. We cherish what we have and lessen our wants and desires.

Wholesome action also means to live with a sense of vigilance and humble piety, and take care with our daily actions. In Buddhism, there are precepts which serve as guidelines for right conduct. The purpose of the precepts is not to restrict us, rather it is to protect us. Unwholesome behaviors can harm ourselves and others; the precepts seek to keep us from harm. Practicing them is about being mindful of doing the right thing in everyday life and acting in a wholesome way.

The most crucial element of practicing "zhai jie" is abstaining from meat by eating vegetarian. Doing so, we refrain from taking life and allow other living creatures to live in peace. Eating vegetarian not only protects the lives of other creatures, it also protects our sense of humanity and compassion. If we think about it, the taste of meat only gives us momentary satisfaction; it lasts little beyond the few seconds when the food is in our mouth. Yet for those short seconds and such fleeting fulfillment, so many creatures lose their lives. "How can we still maintain that we are kind and loving when we deprive other animals of life just for our palate's enjoyment?" the Master asks. These are things we seldom connect together and this is why the Master speaks of the need for deep reflection, realization, and awakening. This awakening begins with a change in our eating habits and becoming vegetarian.

In calling for everyone to carry out "zhai jie", the Master hopes that by practicing vegetarianism with reverence for life, people can purify their hearts and minds so that pious sincerity and wisdom can spring forth. By undertaking the "zhai jie" practice, people will remind themselves to act in a wholesome way and will be more aware of their daily actions.

In unawareness and blindness, we human beings do many wrong, harmful things. And, because of the impurities in our hearts and minds, we do not even realize that what we are doing is wrong and harmful. "Zhai jie" can begin to change this. That is why the Master is so urgently appealing for everyone to embrace this practice. When many people practice like this, the impact can be profound and far-reaching.

"Collectively, we humans have already built up so much negative karma through our greed, destruction of the environment, killing of other creatures, and other wrong actions. Karma is the law of cause and effect; disasters are the effects of causes that we have created. That is why I keep saying that when shocking disasters happen, we must awaken. If we can do so, it will not be too late. We can then create new causes, changing the pattern, altering our course. This is the way to prevent future disasters and proactively create peace, blessings, and well-being for our world."—Dharma Master Cheng Yen

Written by the Jing Si Abode English Editorial Team
Based on Dharma Master Cheng Yen's conversations in Chinese