Factoid #2: Why Chinese Buddhist Vegetarians Don’t Eat Garlic


So I did this piece on Chinese vegetarians a while ago for Serious Eats.

I found out that in addition to refraining from meat, Chinese Buddhist/Taoist vegetarians tend to refrain from allium vegetables.

But I never delved into why. Here’s the answer..in an admittedly long format:

“Anti-Allium forces have been at work in the Old World since antiquity. There are claims that onions and garlic were considered unclean and avoided by priests in ancient Egypt […] Brahmins, other upper-caste Hindus and respectable persons were enjoined to reject various Allium species, such as onion, garlic, and leeks, along with certain other foods, prominent among them objectionable flesh such as pork and that of carnivorous birds. The concern here was with maintaining ritual purity and avoiding pollution, with avoiding Alliums because they were unclean. Some suggest that their impurity derived from the perception of them as being similar to flesh. One example is found in the Bower Manuscript, an Indian Buddhist medical treatise written in the fifth century A.D., which indicated that Brahmins should not eat garlic because it originated from a living being, which gave it an evil odor as well. Specifically, the treatise recounts a story of the deity Vishnu severing the head of the lord of the demons. Drops from the demon’s throat fell on the ground and these were the first garlic. By this tradition, garlic derived from an enemy of the gods and thus was evil.”

Ugh this book is really dense but interesting. Fast-forward a couple of paragraphs:

“Turning to China, where anti-Allium sentiment is also found, there is strong suspicion that Buddhists were responsible for introducing it. One reads of Kumarajiva (A.D. 344-413), a famous Indian Buddhist scholar brought to China by the emperor, who fostered Indian ideas there and translated Buddhist works. in one of these, the Brahmajalasuire, various forms of Allium were included among the wu-hun, “five vegetables of strong odor” forbidden to Buddhist clergy, and in T’ang times such “lists of five” usually included them.”

Among the banned: onion, leeks, garlic, scallions and ginger… “items believed to stir the passions and reduce one’s likelihood of attaining nirvana.”

[Source: Food in China]


Footnote: I received this email from a reader the other day.

“I just stumbled upon your blog, which for the most part it is true, but at the end you mention in passing that buddhists owing heritage to the Chinese tradition don’t eat ginger. This is not true, while I’ve not read books on the history of it as you have it lacks scriptural evidence. Additionally, I am part of a very legitimate Chinese buddhist community and in our temple we have no problem with ginger. I’m not trying to pick you or your blog out as I see this error often online. Also, if you didn’t know Buddhist vegetarians don’t eat eggs either.”

Not sure which version is correct. Thoughts?