Section Six Wearing the Precept Sash and Eating One Meal a DaySection 

 by You-Bin Chen

Excerpted from "A Discussion of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua's Contribution to Buddhism" by You-Bin Chen - Vajra Bodhi Sea Monthly Journal from June, 1966 to October, 1997.

Everyone knows that "wearing the precept sash and eating one meal a day" are things that the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is especially well-known for. The Master specifically announced that anyone who left home with him had to venerate the Buddha's regulations: "eating one meal a day at noon and always wearing the precept sash." And so no matter how much the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas came under criticism by those outsideven slander that the City was doing new and strange things to show off. the Master would never, ever change his policy because of that. Regarding the barrage of slander, the Master merely said: "This is not some rule I made up. This is the Buddha's regulation. We want to venerate the Buddha's regulations." But the Master was expedient with the relatively older left-home people and allowed them to take three meals a day. This rule remained right up to the Final instructions given by the Master just before his Nirvanat never changed. The Master himself said: Even before I left the home-life, while I was still a layperson, I ate one meal a day. And from the time I left home to nowll those many years have eaten one meal a day. If people who want to leave home with me can eat one meal a day, then I will accept them. If they cannot eat one meal a day, I will not accept them. This is a fixed requirement for anyone who leaves home with me. In spite of any pressures whatsoever regarding the times and circumstances, this cannot be changed.
Why does the Master look upon "one meal" as so important? It's because "when you are full and warm, you think of sex." The more one eats, the more sexual desire one has. This is discussed (roll 22 of the Long Agama Sutra's "Chapter on Record of the World: Basic Conditions of the World") in the record of how, when the blessings of the gods in the Light-Sound Heaven ended and they descended to the human realm, they began lo eat rice. Their bodies became coarse and ugly and took on the appearances of male and female. Looking at each other caused sexual desire lo arise and they went off to covered places to engage in impure conduct." And so there's a Chinese idiom that says: "Food and drink bring about male and female." These verify the idea that the amount of sexual desire has a direct relationship to the amount of food. And if it's a matter of "eating at the wrong time," then it's a matter of breaking precepts.

Some people look at it this way: this is not the lime of the Buddha and we are not in India now; what is more, Chinese people are not Indian, and so, since the precepts were created for the times and the locations, then they are precepts only applicable to the people of India and are not appropriate for the people of China. Actually that is incorrect because, in Buddhism, the precepts are one of the three non-outflow studies of precepts, samadhi, and wisdom, all of which were explained by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. If "precepts" are not appropriate to the people of China, then does that mean that "samadhi and wisdom" are also not appropriate to the people of China? Ridiculous!

Not eating at the wrong times is a practice that left-home people should keep and is the first requisite for those who shave their heads and leave home. "

Further, the lay people's Eight Vegetarian-Seclusion Precepts also include "the precept of not eating at the wrong time." And so it's a question of whether the precepts are strictly upheld or not. Except when one is sick, there's no other rationalization acceptable.

What is more, in the In All Places Sutra five kinds of blessings and virtue derived from not eating after noon are listed: "1. Little sexual desire; 2. Little sleep; 3. A concentrated mind; 4. No problems with abdominal gas; 5. Physical tranquility and no diseases. From this we can see that not eating after noon can generate blessings. Also in the Large Vibhasha Shastra it is thought that: not eating after noon lessens the amount of sleep, eliminates the problems of storing food overnight, makes it easier for the mind to enter samadhi, and because of chose benefits, the instruction to eat before noon was given. In The Sutra of the Questions of the Long-nailed Brahman it says: "The fact that the Thus Come One's forty teeth are clean, white, and straight comes from his strict avoidance of eating at the wrong time when he upheld that precept in previous lives. "

And the Buddha sternly advised Shariputra in The Sutra of Shaiputra's Questions: "Those who eat at the wrong times are people who are breaking the precepts, are people who steal; are people who will suffer insanity because they destroy wholesome rewards and they are not my disciples." They steal the benefits of my Dharma, they steal a reputation, they steal food lump of this and a pinch of that; a bit of salt and a touch of vinegarnd after they die they fall into the Hell of Burning intestines and everything becomes not iron pellets. "

In the Vinaya Samadhi Sutra there's this explanation: "Morning is when the gods eat, noon is when the Buddhas eat, afternoon is when the animals eat, and night is when the ghosts eat. Now, as a cause for being able to leave the six destinies and to do as the Buddhas of the three periods of time do, caring at noon is considered the proper rime to eat." Thus, even now, in India and other countries where the Southern Transmission of Buddhism prevails, the Buddha's regulation of not caring after noon is strictly upheld. But in my country, most of the Chinese monks make exceptions when it comes lo this precept, calling the evening meal "medicine." The Master does not agree with this. The Master said:

In your Chan meditation session you have learned how to have a Chinese caring session where there are three tea breaks and four meals, with extra hot buns served in the late evening. I don't believe you can eat all that and still work on developing your skill. I eat once a day and still feel it's troublesome. What about caring four meals and extra hot buns in the evening! In Chinese Buddhism what do they call the evening meal? They called it "medicine"ating "herbs"?caring "stones" (note: The Chinese for "medicine" is the two characters: "herbs" and "stones."] It's just a dose of medicine! That's called plugging up your ears while you steal a bell. That's called cheating yourself and cheating others. Because they want lo eat at night, they call it "medicine." That's what Chinese Buddhism is like. It's a Buddhism that cheats people; a Buddhism that deceives people - I have no way to rectify it.

As to the meaning of "medicine", roll 18 of the meaning of Unusual Terminology says: "Medicine (literally: herbs and stones) is what is used to cure illness. The ancients used stones slivers to draw blood, while iron is used nowadays. These are all for the purpose of curing illness." The section "Arhats Medicine" in roll one of the Collection of the Buddha's Stories says. "Food is taken to cure. illness, and so is called 'medicine'." The section on "Food and Drink" in Terminology of Chan Utensils  has this to say about "medicine": "Medicine is a metaphorical term that refers to rice gruel taken in the evening. Since gruel is taken in the evening to bolster one's health and cure illness so that one may make progress in one's practice, it is called 'medicine.' " From this it may be seen that the term 'medicine' is merely a different name for 'dinner' invented by Chinese Buddhism!

In general, although the Buddha, the World Honored One, gave up some of the very minor precepts before he entered Nirvana, the precept of not eating at improper times could not be renounced. Roll 15 of the Miscellaneous Agama Sutra says, "When one knows to cut off the taking of food rolled in lumps (at improper times), one will have the merit and virtue of eliminating greedy craving among the five desires. Of those learned and sagely disciples who have the merit, and virtue of eliminating greedy craving, I have not seen any who have failed to eliminate even a single, knot (affliction) among the five desires. If even a single bond were to remain, they would still be reborn in this world." The precept of not eating at improper times refers to the pure conduct of not taking food rolled in lumps at improper times. How can cultivators who wish to end birth and death and leave the home of the Triple Realm not pay attention to this precept?

 Below let us discuss the Venerable Master's view on wearing the precept sash. Most Shramaneras (novices) and lay people who have received the five precepts or the Bodhisattva precepts wear what is called the "plain robe" (Chinese: man (tiao) yi. Sanskrit: pattha), which is a kashaya sash without the partitions (patches) resembling fields. Roll Forty of the Four Division Vinaya records that the Buddha allowed Sangha members to wear antarvasaka robes without patches. In the Illustrated Record of the Six Articles the Buddha Required Bhikshus to Have, it is recorded that "The plain robe has three uses. Originally it was a robe for Shramaneras. The Vinaya stipulates that Shramaneras should have two plain robes, one with seven strips for entering the assembly, and one with five strips for working." (The word "should" is used since the style of the robes had not yet been standardized.) For the first hundred years or so after Buddhism entered China, the monks did not yet know how to make the patched robes, so they wore plain robes. It was not until the time between the Han and Wei dynasties that they gradually started to wear the samghati (upper) robes. The Venerable Master strictly required those who left the home-life with him to wear their precept sash at all times and never let it leave their bodies. The Master said,

If a left-home person doesn't wear his precept sash, it's as if he has returned to lay-life. He's no different from worldly people. Wearing the long Chinese robe with the arched collar is not enough to show that one is a left-home person. Not to speak of the Chinese robe, even if you do wear the precept sash, you still break the precepts and do dishonest things every day. How much worse it'd be if you didn't wear the sash!

Nowadays the left-home people in China and other placesn fact the vast majority of (left-home people in) Mahayana Buddhismo not wear their precept sashes. They feel perfectly justified and natural not wearing themhey think that's just the way it should be. What they don't realize is that without the precept sash, they no longer have the appearance of Bhikshus.

The Venerable Master stated "very decisively that left-home people definitely must wear their precept sashes, or else they don't look like Bhikshus." The precept sash is what distinguishes one as a disciple of the Buddha. The Buddha himself had his three robes and an alms bowl, and he always wore his robes. The Dharani Collection Sutra says. "The Buddha's golden body was clad in a saffron kashaya robe." The Sutra on the Essentials of Recitation says. "The Buddha's body seemed to be burnished gold, adorned with thirty-tow marks and eighty subtle characteristics. He was clad in a saffron kashaya robe and sat in full lotus." Thus it was not without reason that the Venerable Master advocated that monks wear their precept sashes.

There are countless instances where the Sutras mention the benefits of wearing the kashaya robe. For example, the Mahayana Sutra of the Contemplation of the Mind-ground discusses ten benefits of wearing the kashaya. The eighth roll of the Compassionate Flower Sutra describes five holy merits of the Buddha's kashaya. The sixteenth roll of the Ten Dwellings Vibhasha Shastra describes twenty-six kinds of robes and their ten benefits. The fourth roll of the Sutra of the Sea Dragon King speaks of how the dragon king escaped from the golden-winged Peng bird by the protection of the Buddha's kashaya. Yet there are still those who oppose wearing the precept sash and regard it as trying to put on a special style. The Venerable Master said,

Now people have unknowingly turned a bad habit into a convention. Those who don't wear the precept sash are regarded as' genuine Buddhists, while those who do wear it are considered phony. If all of you students of Buddhism don't even understand this elementary point, then you basically aren't Buddhists.

The Great Compassion Sutra says, "Even if they are Shramanas (Buddhist monks] by nature who defile the Shramanas' practice, if they have the appearance of Shramanas and wear the kashaya, they will all without exception be able to enter Nirvana between the time of Maitreya Buddha and Lokeshvararaja Buddha." After reading these words from the Sutras, can we still oppose the rule of wearing the precept sash? The Master said, 

"What need is there to distinguish between right and wrong? 

True and false will become clear in time. 

Wise ones see what is real, while stupid ones practice what is false. 

Those who are good learn to be like Bodhisattvas, 

while those who are evil dare to slander the Buddha. 

With a mind of equal great compassion, universally save all sentient beings."


Return to homepage | Top of page