[The San Francisco Examiner]

Wednesday, May 21, 1997 · Page A 17
                                               ©1997 San Francisco Examiner

Animals for dinner - a karmic tale

by Ron Epstein

        ALMOST DAILY, the elderly Chinese American woman hurried
        into the San Francisco temple, bowed to the Buddhas, put her
        offering of food on the altar, lit incense, tidied up the
        temple and rushed out the door.

        After watching this routine for many years and getting to
        know her a bit, I complimented her one day on her piety and

        "Oh, no, no," she replied. "You don't understand. My husband
        and I are in a terrible business. The monk here, who is my
        spiritual teacher, told me that we should sell it or we will
        face horrible karmic retribution, but we just can't seem to
        extricate ourselves. I just try to create a little merit to
        help us, but I know it is not enough."

        Then I learned that she and her husband owned a Chinatown
        delicatessen famous for its barbecued poultry.

        They struck it rich with a special recipe that called for
        killing the animals just before the moment of immersing them
        in flames, making the meat especially fresh-tasting and

        Only a few weeks after our conversation, their fancy house
        in the Marina District caught fire during the night. The
        entry of firefighters was slowed by door locks and window
        bars that had been installed to protect them and their
        precious possessions.

        Firefighters found them huddled together in the back of the
        house, barbecued to death. The fatal fire 13 years ago
        clearly illustrates, to Buddhists, the system of cause and
        effect called karma.

        Buddhism, the largest religious denomination in China, is
        well-represented in San Francisco's Chinese American
        community. Its basic teaching is respect for all life and an
        ethical system based on the causal relation between one's
        actions and later experience.

        Although the Chinatown merchants engaged in live-animal
        slaughter have tried to justify their practices on cultural
        grounds, they present a one-sided view. China has a long
        cultural tradition, primarily but not exclusively Buddhist,
        of animal rights.

        Thus the practice of slaughtering live animals also is
        abhorrent to many Chinese and Chinese Americans. In fact,
        many have approached me privately and asked me to present
        their views publicly.

        The basic issue in live animal slaughter is how we can
        justify such extreme pain and suffering. Traditional Western
        arguments claim the animals don't really suffer because they
        have no souls. That stance so radically contradicts our
        personal experience with animals that very few really
        believe that.

        According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, even primitive
        forms of animal life have awareness, feel pain and have the
        potential for future enlightenment. If we torture them and
        do not respect their right to live out their natural life
        span, then we will suffer the karmic consequences.

        Multicultural understanding is essential for harmony in our
        community. Nonetheless, the live animal slaughterers of
        Chinatown need to acknowledge that a major element of their
        own cultural tradition rejects their practices.

        A Chinese sage wrote: "All beings - human or beast - love
        life and hate to die. They fear most the butcher's knife,
        which slices and chops them piece by piece. Instead of being
        cruel and mean, why not stop killing and cherish life?"


        Examiner contributor Ron Epstein, a Ukiah writer, has taught
        Chinese spiritual traditions since 1971 as part of the
        philosophy and religion program at San Francisco State