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
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
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