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Protecting Insects in Medieval Chinese Buddhism: Daoxuan’s Vinaya Commentaries

Issue: Vol 37 No. 1 (2020)

Journal: Buddhist Studies Review

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies

DOI: 10.1558/bsrv.18495


Buddhist texts generally prohibit the killing of all sentient beings. This is certainly the case in vinaya (disciplinary) texts, which contain strict guidelines on the preservation of all human and animal life. When these vinaya texts were translated into Chinese, they formed the core of Buddhist behavioural codes, influencing both monastic and lay followers. Chinese vinaya masters, such as Daoxuan 道宣 (596–667) and Yijing 義淨 (635–713), wrote extensive commentaries and accounts, introducing Indian concepts into the Chinese environment. In this paper, we focus on an often neglected aspect of inflicting harm on sentient beings: namely, the injury that may be caused to some of the world’s smallest animals — insects. Some insects produce economically valuable products, such as silk and honey; others, such as mosquitoes and bedbugs, are annoying or dangerous; and still others are innocent victims of essential human activities, such as earthworms that are killed when farmland is tilled. Yet, all of these are sentient beings that — according to Buddhist principles — should not be harmed or killed. What this implies for Chinese vinaya masters, and especially the highly influential Daoxuan, is the core question of this paper. As we will see, their responses are mixed, but they always attempt to remain true to the basic principles of Buddhism.

Author: Ann Heirman

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