￼Understanding the Vietnamese custom of ‘going vegetarian’ based on the cycle of the full moon…
Vietnamese believe that the full moon is an analogy to one’s virtues. On the first and 15th day of the lunar month, locals, whether Buddhists or not, lay down their spicy meat stir-fries in favor of vegetables and meat substitutes. It’s a cultural belief that “an chay” – abstinence from meat and various stimulants – during this time will help them obtain good health and peace of mind.
“It certainly is true that the Vietnamese word ‘chay’ means to not eat meat, but that is not all it means,” says monk Ap Tich of Vinh Nghiem pagoda in District 3, who claims that the Vietnamese to English translation of “chay” as “vegetarian,” while correct, fails to communicate the spiritual undertone of the word. The Vietnamese perception of chay is loose and can either mean a long-term commitment or an intermittent bid to a spiritual and religious discipline.
“‘Chay’ is the common dysphemism of the word ‘trai’ or ‘trai tinh,’ a transcription of the Sanskrit word ‘Upavasatha.’ Its true meaning is to keep oneself pure and clean from worldly taints,” explains Ap Tich. “To keep oneself from taints does not merely mean to not eat fish or meat, but a true and complete restraint of self indulgences concerning food and drinks. Buddhist undergoing trai tinh abstain from extravagant meals, sweet pastries, wine and spirits of any kind. Their meals are reduced to only two or in some cases one per day and the portion is just enough to sustain the body. In other words, to undergo trai tinh is to create as little harm and waste to the world as possible. To seek trai tinh is to seek to sympathize and act with mercy towards all other living creatures. It is the slow path to enlightenment.”
According to Vietnamese Buddhist scripture, there are two primary ways to practice trai tinh. One is called chay truong, which means to completely commit to strict vegetarianism for life. The second is chay ky (meaning “vegetarianism on a schedule”) an intermittent vegetarianism on a fixed monthly or quarterly schedule. Chay ky is far more prevalent in Vietnamese culture. There are many types of chay ky, each of which follows a different schedule and timing. Nhi trai is to practice vegetarianism two times per month on the first day of the lunar month and the day of the full moon. Tu trai is to practice vegetarianism four times a month on the first day, the eighth, the 23rd of the lunar month and the day of the full moon. Similarly, luc trai is on the eighth, 14th, 15th, 23rd, 29th, and 30th day of the lunar month.
Nhat ngoat trai, which operates on a yearly schedule instead of monthly, is to practice vegetarianism for a full month in important Buddhist months like January, July and October. Tam ngoat trai which lasts for three months instead of one is on the same schedule.
“The final purpose of chay ky is to prepare Buddhists to eventual chay truong, a life of self-discipline and restraint, to inflict as little harm and to create as much good as possible to the world. The Vietnamese Buddhist definition of true life-long vegetarianism is far stricter than Western vegetarianism. It is no small feat to simply jump directly into chay truong, and such a life is naturally not for every Buddhist. For that purpose, chay ky serves as the primer to see if a Buddhist can adapt to chay truong and a prolonged, gradual transition that takes years to complete,” explains Ap Tich.
Hai, 42 and father to three teenage children, is a practitioner of tam ngoat trai and on the verge of full transition to chay truong.
“Buddha says he who seeks to harm none is rewarded with merits that will bring good fortune not only for himself but for his children and grandchildren as well,” he shares. “I have many children. A lot of merits from Buddha are not going to go to waste. In this tumultuous world, how do you know when you will need divine help to get you or your children out of trouble?”
Unlike Hai, Xuan, 23, and strictly not a Buddhist, doesn’t really buy in to the spiritual aspect of the practice. Xuan has been on and off her luc trai schedule for two years.
“It was difficult at first,” she confesses, “but after a while, I got used to it.” So why does she practice this custom while none of her family are followers of Buddhism? “It’s for my health. The Buddhists really mean it when they say to keep one pure and clean from worldly taints. Aside from meat, fish and spices, they also do not eat butter, cheese or greasy food. They refrain from using too much spice, salt and sugar. Their meals are very clean and light. When you examine it, it really is the ideal diet for optimum health. Western people have something similar they call a detox diet. Have you heard of it?”
Flexing her muscle for definition, Xuan adds: “I treasure my health above everything. You can’t buy health even if you have a fortune. We Vietnamese have a saying: ‘When we are young we sell our health for riches; when we are old we sell our riches for health.’ I’m not going to do something like that. I’m going to take care of my health when I’m still young. Riches will follow soon after.”
Mrs. Hue’s family in Go Vap are twice- a-month vegetarians in the karmic hopes that it will clean up their mistakes in life and to wish for peace. “I know that eating vegetarian food cannot help change my life, cannot turn me from poor to rich, but when I eat vegetarian food, I always feel peaceful. That’s enough!” she says.
During the days of chay ky, particularly on full moon days of each month, many pagodas treat their visitors and followers to free vegetarian meals:
– Xa Loi Pagoda, 89 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, D3
– An Quang Pagoda, 243 Su Van Hanh, D10
– Giac Lam Monastery (also the oldest Buddhist monastery in Saigon), 118 Lac Long Quan, Tan Binh
– Long Hue Pagoda, 131/27 Nguyen Thai Son, Go Vap
– Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, 339 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D3
These free vegetarian meals are communal and at fixed times, usually only after the main morning or afternoon prayer services.
Images by Ngoc Tran