When you these days ask a modern Chinese what 葷 (Hūn) means he would most probably answer “Meat and fish”. Unfortunately, many modern Chinese only know so much about Buddhism that there is a prohibition of 葷 (Hūn), with which they mean that monks and nuns does not eat meat or fish. Not only that Buddhism in reality is much profounder and mystical than that, the original meaning of 葷 (Hūn) is also actually completely different.
Then what does 葷 (Hūn) now actually mean? Originally the character describes plants with an eye-stinging smell, which includes onion, ginger and garlic. This you can also recognize if you take a close look at the radicals of the character. The character 葷 consists of two parts, where the upper radical ⺾ (cǎo) means grass and the lower radical軍 (jūn) means army. The eye-stinging smell of onion, ginger and garlic can fuel human feelings such as fighting spirit and anger, like when soldiers are fighting on the battlefield. That is why ancient Chinese called such grass-plants “military plants”.
Then why does 葷 (Hūn) today also refer to meat and fish, even though this meaning is not contained in the components of the character? Already during the days of early Buddhism there existed the prohibition of 葷 (Hūn). As Buddha Shakyamuni about 500 BC lead his disciples to cultivate themselves solidly in the deep forests and mountain caves they meditated together in small groups. Everything that could prevent the monks and the nuns from reaching tranquility and was impeding their cultivation method was considered as a serious interference.
When somebody ate onion, ginger or garlic a very strong and agitating smell arose that seriously disturbed the others concentration during meditation. Consequently the commandment that such food is not to be eaten came about. The monks also noticed that it was easy to develop addictions to such food if you ate too much of it. Since the monks committed themselves to take mundane feelings and desires lightly, this type of food was considered as 葷 (Hūn). Not until much later during the north and the south Song Dynasty, when larger areas of land were cultivated with grains and vegetables, did the prohibition for monks and nuns to eat meat and fish came about. The emperor Liangwudi from the Liang Dynasty was a very pious Buddhist believer. To promote the principle of “no killing”, he prohibited monks and nuns to eat meat and fish.
By Christian Nilsson