Many people have asked me why I wanted my children to be vegetarian, even when they were just unborn foetuses, and some have asked me why I stick to a vegetarian diet. In fact, these were never simple decisions for me and I was faced with many challenges. Yet, I am grateful that I made the right decision.
Vegetarianism From the Very Start, a Lifetime Decision
In 2008, I was in Taiwan for a training camp for global Tzu Chi volunteers; there I found out about the benefits of vegetarianism and made a vow to stay vegetarian for life. At the end of the following year, when Master Cheng Yen urged the Tzu Chings (Tzu Chi Collegiate Youth members) to adopt vegetarianism if they wished to be her followers life after life, my husband and myself, a Tzu Ching senior, felt our resolve strengthen. We also aspired to have our future children start life as a “vegetarian foetus.”
My mother a Tzu Chi volunteer herself, also supported my decision. During my pregnancy, apart from the tonics prescribed to me by the TCM physician, I also consumed a nutrient-rich milk formula meant for pregnant mothers, however my body could not get used to it. I later switched to consuming Tzu Chi’s Jing Si multigrain drink* (with added black sesame powder) and it suited my body fine.
At the beginning of my pregnancy, I faced many challenges. I have heard others say that whatever the foetus wishes to eat, the expectant mother would then crave the same. Unable to resist temptation, I ate chicken rice for dinner for a whole week and my heart was filled with sadness and regret. However, I was lucky to have the support of good friends like my former Tzu Ching mentor, Brother Ouyang Ji Guan, who told me that I had to start pre-natal education and spend time talking to my unborn child. He also told me that I should attend the group study sessions and absorb more of Master Cheng Yen’s teachings.
That piece of advice woke me up, and that day, as I played the Tzu Chi song, “Three Vows of Sincerity,” I rubbed my tummy and spoke to my unborn child asking, “Mum and dad are vegetarians. Are you willing to be like us?” After I finished I could not help but burst into tears. I felt as if I had left my cravings and ignorance behind. Strangely enough, I was able to continue with a vegetarian diet till my child was born.
During the pregnancy, I continued attending Tzu Chi activities because it was not only a form of pre-natal education, it was also a way to remind myself that pregnancy was just a part of the physiological changes in one’s life. I remember how I would conduct house visits, take part in recycling activities and group study sessions despite my heavy belly. Faith and resolve are truly very important.
Vegetarian Food ─ Colourful, Healthy, and Tasty
In 2010 and 2012, after the birth of my two children, I put even more thought into my children’s diet. I insisted on breastfeeding them, and after they were weaned, they started consuming bean milk powder. I did not let them consume any dairy products. I got vegetarian dietary tips and recipes from a Da Ai TV programme, my mother, and the children’s nanny, in order to ensure that my children received sufficient nutrition. As long as the food for that day satisfied the “five-colour nutritional requirements (green, red, white, yellow and black)”, it was fine. Beans, fruit, and vegetables were the important staples, and sometimes I would add mushrooms and edible fungi so that they would realize that vegetarian food is actually delicious.
In the past, I tended to use processed vegetarian products in my cooking, which was not very healthy. After I watched the vegetarian culinary programme on Da Ai TV, I was very happy as I picked up the skills I needed. The cooking methods and dishes were all very beneficial to health; fresh vegetables and grains were used in favour of processed products and the preparation methods were time-saving. Pumpkin, corn and carrot congee, tomato and pumpkin rice etc. are some of my children’s favourite dishes.
Vegetarian children do not suffer from poor immune systems and are not picky eaters. From my memory, my daughters have only been afflicted with mild colds and coughs, and they have strong bodies.
Vegetarianism With Compassion
As my daughters grow up, they sometimes ask me questions about vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. Once, the nanny’s mother-in-law was frying some chicken wings and the smell was very enticing. This prompted Yi Xin to ask their nanny, “ Aunty mama, what is that?” The nanny replied that it was chicken wings, and because Yi Xin and her sister were vegetarian, they could not eat them. Upon hearing that, Yi Xin did not request to eat it again and sometimes if they saw their nanny eating chicken meat, they would tell her, “ Aunty mama, we can’t and don’t eat meat, therefore you shouldn’t either.”
On another occasion, Yi Xin saw her cousin eating fried fish and asked me what it was. I explained that it was fish. “It was a living being before and could swim about. Now, it has become the food of us humans. When we eat it up, the mother fish can no longer find her little fish and will be heartbroken.” Hearing my explanation, she was very sad and after a pause told me, “Mummy, I will eat my vegetables and tofu”, before continuing with her rice happily.
Yi Xin loves little creatures, especially snails. Every night, my husband and myself will walk them home from the nanny’s house. Sometimes, we would see snails on the ground after it had rained. We would tell her that these were snails and let her see them crawling slowly but surely across the ground. We would even bade them “bye bye” when we left.
One day, she asked what was on the snail’s back. I explained that it was the snail’s home. Every day, the snail would carry its home on its back as it ventured outdoors and sometimes, careless people would step on it, flattening its house and killing it in the process. The day came when Yi Xin got off a bus and saw a flattened snail. She looked at it and told me, “Mummy, I feel frightened after seeing this; the snail has died.” Her father wisely told her not to fret as we could all pray for the snail by chanting the Buddha’s name. This cheered her up again and she chanted the Buddha’s name along with us.
Purity for the Soul
Ever since my daughters were a month old, I have brought them along to Tzu Chi activities and this practice has never stopped. They get along fine with others and since she was young, Yi Xin would never fail to greet her elders, whether she knew them or not. Sometimes, she would even say hello to the neighbours taking the same lift as us.
Over these five years, I’ve noticed that children who follow vegetarian diets are very patient. On the first day of the lunar month this year, I woke them up at 3am and from 4am onwards, they were together with us at the Jing Si Hall, doing the same as we knelt, prayed, and did walking meditation. Two hours flew by like this and not once did they yawn or laze about.
At group study sessions, Yi Xin would sit by quietly. In 2013, when my husband and I participated in the “Dharma as Water” sutra adaptation, both she and her sister would behave themselves very well onsite as we took part in the intensive rehearsals which were held after work.
The following year, the Tzu Chings were preparing for the “Profound Parental Love” musical, and so I took Yi Xin along to be part of the presentation. There were some challenges at the beginning as I had to facilitate her interaction with the other adults and Tzu Ching presenters. Though her time on stage was just a few short minutes, she had to be present during all the rehearsals. On the actual day of the presentation, she was running a fever but still insisted on staying through the three acts. This child truly gives me great peace of mind.
In January this year, my daughters took part in the Tzu Chi Year-end Blessing Ceremony. They were very interested in the bamboo coin bank and I told them, “After you bring it home, you must donate some money into it and help the Master (in helping the needy) every single day.” From that day onwards, I would prepare some small change for them before they went to school and ask, “Do you want to help the Master today?” This never fails to get them to happily drop a few coins inside (to donate to Tzu Chi to help those in need).
“I am Phoon Yi Xin, and I am five years old this year. When I was still a baby inside Mummy’s belly, I was already a vegetarian.” Now, whenever others ask if Yi Xin is a vegetarian, she would answer in this manner as a joyful and contented smile stretched across her innocent face.
* The Jing Si natural products are lifestyle and food items produced by the monastics from the Jing Si Abode. They are retailed by the Jing Si Book Cafes and Jing Si Book Huts in the various Tzu Chi offices worldwide.