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Sources of old Korean history tell the story of a monk named Won Gwang Beopsa who was approached by two youth, Gwisan and Chwihang. They ask him for advice, and he gives them five rules. Gwisan is confused about the fifth rule, so Beopsa elaborates a bit. However, I'm still confused about what he means. I understand that in days before refrigeration, meat would not keep long during the spring and summer, so killing during those months is more wasteful. It's also rather pointless to kill on a fasting day. Then he says to avoid killing domestic animals. This is where I get confused about his meaning. I can understand why you wouldn't want to kill beasts of burden. Cows and chickens, however, seem like animals that would be raised specifically for the purpose of food. Did they not eat poultry or beef? Is there a nuance with the translation that I'm missing? Would 'cow' have been better translated as 'ox' or something of that nature? What then of 'chicken'?

Really, I'd appreciate any insight you can provide into this story because I can't really find much information about it at all.

Below is the story according to the Haedong Goseungjeon and the English translation by Peter Lee.

沙梁部.貴山。帚頂。詣門摳衣告曰。 俗士顓蒙無所知識。願賜一言。為終身之誡。 師曰有菩薩戒。其別 有十。若等為人臣子。恐不能行。 今有世俗五戒。一曰事君以忠。 二曰奉親以孝。三曰交友以信。四曰臨 戰不退。 五曰殺生有擇。若等行之無忽。貴山曰。他則既受命矣。 但不曉殺生有擇。師曰。 春夏月及六齋 日不殺。是擇時也。不殺使畜。謂牛馬雞犬。 不殺細物。謂肉不足一臠。是擇物也。過此雖□所 □。但不 求多殺。此可謂世俗之善戒。 貴山等守而勿墮。

Gwi San and Chwi Hang from Saryang district came to the master's door and, lifting up their robes, respectfully said, "We are ignorant and without knowledge. Please give us a maxim which will serve to instruct us for the rest of our lives." The master replied, "There are ten commandments in the Boddhisattva ordination. But, since you are subjects and sons, I fear you cannot practice all of them. Now, here are five commandments for laymen: serve your sovereign with loyalty; tend to your parents with filial piety; treat your friends with sincerity; do not retreat from a battlefield; be discriminating about the taking of life. Exercise care in the performance of them." Gwi San said, "We accept your wishes with regard to the first four. But what is the meaning of being discriminating about the taking of life?" The master answered, "Not to kill during the months of spring and summer nor during the six maigre fast days is to choose the time. Not to kill domestic animals such as cows, horses, chickens, dogs, and tiny creatures whose meat is less than a mouthful is to choose the creatures. Though you may have the need, you should not kill often. These are the good rules for laymen." Gwi San and his friend adhered to them without ever breaking them.

I apologize if this is the wrong place for this question. If it is, please point me in the right direction.

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    In my opinion, killing animals is one thing and eating them is another. Your question relates to Buddhism rather than the Korean language. This page may help. – Klmo Jan 31 at 4:49
  • I feel like that this is about more of a Korean history than Korean language and linguistics, but that is still relevant to the purpose of this website? I can't think of any other place for discussing such a topic in English tbh. – Coconut Feb 2 at 10:09
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Korean translation for the whole story can be found here:


The story is about what's known as '원광의 세속오계 중 살생유택' that has much to do with Confucianism.

Four domestic animals mentioned here - cows, horses, chickens and dogs - at the time are considered workers rather than food. Cows are for plowing fields, horses for horseback riding, chickens for alarming people in the morning (male) and making eggs (female) and dogs for hunting. For a practical reason people didn't kill these animals unless it's necessary. It’s better to have them work for humans than to eat them.

These four animals are also a part of six livestock 六畜(육축; from 爾雅, 釋畜) that Confucianists breed for eating and to tribute to their ritual - cows, horses, chickens, dogs, sheep (lambs), and pigs.

Then Won Gwang tells that it's good to refrain from killing such working domestic animals, implying that it is okay to kill and eat the other ones such as sheep and pigs if necessary, as in "to choose the creatures" to be killed. And this makes it more of a Confucianists' idea than Buddhists. Otherwise it would've been something like 'never take a life of anything at all' based on their virtue 不殺生戒(불살생계). I believe Won Gwang's fifth rule is a compromise between Confucianism and Buddhism.

The historian Lee Byeong-do also has commented that the five rules is mostly related to Confucian virtues.

이른바 세속오계(世俗五戒)는 글자 그대로 세속적인 계명이니, 대개 유가의 덕목(忠·孝·信·勇·仁)에 의한 것이다. 오계 중'임전무퇴(臨戰無退)는 즉 용(勇)이요, 살생유택(殺生有擇)은 인(仁)이라 할 수 있다. 불가에서는 살생을 10악업(惡業)의 하나로 하여 엄금(嚴禁)하는 것이 그 근본 사상이다. 그러나 세속적인 계명인만큼 살생을 하되 불가의 속기일(俗忌日)인 6재일(齋日)에는 하지 말 것, 또 동물이 번식하는 춘하절에도 하지 말 것(이상은 택시(擇時)), 가축이나 미물을 죽이지 말것(이상은 택물(擇物)) 등인데, 그 중 6재일(齋日)을 제외하고는 모두 유가사상에서 나온 것이다. 원광은 유학에도 겸통(兼通)하고 또 국책(國策)에도 순응(順應)하던 고승이었기 때문에 그러한 세속적인 5계(戒)를 주었던 것이라고 해석된다

  • (이병도, 《국역 삼국사기》, 을유문화사 1977, 671쪽).

On the topic of translating the text...

I don't see any worng in Peter Lee’s translation of 謂牛馬雞犬; 'Such as cows, horses, chickens and dogs'. It seems that Koreans did not eat those creatures at all during the era Won Gwang lived. (Or they tried not to)

I think what’s missing in Peter's translation is the word 使畜(사축) from the line 不殺使畜。謂牛馬雞犬 - which he translated to 'domestic animals'. The original text 使畜 is meant to be not just about domestic animals but more specifically domestic animals that work for humans.

So my translation is this:

使畜 (사축)

  • (사람이) 부리는 짐승
  • Domestic animals that are used (by humans)
  • 使 = 일 시켜서 부려 먹는 (Servant)
  • 畜 = 가축 (Domestic animal)

不殺使畜。謂牛馬雞犬。

  • 일하는 가축(사축)들은 죽이지 않는다. 즉, 소나 말이나 닭이나 개.
  • Not to kill working domestic animals such as cows, horses, chickens and dogs.
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  • Buddhism, not Confucianism. – Hojin Cho Feb 1 at 1:49
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    @Hojin Cho Yeah this surely has a buddhist background. As suggested in the OP’s question we already know all this is about buddhism. I wasn’t just mentioning what seemed to be too obvious. But to point that to fully understand 세속오계 we could interpret this from the perspective of confucianism as well. – Coconut Feb 1 at 8:25
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    It's interesting because these texts often have to be analyzed from both Buddhist and Confucian perspectives. This work is attributed to the monk Gakhun, but it's possible he referenced the Samguk Sagi by Kim Busik. While the story takes place during a time when the Korean peninsula had largely adopted Buddhism, the recordings were made during a Confucian period. So you often need knowledge of Buddhism to understand the story and knowledge of Confucianism to understand the way it was written. – user2912891 Feb 1 at 14:24
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Historically, cows in East Asia have been more of workhorses(ironically) rather than meat. They are used to plow the field so that farmers could sow. Throughout the history of Korea, killing work-cows would've get you punished, and depending on the era, eligible for death sentence even if you own those cows. Also, they were used by many commoners and poor loyals as ride instead of horse, for several historical reasons I cannot explain in detail. The only cow-meat legally allowed to eat were usually those died of natural causes.

For chicken, it is for laying eggs. AFAIK it wasn't forbidden to eat them, and in the holidays and for visitors they were served, but still they were quite some assets. They are quite efficient in converting crops that people cannot eat into eggs.

Cows, chickens, horses, and dogs were all considered as edible meat sources, but they had other uses to raise as you see. Spring and summer in Korea were usually when it's short on foods (major harvest is fall, and minor one is in late-spring) while requiring a lot of workforce for farming. Starving farmers were tempted to kill those animals just to have a fine dinner or two, but it would cost their own annual crop yield, making them even poorer in the next year.

세속오계, on the other hand, has a Buddhist background. It teaches not to kill to eat, if possible. It must've had aforementioned logics behind as well, but as a result, it prevents people to kill less, and cherish lives more.

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