Buddha teaches us to view every meal as if we were reluctant cannibals: Samyukta Agama Sutra 373, the Four Nutriments

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    In The Discourse on the Four Nutriments, Gautama Buddha tells the story of a mother and father, lost in the desert and starving, resorting to cannibalism of their own son to survive. [Full sutta below.] No, this wasn’t a dissertation on the horrors of killing or filicide. The most venerable Thich Nhat Hanh explained:

    “The Buddha advised us to identify the kinds of nutriments that have been feeding our pain and then simply to stop ingesting them.  The Buddha is a physician.  That is why he invited us to bring our suffering to him.  We are also physicians.  We must be determined to transform our difficulties, to confirm that well-being is possible.” [1]

    The Four Kinds of Nutriments

    The Four Kinds of Nutriments was, according to some commentaries, code for The Four Noble Truths. The Buddha was graphically illustrating the Four Noble Truths — without using the “trade jargon”, so to speak — specifically for listeners who might have difficulty accepting the first Noble Truth that “life is suffering.” Buddha is famous for skilful means of teaching — using the metaphor or allegory, and different styles of teaching — and, of course, different practices according to Pali Sutta, Mahayana Sutra and Tantra.

    To a Brahmin, he might use hard-hitting debate. To the king, he might use warrior-like language. To the monk, he might speak as plainly and emphatically as possible. To the lay person, he might use allegorical stories, perhaps illustrating with ordinary people doing ordinary things.

    Laypeople, busy with their hectic lives, might not respond to the core truth of the Four Noble Truths, but might react to the “four nutrients”:

    • First Noble Truth that life is suffering, the reality of suffering — becomes the nutriment of “food” that sustains us — living off the flesh of our own child as the metaphor.
    • Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering — becomes the nutriment of our “senses” that cause us to cling, crave, or repulse — a cow with no skin being bitten by blood sucking maggots as the metaphor.
    • Third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering — becomes the nutriment of “volition”, our intention and choices that can make a difference — the pit of glowing charcoal embers as the metaphor.
    • Fourth Noble Truth, the path leading us out of suffering — becomes the nutriment of “consciousness”, the steps we take towards freedom, such as Right Speech and Right Actions and so on — with the allegory of a prisoner being stabbed by 300 swords as punishment for his actions, where the Buddha also teaches us to skillfully dodge the stab attempts.

    Cannibalism of your own child?

    Carrying on the “nutriments” theme, the gist of the teaching was that all that we see, feel, enjoy, despise, hate — these are all mental formations that only come about because they are “fed” in the wrong way.

    What better way to illustrate “fed in the wrong way”, than with the story of a mother and father feasting on their own child’s flesh to survive!

    Gautama Buddha’s popularity as a teacher — in his day, and in the thousands of years since — is due to many things, not least among them the truth of the Dharma he taught. Across the centuries, though, when a student reads the great teacher’s words in the Suttas, you cannot help but be struck by both the charisma of the teacher and the humanity and down-to-earth nature of his sometimes very-graphic teachings.

    Buddha used extremely graphic imagery to express the teaching. He says:

    “Bhikkhus, how should a practitioner regard edible food? Imagine a young couple with a baby boy whom they look after and raise with all their love. One day they decide to bring their son to another country to make their living.  They have to go through the difficulties and dangers of a desert. During the journey, they run out of provisions and fall extremely hungry. There is no way out for them and they discuss the following plan:

    “We only have one son whom we love with all our heart.  If we eat his flesh we shall survive and manage to overcome this dangerous situation.If we do not eat his flesh all three of us will die.” After this discussion, they killed their son, with tears of pain and gritting their teeth they ate the flesh of their son, just so as to be able to live and come out of the desert.”

    Yes, it makes us cringe, and it is meant to. No, he wasn’t advocating veganism in this particular sutta — the precepts and other suttas address that topic — he was speaking of attachment to sensual pleasures. After grilling the monks on the meaning of the allegory, he answers:

    “Monks,every time we ingest edible food, we should train ourselves to look at it as our son’s flesh. If we meditate on it in this way we shall have clear insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions about edible food and our attachment to sensual pleasures will dissolve. Once the attachment to sensual pleasures is transformed there are no longer any internal formations concerning the five objects of sensual pleasure in the noble disciple who applies himself to the training and the practice. When the internal formations still bind us we have to keep returning to this world.”

    Below is the full sutra, translated to English by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh:

    Discourse on the Four Kinds of Nutriments

    This is what I heard one time when the Buddha was in the Anathapindika Monastery in the Jeta Grove near to the town of Shravasti. That day the Buddha told the monks:

    “There are four kinds of nutriments which enable living beings to grow and maintain life.What are these four nutriments? The first is edible food, the second is the food of sense impressions, the third is the food of volition, and the fourth is the food of consciousness.”

    “Bhikkhus, how should a practitioner regard edible food? Imagine a young couple with a baby boy whom they look after and raise with all their love. One day they decide to bring their son to another country to make their living.  They have to go through the difficulties and dangers of a desert. During the journey, they run out of provisions and fall extremely hungry. There is no way out for them and they discuss the following plan:

    “We only have one son whom we love with all our heart.  If we eat his flesh we shall survive and manage to overcome this dangerous situation.If we do not eat his flesh all three of us will die.” After this discussion,they killed their son, with tears of pain and gritting their teeth they ate the flesh of their son,just so as to be able to live and come out of the desert.”

    The Buddha asked:  “Do you think that couple ate their son’s flesh because they wanted to enjoy its taste and because they wanted their bodies to have the nutriment that would make them more beautiful?”

    The monks replied: “No,Venerable Lord.”

    The Buddha asked:  “Were the couple forced to eat their son’s flesh in order to survive and escape from the dangers of the desert?”

    The monks replied: “Yes,Venerable Lord.”

    The Buddha taught: “Monks,every time we ingest edible food, we should train ourselves to look at it as our son’s flesh. If we meditate on it in this way we shall have clear insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions about edible food and our attachment to sensual pleasures will dissolve. Once the attachment to sensual pleasures is transformed there are no longer any internal formations concerning the five objects of sensual pleasure in the noble disciple who applies himself to the training and the practice. When the internal formations still bind us we have to keep returning to this world.

    “How should the practitioner meditate on the food of sense impressions? Imagine a cow which has lost its skin. Wherever it goes the insects and maggots which live in the earth, in the dust and on the vegetation attach themselves to the cow and suck its blood. If the cow lies on the earth, the maggots in the earth will attach themselves to it and feed off of it. Whether lying down or standing up,the cow will be irritated and suffer pain. When you ingest the food of sense impressions, you should practice to see it in this light. You will have insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions concerning the food of sense impressions. When you have this insight you will no longer be attached to the three kinds of feeling. When no longer attached to the three kinds of feeling the noble disciple does not need to strive anymore because whatever needs to be done has already been done.

    “How should the practitioner meditate on the food of volition? Imagine there is a village or a large town near to a pit of burning charcoal. There are only the smokeless, glowing embers left. Now there is an intelligent man with enough wisdom who does not want to suffer and only wants happiness and peace. He does not want to die and he only wants to live. He thinks: “Over there the heat is very great, although there is no smoke and there are no flames. Still, if I have to go into that pit there is no doubt that I shall die.”  Knowing this he is determined to leave that large town or that village and go somewhere else.

    The practitioner should meditate like this on the food of volition. Meditating like this he will have insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions about the food of volition. When he arrives at that understanding the three kinds of craving will be ended. When these three cravings are ended, the noble disciple who trains and practices will have no more work to do, because whatever needs to be done has already been done.

    “How should the practitioner meditate on the food of consciousness? Imagine that the soldiers of the king have arrested a criminal. They bind him and bring him to the king. Because he has committed theft he is punished by people piercing his body with three hundred knives. He is assailed by fear and pain all day and all night. The practitioner should regard the food of consciousness in this light. If he does he will have insight and understanding which puts an end to misperceptions concerning the food of consciousness. When he has this understanding regarding the food of consciousness the noble disciple who trains and practices will not need to strive anymore because whatever needs to be done has been done.”

    When the Buddha had spoken, the monks were very happy to put the teachings into practice.

     

    NOTES

    [1] The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh

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    Josephine Nolan

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.

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