Eating Meat Is Equivalent to Eating People

Stand outside a slaughterhouse at midnight. Listen to the pigs, sheep, and cows bleating and wailing, begging for their lives. Then, you’ll know where war comes from.

For hundreds of thousands of years, the stew in the pot
Has boiled up a resentment that is very hard to level.
If you want to know why there are calamities and wars in the world,
Just listen to the sounds that come from a slaughterhouse at midnight.

From ancient times until the present, people have enjoyed benefiting themselves and sustaining their own lives by taking the lives of others. In life after life, people have been slaughtering and devouring one another. The hatred in the resulting “meat stew” is as deep as the sea. Human beings have taken the lives of the smaller and weaker creatures by force, ignoring the fact that all beings wish to live and are afraid of dying. Before those creatures die, their minds are overwhelmed by hatred and thoughts of revenge. There is no way to quell the feelings of enmity.

Do you want to know where war comes from? Stand outside a slaughterhouse at midnight and listen to the pigs, sheep, and cows bleating and wailing, begging for their lives, and you’ll understand where war comes from. For example, take the past war between North and South Vietnam, and the current war between Argentina and England. These wars arise because people have done too much killing. That’s why countries annihilate each other now with planes, cannons and missiles. A saying goes:

In the Chinese character for “meat” there are two people:
The one inside has been caught by the one outside.
When beings eat the flesh of other beings…
Why, if one really stops to think about it, isn’t that just people eating people?

The Chinese character for meat “meat” 肉 is a pictogram of an open mouth 口 (a box) with two people 人, one inside and one outside. The one outside is trying to get in, and the one inside is trying to get out. He is trapped inside this pen of death by the person outside. This character depicts one person eating the flesh of another. The one eating the meat is on the outside, still in human form, while the one being eaten is trapped inside and has already turned into an animal. Even though the mouth is open, his escape is blocked by the person outside. The box could represent a sheep pen, a pig pen, or a cattle pen. The one about to be eaten lives inside, while the person outside stands guard, because he wants to eat the flesh of the one inside.

Unable to extricate themselves from the bonds of enmity, the meat eater and the one being eaten follow each other like shadows. We are beings, and yet we eat the flesh of other beings, such as cows, sheep, horses, chickens, dogs, and pigs. Some people say God put these animals here for us to eat. If people are supposed to eat animals, who is supposed to eat people? Creatures, whether or not put here by God, aren’t necessarily meant for human consumption. Since humans are slightly more intelligent that other animals, they prey on and devour the flesh of their weaker fellow creatures.

If you think about what is actually happening when people eat meat, you’ll see that it’s really people eating people. In light of this, you ought to consider whether the person being eaten (who has already taken the form of a cow, sheep, horse, or pig) might have been related to you.

The Shurangama Sutra says, “ Sheep can become people again.” If sheep can turn back into people, other animals should be able to do so as well. We fail to recognize them because they have changed costumes and faces. Has it ever occurred to you that these pigs, cows, and sheep could be your old friends and relatives? In fact, they may very well have been your parents from last life, from this life, or from some life beginningless eons ago. How unfilial it would be to eat the flesh of your own parents!

You should realize that meat-eating is really people eating people. People eat pigs, and then the people and pigs trade places and the eaters get eaten. As the cycle of vengeful devouring continues, enmity deepens and people become more greedy. This karmic enmity causes people to crave delicious food and drives them on to nourish themselves with the flesh of others.

If you are skeptical, let me give you an example. During the time of Emperor Wu of Liang Dynasty, when Buddhism flourished, it was a custom for families to invite monks to recite Sutras and mantras on the occasion of weddings and funerals. One time a wealthy family asked Venerable Patriarch Zhi to recite Sutras for a wedding. Venerable Patriarch Zhi was an enlightened master who could see into the past and future. When he arrived, he looked around and said,

Strange indeed! Strange indeed!
The grandson marries the grandmother.
The daughter eats the mother’s flesh;
The son beats a drum made with his father’s skin.
Pigs and sheep are sitting on the couch,
And the six types of relatives are cooking in the pot.
Everyone has come to celebrate, but I see it as real suffering.

What was so strange? The grandson was marrying the grandmother. Right before the grandmother died, she worried that no one would take care of her young grandson. Who would help him raise a family and establish his career in the future? She died holding onto her little grandson’s hand.

When she went before King Yama, she wept and said, “King Yama, please do me this one favor. My grandson is all alone. Won’t you please let me go back to look after him?”

King Yama, who had a soft heart, said, “Okay, you can go back and be his wife!” And so the grandmother was reborn into the world as a girl, and when she grew up she married her former grandson. She had merely changed her appearance, putting on a different costume, but no one recognized whom she was. Only Venerable Patriarch Zhi recognized her, and so he said, “Strange indeed! Strange indeed! The grandson marries the grandmother.”

Noticing a little girl chewing on a pig’s foot, he remarked, “The daughter eats her mother’s flesh.” The girl’s mother had been reborn as a pig because of the grave offenses she had committed. The pig had been slaughtered and used in preparing a gourment dish, and now the little girl was eating her own mother’s flesh.

Patriarch Zhi then looked in the courtyard and saw a boy happily beating on a drum stretched with mule hide. He said, “The son beats on his father’s skin.” The boy’s father had committed offenses and had been reborn as a mule. After the mule had died, its hide had been used to make the drum. Not knowing that the drum was made from his father’s skin, the boy was merrily beating on it.

Then Patriarch glanced over at the couch and saw that the relatives sitting there were pigs, cows, and sheep that had been eaten in the past. And the meat cooking in the pot had been the six types of close relatives in the past. And so, Patriarch Zhi said, “Everyone here thinks this is a joyous occasion and congratulates the host on getting a new daughter-in-law. But from my point of view, this is true suffering!” Everyone is caught in the cycle of birth and death, paying off debts by killing and eating one another. This is indescribable suffering. If you don’t eat the flesh of others, you yourself will not be eaten. “Dharma Master,” you say, “I simply can’t believe you!” If you don’t believe me, that’s OK! Go ahead and try it out yourself!

A talk given on May 30, 1982
At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas