Hidden away in the vast collection of the Buddha’s teachings called the “Connected Discourses” (Samyutta Nikaya) we discover what is perhaps the bleakest and most powerful of his parables, “The Son’s Flesh” (12.63; I quote the main part in full at the end of this essay). It is one of those teachings that can act like a bucket of icy water on a drunk man. In it, a family of three — mother, father, son — are crossing a desert. They have run out of food and water, yet still have a stretch of desert to cross before reaching an oasis. Are they all going to die, or is there only hope of two of them making it if they eat the third? If so, who will be killed and eaten? After some deliberation, they decide to eat the child, possibly because it is already in a more weakened state than the others; or because the family unit is stronger if both parents survive. They kill him, and by rationing out the dried and roasted meat over the ensuing week they manage to reach the oasis. The crucial part of the parable is not the killing and eating, but the parents’ feelings about it. Will they enjoy the taste of the meat, or take an iota of pleasure in it? No, the Buddha’s disciples instantly reply, with each mouthful they will beat their breasts and weep for their child, crying “Child, where are you? Where are you?” The only reason they are eating it is to get across the desert.
The lesson is about more than the horrors of cannibalism or of carnivorous life. It is given in the context of a series of teachings about the “nutrients,” which include biological nutrition, but also sense-impressions, “volitional thought,” and consciousness. The “nutrients” are all those things we have to take in, consume, digest, in order to continue existing; they are the sweeping, roaring river that feeds the life of our being. In this essay I’m going to focus on bodily food, but as we will see, this notion encompasses not only what we put in our mouths but everything that gives material support to our continued existence and yet is largely invisible to us.
The food we hold at the end of our fork is not just a lump of edible matter but the whole world of activity that went into its production. There was a cook. There were farmers, usually migrant workers working in inhuman conditions, who do the back-breaking labor of preparing the soil, planting, daily tending, harvesting, gathering, carrying, sorting, and more; often these are children. There are the animals, human beings, native plant species that were driven or burnt off the land so that it could be made to feed a whole population — and the land itself deteriorates under the pressure. There are the food-plant workers who package the food, the transportation workers who get it to our shop, the retail workers who arrange, store, and sell it to us. The list of sentient beings involved is dizzying to contemplate, and if we are honest we can also admit that we pay as little as possible for this food, shopping where we get the best deal. Because of this it is very difficult for all those people responsible for our food to rise above their often brutal and dehumanizing working lives — lives that we ourselves would never choose to have. We are not to blame for this; we need to be economical in our expenditures, not just for ourselves but for the sakes of those who depend on us. In this process there are also all those machines, tools, vehicles, which are produced and have equally complicated conditions: they too are worlds. And all the people involved — including the ones who don’t physically labor but who deal with organization and money, and who make the prices “competitive” so that we can afford it, and all those people who invest in food-producing companies so that they stay financially strong — all of these people need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, in other webs of activity: worlds behind worlds behind worlds. And there is the fuel for running and making those machines, for processing the raw agricultural produce, for treating and delivering the fabric for the workers’ clothes…and the people and machines, the wars and political coercion, the defense and security apparatus, for guaranteeing that fuel. If we went out and looked, we would see tremendous suffering in these worlds of production, but an intelligent and imaginative person is capable of inferring from such things as low prices, and where this food comes from, that the production of food is not pretty. This is especially true of meat production, of course — which is one reason why slaughter-houses do not have big glass windows. And this is also why the ads and posters for our foodstuffs always show clichéd agrarian idylls and never the actual conditions of food production — because if they did, most people wouldn’t want to eat.
All this constitutes our forkful. It is not mere matter, mere chemical constituents, that we are putting in our mouths — but worlds of activity by millions, maybe billions, of beings. When we contemplate this, how is it possible for a thoughtful being to “enjoy” the mouthful? I love my dogs and cats, yet a pig or cow is at least as sensitive and intelligent as my dog Jake, who picks me up when I am down — and if I were to kill and eat Jake simply because I liked the taste, would that not be an act of dehumanizing barbarism? — dehumanizing of me, that is. Even more so if I were to repress what I know or infer of the production chain behind my forkful, and mindlessly “enjoy” it as if none of that suffering exists. This is what the Buddha is saying with the Parable of the Son’s Flesh. It is not that we shouldn’t enjoy our food; it is that if we consider it and are aware of what it actually is, how can we? This is not squeamishness, or a puritannical pushing away of pleasure, but a humane activity of intelligence that faces squarely the conditions of our existence and does not blink. If you can do that and still enjoy your food, go for it. If you can’t enjoy your food any more, at least not as much, you will still eat — but you may be more careful, more respectful, less wasteful, less cavalier: less inebriated.
Of course, the Parable of the Son’s Flesh concerns much more than food. The sources of energy that feed our world would be another kind of “nutrient.” In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell vividly described the realities of coal production: how miners would work at a coal face three to four feet high, digging on their knees, each man expecting to produce at a rate of two tons an hour, for over seven hours; how the coal faces could lie as far as five miles from the elevator, to be reached by an arduous trek down low tunnels, a trek comparable in exertion to climbing a small mountain to get to work, and for which the men were not paid; the deafening noise of the machines, the clouds of coal dust, the acrid smell — and above all, how ignorant the above-ground civilization was of this vast subterranean industry that maintained every aspect of its being. The very desk I am writing on may well be perched high above a labyrinth of tunnels down which thousands of human beings less fortunate than I have trudged and sweated, and yet I have been wholly unaware of this. “You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower,” Orwell remarks. “But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves.” Mutatis mutandis, everything he says can apply to our relation to our primary sources of fuel today. We have an interest in keeping its production invisible, or pretending that it is invisible, because only thus can we consider ourselves “above it” and devoted to higher things. The Parable of the Son’s Flesh is a stern reminder of the realities of our consumption, but regular reflection on this austere teaching can detach us at least a little from “healthy callousness” and reconnect us with our fundamental humaneness and dignity.
It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.
The Son’s Flesh (excerpt, SN 12.63)
“There are, O monks, four nutriments for the sustenance of beings born, and for the support of beings seeking birth. What are the four?
“Edible food, coarse and fine; secondly, sense-impression; thirdly, volitional thought; fourthly, consciousness.
“How, O monks, should the nutriment edible food be considered? Suppose a couple, husband and wife, have set out on a journey through the desert, carrying only limited provisions. They have with them their only son, dearly beloved by them. Now, while these two traveled through the desert, their limited stock of provisions ran out and came to an end, but there was still a stretch of desert not yet crossed. Then the two thought: ‘Our small stock of provisions has run out, it has come to an end; and there is still a stretch of desert that is not yet crossed. Should we not kill our only son, so dearly beloved, prepare dried and roasted meat, and eating our son’s flesh, we may cross in that way the remaining part of the desert, lest all three of us perish?’
“And these two, husband and wife, killed their only son, so dearly beloved by them, prepared dried and roasted meat, and, eating their son’s flesh, crossed in that way the remaining part of the desert. And while eating their son’s flesh, they were beating their breast and crying: ‘Where are you, our only and beloved son? Where are you, our only and beloved son?’
“What do you think, O monks? Will they eat the food for the pleasure of it, for enjoyment, for comeliness’ sake, for (the body’s) embellishment?”
“Certainly not, O Lord.”
“Will they not rather eat the food merely for the sake of crossing the desert?”
“So it is, O Lord.”