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A Chef Forsakes Her Meat Cleavers

Wu Hui Li may be a vegetarian herself, but in the past, as a chef, her hands had not only instructed countless numbers of her students, they had also prepared countless varieties of animal flesh and sea creatures for human consumption. The karma of killing that she had accumulated over her entire life, coupled with that of her students, was immense. Moved by the message that we must respect all life, as advocated by Master Cheng Yen, Wu resolutely turned her back on her old profession, deciding that henceforth, she would respect the right to live for all creatures of creation.

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Wu gave up her high-paying job and became a vegetarian food culinary instructor with the Tzu Chi University Continuing Education Centre, in the process gaining much peace of mind. (Photo by Chua Teong Seng)

Every year, during the ceremony held to certify Tzu Chi commissioners, Master Cheng Yen would personally fasten on the name badge for commissioners and bestow on every one of them, the four Chinese words that together mean “to emulate the Buddha’s heart and take the Master’s mission as one’s own,”in the hopes that her disciples would become the living bodhisattvas that liberate the suffering of mankind. In 2009, Wu Hui Li made the trip to Taiwan to be personally certified by the Master. Vowing to be a good disciple, she took those four words to heart and was determined to liberate both herself and others.   

Dead Frog, Beating Heart

Wu is a chef by profession, and has been in the culinary line for more than 20 years. Life for her was like a spinning top, continually buzzing with the daily hustle and bustle of work. It was hitherto unfathomable to her that being a culinary instructor could exert such an agonizing toll on her spirit.

Wu is vegetarian herself, but her pair of hands had prepared countless varieties of animal flesh and sea creatures for human consumption, along with instructing countless numbers of students in the culinary arts. After she was certified a commissioner, Wu would still personally handle the preparation of meats and seafood; if Master Cheng Yen had not started expounding the “Water Repentance” text and encouraged the Repentance practice, in all probability, Wu would still be preoccupied with the bustling hive of activity in her own little world.    

Till now, Wu, who had always worked in hotels, can still remember in graphic detail, the images of animals being killed in the process of preparing food. One evening, as Wu was working alongside her fellow worker in the hotel kitchen, she saw him skin a frog alive. He ripped out its intestines and then tossed away a small piece of flesh. Seeing the bloody piece of meat that lay in the sink, pumping away rhythmically, Wu asked in curiosity: “What’s that?”

“It’s the frog’s heart……”Wu was shocked by the reply she received. A feeling of compassion arose in her heart as she wondered how humans could be so cruel. 

“The task I detest the most is the preparation of lobsters!”Wu recounts the dreadful experience of how she was once made to kill and cook more than twenty lobsters. In order to maintain their freshness and flavour, her supervisor had instructed her to pierce through each lobster with a metal skewer starting from its tail end to ensure that it would remain erect while cooking. The lobsters were immersed into boiling water for ten seconds, taken out, and dunked into icy cold water for another ten seconds. This process was repeated for a few more times, all in the name of satisfying man’s craving for fresh and tasty seafood.

The Tussle Between Good and Evil Begins

Wu had previously never felt that her job in the culinary line was a source of her creating negative karma. Now however, her eyes betrayed unspeakable remorse as she said, “When I pierced the metal skewers into the lobsters from their tail ends, they would discharge urine and emit squealing sounds. I would tell them repeatedly that it was not I that wanted to kill them, it was humans that wanted to eat them……”

While preparing poultry and seafood, Wu would always recite the Buddha’s name silently in her heart. In 2011, when efforts to promote the“Dharma as Water”stage adaptation were in progress, Wu was struck with a sense of unease by the stanzas that expressed repentance for the karma of killing. At first, she was still able to handle animal flesh; then it progressed to the point where she was not willing to touch meat, yet still had to because of the need to carry out her job.   The opposing forces of compassion and the practical realities of life began to play a merciless game of tug-of-war with her heart strings, nearly forcing her over the brink of depression.

When evening came, Wu would hide inside her room and eat dinner alone. Sometimes, she would stand by the window, entertaining thoughts of ending it all with one leap from where she stood. She spent a whole six months wallowing in heavyhearted melancholy; during the day, she would go to work as though things were normal, yet when nighfall came, the torturous inner struggle would start again, relentlessly gnawing away at her heart.  This state of affairs was to continue till 2011. When Wu accompanied her father, Mr Wu Zhen Zhou, to Taiwan for his certification as a commissioner, she had a sudden epiphany.

During the retreat, senior commissioner, Sister Lü Ci Yue respectfully put forth this question to Master Cheng Yen : “Master, every year (during this ceremony), each disciple of yours only has three seconds in front of you. One wonders if they will remember these three seconds, life after life? Would they hold dear in their hearts, their initial aspirations, and strive to actualize them lifetime after lifetime?”

These words penetrated Wu’s core and shook the very depths of her heart. Awakened as if from a slumber, she resolutely made the decision to resign from her job, vowing to assist in the work of Tzu Chi’s overseas missions upon her return to Singapore. The Master in return, gave her some words of encouragement, advising her to focus her attention on the Dharma and internalize the teachings, to never hesitate in doing the right thing, and to pay no heed to idle talk.

Father and Daughter Enter the Dharma Together

Returning to Singapore, Wu did not hesitate in handing in her resignation letter, and was invited to take up the position of a culinary instructor for the vegetarian cooking classes organized by the Tzu Chi Continuing Education Centre. Wu also took up the role as a sign language facilitator for the “Dharma as Water” stage adaptation. In giving up a job that paid her well, Wu gained in return, a great ease and lightness of heart. She would no longer be creating negative affinities with fellow beings, but would instead create positive affinities with others through encouraging them to enter the Dharma with her.

Since she started becoming actively involved in Tzu Chi, Wu discovered that though she did not have as much opportunities for work as before, she had gained inner peace. Every day, she would be engaged in good deeds and meaningful activities, and the pair of hands that once took the lives of countless creatures had now become instruments for spreading the Dharma teachings.     

“My greatest gain is that I can stand together with my father on the same stage to present the teachings contained in the “Dharma as Water” stage adaptation. This is an incredibly blessed opportunity, the culmination of aeons of affinity cultivated through countless lifetimes.” Watching her father present the sign language with such sincerity, Wu is filled with mixed emotions. She could not bear to see her father, who was getting on in years, going through the kneeling actions as she knew how painful it was on his knees. Yet she was grateful for the opportunity to present the adaptation together on stage with her father. Just as stated in the “Sutra Opening Verse,” “rare is the opportunity to encounter (the Dharma),”and Wu is especially aware that she must cherish this opportunity.

With a purified heart, Wu wants to walk the Tzu Chi path with her family. Having undergone a spiritual trial by fire, she harbours no regrets in laying down the meat cleavers and aspires to uphold the vegetarian precepts life after life, that she may never again hear the mournful cries of the slaughtered.

In 2011, Wu accompanied her father, Mr Wu Zhen Zhou, to Taiwan to be certified as a Tzu Chi commissioner. Provided by Wu Hui Li

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