In this story, the Buddha is an elephant. When he was an elephant he lived alone in a beautiful jungle that was surrounded by a vast desert. He lived alone with the plants and the animals, but he rarely ever saw human beings because they didn't come through the desert into the jungle. So he lived a very happy solitary life.
One day he was in the jungle, and he heard some noise on the outskirts of the jungle, and he wondered what it was. So he wandered over towards the edge, and he looked and he saw hundreds and hundreds of people all with ragged clothing and very disheveled looking. They were all very hungry and thirsty and sick-looking. He wondered what was wrong with these people. So he went a little bit closer, and he saw even more people, and they were all very, very tired and ragged looking.
And as he got closer, the people caught sight of this huge elephant and they all got very frightened. But they we were so weak that they couldn't even run away. When the Elephant realized they were all frightened, he spoke to them in a human voice and he said, "No, no, don't be frightened. I am not here to hurt you, I want to help you. What's wrong?"
And the people said, "Oh, it is a very, very sad story. The king in our homeland got very angry with us one day and forced us all to leave our homes and wander through the desert. Our king has a very bad temper, we've all been wandering, and many of the people that left have already perished because of hunger and thirst, and we are so weak we don't know what we can do.
The Elephant was so moved by the story of these people and their condition that he began to cry. He felt so bad that he thought and thought of something that he could do to help these people, because he knew the desert was vast and that there would be no way they could cross it unless they had food and water. The Elephant thought and thought and thought.
And finally, he came up with a plan. He decided that he could give up his body to these people, and that they could use his flesh for nourishment and his entrails as waterbags to carry the water from the lake in the jungle.
The Elephant was going to go through with this plan, so he told the people that there was a lake with crystal blue water and many lilies and lotuses over near the mountainside. So, he lifted up his great trunk and pointed towards the mountain and told them to walk towards the lake. He also told them that once they had reached the lake and rested, that if they looked over near the mountainside, there would be the body of a dead elephant and that they could take the elephant and use his flesh as nourishment and his entrails as waterbags to carry water through the rest of their journey.
The people were very grateful and very happy. So they all thanked the Elephant and began to walk toward where he had pointed. The Elephant took a back way to the top of the mountain, and as he walked to the mountain he felt very happy and content in what he was doing. He knew that human beings had more opportunities than any other animals to do good in their lives and to reach different levels of spirituality. So he was very happy that he was going to help these people survive. And he realized that his body was just a material, earthly thing, and that his spirit would be able to live on.
The Elephant was very happy and content as he walked towards the mountainside. As he climbed up to the high peaks of the mountain, he made a vow to himself that he wasn't jumping off of this mountain to get into heaven, or to please the gods, to gain merits, or even as an escape from his life. He was doing it so that he can help these people because he felt compassion for their plight.
As the Elephant reached the top of the mountain, he tumbled down the high cliffs to the bottom. All the plants and the animals in jungle were aghast as they looked at the scene, and they said that it looked like the moon had fallen out of the sky, as this huge white elephant had tumbled down the mountainside. All the animals came to look, and some of them even cried. And the plants were all amazed, and they were so amazed by this feat that the flowers began to bloom out of season, and the fruits began to come on the trees, and the jungle smelled so sweet with all the flowers and fruits of the plants.
By this time, the people had journeyed to the lake, and they were ecstatic that they had found water and they drank and drank and drank and got well rested. And then they looked to the side of the mountain and, sure enough, there was a body of an elephant. Some of the people thought, "Maybe the elephant is the brother with the elephant that we saw earlier, or his father, because he looks just like the elephant we saw earlier." But then some people went closer and looked at the face and the gentle eyes and the trunk and realized that it was the same elephant they had seen earlier. They were all very sad at what had happened. They couldn't believe that the elephant would make such a sacrifice for them. All of the people were moved with emotion at this feat. Some of the people in the group said that it would be wrong for them to eat him now, that they should give him a formal cremation to honor his death. But some of the more levelheaded people in the group realized that that would not be honoring his death if they didn't do as he had wished and they would not survive if they could not eat him and take his entrails as waterbags. So they felt that the best thing to do would be to do as the Elephant had wished them to do, and take his flesh and entrails, in order that they could survive and continue on with their lives.
[Ed. Note] This is one of the religious stories that try to justify the eating of flesh by saying that the animals willingly sacrifice themselves for humans. Nothing is further from the truth! All anyone has to do is look at any animal before it is to be killed, and see the fear and the desire to live. They are murdered...they do not sacrifice themselves. See: Animal Exploitation Photo Journal & Gallery