The One Who Shoulders Cow Dung

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Cow Dung Buddhist Story

There is an interesting Buddhist story that I would like to share with you. In India, cow dung has been considered valuable since ancient times. Indian people use it as both fuel and manure and they smear it on the outside walls of their house so that it dries. One day as a man was walking along a mountain road, he noticed piles of dry cow dung lying there. The man cried, “Wow, I found treasure! And there is no need to wait for it to dry! I am so lucky!” He then started to put them in his basket. No matter how much he picked up, there was still more. “Wow, I can sell all of these! I found gold!” the man cried again. After filling the basket with the dried cow dung, he tottered down the mountain because of the weight.

But as he continued down the mountain towards home, it suddenly started raining. The cow dung in the basket started dissolving because of the rain. Because the man had just found and gathered so many pieces, he couldn’t throw them away because he didn’t want to waste them. But the rain was coming down harder and harder, making the cow dung flow out of the basket. Even though the man’s clothes got soaked in the waste, he still couldn’t leave the dung behind because he believed that it was valuable. As a result, all the pieces dissolved and washed away, and the man went home covered with cow dung while giving off a terrible smell. It is a funny story, but still has an important Buddhist message.

World of Delusion

Sakyamuni Buddha said that this situation describes the real state of our human lives. When we hear this, most of us would probably say, “No! We’d never pick something like cow dung off the ground. We’d look for more important things than that!” But from the Buddha’s perspective, we are not much different from this poor man who shoulders cow dung.

It is our true nature to live in the world of delusion. And the Buddha’s vow, which sincerely wants to free us foolish beings from the world of delusion and lead us to the world of enlightenment, is the true Nembutsu teaching of Jodo Shinshu.

We always tend to believe things like, “I’m fine just as I am!” or “I’m better than other people!” However, we should become aware that those who believe that we are just fine are actually covered with cow dung! Although we suffer and complain, “It stinks!” we still cling to it and can never throw it away.

Darkness Underlies Our Delusion

So why do we always go astray in life and suffer such foolishness? And how can we be freed from this kind of suffering? To answer these questions, Sakyamuni Buddha shows us the Four Noble Truths, using a medical ex- ample of a doctor curing a patient of a disease.

The Four Truths are

  1. The Truth of Suffering (the result of delusion);
  2. The Truth of the Cause of Suffering (the cause of delusion);
  3. The Truth of the Elimination of Suffering (the result of enlightenment); and
  4. The Truth of the Eightfold Noble Path to Eliminate Craving (the cause of enlightenment).

Among these, Buddha teaches us that the cause of delusion is darkness (ignorance). We always flatter ourselves thinking. “I am the only person who is right.” However, from the Buddha’s view point, we are all actually blind because we live in the dark. And because we have no wisdom, we cannot see things as they really are with the right view. Thus, we have to suffer because of our ignorance.

All things in this world are impermanent and constantly changing. Although all things will eventually fade and disappear, we believe that they are unchangeable. Although there is nothing pure in this world besides the Nembutsu, we cling only to the impure things that cause us confusion. That is why the word “darkness” best describes the state in which we have no wisdom and are unable to see things as they really are. In other words, darkness underlies our delusion.

Full of Ego

What is the cause of our blind passions then? It is “love.” Generally, we think of love positively. Most young people usually believe that a loving marriage is the happiest thing in life. But those who have experienced a lot in life deeply understand the reality of married life. Although there is a phrase, “Love is Blind,” we sometimes cannot make a good judgement nor see things as they truly are because of our blind love and passions.

This is not only true of romantic love though. In Japanese, love is called Ai, and also Katsu-Ai, which means thirst for love. There is a famous metaphor for this:

Suppose that there is a man who has been drifting at sea for days. He is really thirsty. Although he is surrounded by water, none of it is drinkable. But he cannot help but drink the sea water because of his thirst. At first, the man feels that he was able to quench his thirst. But because sea water is salt water, the more he drinks, the thirstier he gets. And because he gets thirsty quickly, he drinks sea water again. This continues endlessly because no matter how much he drinks, he can never feel satisfied.

Buddha teaches us that this is the real state of our everyday life, constantly confused by Katsu-Ai or craving.

And the source of our Katsu-Ai comes from our attachment full of ego. Our mind always has an energy that is inseparable from us and tries to satisfy us. That is why we further deepen our insatiable attachments to ourselves. It is as if we were like the one who wants more water even as he drinks sea water. In other words, we are always greedy for anything that will completely satisfy us.

The cause of our suffering comes from our self-centeredness. This self-centeredness is the restless working of the mind that constantly seeks to satisfy itself. It is the greedy mindset of the hungry ghost that wants more and more.

In Buddhism, there is a teaching, Shoyoku-Chisoku, which means “a little desire and contentment with a little gain”. It teaches us how important it is to know how much is enough. We always try to find the cause of our suffering outside of ourselves, saying, “politics are bad,” “education is bad,” “the neighborhood is bad,” “the temple is bad,” and so on. But the cause of our suffering actually doesn’t come from outside of us. It comes from our own self-centeredness and desires that exist within our hearts and minds.

The more the world becomes increasingly convenient, the more things we want to have. Our cravings will continue to expand. That is why, because our craving is limitless, that we must suffer every day from this endless delusion as we complain, “I want this!” or “I don’t have enough!”

Feel Joy and Gratitude

But, we Nembutsu followers should not play victim to such delusion. That is because Amida Buddha gives us the mind and spirit of realizing, “I’m so grateful!” or “Mottainai!” (“It’s too good for me!”). Guided by the Nembutsu teaching, we are transformed into living each day—under any circumstances—feeling joy and gratitude. This is truly the humble way to live as a Nembutsu follower who has the wisdom to realize that what we have is enough.

In Gassho,
Rev. Yushi Mukojima