What is Buddha? The answer will surprise you

We've talked about how when you meet the Buddha, you should kill the Buddha.

Here is another interesting koan which displays the real wit, humor and wisdom of the zen tradition:

A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?"

Ummon answered him, "Dried shit."

What is any one supposed to make of this?

This is a very deep koan. It teaches us several things -- about our minds and how they work; about humility; and how we shouldn't take ourselves so seriously.

The koan teaches us about our mind, and how we organize things. By comparing the Buddha to something that is usually considered off limits and disgusting, we are forced to consider how and why we group things in our minds.

Our mind jumps from the image of a holy person in orange robes, chanting "om mane padme hum," to a brown pile of feces.

How in the world are they equivalent?

The koan asks us to consider them as equals. This is a tough ask for many people, even an absurd ask. But the koan wants us to wrestle with the absurd.

As you sit and think about the Buddha and dried shit as equal things, you start to notice things. You will start to notice that our minds compartmentalize and box things into a "proper order" or into their "proper place" all the time. 

You will notice that we have categories for things that are good, holy, important; and things that are bad, evil, and disgusting.

Some of the ways in which we categorize things may make some sense. But most of it is arbitrary.

Don't think this is important? Think about how politicians today stoke fear in society, in part by dividing the world into categories that suit them: desired and undesired, sacred and profane, us and them, friend and enemy.

Dividing up the world into arbitrary ways is the root of much ignorance. It is the root of racism, for example (white skin = good, black skin = bad). It is the root of xenophobia (our culture = good, outside culture = bad). It is the way genocides get started: the other is so terrible it must be destroyed, or we will be destroyed first.

Once we get past the shock of equating something as holy as the Buddha with something as mundane as feces, we can see how arbitrary all of these categories really are.

And we can start to use our minds to see holiness and mundanity in all things.

In truth, feces is actually a pretty useful and important thing. We ought to be grateful that we have a functioning body that can package waste and remove it in a relatively orderly way. We would be dead if we could not remove our feces. Feces, in turn, is used to fertilize plants, as construction material, even as a medicine.

Once we can clear our minds of artificial distinctions, only then can we see what is really there -- what is really real. This is the art of Buddhahood.

The koan teaches humility. Organized religion is full of people wearing fancy robes, living in fancy places, not really working and walking around rather full of themselves.

Here we are, in a highly advanced technological age, where people still cite to books written thousands of years ago as if they are relevant, or important, or carry any type of credibility. 

The zen is a reminder that we shouldn't take authority, particularly spiritual authority, very seriously. Or perhaps at all. 

The koan teaches us to have a sense of humor. In a related sense, the koan pokes fun at all of us. Life should be taken a little less seriously. Most of us spend much of our lives chasing the next promotion, the next raise, some clicks on social media. We all want to be popular, famous and liked.

And we clutch and worry that the tiny amount of fame, fortune and status that we have may be stripped from us at a moment's notice. We live our lives in a debilitating fear that the little we have will be taken away. That we will end up as forgotten and shunned as dried shit.

A real Buddha does not care for these things. A real Buddha finds the joy, the humor and even the glory in being just like dried shit.

Once you can liberate yourself from your own mental images of what it is you should have, or what it is you think you are entitled to, you will discover a real, true freedom that comes from living your life just as you need to live it.

You will find freedom in just being you. 

What is Buddha? Dried shit.

This is an ongoing series on Eastern sayings and their relevance for today.