[This article was first shared in a private group in 2016. It has been edited for sharing here in public.]
You may be thinking, “He’s insulting The Venerable Buddha!”
But stay with me on this one.
Firstly, what is a “dry shit-stick”?
Well, apparently in ancient times people used, among other things, a smooth stick made of bamboo to wipe their behinds clean of shit, i.e. fecal matter. And there are records of this having gone from India to China, and also may have arisen independently in China as well, as early as 2nd-3rd century CE (AD). Not the only implements used to wipe one’s behind, shit-sticks were in use along with paper (yes, paper, as far back as 3rd century CE), water, silk / cloth, leaves etc.
A “dry” shit-stick, we can surmise, is an implement having been applied on a person’s behind, might hold some amounts of crusty material from the process over time!
Shit and shit-sticks are things we’d rather not talk about, and for most people it is a topic that they’d rather move from soon. For many, the topic grosses them out.
Shit and shit-sticks aren’t also things that come to mind when one thinks about spiritual matters, about spiritual gurus, about deities, about the Divine.
When we think spiritual matters, we all have some sort of imagination of pure bright light, beautiful puffy love, nice fluffy compassion and such.
Take a look at what this great koan (pronounced koh-ahn) says:
A monk asked Ummon, “What is Buddha?”
Ummon replied, “Kanshiketsu!”
Kanshiketsu, literally is “shit stick”. (See, I didn’t make this shit up :-))
One view of the notion “The Buddha is a dry shit-stick” is that shit sticks get dirty to clean us. And if that which cleans us, purifies us, is not the Buddha, then what is!
Thus, out of gratitude for having shit-sticks, they can be called Buddhas.
Ok. It is one thing to call the shit-stick a Buddha. When you deeply consider that there is no place or no thing that is not made of the Divine essence, the Buddha Nature, the Buddhahood, it is only logical and there is nothing wrong in calling a shit-stick a Buddha.
But to call The Buddha a “dry shit stick” … isn’t that excessive?
This is precisely what the koan about Ummon above is trying to unpack and clarify for us.
As long as “The Buddha” or “Buddhahood” or “Buddha Essence” etc. remain as concepts in our mind, we are sure to choose seemingly positive concepts to represent The Buddha … as the enlightened one, as the venerable one, as the compassionate one etc. And in preferring to apply concepts like this to The Buddha, our mind keeps us trapped in an “idea” or “concept” of The Buddha, that we prefer.
However, the ideas or concepts of The Buddha is not The Buddha.
It is just another trap of Maya (the force of Illusion) that keeps us stuck in the web of life, spinning our wheels in the mind, distancing us from Reality. Reality is No-otherness. The delusion that keeps us from Reality is otherness. In otherness, illusions thrive.
The point of koans of these enlightened masters, is to part the veil, and return the student to Reality.
When I first read this koan many years ago, I cried. Not just small tears down my cheeks, but I was wailing. The utter beauty of what the Master says, tore the veil.
The power of Truth in the pointer of the Master shatters the comfort of the conceptual mind.
Get out of the mind and … right there is Reality.
So, what is The Buddha?
Well, what is NOT The Buddha?
* See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shit_stick for more info.
* Also the enlightened master Ummon is also sometimes known as Unmon or Yunmen.
* Download the book, “What is Enlightenment? A Simple Guide.“ It clarifies what Enlightenment is, and what it is not. It also addresses preparatory practices vs direct paths to Enlightenment.
* Available now in paperback, hardcover and digital editions, “Awaken: An Experiential Exploration of Enlightenment” – this book guides you on the direct path of Self-Inquiry, to the experiential realization of Reality, your true nature.