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Shoveling Manure on the Bodhisattva Path

When I wrote my book, Perfectly Ordinary: Buddhist Teachings for Everyday Life, there were several essays that I enjoyed writing, but they didn't quite make the cut.  

Some repeated lessons that I'd already taught in an earlier chapter and others didn't fit with the overall narrative.  

I thought about saving them for a later project, but I'd rather put them out into the world, and see what happens.  The following is one of the aforementioned essays.  Enjoy.

When I was farming in New York, one of the jobs that Cindy, the farm owner, had me do was clean the chicken coops on a weekly basis.  There's nothing glamorous about farm life, it's difficult, back-breaking work.  But cleaning the coops was easily my least favorite part of the job.

Birds, unlike humans, don't have separate tracks for liquid and solid waste.  It all comes out at once, from the same place.  And for chickens, this results in a wet paste that is sticky and foul-smelling due to the high levels of ammonia.  This isn't an issue when they do their business in an open field, but it causes problems when it happens in the coop.

So, we put straw on the floor of the coop to make the cleaning process easier, and once a week I had to go in with a shovel and a pitchfork, gather all of the soiled straw from the floor, place it into a wheel barrel, and put down fresh straw for them to destroy.  

The fumes from their waste burned my eyes and throat to the point that sometimes I had to stop and go outside to get fresh air before restarting my work.  But I was the low man on the totem pole, so this job was mine and mine alone.

It normally took several trips, but eventually, I would get everything into the compost pile.  It was about 4 feet high and several feet long; a mix of manure, straw, and grass clippings.  I'd use the pitchfork to mix the new manure in with whatever was already in the pile and then pull out the water hose to mist the pile lightly.  Compost needs to be slightly damp for everything to break down completely.  

Like I said, it was my least favorite job on the farm.  Each time I did it my head ached, my back hurt and my boots smelled terribly for several days.  But after three months of doing this consistently, we had a giant pile of nutrient-filled fertilizer that we used to grow strawberries and fruit trees.

Most people don't realize this, but whether it comes from chickens, cows, or pigs, there is a lot of manure involved in growing food.  And unless some unlucky farm apprentice spends endless hours carrying animal waste around a farm, no one gets to eat.

I think about this a lot in regards to the Bodhisattva vows.  In Mahayana Buddhism, we're taught that it's our job to realize enlightenment so that we can save other beings from suffering.  It sounds good, but most people don't realize what's involved in that process.  Simply put, it's not easy to walk the Bodhisattva path.

In the same way that farm apprentices must work skillfully with chicken poop in order to grow fruit trees.  We, as Bodhisattvas-in-training, must work skillfully with suffering to make life better for ourselves and others.  This is unpleasant work.  It's painful, and we often don't see positive results right away.  But if we work diligently with the suffering in our lives, a better world is the result.

We may not see the results of our work in the same way that I didn't see how all of my compost was used.  But we can have faith that it will happen.  In the same way that the hard work of Buddha, Shinran, Dogen, and countless others has reached through the centuries and touched our lives.  Our practice will make a better world for everyone who comes after us.

The walk of the Bodhisattva is a walk of faith.  A faith that says what we do matters.  Each time we meditate, chant, or bow in front of our altars we turn the suffering of this world into joy.

At times, it can be challenging.  But as long as we walk the path consistently, doing a little bit each day.  Something beautiful will grow, and we'll all be better for it.

Namu Amida Butsu

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Shoveling Manure on the Bodhisattva Path


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