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Green Koans Case 57: Shakyamuni’s Ignorant Man

Clark Strand

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CASE #57:    Shakyamuni’s Ignorant Man

In the Dhammapada, Shakyamuni Buddha says:

The ignorant man is an ox.
He grows in size, not in wisdom.

     One of the best known texts in the Theravada canon, and embraced by a plurality of Buddhist sects in all traditions, the Dhammapada is said to contain the authentic words of Shakyamuni. Usually translated as Sayings of the Buddha, Dhammapada literally means Dharma Footsteps or Dharma Verses, the word pada suggesting both meanings, since the sayings are rendered in verse. Note that the Dhammapada, which concerns itself primarily with the individual human being, becomes an ecological text the moment we interpret its teachings on wisdom and folly as applying to the species as well.

Ox     Oxen were domesticated thousands of years ago by human beings for use in draft, threshing, and plowing (i.e., for use in agriculture and commerce). Prized for their great size and power, they could pull heavier loads than a horse, and for longer distances. In his survey of world symbolism, J. E. Circlot sees the ox as “symbolic of sacrifice, suffering, patience, and labor.” Ox ploughs, which are still used in many parts of the world today, were an important phase of the agricultural revolution which began around 12,000 years ago, making them an ambiguous symbol for human progress, since they also symbolize the general weariness and monotony of agricultural life, as contrasted with the life of hunter-gatherers. 

The first commandment in the Bible is, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). For decades now, ecologists have interpreted this to mean that Western monotheism is the root of all evil—the beginning of overpopulation, over-consumption, and the eradication of indigenous plants, animals, and peoples. But God only tells human beings the world’s most convenient truth: you can (and no doubt will) fill this planet until it is brimming with human beings and human culture—until it has been entirely remade to suit your needs.

What God fails to mention (although the rest of the Bible is an eloquent testament to it), is that when you are finished, the world will look just like you do—fat, slow, unbearably weary, and almost too stupid for words.

The other course would have been wisdom, which—as Shakyamuni observed—doesn’t make us stupid or fat. But apart from the occasional Jesus or Buddha, we haven’t gotten there yet. The ignorant man is us.


Speaks of the ignorant man
As if he’s some kind
Of animal in a zoo
That wise people go to view.


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nicolebaessler271's picture

It is an interesting story about Buddist. I think Buddhism has great philosophy on life, human.
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amclellan's picture

'Wise people go to view' reminds me of my own judgementalism towards people like the Christian Right in the US such as the Tea Partiers. For me, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann can appear like the kind of zoo animals we go and see because their behaviour is so different from ours, and 'so much less wise than mine'! How compassionate (and wise) is that, though? These are people who are trying to make the world a better place, albeit (in my opinion) very misguidedly. To misquote Jesus - "let he who is without delusion cast the first stone".

sschroll's picture

There is a Chinese saying: "There isn't anything more dangerous than an ignorant that ignores his/her ignorance"

From my point of view Palin & Bachmann fall into this category.

Then you tell yourself you have no right to judge them. Have I lived their circumstances I would be like them............but they feel free to judge that which they call criminal (killed, robed).

Can you say better world if it benefits a selected minority and leaves out the majority of living creatures,

Dominic Gomez's picture

One problem is that delusion very often disallows acknowledgement that one is "deluded". Which is why delusion (aka ignorance) is one of the "three poisons". These three are very ingrained in human life as well as very difficult to extract.

Arjun purohit's picture

Delusion is more dangerous than ignorance, Dominic. Ignorance hides truth whereas delusion distorts truth.Truth can be mangled so badly by delusion. that you can spend a whole life just trying to untangle it.Ignorance leads to foolishness but delusion leads to cleverness. Both bad but cleverness is worse.j

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thanks, Arjun. Ignorance isn't even aware of "truth" so how can it hide it? Worse, ignorance often accepts as the "truth" what is actually a delusion.

ClarkStrand's picture

Well put, Dominic.

Kjourney2's picture

I appreciate your rephrasing of the Jesus quote. And were it to be that Jesus lived in today's world, no doubt that is exactly how he might have said it! That quote will be with me all week. Thank you.

glenzorn's picture

If one saw somebody trying to set a hospital on fire it would be neither compassionate nor wise to allow them to continue.

glenzorn's picture

They are certainly trying to make the world a better place; the question is, for whom? Not the majority of people living in it...

shinydew628's picture

I wonder why "wise people go to view" was mentioned in the verse? Can anyone elaborate from this point of view? Thanks.

ClarkStrand's picture

This is a very good question, but I'll let someone else answer it.

JoeMcCauley's picture

There's acutally a lot of debate about Genesis 1:28. Some translations agree with the one above. Some say that the translation is actually a command to be stewards of the world, that it is humankind's responsibility to watch over everything.

ClarkStrand's picture

I tend to think that the modern translations are revisionist (not that the anthropocentrism of the Bible and most other early religious documents doesn't need some serious revising). The stewardship idea, while present elsewhere in the Torah, is much more evident in later religous texts like the Qur'an, which is very explicit about it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The ignorant man is also Frankenstein's monster: driven by mindless instinct, brutishly striking out at any little annoyance, concerned about nothing but its own selfish, immediate needs. I'd go to a zoo to view one, secretly thinking with relief, "There, but for the grace of wisdom, go I."