Monday, February 15, 2010

The Butcher, the Harlot and Zen

A butcher’s job is considered one of the worst in any society. In India, where ahimsa is one of the highest values and vegetarianism is a way of life based on this principle of ahimsa extended to the entire living kingdom including that of animals, it is looked down upon as few other professions are. And yet the Mahabharata portrays a butcher as a saint, an awakened one – and awakened not through asceticism practiced but by virtue of his commitment to his job – selling meat and doing other things that his circumstances have decided for him.

The story begins with a brahmana ascetic called Kaushika [In the Bhagavata version of the story he is called Kapila. In the Kathasaritsagara, he is just a brahmana, without a name. My narration here closely follows the Mahabharata version.] Kaushika was seated under a tree one morning and was narrating the Vedas when droppings from a crane perched on the tree happened to fall on him. Deeply annoyed, he looked at the crane in fury and as his eyes fell on the crane, it fell down dead on the ground in front of him. Kaushika was deeply disturbed by what had happened – he was a brahmana and a brahmana does not kill. But that is what he had done. Unknown to him, however, there arose in his mind another feeling: I am so far advanced in my tapas that an angry glance from me can kill. His ego, the demon which the entire Indian culture says is our one and only true enemy, eliminating which is the purpose of all spirituality, asserted itself with a thousand fold more strength than a minute before.

A while later the brahmana was on his daily rounds of bhiksha, alms. He reached a home and the lady of the home requested him to wait while she came back with the bhiksha. Inside the house she started cleaning the vessel used for giving bhiksha and at that time, her husband came home. Forgetting all about the ascetic and the bhiksha for him, the woman started serving her husband. She gave him water to wash his feet and face and then serving him a meal, stood beside him fanning him.

It was only after her husband had finished his meal that she realized that she had asked the ascetic to wait. She came rushing to him and apologised. However the brahmana had by then grown furious. Seeing his burning eyes set on her, the woman said, “Please, O revered brahmana, hold your anger. I know all about the powers of a brahmana’s anger. But true brahmanya is in holding anger and not in making innocent people subjects to it. My husband was thirsty and hungry and my first duty was to him. And the moment I finished that, I have come rushing to you.”

The woman could see the brahmana was not satisfied with her answer. He was staring at her as though he wished to reduce her to ashes. Rising up her head she told him, her voice still polite, “Please, do not think I am a crane that will fall down dead at your anger.”

The ascetic was now dumbfounded. What had the woman said? Did she really say that, or did he imagine it? How did the woman know about what had happened to the crane? Apart from him, nobody knew of it and he had certainly not told anyone of it.

All on a sudden all his fury left him. This was no ordinary woman standing before him. He felt humble before her. “How did you know about the crane? What power do you have that you saw what happened under the tree this morning? What is the secret of your power?”

The woman said, “If you want answers for your questions, please go to Dharmavyada who lives in the city of Mithila. [In some other versions of the story, it is Kashi.] He will give you all the answers you need. I am just a simple woman who does her duties sincerely.”

The man bowed before the woman in humility and straight away took the path that led to Mithila, the capital of the legendary king Janaka, the wisest of all kings in ancient Indian literature.

There, when he asked about Dharmavyadha, he was directed to a butcher’s shop. Shocked by the sight of what he saw there, he stood away from the shop and waited. The butcher saw him and approaching him, greeted him, “So you are the brahmana the woman sent to me?” he asked and once again Kaushika was taken aback. How did the butcher know the woman had sent him?!

The butcher took the brahmana to his home, telling him a butcher’s shop was no place for a revered brahmana to come to. He made Kaushika wait there a short while, while he served his parents. Then he explained to the puzzled Kaushika the source of his power, his attainments.

Whatever he has attained, he told him, he has attained through total commitment to his dharma. As a butcher, he has a dharma and he showed total commitment to it. And as a family man he has another dharma, and he showed total commitment to it too. There is nothing one cannot attain through total commitment to one’s dharma. This is true of him as well as of the woman who had sent Kaushika to him.


Another profession universally condemned is that of a harlot, perhaps the worst profession a woman can follow in any society. The condemnation of the prostitute is no less in Indian culture than in any other culture. And yet amazingly, Indian culture tells us the story of a prostitute who attained to the highest spiritual heights – through her practice of prostitution.

Her name was Bindumati. The story tells us that one day Emperor Ashoka was taking a walk along the Ganga in Pataliputra. A couple of his ministers were with him, as was Bindumati. As they were walking along the river, an idle thought occurred to Ashoka and he spoke it out. “I wonder,” he said, “if anyone can turn the current of the mighty Ganga backward.”

There was total silence for a moment or two. The ministers were about to laugh at the emperor’s joke when Ashoka heard the prostitute speaking. “I can,” she said, looking straight at Emperor Ashoka.

Ashoka was stunned. The ministers were stunned. The woman must have gone mad! Who can make the Ganga flow backward!

But Bindumati looked serious. She was waiting for the emperor’s permission.

“You can turn the Ganga backward?” Ashoka wanted to make sure he had heart it right.

“Yes,” said Bindumati. “That is, if I have your permission.”

“Show me,” said Ashoka. “Show me now.”

And, says the story, Bindumati closed her eyes and stood in utter silence for a few moments. The emperor and the ministers watched her and then looked at the Ganga. And they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The Ganga was slowing down. The greatest miracle of their life was happening right before their eyes. Soon the Ganga became absolutely still. Like a long, endless lake. There was not ripple in the river, not a movement in the water.

They all turned back and looked at Bindumati with unbelieving eyes. And when they looked back at the Ganga again, the water had slowly begun flowing backward. And soon the roaring, mighty river was rushing backward with the same power with which it had rushed toward the sea minutes ago!

“How could you do that?” asked the emperor. It was more a shout than a question. A shout of wonder, of utter disbelief. “What sadhana have you practiced to attain this amazing power?”

“None,” answered Bindumati, in a voice as serene as could be. “None other than practicing my dharma as a prostitute. I practice the dharma of a prostitute with total commitment.”


These are truly amazing stories! Easily among the most beautiful stories in the world!

They belong to the category called teaching stories.

What do these stories teach us?

That the highest sadhana is total commitment to our dharma. Total, absolute commitment to our profession.

Total commitment to whatever life brings to us. Total commitment to whatever we are doing.

There is a beautiful Zen saying: “Even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way.” Commenting on the saying, the celebrated teacher Shunryu Suzuki says “The Bodhisattva’s way is called the single-minded way... His way is in each moment to express his nature and his sincerity.” [Zen Mind, the Beginner’s Mind]

Giving all of yourself to whatever you are doing – that is the single-minded way. Paying single-minded attention to whatever you are doing at the moment so that your mind does not wander into anything else at all.

When that happens, whatever you do acquires a rare quality.

Whatever we do acquires a rare quality because whenever this happens, we are in what contemporary psychology speaks of as the flow state. The flow state is the one in which all your actions are effortlessly excellent.

That is how a samurai attains excellence in action. By giving himself totally to what he is doing at the moment and by that entering into the flow.

I remember a scene from the movie The Karate Kid [Part I]. The old teacher there, “Mr Miyagi,” is building a wood cabin. He picks up a nail, three or four inches long, places it against a beam, and gives one single hit with his hammer. The hit looks effortless, but the nail goes fully inside – all four inches of it, not a centimetre less, and not a centimetre more.

That is what happens when you are in the flow state.

In the flow state you are totally single-minded.

Ekagrata. Relaxed ekagrata. Effortless ekagrata.

Because all your energies flow towards one single goal. With no disturbances, with no distractions.

Krishna calls the minds of such people vyavasayatmika buddhi.

That single-mindedness is the Bodhisattva way. And even if the sun rises in the west, the Bodhisattva does not act in any other way.

This is called Zen. Zen in action. Zen at its highest.

Achieving the Zen mind is the purpose of all meditation.

A meditator is always in Zen. He is in Zen when he is awake. He is in Zen when he is asleep. He is in Zen when he is in his meditation seat. He is in Zen when he is in the market, in his office, in a conference, wherever he is.

A true meditator has no other way. Even if the sun rises in the west.


I have a beautiful picture with me, downloaded from the Net. In that picture you see Shiva sitting and preparing bhang. And there is a beautiful look in Shiva’s eyes. The look of a man lost totally in whatever he is doing.

Shiva is in Zen while preparing his bhang.

Indian culture tells us the story of how Shiva burned Kama, the lord of sexual love, to ashes.

The Asura Taraka was tormenting the world with his power and the gods were helpless – there was only one person who could destroy Taraka, and that was a son born to Shiva and Uma, who was Shiva’s wife Sati reborn after her death through self-immolation in a fire she created using her yogic powers. She had done that in a fury against her father, because she did not want to live in a body she received through him. Uma, who remembered her past life as Sati, wanted to attain Shiva as her husband again. Unfortunately though, Shiva had taken to meditation after the death of Sati and was beyond the reach of the world.

Uma goes to where Shiva is sitting in tapas, the story tells us, and begins serving him. But Shiva is unaware of her presence, though a long, long time passes.

The Gods consult among themselves. Shiva has to be tempted, or else there is no hope for the Gods. Kama, shaking in terror of Shiva, accepts the job of creating temptation for Uma in Shiva’s mind. He comes to Kailasa, Shiva’s abode, and there waits for his opportunity. One day Shiva’s open eyes fall on Uma’s body, and that moment Kama shoots his arrows of desire at Shiva.

For a moment, Shiva is shaken by the power of desire. And then the next instant he recollects himself, realizing what has happened. He opens his third eye and Kama is reduced to ashes in an instant. Shiva goes back to his meditation.

When Shiva is in meditation, he is totally in meditation. Even the lord of desire cannot pull him out of his meditation.

To continue the story, years pass and Uma eventually wins Shiva as her husband, not through her beauty, but by the power of her tapas. And, Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava tells us, once the God who had burnt to ashes the God of sexual love becomes a lover, he becomes a total lover. Now he is just a lover, giving all of himself to his lovemaking. Shiva and Uma make love for ages without cessation and eventually the world comes to the brink of extinction because of their passion and the Gods have to interfere again.

There was yet another time we see Shiva giving himself up completely to an activity that he is doing: when he dances. We see Shiva dancing the tandava several times in his stories, the most famous of which is after the death of Sati. Shiva picks up her charred body and putting it on his shoulders, begins to dance his tandava. He is so completely in his tandava, that the Gods have to interfere once again to stop him and save the world from destruction.

When he makes bhang, he makes bhang. When Shiva meditates, he meditates. When Shiva makes love, he makes love. When Shiva dances, he dances.

Zen is when you give of yourself totally to whatever you are doing at the moment.

That is the way of the siddha – the man who has attained. And that is the way of the sadhaka – the man on the path to attainment.

Incidentally, the word Zen is of Indian origin. It is the Japanese form of the Sanskrit word dhyana, the Hindi word dhyan, Chinese chan or chen, meaning meditation.


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