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.


Find all the Green Koans here.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .