It began as a fine plan: replace the primitive outdoor toilets at our rural, monastic-style Zen Center. The head monk at the time was an idealistic German, and he made the final call to install composting toilets. CTs are based on a beautiful principle. It’s a principle with great metaphorical as well as practical value. The way the toilets work is, you crap down a long, narrow chute, and it accumulates in a large, plastic box. Once a week you shovel a bag of wood chips into the box. Eventually heaps of rich, earthy soil appear. This manure, or “humanure,” makes primo fertilizer for your gardens. What you took from the earth in food, you return to it as food. Beautiful, right?
The problem is, the lease we have on our land from the forestry service strictly prohibits us from planting anything—fruits, vegetables, flowers, trees. We probably can’t even legally grow sea monkeys up here. So here we are, twice a year, stuck with a thousand pounds of human-based fertilizer, and nothing to fertilize.
As a solution, the Board of Health makes us periodically jar up a pint or two of the compost-in-progress and bring it to them so they can test it. When they deem it fit for burial, we have to stuff all one thousand pounds in special plastic boxes, bake it in the sun for a week to kill the pathogens, carve out mass graves six feet deep in the mountainside, and put every last, useless morsel to rest. The German head monk has recently returned to his homeland, where he is no doubt enjoying precision-engineered flush toilets. Our new head monk hails from the streets of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and harbors none of his predecessor’s romanticism when it comes to completing the circle of life via our waste. The CTs are again packed to capacity, and his solution is decidedly American: “Let’s just get these friggin’ things pumped.”
The task falls to me and Rose, the gruff, grandmotherly sewage sorceress we’ve hired from town to make this mess disappear. Rose is exactly the kind of woman you’d expect to find on a job like this. She looks like Andre the Giant in drag. You can look for her breasts, but you won’t find any, unless you’re looking somewhere near her navel, where she’s got them tucked into her tool belt. She sports a flattop haircut, her neck is as thick as her shoulders are wide, and she’s got the mouth of a trucker with Tourette syndrome. She muscles the side hatch off one of the compost tanks and leans forward, pensively stroking her chin and screwing up her chiseled face. Several moments pass in silence. Then she turns to me, problem diagnosed, solution at the ready: “We’re gonna hafta make poop soup.”
Crammed into each of the three bins are dense, towering shit-bergs. The plan is to soak them into a thin gruel of sewage, which Rose will pump into her truck tanker. I spray the manure masses with a garden hose while Rose—Slayer of Fecal Dragons—hacks them apart with her shovel. Two grueling hours pass. Finally she spins around, sweat clinging to the hairs haloing her mouth.
“See?” she grins, sloshing her shovel around inside the bin like a witch churning her brew, “Poop soup.” If there’s an anal stage of spiritual development, I’m in it.
When I first moved here two years ago I had delusions about a Zen center being some kind of bliss factory. There’s no smog up here, I noticed upon strolling the grounds. The air is clean. I’m going to get clean up here too. I felt special, chosen. I convinced myself that all my various failures in life were inevitable steps on the path to this higher calling. Then came my first intensive dai-sesshin retreat: I remember hours beforehand peering down the lid of a compost toilet and suddenly getting the sinking feeling that, like a reader of coffee grounds, I was divining my future in the dark and ominous shapes below.
“Our shit down there—it doesn’t, like, pile up, right?” I asked, naively hoping that it was just sort of taking care of itself, politely decomposing into the earth.
“You think you can just take a dump in a hole and it’s gonna just somehow disappear into the ether?” roared the monk from Hell’s Kitchen, bleaching down a urinal nearby.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” I cried. “I just go in a bowl, pull the metal lever and it’s gone. I don’t know where it goes, but I know I never see it again. You’ve been out of civilization too long.” He chuckled, sizing me up. I was still wearing clothing from my former incarnation as a Los Angeles jet-setter. While great for camouflaging my straightness at gay dance clubs and making me look like Ryan Seacrest, my wardrobe was not quite suited for the rigors of mountain living. “You came here for the Zenima, didn’t you, to get flushed clean of all your crap,” he sighed. “But it doesn’t work like that—there’s no guru or godhead to carry your shit away in a golden box. You have to learn to deal with it—to work with it—yourself. You’re gonna have to get dirty up here.”
Back then he was the monk in charge of work assignments under the German head monk. He led me to the concrete bunker beneath the compost toilets and gave me the weekly task of shoveling wood chips in with the waste. “See if this doesn’t help you get to the bottom of it,” he grimaced, handing me a turd-encrusted spade. “Dig deep.”
I tackled my new responsibility by ignoring it completely. Then one day I sat down on a toilet seat only to discover that my worst nightmare had come true: a midget had shinnied up the toilet chute and was tickling my butt cheeks with a feather. I leapt off the toilet seat—only there was no gap-toothed leprechaun grinning up at me. Instead, a bonfire of silvery flies sparked up from the malodorous abyss. Hundreds of them were breeding and feeding and otherwise setting up shop in the festering fecal metropolis below. I grabbed every available bag of wood chips and shoveled them into the bins, which filled up quickly.
“First you ignore the problem, now you’re burying it,” the monk from Hell’s Kitchen growled, and he could have been talking about the reason I scaled this mountain in the first place—to open my flinty little heart, which was clenched like a fist: “How ’bout you deal with it?”
And so, for two hours every other day I geared up in a pair of goggles, breathing mask, and dung-freckled hazmat jumpsuit, grabbed my heavy-duty “Appalachian Special” spade and went to work in the stool mine. During winter we’re often cursed with winds over 50 mph. One day I accidentally left all the hatches off the tanks, creating vicious wind tunnels that funneled air from under the poorly insulted CT bunker door right up the toilet chutes. It was Rohatsu, our most intense and serious retreat of the year. One by one students, monks, nuns, and priests sat down on the toilets and broke silence for the first time that week with a goose-pimpled gasp. Imagine a bidet with frigid air instead of warm water greeting you at 2:30 a.m. on a twenty-degree morning. Sometimes when you tossed your soiled toilet paper down the chute it blew right back up in your face, flapping around the room like some special breed of albino mountain bat. It was the beginning of my long, chilly winter of trial and error in the compost toilets.
Once they get going, wood chips and waste have the kind of chemistry and connection that puts most human couples to shame.
By the first irises of spring I had nailed the proportions—twenty parts waste per one part wood chip. I became a matchmaker, a yenta, contriving to mate the stiff, lifeless Mr. Wood Chips with the teeming potential of Ms. Shitpile. Under my careful midwifery, Humanure was born. The stench in the compost toilets transformed into a complex, husky poo-pourri, and the burly, gelatinous mounds assumed a moist, spongy texture not unlike cake in a Duncan Hines commercial. Once they get going, wood chips and waste have the kind of chemistry and connection that puts most human couples to shame. Mix them together and they literally turn themselves inside out for each other, to be within each other, to become each other. They meet in some bottomless place neither science nor religion nor philosophy has yet to map, and emerge as one, rippling with receptivity. When a nun dumped a thatch of seemingly dead vegetation down the women’s toilet, mushrooms miraculously popped up between fecund compost clods, their little bobble heads nodding to greet me every time I yanked a hatch off one of the bins. Bacterial heat from the compost “cooking” process warmed my rear whenever I sat down on a toilet. I felt proud, like a mother hen atop her egg, life slowly taking shape beneath me.
“You’re growing ground,” the monk from Hell’s Kitchen beamed, observing my progress in the tanks one morning. “You’re birthing earth.”
Making compost was just one more thing I loathed during my first winter here, including waking up hours before sunrise; taking care of all my personal business in a series of pitifully small breaks; and not wearing socks, blowing my leaky nose, or even so much as twitching a limb in the meditation hall (although you’re free to burp and fart). The environment at our Zen center is simple, strict, and clear: it’s the perfect mirror for your condition, constantly throwing you back at yourself. Any color or personality, any fullness of self, stands out in stark contrast to this blank backdrop of black robes, identical mudras, and impersonal rules. Deprived of your comfort zone, you hammer inward. You see exactly what you are; all your shit comes up.
You deal with your shit in Zen by sitting with it. By breathing right into it. You don’t try and ignore it with pleasant thoughts or lofty ideas, and you don’t try and bury it with solutions. You deal with it, you work with it, one breath at a time. You hold it right there, in your breath. You don’t try and breathe it out; you don’t try and breathe it in. You keep it suspended in your diaphragm like a burning hot coin. Your problems won’t change; only you can change. That’s the point.
My work in the CTs has helped me see that growth requires discipline the way compost requires wood chips. The festering raw material of your inner life, all your personal shit, dissolves into the self-negation of your spiritual practice the way waste dissolves into wood chips. Gradually, over time, you feel a softening inside, a ripening. You cultivate rich, fertile, living ground for insight and compassion, for deep human feeling, to continually sprout and take seed. It’s a natural process. You can’t force it. You simply set the right conditions in motion and then get out of the way. The same principle is at work in our universe whether you’re mixing wood chips in with waste or practice in with your problems.
I could write a bestseller about it: Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Composting Human Waste.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.