The Indian master Atisha (984–1052 CE) used the metaphor of a pig and its activities to illustrate the chaos which confusion causes.

The pig of ignorance, because of
Roots around and digs up the nice
clean grass.
It isn’t attracted to places like
pure lands
But takes delight where there is dirt.
It smacks its lips in the filthy mire.
And even though its owner will surely
kill it,
The pig of ignorance is deceived
by him.
Without any effort to escape, it enjoys
The bait of barley beer lees and

Imagine a lovely well-kept lawn. A pig arrives and makes itself at home. It begins to root around with its snout. In no time it has ruined the lawn completely and destroyed whatever was growing there.

Atisha says that our ethical discipline is like the lawn, and the pig like our confusion regarding the connection between actions and their effects. The pig rooting around with its snout resembles the way we destroy our ethical discipline through careless, confused negative actions. This makes it impossible for good qualities to develop because they can only grow in the fertile earth of good ethics, which at the most fundamental level means restraint from the ten harmful activities.

Atisha points out that pigs don’t like clean places. Similarly, people under the influence of ignorance and confusion dislike monasteries and the kind of quiet and secluded places that are conducive to spiritual practice. Pigs make for dirty places, and people governed by confusion head straight for town because they prefer the distraction of worldly activities. Strictly speaking, these distractions include even business, farming, and other things people normally do to earn a living.

The pig’s owner fattens up the pig so that it will be ready for slaughter. But the pig is unsuspecting and lolls around, enjoying the slops it is given with no thought of escaping. The pig is content with its circumstances and quite unaware that the very person who is feeding it will one day butcher it. A benefactor gives his support to a monk, for example, and that support is valuable because without the necessities of life the monk cannot devote himself to practice. But gradually the benefactor and the monk become more intimate. They begin to consult on various matters.

One day they discuss how the monk can gather all the resources needed to support the practice he hopes to do in the future. The benefactor makes useful suggestions, and before long the monk becomes involved in the enterprise of making a livelihood. Never mind about remaining ordained, he goes to the opposite extreme. He plunges more fully into secular life than a lay person and has no scruples about doing all kinds of negative things. This is like the slaughter because it kills all chances of happiness and excellence. Such a sorry state of affairs is the result of ignorance.

To give another simile, ignorance is like the king, and clinging attachment and hostility are his ministers. To rid ourselves of the king’s minions we must get rid of the king. And so it is of greatest importance to identify ignorance properly.

From How Karma Works, © 2006 Ruth Sonam. Reprinted by arrangement with Snow Lion Publications.

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