Chicken Shit

There is a Shambhala saying, “You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.” I take these words to mean something like this: chicken shit may be messy and stinky and time consuming to deal with, but as a task it can almost invisibly become routinized, easy, predictable and satisfying. The chicken is another matter: flighty, opinionated, even though her opinions are impenetrable or rather the logic of her opinions seems to bear no relation to the material conditions of her existence. She imagines she is a queen and should be treated thus by loyal subjects, or she imagines she is hawk, a bird destined to prey on all smaller creatures and insects and even invisible beings who plague and torment and also add spice to her life. Or she may be perfectly healthy, apparently happy and cooing one moment, and then just like that, without warning, dead as a dodo. Understanding the chicken, loving her through thick and thin, is not always easy. Though you might say that this is all projection—human projection of our own or my own crankiness and unknowingness—onto the chicken. The Shambhala saying (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s riff on the Buddhist maxim, “Work with the greatest defilements first”) is after all a saying, a dicho, a deployment of metaphor. To take it too literally is to stray into minefields of our own making, fields carefully cultivated with chicken shit and home-crafted, jerry-built landmines.

Many cultures and story telling traditions and philosophical orientations utilize animals in this way. Think of Aesop’s fables, think of African folk tales, think of a philosopher like Jacques Derrida. I remember hearing Derrida talk, over many weeks, about the cow, in the context of “eating the other.” And in Sydney, delivering a lecture on friendship he spoke about cats, taking a very concrete, quotidian experience to play with the notion of friendship. Well, he said, it’s irritating and a pain to deal with other cats in the building who come and eat your cat’s food. But you can work on your attitude and eventually see this cat as existing in a continuum with your cat. Instead of continuity breeding contempt and hostility and erecting domestic barricades you might eventually entertain the notion of a feline continuity, and welcome the other cat into your home, not grudgingly but with generosity of spirit. However, he said, and I remember how Derrida played out this moment dramatically, using the pause, the tilted head, the glinting eye and raised eyebrow: What if one day you hear a scratching at the door and you go to open it and you open it and there, sitting on the mat is a cat, but this cat is a lion. This image was so vivid, it has stayed with me as complex thread unraveling over time. Was this a metaphor? Or was it an example grounded in the material world? I think it was both. And so it is in many of these traditions or inflections of moral precepts, or teasing out of philosophical conundrums. The Lion and the Chicken are not to be taken literally, but neither are they merely metaphors. They are at once familiar, quotidian (the lion is a kind of cat, the chicken is connected to chicken shit), and their dramatic performance is surprising, unlikely, has the capacity to wake us up, to confront us with the surprising and unexpected and alien and difficult.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens, on the other hand, can take us by surprise, provoke unhappenings.

All I wanted when I first went to the Shambhala center at the end of my street was some help with meditation, some hints on how to integrate the body with a calming of the mind, some training in how to foster a practice, a routine. I wanted to subdue the panic, find some way of coping with illness. Trained in the hard knocks school of high theory I felt I did not need any more mind-training.

Today I pull Training the Mind off the book shelf, to check on that chicken shit reference, and two slogans printed on flimsy bits of paper fall out: “Work with the greatest defilements first” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

On the one hand there is sitting meditation, a concentration of the mind on the breath. On the other hand there is contemplative meditation. Theoretically the focus on breath, on the body, grounds one for contemplation. I still haven’t quite figured out where the practice of sitting-and-breathing-and-not-thinking intersects with sitting-and-breathing-and-thinking-about-things, about, say, the slogans. I just muddle along, helped by teachers, by the structure of the sangha.

Training the Mind by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explicates the seven points of mind training (lojong) attributed to the Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha in 982 C.E. The list of fifty nine mind-training slogans are often referred to as the Atisha Slogans. Pithy, practical, a way of training our minds both through formal practice and through everyday life as a means of awakening. Waking up entails coming to realize the habitual nature of the self (not just the generalized self, but my self, uurgh), realizing the “other” as other. The slogans bear repetition because of their capacity to change: they double back, dodge and creep up on you from unexpected angles.

You should work with whatever is your greatest obstacle first – whether it is aggression, passion, pride, arrogance, jealousy, or what have you. You should not just say “I will sit more first, and I will deal with that later.” Working with the greatest defilements means working with the highlights of your experience or your problems. You do not just want to work with chicken shit, you want to work with the chicken itself.

Good habits, repetition, the assurance of a routine, all this is necessary to maintain a meditative practice. It is very hard to learn to breath without this kind of structure. The structure facilitates: How much easier the day becomes if everyday you manage to find even a short time for slowing the mind, for breathing peacefully. But, but, but … (insists the voice of the skeptic, or looking at it differently, the Derridean) it is also all too easy to settle, via routine, into the fatness of certitude

his certitudes perched like fat chickens

How do you grapple with the tenacious grip of the ego and yet avoid positioning the other as the predictable obverse or prop to one’s glorious egolessness? How do you avoid interpreting the slogans through the lens of a moral universe? How to pre-empt the snarkiness, the judgement, the relentless drive to control everything, the frustration and irritation and despair with those around, with myself, with Israel’s assault on Gaza, with immigration policies in this country, with the global environmental catastrophe engulfing us all? How do you engage with the world, how do you avoid grand generalizations and self-righteous litanies of complaint about the bad other? For this we know: mindful shifting of the habitual can in itself become a habit, promoting a comforting quietude and detachment from politics both quotidian and public.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens, every night of the siege, one or two were carried off in the jaws of rationalism and despair.

Chicken shit happens. Chickens transmogrify. Between the cushion of contemplation and the world out there is an ocean, an ocean where we surf and are tossed by the stormy waves of birth, old age, global catastrophe, genocide, sickness and death.

It’s all very well to realize and to see the lion or the chicken as merely a projection of self. But to fully recognize the lion or the chicken as something other than a projection of self. Not so easy. Not so easy to do this off the cushion, out there or in here, in the world.

Oh the world, the world.



 There is a Shambhala saying …. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, p.150. Slogan: Work with the greatest defilements first.

from the farmyard in which his certitudes perched like fat chickens …. J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, p. 211.