Spreading cow dung under trees

John C. Huntington huntington.2 at OSU.EDU
Sat Jul 11 12:28:44 EDT 2009


Dear Ryan,

To the present day in Sanskrit Buddhism (as practiced in nepal) a  
place to be demarcated as sacred is "purified" by spreading a thin  
layer of mud mixed with cow dung over it.  It is a simple but deeply  
rooted ritual that I have never really investigated but I know it to  
be a necessary preliminary for any major ceremony. Once accomplished  
every one must remove their shoes when entering the sacred space.  In  
one case, the officiants at a puja did the entire floor of a big room  
in an upper story of a Bahal (Vihara) as the intent was to make the  
room the interior of the mandala palace in Akanishta Paradise. I am  
sure I have numerous photographs of this if you would like to see  
some. The initiation that was going to take place was to the  
Dharmdhatu Vagishvara Manjughosha.


I hope this is useful for you


John




John C. Huntington, Professor
(Buddhist Art and Methodologies)
<http://huntingtonarchive.osu.edu>
Department of the History of Art
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH, U.S.A.





On Jul 11, 2009, at 11:59 AM, Ryan Richard Overbey wrote:

> Dear esteemed colleagues,
>
> As I work on my dissertation on, the Great Lamp of the Dharma  
> Dhāraṇī Scripture (T1340, extant only in sixth-century Chinese  
> translation) I have run across an interesting passage about  
> preachers (*dharmabhāṇaka) who preach in nice parks and groves  
> with plenty of trees. The passage, found around T1340, v. 21, p.  
> 754b for those who have access to Chinese, could be very roughly  
> translated as follows:
>
> "they will spread on the ground under the trees a lump of cow dung,  
> and having thus decorated them, they then ask the *dharmabhāṇaka  
> to preach. When that *dharmabhāṇaka preaches the dharma, then in  
> that grove there will be grove-protectors: sky-spirits, earth- 
> spirits, tree-spirits, and other minor deities, and all the classes  
> of beings including gandharvas, kinnaras, garuḍas, mahoragas,  
> nāgas, and yakṣas. ... They will praise the people who decorated,  
> for because they spread cow dung under the trees, they will be able  
> to remember and guard and never forget, and they will circumambulate  
> those trees as if they were worshipping stūpas."
>
> I am interested in this passage for various reasons-- domestication  
> of the landscape and its assorted numena, the transformation of  
> trees into stūpas, etc.
>
> But I must admit my ignorance about the South Asian background for  
> the finer details of this episode. Does anyone know of any instances  
> where trees are transformed into stūpas or other types of shrines  
> via the application of cow dung?
>
> I know plenty of examples of cow dung as a general material for  
> consecrating ritual space, as in so-called "prototantric" Buddhist  
> texts like the Mahāmāyūrīvidyārājñī, where ritual arenas are  
> set up by clearing the ground, drawing a circle, and applying cow  
> dung. And I know about the general value of cow dung for quotidian  
> uses, such as fuel for fires or for washing floors.
>
> But I know very little about cow dung being used to mark a place or  
> object as a permanent site of worship for the local numena. The text  
> specifies that even after the dharmabhāṇaka leaves, the local  
> spirits will guard the grove faithfully.
>
> It may be that the episode simply refers to the well-known potency  
> of cow dung for purifying a space, but I would love to know if  
> anything more specific may be found. I would be most grateful for  
> any insights or analogues you may have!
>
> All best,
> Ryan Overbey
> Ph.D. candidate, Committee on the Study of Religion
> Harvard University
> overbey at fas.harvard.edu
>
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