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 C. Huntington, Professor
(Buddhist Art and Methodologies)
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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