AW: Spreading cow dung under trees

Axel Michaels axel.michaels at YAHOO.DE
Sun Jul 12 06:07:53 EDT 2009

"They will circumambulate those trees as ifthey were w
Dear colleague,

"They will circumambulate those trees as ifthey were worshipping stupas". This means that trees do not become stupas but are circumambulated as if they were stupas, i.e. by circumambulation. As you probably know stupas contain the beam of a tree (the yasti) as a central element. In Japan these beams (shinbashira) are a visible element of pagodas and stupas. Does this help you?

Axel Michaels

Prof. Dr. Axel Michaels
Acting Director of the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context"
Heidelberg University, South Asia Institute
Im Neuenheimer Feld 330
D-69120 Heidelberg
Tel. +49-6221-548917 / Fax +49-6221-546338
Axel.Michaels at

Von: Ryan Richard Overbey <overbey at FAS.HARVARD.EDU>
Gesendet: Samstag, den 11. Juli 2009, 17:59:01 Uhr
Betreff: Spreading cow dung under trees

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

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