The parable of the dung beetle: Our essential nature and suffering Barry Magid November 1st 2014

[A dung beetle is pictured getting drunk at a bar]
Dung beetle to bartender: "Is that all there is to life? Eat shit and die?!"

Far side comic - Gary Larsen

This morning I’d like to offer a commentary on one of the root texts of our lineage, “The Parable of the Dung Beetle,” as told by Shakyamuni to Ananda and passed down through the generations to Gary Larson. It’s been enshrined in a prominent place in our toilet. It’s told to us in the Dung Beetle Bar. One drunken dung beetle asks the bartender, “Is that all there is to life, Murray? Shit and die?” The bartender replies, “Pretty much.”

Now this illustrates a very basic truth of Buddhism. You could even say it illustrates Buddhism 101 about the nature of suffering and how suffering arises from our non-acceptance of something fundamental to our true nature. The dung beetle says his existence is just eat shit and die. What else does a dung beetle do? Yet somehow there’s something about that that this poor dung beetle cannot accept, and he puts connotations on eating shit, the way we would. He’s resigned to it. In the bar we have a picture of him drinking and drinking, trying to drown the sorrow of resignation, of “This is all there is to life.”

Shakyamuni said, in a very similar way, that we suffer because we cannot accept the fundamental reality of our true nature: its impermanence, its interconnectedness. We resist it. We deny it. We can’t believe it. Is that all there is to life? And it passes away?

However, when we look at this a little more closely and perhaps from a more contemporary, psychological point of view, one thing about the parable is that the dung beetle is portrayed as having this clear and unified basic nature. Who he is is defined very clearly by this one characteristic. And so we might say the dung beetle is portrayed as having a kind of fixed essential nature that we’d have to be cautious about. However, when we think about ourselves and think about this whole business of our true self, how do we identify that? Does it have a particular content?

See, in the cartoon, it’s as if the true self is identified with “Eat shit and die.” It’s just naturally what a dung beetle is and what it does. But what if the dung beetle is also a musician? Is its true nature being musical as well as eating shit? What if the dung beetle is gay as well as being a musician and eating shit? What if the dung beetle is Jewish, gay, musical and eats shit? You see, in each case you can come up with things that we might construe as essential to who we are: a basic talent, sexual orientation or gender, ethnicity, religion. In each case we might say, I’m not true to my self if I don’t accept the fact that I am one of these things, if I deny my sexual orientation, and the way I deny my mortality, if I stifle my creativity.

Each one of these points to the idea that what we call our true self or our essential nature is multiple and changing. It’s not a single permanent essence, but it’s actually often a shifting context of a dependent constellation of traits, how we position ourselves in a world, how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we see ourselves growing and developing. That’s the interconnected side of our true nature, not one single characteristic that we have to be true to. What’s truest about ourselves is the changing nature of our self. In Shakyamuni’s experience of enlightenment, it was looking up at the star and seeing it twinkling. The twinkling is the ever-changing nature of its light.

So the parable of the dung beetle says something basic to us about the suffering that ensues if we cannot accept something basic about what this life is and begins to suggest an alternative of deep acceptance or appreciation for who and what we are. What would that look like? If there was an enlightened dung beetle in that bar, how would you recognize it? You would be the one with the shit-eating grin.

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