Five Meats, Five Ambrosias, and Refuge in Evil

Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen picked up one of the strands of the Sanjie Jiao conversation that also had a little activity here some time ago – in his latest post he links to a talk I gave at Green Gulch a couple of Sundays ago (Absolute Refuge) and adds some of his thoughts about this strange and wonderful “refuge in evil” teaching I’ve been trying to infect people with.  “Refuge in evil” might freak some people out, but I’m confident that Screwtape would not approve – this sort of total refuge is the mark of a whole, not a broken person. 

(Dosho summarizes the issue well – before you click away thinking Jiryu has crossed to the Dark Side, check out his post or listen to my talk!)

For those of you who do think this makes some sense and/or is more interesting than offensive, I wanted to connect it to one more strange (possibly even stranger, and likely more offensive) Buddhist teaching: the “five meats and five ambrosias.”  In the last week I’ve been reading a book by Christian Wedemeyer called Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, largely about the question of what the hell is going on? with some of the farther out Tantric Buddhist practices.  Wedemeyer’s favorite of their far out prescriptions is the “five meats and five ambrosias,” a set of first millenium Indian esoteric Buddhist rituals involving the consumption of “five meats” seen as taboo at the time: beef, dog, elephant, horse, and human flesh; and the “five ambrosias” that last I checked were still taboo: feces, urine, blood, semen, and marrow.

What?!  Gross!  This is sweet, nice, clean Buddhism?

Wedemeyer nicely summarizes the basic types of modern Western flipout about this kind of teaching, the shrieks of “degenerate!” and the desperate attempt to exile them from real Buddhism, writing them off as “non-Buddhist” or the result of “primitive” influences.  Pushing this kind of reaction aside, Wedemeyer gets into these teachings to try to really understand what is going on them, and his conclusion (buried in some layers of interesting but I think not entirely necessary structuralist and semiological lingo) is that these teachings aren’t concerned with these perverse rituals themselves so much as they are with a real commitment to a nondual understanding.  They express a truth beyond relative, human-centered value systems.  For a person who thinks they are “down” with nonduality, I think they are kind of like koan checking questions:  “You say understand the true meaning of this pure and pristine Buddhist ritual that you are doing, but do you understand the purity that is beyond purity and impurity?”

Or, more to the point, “You say you understand the purity beyond purity and impurity – please eat this shit covered human arm.”

It turns out that the language of these distressing practices seems to match really closely with the language of the more mainstream Buddhist practices.  It’s more or less that wherever the mainstream Buddhist rituals call for something pure, these rituals substitute something impure.  Again, it’s like they are asking:  “Do you think sandalwood is closer to Buddha than human feces is?  Do you think it’s a more worthy offering?”

Or, more to the point, “You say you understand offering beyond relative conceptions – please offer this shit in your high ceremony in honor of the Buddha.”

It is likely that 99.99% of Buddhists, even those who read these texts, continued just to offer sandalwood – scholars are hard pressed to find any convincing evidence of the actual observance of these twisted rituals.  Wedemeyer makes it clear that it’s not so much about whether these practices were “really” done or not so much as it is about the possibility of them that give the ritual texts their function to point out that biggest of big minds that would be required to enact them.  And I really appreciate that challenge.  I think that finding that big, equalizing mind would give even the usual sandalwood offering a depth, a completeness that I think is really beautiful and really vital to what we claim we are doing as Zen practitioners.

And this is the same move that I think the “refuge in evil” folks are making – I revere the good, but I understand that it is not separate from the evil.  I offer sandalwood, but I know and appreciate it’s ultimate non-separation from shit.

And just as when evil is in front of me that particular evil is, as Buddha, my refuge – so if shit is in front of me, then shit is the offering.  Wholehearted and pure and pristine beyond conception, its scent – as precisely Buddha – permeates the cosmos, awakening beings everywhere…


9 thoughts on “Five Meats, Five Ambrosias, and Refuge in Evil

  1. It is seriously a liberating feeling in a way. Like we think we have to have our shit (no pun intended) together in order to be a good Buddhist. Like we have to know the forms perfectly, love everyone, not care when someone steals our stuff or whatever and if we are anything other than “perfect” we have nothing to offer. But rather we just have to be ready to give whatever we got to give. Today maybe you sit upright with a quiet mind. But tomorrow it may be going to morning zazen and sitting hunched over with a bellyache, or maybe its skipping zazen and laying under the bedcovers in a crying heap, as long as you are ready to say “this is me” today…? Maybe?

  2. Hello Jiryu, nice to hear from you again. I listened to the talk you gave in February. My question is what makes you think the Three Stages Sect got it right?

    I don’t ever recall reading about evil Buddhas in any of the Buddhist Sutras I have read. In the Avatamsamaka Sutra there are so called inverted Buddha Fields but no evil Buddhas. Doesn’t sound right to me.

    • Hey Jennifer – I don’t know about getting it right, but I think the sect is pointing to a basic issue of Buddhist doctrine and practice in a really interesting way. I think the term they use is something like “false Mara Buddhas”, but I haven’t looked it up. I don’t know if any sutras talk specifically in those terms, but the Sanjie Jiao is clear that they are coming from the basis of “all beings are Buddha”, which is pretty standard Mahayana and certainly can be backed up by lots of Mahayana Sutras (certainly all of the ones in the Tathagatagarbha stream). So I think they were developing the two well-established ideas of their time, of intrinsic enlightenment and the decline of the Dharma. These two aspects are expressed by the title of the only full English book I know of about them: “Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood” by Jamie Hubbard. Check it out if you are interested – Hubbard makes a great effort to put them squarely in the Buddhist mainstream, and I think does a good job of it. So I don’t think they were so far out in the end – it’s just the whole tradition that’s far out with crazy-talk like “samsara is nirvana” and “all beings are Buddha”. Are you buying it?

      • Hi Jiryu, I love asking you questions because you always give such great responses. “false Mara Buddhas” makes much more sense. In fact Sariputra raises this thought early in the Lotus Sutra. I’m a bit of a stickler for canonical correctness only because if you are going to buy the whole age of decline business then the Vaipulya Sutras are the ones of most value now.

  3. I think I’m a bit confused here but I’m glad that this is so. Correct me if I’m wrong but if the Dharmakaya Buddha exists then compassion is grounded in ultimate reality and ultimate truth. Therefore eating meat of any stripe is cruel and in opposition to ultimate reality. I also fail to see how the nonduality of objects would encourage me to offer feces to the Buddha. Even though from a nondual perspective feces and sandalwood are similar we must remember that I’m the kind of creature who prefers sandalwood over feces. Non-separation doesn’t equate to non-difference and intellecutal or intuitive assent to the nondual perspective need not compel me to deny my evolutionary sensory nature.
    I will begin by stating my perhaps wrongheaded understanding of nonduality. Axiom: For any existstent object in samsara, not one object posseses the property of separateness. In other words a tree doesn’t own it’s identity separate from the whole stream of being. Now, we may not draw any conclusions about ethics or metaphysics from this fact. Ethics is not derived from the emprical world but rather governs conduct within the empirical world. In terms of metaphysics although the Buddha was agnostic about God we can theoretically imagine a being that had no cause, parts, or was in any way dependent on words. In other words we can conceive of a substance. To assert that ethics are also subject to empirical laws is to commit a category mistake.
    Some reflections on the Sanjie Jiao; Humility lies in the willingness to have a conversation about what is true and false with other rational creatures. Believing that all propositions are true is not wise, it’s bewildering. If we are going to have a conversation we must have rules that all creatures can assent to. I assert that these rules are logic and experiment. Once more humility lies in treating all beliefs as mere hyposthesis, even beliefs about rationality itself. I’m not certain any of my beliefs correspond to reality. I much prefer the philosophy of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His belief was that religions hould be ritualistic, prayerful, meditative, but essentially silent. Ahh the relief! He thought the most religious discourse was pure nonsense. For example it is said that God is a person without a body; but what in the hell does it mean to say there is a person without a body; we can’t clearly conceive of such a creature. I should be sitting zazen/metta but instead I’m discussing the respective merits of offering feces vs. sandalwood. Thanks to Jiryu and Hondo Dave for offering a platform for discussion. May all living creatures be happy, may they be free from suffering.

  4. The following excerpts might be helpful. They’re from three translations published by Wisdom or Snow Lion: Perfect Conduct (14th c), Tantric Ethics (15th c), and Buddhist Ethics (19th c), and cover the full range of vows in Mahayana and Vajrayana.

    From Ascertaining the Three Vows, Ngari Panchen Pema Wangyi Gyalpo with commentary by Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorje … [aka, Precepts, Bodhisattva, Tantra]

    [Among the Fourteen Root Downfalls of Tantra …]

    Text: “Disrespecting the aggregates [skandhas]: the eighth is physically abusing oneself out of disrespect for the five aggregates, which are in actuality the five Buddhas.”

    Commentary: “In inner Vajrayana practice, the five aggregates are viewed as the five buddhas. At the time of empowerment, the body itself becomes a support for the offering of all desirable objects and the increase of bliss. In dependence upon the body, primordial wisdom is actualized. Not knowing this and so maintaining that the body is a source of suffering, and further belittling the body verbally or physically … constitutes the eighth downfall.”

    Text: “Failing to rely upon the appropriate samaya substances: the thirteenth is failing to rely upon necessary word of honor substances at the required time.”

    Commentary: “During Vajrayana ceremonies, such as at the ganacakra feast … the gathered disciples are seen as dakas and dakinis. Those … possess mantra materials such as the vajra and bell, partake of the five meats and five nectars, sing special songs of invocation, and dance according to the samaya requirements. Holding the view of the sravakas or pratyekas during these times, and thus failing to partake or participate because of that view, constitutes the downfall.”

    from Buddhist Ethics, Jamgön Kongtrul …

    “The Pledges of the Four Initiations and Other Pledges … For the vase initiation, … (3) the pledge of sustenance is [to eat] the pills made with the five meats and five nectars …”

    “… the five meats, known as the five lamps or “stimulators” of the senses, refer to the five outer and five inner meats. The outer meats are cow, dog, horse, elephant, and human. The five inner meats are the five sense organs. The five nectars refer to the inner and outer nectars. The outer are excrement, urine, blood, semen, and human flesh. The five inner are the five aggregates.[one] first dissolves the meats and nectars, purifies them by meditation on non-reality, then has them reappear, and finally transforms them into ambrosia. However, unless [one] has the ability to actually perform this transformation, these substances do not contribute to the attainment of the qualities of awakening …” footnote drawn from Pema Karpo’s Extensive Commentary on the Three Vows

    And an interesting excerpt from Tantric Ethics of Tsongkhapa, referring to the Thirteenth Downfall: “You break your pledge if, in a gathering of people, you despise the vajra and so forth [saying], ‘What purpose do they serve? Meditation alone is the main thing, not gesticulating with your hands and so on.’”

    So in India (5th to 7th c?) you arrive at one of these ‘twisted rituals’, you’ve heard the rumours, you may be a monk, or perhaps from an impeccable local family. A woman wearing human bone ornaments and nothing else (thus hiding nothing) approaches you from time to time to offer you either meat, alcohol, or a nectar into which some ‘pills’ have been dissolved. Maybe a woman is leading the ritual. How many violations of your vows or other cultural perceptions are in play here? And for what?

  5. Along these lines, I think you may be quite interested in Brook Ziporyn’s “Evil and/or/as the Good.” It’s heavy going at times, but if one has the taste for it, it’s excellent.

    • Thank you – I will check it out. It’s been recommended before, but this time I’ll really get to it! It seems like there is some interesting back and forth between Ziporyn and David Loy on the ramifications of this kind of radical inclusion of evil, raising the problem of how it might soften our actual response to evil. Thanks for pointing me to it.

  6. What I find possibly helpful about the idea of Refuge in Evil is the opportunity it offers us to look at what we habitually dissociate from – things like the actual atrocities of war, the torment of animals in food production, the vast numbers of people locked in our prisons in torturous conditions, the homelessness close by our homes, corporate corruption, and so on. Often people hold these difficult truths in their minds in a hazy kind of way because it is too painful to hold them sharply. It seems to me that this practice could open the way for each of us to better hold the reality of the bad in the world more realistically in our minds for the purpose of keeping our compassionate hearts open. My observation is that one of the greatest barriers to compassionate change is people’s unintended, but deeply habitual, neglect to pay attention to what is uncomfortable. We just don’t see it and don’t know that we don’t see it.
    This could be a practice to build greater tolerance for seeing the horrible, not for endorsing it. It could assist people to see it and protest about it – to be galvanized to action to save all beings.

    Thank you for introducing me to these teachings. I haven’t explored them yet, other than hearing your talk at SCZC, but I feel an instant affinity to them as they correspond to my efforts to more accurately everything in my Refuge practice.
    neti (Antoinette Parekh)
    Diamond Sangha, and Santa Cruz Zen Center.

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