The Zen of Shit, the Dharma of Dung: The Path to Enlightenment Goes Through the Bathroom
“Finally, he saw himself at the foot of a mountain of filth and excrement; he climbed the mountain; he reached the summit; he descended, and neither the filth nor the excrement had defiled him. He awoke, and from these dreams he knew that the day had come when, having attained supreme knowledge, he would become a Buddha.” — A. Ferdinand Herold, The Life of Buddha (1922)
It may not be discussed often, but the path to enlightenment includes many visits to the toilet. The Buddha was keenly aware of the importance of feces and encouraged us to pay attention to our excrement. According to the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha said:
“Just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain…a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of…feces, bile, phlegm, pus…”
We are socially conditioned to be repulsed by shit, to hide it, to be ashamed of it, to ignore it, to avoid talking about it in polite discussion, to keep it separate from the rest of our lives. The Buddha tried to change this automatic reaction by changing the normal context in which we view shit. As the Dalai Lama noted during a lesson he gave in London in 1988, “The Buddha said that although excrement is dirty in the town, it is helpful when used as fertilizer in a field.” The Dalai Lama went on to say that one should “place his or her mind in a deep state beyond the discriminations of…clear or dirty, which enables him or her to transcend such worldly conventions.”
This duality—separating things things are “clean” from those that are “dirty”—sets up a roadblock on the path to enlightenment. Seng-ts’an, the Third Chinese Zen Patriarch would disagree with this separation. “To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind,” he said. “Do not remain in a dualistic state; avoid such easy habits carefully…[or] the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.”
The Buddha is a dried shit-stick
Robert Colpitts of the Interdependence Project, a multi-lineage secular Buddhist center in New York City, argues, “When we are not mindful of our poop, we lose our sense of connection between our mind and our body.” Indeed, the Buddha saw no meaningful distinction between the temple and the toilet. The view that one is divine and the other dirty is a result of an attachment to a false dualism, one that separates mind from body, pure from impure.
Eliminating the distinction between temple and toilet is part of the experience at Ittoen, a commune near Kyoto, where toilet cleaning is considered a critical aspect of the path to self-knowledge. In her book Other People’s Dirt: A Housecleaner’s Adventures from Cape Cod to Kyoto, author Louise Rafkin describes the moment of Zen she felt after mopping the communal shithouse: “In my heart I saw a big tree, with everything in its branches. You, me, air, birds, flowers. I knew everything was related. That was my realization after cleaning that toilet.”
Members of Ittoen cleaning toilets in the Delhi airport. (Photo: Ayako Isayama)
There is a sense of piety that we associate with a temple—from the robes to the golden statues to the incense—that we don’t normally associate with the bathroom. But these are merely external trappings of an inner sensibility. On his blog Dharma Space, author and meditation specialist Dillon Masters recants an ancient story that erases the false line that is often drawn between the temple and the toilet:
In ninth century China, Chan Master Yúnmén Wényan (known in Japan as Ummon Zenji) made quite an amazing impact by deflating all such forms of piety. His most famous one-liner stemmed from a question posed to him by a monk. The question from the monk was ‘What’s the Buddha’? His answer: ‘A dried shit-stick.’ If that doesn’t strip away holy robes it is hard to imagine what would. And how should such an obvious statement of disrespect be understood? The modern day equivalent of a ninth century ‘shit stick’ would be Charmin toilet tissue used to wipe excrement from our anus and then flush it down the toilet. Getting rid of our egos is a most useful endeavor but once that is accomplished we need to resist attaching ourselves to the means and just flush it down the toilet.
Feces: one of the 31 “Great Elements”
The Buddha believed that one of the obstacles that prevent people from realizing the “empty nature of the purified mind” is the repulsion to certain elements of life and living that are normal, healthy and fundamentally vital to the proper functioning of the mind and body. One of these elements is feces (karisam), which is considered one of the “Great Elements” (mahabhuta). There is a traditional Buddhist meditation technique called Patikulamanasikara, one of the four “protective meditations” that reflect on feces and 30 other elements of the body, such as saliva, mucus, blood, sweat, tears and urine.
In the Sampasadaniya Sutta (DN 28), Ven. Sariputta (one of two chief male disciples of the Buddha, along with Maudgalyayana) declares that meditating on feces along with the other bodily elements leads to “the attainment of vision,” describing how this method can be used as a springboard by which one “comes to know the unbroken stream of human consciousness that is not established either in this world or in the next.”
In the SÄ«hanÄda-sutta, Sariputta said:
“It is just as the earth receives what is pure and what is impure, excrement, urine, snot, and spittle, without for this reason hating it or liking it, without feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated…I am like this; my mind is like the earth. Free from fetters or resentment, without ill-will or quarrel, I dwell pervading the entire world [with a mind] boundless, exalted, immeasurable and well-cultivated.
Down with dung: Sariputta
One of the central tenets of Tibetan medicine is the study of excrement. An important basic reference book for Tibetan medicine is the first volume of The Essentials of Gyud-shi, a three-book treatise written by Dr. Pasang Yonten Arya that expounds and explains the traditional Gyud-shi (The Four Medical Tantras) and its contemporary practice and interpretation. In it, Dr. Arya describes the “5 Wind Branches” of the body. The fifth branch is known as “The Descending Wind” (thur sel rlung). It resides and functions in the colon, bladder, reproductive organs, thighs and especially in the sigmoid colon. In addition to regulating sexual functions, it controls the evacuation of feces and urine. A disturbance in the Descending Wind can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids and painful urination. (n.b. The Rubin Museum’s current exhibition, Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine, will extend from the galleries and into the bathroom, where visitors can partake in a free urinalysis.)
Letting go from both ends: emptying the mind and bowels
Both Eastern and Western medical experts recommend meditation to help relieve bowel stress. Dr. Carrie Demers, an Ayurvedic holistic physician and director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center, writes:
“Chronic constipation sufferers need to learn to relax deeply enough so those muscles will remember how to let go. This won’t happen overnight: habitual holding in the pelvis often stems from long-term chronic anxiety, stress, or trauma that will take regular practice to resolve. Agni sara, twists, and forward bends, along with systematic relaxation in shavasana or a similar restorative pose, will move stagnant energy in the pelvis and help unwind chronic gripping.”
That feels better: Agni sara pose
The Mayo Clinic recommends yoga and meditation as treatments for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Nutritionist Stephanie Rolfe writes, “Meditation and relaxation techniques help relax the colon or bowel.” The Sutra of Buddha’s Diagnosis warns that sickness can come from sadness and anger as much as from postponing excrement.
A 2011 study led by Dr. Susan Gaylord of the University of North Carolina’s program on integrative medicine, found that the physical and psychological symptoms of IBS were more effectively managed by people practicing mindfulness meditation than in support group therapy. Dr. Gaylord was the recipient of a seed grant for a pilot study of “Mindfulness for irritable bowel syndrome” from the UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders, which noted in their 2006 annual report that by using relaxation therapies like meditation, “a person can learn how to ‘turn down the volume’ on their GI symptoms by becoming more calm and relaxed about them.”
“The meditation tradition has always understood that even after experiencing enlightenment you still have to go to the toilet,” writes Dr. Graham Williams, an ordained Lama with 25 years experience in teaching meditation and the director of the Lifeflow Meditation Centre. “And, in fact, going to the toilet is a classic Buddhist meditation.”
The mindful poop
So how does one turn a spin in the loo into a “classic Buddhist meditation”? Colpitts offers this mindful plan of action to achieve what he calls a “Right State of Poop”:
1. Take your seat. Before pooping, we generally have to remove our pants and underwear so that the poop has a clear pathway to the toilet. Find a comfortable posture. Some people like to hunch forward, that’s fine. Others don’t like to sit, but instead prefer to squat. If you do so, make sure you are balanced so you don’t fall. There is a Burmese style of pooping that is comfortable, but requires some getting used to. Whatever posture you choose, make sure your body is energetic, but filled with ease.
2. Check in with yourself. What is your state of mind? Are you filled with fear? Filled with hope? Is your mind open? Closed? How does your body feel? Tense? Sore? Loose? Ready to poop?
3. Bring awareness to your pooping mechanism. Feel the pooping in your body, not your idea of pooping, but the felt sense of pooping. As the poop goes out and even when it comes back in, notice that.
4. If you find yourself thinking of Branson, Missouri, or fantasizing about Jimmy Fallon, or wondering where that taste in your mouth came from, gently bring your awareness back to the area of pooping.
There’s also Toilet Yoga, a book that uses the yoga techniques to achieve satisfying poops, offering 15 unique poses that work “in various situations and locations.” According to the book’s publisher, Toilet Yoga Movement, Toilet Yoga “will offer the opportunity to connect with others around the world as you share in the joy of relief and satisfaction” and a “way to change how you spend your precious alone time,” adding, “As this book is based on an open-door policy, feel free to keep yours open if your relationships allow—to share in the joy of the book and these special movements. If your spouse, mate, friend, roommate, etc. isn’t fond of seeing you, pants down and stretching while on the throne, please be respectful and at least close the door part way.”
Dharmic discharge: toilet yoga
One can also engage in one of the Buddhist healing chants specifically designed to increase bowel health, such as the mantra “Om Rum Namaha while doing the Acceptance Mudra (right hand: thumb touching index and middle fingers; left hand: thumb touching middle and ring fingers).
No pressure: Acceptance mudra
From the temple to the toilet: meditative music
What about listening to meditative music in the bathroom? Traditionally, music is not a part of a meditative practice. “If you’re trying to pay attention one-pointedly to your breathing, then you can’t also listen to music,” writes Bodhipaksa, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and founder of Wildmind Buddhist Meditation who has taught meditation for over 20 years. “And if you’re trying to listen to music then you can’t fully concentrate on your breathing.” Does the same go for pooping? Not necessarily. If you want to incorporate sounds into your meditation, Bodhipaksa recommends using the sounds of nature (as opposed to catchy pop songs, which distracts the mind) as a “meditation object.”
“Listening to music as a meditation practice can be a very powerful practice,” he writes. “As I became more familiar with the experience of the dhyanas (Pali, jhanas), which are very concentrated, calm, and blissful states of meditation, I realized that I’d been experiencing these states for years while listening to western classical music. And by treating music as a meditation object, I’ve found that I can experience all of the dhyanas.”
Plus, listening to meditative music while on the toilet may help achieve not only a mindful poop, but may also help ease the pain associated with IBS. According to a 2005 study by researchers from Vanderbilt University, patients who suffered from painful IBS reported a reduction in rectal pain after listening to relaxing music. In 2001, psychotherapist and guided imagery expert Belleruth Naparstek released a guided meditation album with meditative music specifically for this purpose: “Meditation to Help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.”
Whether you use meditative music, yoga poses, mudras, chants or simple mindfulness meditation, bringing a sense of inner peace to the toilet is an enlightened idea. As Gerry Stribling, a student of the Venerable Omalpe Sobhita Thero and the Vietnamese monk Zen Master Thich Hang Dat, notes on his blog Buddhism for Tough Guys, “The Buddha said that the act of pooping can be a sublime event if you do it with proper mindfulness and concentration.”
As an amateur scatologist, I had a feeling that shit was key. But I had no idea that the Noble Eightfold Path went fearlessly (and without a hint of repulsion) through the bathroom door. After all, it makes perfect sense: Who hasn’t at one time or another felt a cessation of dukkha, i.e., suffering, after a good poop? (The Buddha is reputed to have said: “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”)
Clearly, emptying one’s mind and one’s bowels are closely connected. So next time you’re on the shitter, instead of reading a magazine, try meditating. Lighten your load while enlightening your mind.
Soyen Shaku, the first Zen Buddhist master to teach in the United States, knew the importance of shit to the pursuit of truth. At a lecture given to a group of Japanese religious leaders, he said, “We must search for whatever glimmer of truth there is, even amongst the rubbish, even amongst the excrement, we are willing to bow before it and rejoice.”
“A simple existential observation that life is full of imperfections and unpredictable events.” That could be the central concept of a Buddhist lesson or Zen koan. Actually, it’s how Wikipedia defines a common slang phrase that is one of life’s most fundamental truisms: Shit happens.
Just remember to flush.
— Reynard Loki
 Herold, A. Ferdinand. The Life of Buddha. Santa Cruz, CA: Evinity Publishing, 2009. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://sacred-texts.com/bud/lob/lob20.htm.
 Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference” (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition). Last modified November 30, 2013. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html. (h/t Robert Colpitt)
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 Rafkin, Louise. Excerpt from Other People’s Dirt: A Housecleaner’s Adventures from Cape Cod to Kyoto. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1998. From “A Yen for Cleaning.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Spring 2008. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.tricycle.com/feature/yen-cleaning.
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 There is a set of 13th-century Tibetan texts that prescribe the consumption of five human by-products known as “the five nectars”: urine, feces, menstrual blood, semen and flesh. (see Garrett, Frances. Tapping the Bod’ys Nectar: Gastronomy and Incorporation in Tibetan literature. Book chapter. University of Chicago, 2010. https://www.academia.edu/601969/Tapping_the_Bodys_Nectar_Gastronomy_and_Incorporation_in_Tibetan_Literature.)
 Walshe, Maurice (trans.). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Pubs, 1995, pp. 419-20.
 AnÄlayo, Bhikkhu. The Arahant and the Four Truths in Early Buddhist Discourse. Lecture 3. MÄ€ 24 – Discourse on the Lion’s Roar (Parallel to the SÄ«hanÄda-sutta AN 9.11 / AN IV 373) Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/analayo/2012-03lecture.pdf
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 Demers, Carrie. “Ayurvedic Tips for Constipation.” Yoga International. Last modified May 11, 2013. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://yogainternational.com/article/view/ayurvedic-tips-for-constipation.
 Mayo Clinic. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome – Alternative Medicine.” July 29, 2011. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/basics/alternative-medicine/con-20024578.
 Rolfe, Stephanie. “Natural Constipation Cures that Work.” Nutrition Articles Online. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://nutritionarticlesonline.com/constipation_cures/
 Kwiksure.com. “Happy Buddha: The Health Benefits to Living a Buddhist Lifestyle.” Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.kwiksure.com/blog/health-benefits-to-living-buddhist-lifestyle/
 Gaylord, Susan. “Mindfulness for Stress and Pain Management: Implications for IBS.” Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, UNC School of Medicine. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/files/educational-gi-handouts/Mindfulness.pdf.
 UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders. Annual Report 2006. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/center-publications/annual-reports/ar2.pdf
 Williams, Graham. “Meditating on the Spot.” InnerSelf. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.innerself.com.au/archive/from_the_editors/sa015_in_flow.html
 Ibid., 5.
 Toilet Yoga Movement. “Meditation on evacuation: Toilet Yoga.” Alltop.com. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://holykaw.alltop.com/meditation-on-evacuation-toilet-yoga.
 Balakumar, Naran S. “Acceptance Mudra.” Mudra Healing. Last modified August 2, 2009. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://healbymudra.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/acceptance-mudra/
 Bodhipaksa. “Should I listen to music when I meditate?” Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.wildmind.org/background/can-anyone-meditate/music
 Morgan, V., et al. “Amitriptyline reduces rectal pain related activation of the anterior cingulate cortex in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.” National Institutes of Health. From Gut. May 2005. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1774484/.
 Naparstek, Belleruth. “Meditation to Help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” iTunes. Accessed March 15, 2014. https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/meditation-to-help-irritable/id421743184.
 Stribling, Gerry. “Poop, I say!” Buddhism for Tough Guys. October 17, 2011. Accessed March 15, 2014. http://buddhismfordudes.blog.com/2011/10/17/poop-i-say/
 Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2003. p. 256.