By definition, a ‘sacred cow’ is something which is immune from criticism, often unreasonably so. We believe it without question. When it’s tampered with it often results in criticism, public outcry, anger, and fear. We all have our own sacred cows, and there are many in Buddhism. Just think of the reaction to Stephen Batchelor changing the 4 Noble Truths to the 4 Tasks.
The idiom is based on the popular understanding of the elevated place of cows in Hinduism and appears to emerge in America in the late 19th century. Or at least this is the story from one source. Another source says it’s from a Jewish tradition where there is a moral stigma against cooking veal (calf meat) in cows milk.
What is the value of keeping ‘sacred cows’? For that matter, what is the value of killing them? What are the sacred cows in Buddhism? What are yours? What ideas did you learn from teachers, or your study that you took in without question?
We all have read or heard about impermanence, being in the present moment, dependent arising, and others and we may or may not have our own ideas about them. I find exploring them fruitful for my practice especially when I’m questioned by someone in one of my meditation groups. Am I sure of these? Do I really understand them? What do they really mean?
For example, we often hear about ‘being in the present’. There’s a well-known book titled NOW by Eckert Tolle. What does that mean? Is it being in this moment of time, watching the literal moment arise and pass away? Or do you think of it as being in the flow of things? Or recalling them in reflection? Or seeing the thread of thoughts or experiences in context.
We’ve learned different definitions, but what is true for you? How do you understand these ideas? What would the wise say about it? And who qualifies as the wise?
Physicists say ‘There is no persistent present or “now”. Then how can you be in the present? As soon as you recognize the present moment, it’s the past. Ideas, feelings, sounds, images, and body sensations are in constant motion.
The very concept of time is how we organize our experience. There is no cause and effect without time.
Heraclitus, an Ancient Greek philosopher said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Isn’t this impermanence?
Conversely, we sometimes feel as if nothing changes. But is that really true? The Buddha taught impermanence so how do we explain this? What about our repetitive, reflexive reaction to important figures in our lives such as our parents or exes or to political figures that press our buttons? Those reactions can feel unchanging, but are they? Or are there subtle differences we don’t see at first glance?
“Change is constant, everything changes,” is another sacred cow. “Nothing stays the same.” Can you think of something that is constant, never changing? Are there ways of looking at things that seem permanent but aren’t? What comes to mind for me is a mountain. It doesn’t seem to change, it’s massive, it’s always there. But in various ways it’s changing too. Snow may fall or melt changing the texture, and temperature of the mountain, fissures may form, caves may be dug out of its sides by hibernating animals, and it even may rise fractions of inches depending on the earth’s crust. We may not see this but it happens.
Can everything be impermanent? Doesn’t it presume that there are things that are permanent for comparison’s sake? Even the word impermanence includes the word permanence. There can only be light if there is dark, there is only truth if there is something that is false, same with right and wrong. How can we know what happiness is without sadness? I was taught that everything is impermanent. But is it?
People who have chronic pain often say it never goes away. That may be true but does the quality of the pain may change, from sharp to dull to achy? Is feeling that it’s always there the same thing as reality? It’s my reality. What’s the difference between what is my reality and what is true?
We feel that some things are unchanging. Yet I can predict that I will react the same way when I hear the name of some political figures and then I react ever stronger to their voices. Does that invalidate impermanence?
How do our ideas about these sacred cows change our practice and how we live our lives? Do they blind us to the nuances of our experience? We spout them as if they can define our experience in toto.
What about choice and free will? If everything dependently arises, how can I have a choice? I believe I have free will and it’s conditioned by my past and present. Even when things are well ingrained, it can change. Or at least I hope so. Sometimes it feels like the change is glacial.
I’ve only touched on some ‘sacred cows’. I don’t have any answers and you may not either. I think the bigger question is if, how, and when we explore these for ourselves. Talking about them with others helps us clarify our own ideas, challenges ourselves, helps us refine our understanding.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the Buddha. This is said to be his last words:
Be a lamp unto yourself. Be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself no external refuge.
Another source added:
Be your own confidence. Hold on to the truth within yourself as to the only truth.
The Kalama Sutra, which is where these words come from, talk about how the wise would respond to these questions. Who are the wise that you look up to?