The Wrong End of the Cow

After thinking about new year’s resolutions last week, it seemed quite fitting to follow it with reflecting on a sutta that explores the limits of desire in helping us to achieve the outcomes we are looking for. So many new year’s resolutions fall quickly by the wayside because they were little more than hopeful wishes; this sutta is a timely reminder for us that the key to success isn’t just wanting something to happen, or the strength of our desires, but the presence of the right conditions. Of course as seems to be a recurrent theme at the moment, the conditions changed quite significantly between the time that I started writing this post and the time that I finished it, but that does at least serve as another reminder to us that the outcome of our wishes and desires are always reliant on the right conditions to be in place. Anyone in the UK whose new year’s resolution was to get out more has already come a cropper.


The original aim of this sutta was more about the Buddha giving his take on some of the philosophical ideas that were around at the time, but I find the rich analogies that the Buddha uses in it are useful to help us to reflect on our own practices. Not only that, I think the slightly comical imagery in some of them can give us some light relief for the moments when we realise that we have been missing a vital ingredient or two ourselves. The sutta is called the Bhūmija sutta (MN126), and the Bhūmija in the title is a monk who asks the Buddha for some clarification after he was asked a question by Prince Jayasena. The prince had heard teachings from different sects and asked Bhūmija what the Buddha taught in comparison:

“Master Bhūmija, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who espouse this teaching, espouse this view: ‘If one follows the holy life, even when having made a wish [for results], one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when both having made a wish and having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results. If one follows the holy life even when neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, one is incapable of obtaining results.’ With regard to that, what does Master Bhūmija’s teacher say, what is his view, what does he declare?”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This unusual set of four propositions can be initially a little bewildering, but it is a pattern that quickly becomes familiar to you when you read the suttas. In English it is called the tetralemma, and it comes from Indian logic. It is designed to explore all possible answers to a problem by covering every possible variation, following the format of: A, not A, both A and not A, neither A or not A. This was a common way of thinking through philosophical questions at that time, and we often find the Buddha is posed a question delivered in this format. But because the Buddhist path is one that requires direct experience, and cannot be deduced by logic, when he is asked a question like this the Buddha does not try to attempt to answer it within the bounds of the same logical and conceptual approaches that created the questions. Instead he takes a different tack that points away from the usefulness of that kind of logic, and towards illustrating that the questions themselves come from unskilful mind states.[1]

Returning to the sutta, in his reply to the prince’s questions Bhūmija says that although he hasn’t heard the Buddha teach this directly, he believes that in every one of these conditions it is possible for someone following the holy life correctly to obtain results regardless of whether they made a wish for it or not, but he offers no further explanation as to why this is the case. When Bhūmija comes back to ask the Buddha if his reply to the prince was in line with his teaching, the Buddha tells him that it was, but he is able to expound why it was correct, and in doing so we see an example of the way that the Buddha would use teachings on unskilful mind states to answer questions posed in a tetralemma.

The Buddha ignores the questions and foregrounds the eightfold path as being the reason that wishing or not wishing have no impact on the outcome of practice:

“Certainly, Bhūmija, in answering in this way when thus asked, you are speaking in line with what I have said, you are not misrepresenting me with what is unfactual, and you are answering in line with the Dhamma so that no one whose thinking is in line with the Dhamma will have grounds for criticizing you. For any brahmans or contemplatives endowed with wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, & wrong concentration: If they follow the holy life even when having made a wish [for results], they are incapable of obtaining results. If they follow the holy life even when having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. If they follow the holy life even when both having made a wish and having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. If they follow the holy life even when neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, they are incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So the answer to the tetralemma in this case isn’t any of the four propositions, but instead it is the cultivation of the conditions that lead to skillful mind states, namely the factors of the Eightfold Path. By implication we can understand that the Buddha is telling us that if we develop the steps of the Eightfold Path, then we would also know not to approach the question of gaining fruits from our practice by asking theoretical questions about it; we would instead realise that it was a question that we would only find the answer to by working on it within our practice.

The Buddha’s reply also finds an echo in SN22.101, the Nava Sutta, which is another sutta that reminds us that wishes or desires are not sufficient on their own to lead to our development, only the cultivation of the correct conditions will make that happen, and that the work of development is done not by thinking about it but by practicing with it:

“Even though this wish may occur to a monk who dwells without devoting himself to development—‘O that my mind might be released from effluents through lack of clinging!’—still his mind is not released from effluents through lack of clinging. Why is that? From lack of developing, it should be said. Lack of developing what? The four establishing of mindfulness, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for awakening, the noble eightfold path.”

https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN22_101.html trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Buddha described the world as operating to laws of cause and effect, so an event or outcome was only possible when the right conditions were in place to make it happen, hence his repeated statements about the importance of developing the right conditions in our practice. But rather than just being a technical point about the machinations of the universe, I think this also opens up a very useful perspective for us in our practice – nothing is personal. It isn’t ever fully our fault that something went wrong, or indeed that something went right either because it isn’t really our decision that we want things to be a certain way that creates the outcome. We aren’t really masters of our own destiny, we are a bit more like gardeners – we can’t will the plants to grow, but we can tend to the conditions to improve the chances of our plants flourishing. Saying I want to be better at meditating won’t cause it to happen, but if it is a skillful desire then it might help to create the conditions where we make more time to sit, we find a teacher to guide us, or we read up on the subject, each of which might create another set of conditions that will allow our meditation to improve.

When the outcome we want isn’t happening instead of questioning our own direct input we have another choice, we can examine what conditions might be absent. The Buddha makes a set of analogies in this sutta that can parallel our own fruitless attempts to make progress on the path when we haven’t got everything quite right, and I think one useful way that we could use these comical scenarios iis to help to soften the sting of recognising our own errors, and feel a little less put out by these short falls when we recognise what we have gotten wrong.

The first collection of wrong conditions he describes is trying to squeeze oil out of gravel:


“Suppose a man in need of oil, looking for oil, wandering in search of oil, would pile gravel in a tub and press it, sprinkling it again & again with water. If he were to pile gravel in a tub and press it, sprinkling it again & again with water even when having made a wish [for results]… having made no wish… both having made a wish and having made no wish… neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Then he explains how one might fail to get milk out of a cow:


“Suppose a man in need of milk, looking for milk, wandering in search of milk, would twist the horn of a newly-calved cow. If he were to twist the horn of a newly-calved cow even when having made a wish [for results]… having made no wish… both having made a wish and having made no wish… neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

His next image is of trying to make butter:


“Suppose a man in need of butter, looking for butter, wandering in search of butter, would sprinkle water on water in a crock and twirl it with a churn-stick. If he were to sprinkle water on water in a crock and twirl it with a churn-stick even when having made a wish [for results]… having made no wish… both having made a wish and having made no wish… neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

And his final simile is of trying to start a fire:


“Suppose a man in need of fire, looking for fire, wandering in search of fire, would take a fire stick and rub it into a wet, sappy piece of wood. If he were to take a fire stick and rub it into a wet, sappy piece of wood even when having made a wish [for results]… having made no wish… both having made a wish and having made no wish… neither having made a wish nor having made no wish, he would be incapable of obtaining results. Why is that? Because it is an inappropriate way of obtaining results.”

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.126.than.html trans. By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

We could look at each of these scenarios as representing a way that we might be getting our practice wrong. If we start with the wrong ingredients, as we would if we pressed gravel, we are bound to not get the results that we hoped for, because it just isn’t possible to get oil out of gravel. If we start with the wrong knowledge, or the wrong practices, then likewise we simply can’t get the outcome we want. In the cow scenario, we have everything we need to get the right result, but we have got things a bit back to front – we are milking the wrong end of the cow. Maybe this could happen to us in our practice if we have all the right knowledge, but perhaps we are applying it wrongly, our meditation isn’t quite right, or our mindfulness is a bit off track.

In the butter making scenario we can see that this butter maker is doing everything right except for one thing – he is trying to churn water, not milk. It is no surprise then that the butter never materialises. Again like milking the cow we have got everything right, but this time one thing is missing, and in our practice that could be a piece of knowledge, or something being slightly incorrect about our meditation, or maybe we are subtly holding onto something that we need to let go of. In the final scenario, the person has everything that they need to start a fire, but one element of it isn’t ready yet. If they waited until the wet, sappy wood was dry then the fire would start quite easily. In our practice this could be that we have all the right conditions in place but we simply need to wait for them to mature, they just aren’t ready yet. Nothing needs to change, we just need to be patient.

I’m sure I’ve said before that when it comes to practice, the devil is in the detail, and these similes can illustrate how it is possible to be very close but still no cigar. These small differences can be a source of great frustration for us at times, but I know from my own experience that when I find them it can be something of a relief to realise that I was only making one or two simple mistakes. Of course this is very dependent on being able to take it the right way. I think it is no surprise that the Buddha said an important quality for a monastic to have was to be easy to admonish because difficulty accepting our mistakes can prove to be a major hurdle to making progress. Sometimes we eventually recognise what it is that we are doing wrong, and when it seems as obvious an oversight as the four mistakes in these analogies, the temptation can be to kick ourselves, but this is always counterproductive. Other times we need someone else to nudge us in the right direction, and we need to try their suggestion before we can grasp fully what the mistake was. This can require some trust in our teacher, and some patience in waiting for changes to develop. If we are too opinionated, or too impatient, we might throw the solution away thinking that we know better.

For an experienced meditator, I think these kinds of images can be useful when we know what we are supposed to be doing but sometimes go a bit off track – I’m pretty sure there are times when we have all spent a fruitless meditation session trying to make butter out of water. Lightheartedness has its uses, and I think it is a good way to keep us open to our mistakes and upbeat enough to keep trying to fix them. It can be much easier to embrace our simple mistakes with a chuckle than it is to chide ourselves harshly, and when we can just shrug and recognise that the reason our plans haven’t worked out is because we were trying to milk the wrong end of the cow then maybe it makes it just that little bit easier to let it go and try something else. And when we understand that progress in the practice relies on the right conditions, we learn that when the outcome hasn’t gone as we expected that kicking ourselves isn’t the solution, we just need to find the missing ingredients instead.

[1] https://accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/skill-in-questions.pdf page 377

Photo by Hugo L. Casanova on Unsplash

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