Keep Calm and Carry On: Cows as Zen Masters

The Face of Calm: May 6, 2013
The Face of Calm (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The cow stood there, stoically it seemed to me, chewing with lazy abandon, while I fumbled with the focus on my camera. She rolled her big weepy eyes, as cows are wont to do when confronted with something new. Coincidence or not? I pressed the shutter and peered at the tiny LCD screen, the sun’s glare bleaching out the finer details.

When I look at cows face to face, particularly their eyes, I sense a connection, laughable as that might sound. And I should. After all, cows provided the milk that American nutritionists insisted that American children drink in copious quantities. And we did. “Morning milk,” our school teachers called it – we took morning breaks to drink our milk, after pressing two copper pennies into our teacher’s hand.

Cheese, cream, yogurt, ice cream, butter, all these dairy products usually come from cow’s milk.* And, of course, given the American propensity to eat beef, and a lot of it, I can safely say, I think, that cows (cattle) made me what I am today. In more ways than one.

There’s a story, told by Thich Nhat Hanh, about a farmer who came upon a group of monks. It’s worth retelling here:

One day the Buddha was sitting in the wood with thirty or forty monks. They had an excellent lunch and they were enjoying the company of each other. There was a farmer passing by and the farmer was very unhappy. He asked the Buddha and the monks whether they had seen his cows passing by. The Buddha said they had not seen any cows passing by.

The farmer said, “Monks, I’m so unhappy. I have twelve cows and I don’t know why they all ran away. I have also a few acres of a sesame seed plantation and the insects have eaten up everything. I suffer so much I think I am going to kill myself.”

The Buddha said, “My friend, we have not seen any cows passing by here. You might like to look for them in the other direction.”

So the farmer thanked him and ran away, and the Buddha turned to his monks and said, “My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world. You don’t have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care of, you will be very busy.”

“That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing . You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows.”

Or more simply stated: Don’t have a cow, man?

Spinach with Paneer: May 30, 2013
Spinach with Homemade Paneer (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Take it further:

Temperament of milk cows

*Sheep and goats also produce milk as well, but not on the scale of that of cows.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen


  • I like your new design, as we can see more of your beautiful photo behind the posts than in the previous design, where we only saw that knockout kale leaf for a few seconds before it was mostly covered by the posts.

    Re “Keep Calm & Carry On,” I love the phrase as applied to cows, but there are a number of things the Buddha did or said that I find off-putting, and this is one of them (I’ve disliked the Buddha ever since I saw a biographical program about him and discovered that he upped and left his adoring wife and children to go off and “find himself”–very selfish).

    “Don’t have a cow,” as you paraphrased? What were Buddha and his 30 or 40 followers eating? Possibly someone owned cows or fields that produced their food (unless they lived like the lilies of the field). It’s one thing to give up your riches and live as a mendicant, but SOMEONE still produced that food. It’s illogical and rather selfish, imo, to advise everyone to give up their hold on creation (or the things they’ve taken upon themselves to care for, like the cows). Creation is to be loved passionately and admired and reveled in for as long as you’re part of it (strictly my opinion). (Sorry for the little rant–I still like your post; it got me thinking!)


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