The Buddha and the Herd of Cows

Master Cheng Yen’s Teachings
Translated by the Dharma as Water Team


A simple heart purifies life; a complicated mind corrupts it.

When we live in luxury and pleasure, our minds are easily deceived. This is because the more we seek, the more difficult it is to see the truth clearly, and the more afflicted we become. The Buddha lived a pure and austere life. Such a lifestyle can help people comprehend and realize principles. Therefore, they can see everything clearly and think through everything thoroughly.

The Buddha once took the bhiksus to receive offerings and then teach the Dharma to their benefactors. After completing their tasks, they set off to return to their abode. It was noon and scorching hot. On the way, they encountered a cowherder bringing home his herd. All the cows had eaten their fill. Some formed groups of three to five, and others walked along slowly. Then two cows suddenly started fighting, and eventually, the entire herd was fighting.

At first, the herd appeared peaceful, but because the two cows were unsettled, it brought chaos to the whole herd! The Buddha observed this and shook his head and sighed, an expression of distress on his face. After they returned to the abode, the bhiksus washed their feet, arranged their clothes, and sat. Everyone was very quiet. At this time, Venerable Ananda said, “Venerable Buddha, why did you sigh on our way back?” Ananda cared greatly for the Buddha. He was not only an attendant but also observed every word and action of the Buddha, every slight smile or sigh, down to the smallest detail. He knew that all the Buddha’s actions had causes and conditions behind them. This was why Ananda asked this question.

The Buddha replied, “Did you see that herd of cows along the road?” Ananda replied, “Yes.” The Buddha went on. “That herd of cows was led by the cowherder to grassy fields first thing in the morning to graze and drink water. How free they were in the open fields! After they ate their fill and were on their way home, one cow became restless, and as a result, the entire herd ended up in disarray. People are just like that herd of cows. Everyone usually lives simply, in peace, but when their bodies are satisfied and energetic, they become restless.”

The Buddha also said, “Ananda, have you noticed that every day, that herd of thousands of cows goes out, yet there are fewer when they come back? Why does a cowherder raise cows? To fatten them up so they can be sold and sent to slaughter! Yet, the herd is foolish and ignorant. Every day they take issue with each other and fight. Human lives are the same. In their ignorance, people do not fear impermanence, and they continuously create bad karma and take issue with each other. When their bellies are full and they have nothing to do, they fight over interpersonal differences. What is the difference between them and the cows?”

Whether we live a life of freedom or a life of vexation depends solely on us. It is all controlled by our own minds. Isn’t it better to live a relaxed and simple life, a life that is truly meaningful?


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