The concept of a Holy Cow is quite simply whatever you have set up as something precious, whatever you have kept in that cherished corner of your mind to fantasize or dwell upon. In traditional Buddhism they are usually referred to as Daughters of Mara, those seemingly beautiful ideals that lure us into suffering.
Sentiment, considered by the Buddhists as one of the ‘Three Poisons’ which include Romance and Morbidity, is a good example of a Holy Cow well used by America to justify its more aggressive foreign policies. Who would you not bomb to protect thanksgiving, baseball and the American dream after all?
The nature of the Holy Cow is that sooner or later it will cause you to suffer, generally when it is threatened or removed from ones reality. Holy Cows are also not necessarily physical objects. They are conceptual and emotional structures like honour, justice or even humility that we set up as moral beacons to give our lives meaning and which mostly serves to keep us warm at night.
The Holy Cows we have around relationships, friendships and family tend to hurt the most when they are threatened or killed. These idyllic constructs we create especially cause us to suffer when the people or reality do not live up to our expectations at best, or at worst when the whole dream house we have constructed around them comes crashing down around us, leaving us in a pile of ashes and misery.
The media definitely feeds into the generation of Holy Cows by promoting ideal images of what the perfect partner, family or friend should be. It’s important to remember thought they are just that, ideals and as such represent Holy Cows waiting to be led off to slaughter. This slaughter of Holy Cows is really just the bringing down to earth of the fantasies we have built up from childhood and something which ultimately serves as a rite of passage into awakened adulthood. This process of Holy Cow slaughter is inevitable since most people have to watch their loved ones or most precious dreams crumble to dust at least once in their lives, often through unforeseen tragic events.
I propose a more proactive strategy instead. “Dive in before you are thrown in” is the wiser ethos of dealing with the unavoidable deconstruction of our most beloved archetypes. If we take this process on willingly we can embrace it, eyes wide open and can avoid being thrown into the morass of emotion when it unexpectedly hits us, most often at great cost.
Why do Holy Cows arise in the first place? It is human nature to build up attachments around things we like, and it is also human nature to suffer when these ideals get torn down. The more emotional charge we load onto something the more it shatters when it is taken away.
Attachment leads to suffering and the goal is not to become inhumane, it is to realize the universal truth of impermanence. Knowing this, if we realize that things are always in a perpetual process of arising and dissolving we can see the Holy Cow slaughter as a natural and normal process without suffering unduly as it takes place.
Even the crusade of saving the world is a Holy Cow, something we expend a lot of time and energy on but a process that is doomed to despair as more and more people get born and consume resources daily. Of course people choosing to make a difference on this planet is a positive thing but not if they suffer from it. It is then that we suffer especially when we try to hold on to the things we can do nothing about. We suffer when we see the drowning polar bears as our attachment to a certain positive outcome causes us to hope anew for a better world as we envision it, yet it nevertheless does not occur. As every hope flounders a new Holy Cow dies and ideally we come to comprehend the cyclical perfection of this very moment and realize that it is all exactly as it should be.
Whatever appears or comes, everything is the reflection of wisdom;
everything is like an ornament of the natural state and is self-liberated.
- p68, Heart Drops Of The Dharmakaya
At any moment we have the option of just letting go of the Holy Cow that is being slaughtered and just abide in what is arising as the impersonal play of forces. Neither good nor bad, just an event occurring. People die, species die, relationships die, this is just how it is, but the more we accept this the less we hurt when it occurs. To protect what we love is normal and natural but so too is the death of what we love, as much as a fruit falling from a tree and rotting on the ground, this is just the way it is.
The more we consciously air out our Holy Cows and examine our motivation and intention for holding them in form the less pain they cause us. The more we allow ourselves to let go of the need to have anything go a certain way and play out how we want it to, the less we are forced to learn the lesson of non-attachment by losing what we’ve got, or never getting what we hope to have.
My best example of this is when I struggled so hard to build community, one of my biggest Holy Cows and then having to watch as it fractured and shattered around me in spite of my best efforts to hold it together. There was of course at the time the resultant bitterness and resentment but then I just let it go and some time later a community formed up naturally and effortlessly around me without me having to do much of anything. Once the attachment to the concept is gone you are free to have it, as it is the attachment to a specific format that is actually being challenged and not the idea itself. This is the irony, that you only get what you want when you have stripped away all the precious ideals around it.
When you study, study everything under the sun.
When you reflect, keep an open mind.
When you practice, do one practice and go deep.
— Jamgön Kongtrül
Another example was my attachment to the Apocalypse, a frankly huge Holy Cow for me, and the suffering I generated for myself when it did not arrive on time. When I realized that I had lived it a hundred times already and that it was in a perpetual state of unfolding at all times, I was able to let go of it. This allowed me to enjoy the day to day events of everyday life while still being able to derive pleasure from it when it finally does arrive in all its glory.
Everyone has Holy Cows, and the more one has, the more potential suffering is coming down the chute with ones name on it. What I am proposing here is the systematic dissection of ones most prized ideals before it dies on you. This way you can analyze the expectations of and motivations for it, which often brings up some surprising truths once you examine them in the clear light of the day. Best do it before you are plunged blind into darkness and despair.
My attachment to community came out of a sense of “not belonging” but when I came to terms with this and realized that I was quite happy with whoever was around, even if it was no one, then and only then was I free to have the community I had so craved before.
We are not beasts in the field to be herded around and enslaved by our own emotions, yet this is what we become unless we begin the process of Holy Cow examination, dissection and then self-supervised slaughter. The other alternative is to just sit there and wait as the doors of the abattoir open at random to swallow us whole, victims to the end.
Only to the extent that we expose ourselves
over and over to annihilation
can that which is indestructible in us be found.
― Pema Chödrön
The examination of the Holy Cows is a lifelong activity as we spent a lifetime building them up, but the best way to begin the deconstruction is to ask:
“Why do I want this?”
Then keep asking the same question till you get to the root of the emotion. Once you arrive there explore what you would feel like if you in fact had that state already, as well as the reverse. If you are comfortable with either outcome then you have successfully slain the beast and are free to have whichever outcome you like.
Of course you cannot fake this. You have to truly feel it and you cannot bluff your ‘self’ - it is holding the winning hand. But if you actually feel ok with the outcome and are totally willing to go there, then you need not ever have to go through the pain of the slaughter as it has been symbolically slaughtered already.
This is not as easy as it sounds but with an open mind and heart and some courage it is doable and the rewards are massive and often inconceivable, as it is has all kinds of interesting spin-off effects on the rest of the herd. Once you have strategically taken down one Holy Cow the next one becomes easier and so on and so on until the field is cleared and you are sitting in the Pure Lands or Nirvana sipping pina coladas with your favorite historical figures and enlightened beings...
From the Ashes of the Atomic Fires,