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Thirsty Chickens and Dirty Water

Nine months ago, I was blessed to have six baby chicks come into my life.  I’ve raised them and watched them grow from yellow puff balls to robust birds with even more robust personalities.  They coo when they are happy, they chase each other around their roost, and they give me the occasional peck when I disturb their activities. I love them more every day.

An important part of caring for chickens is changing their water regularly.  Of course, all animals require fresh water, but the task is even more important for chickens because they have a habit of pooping in their water feeder.  So, rain or shine, I go into their roost each day to change their water and check on their overall health.  It’s also an opportunity to give them special treats like meal worms and fresh fruit.

The process of changing their water is both simple and complex.  I have two separate water containers.  At any given time, one is in the roost with them, and the other is on standby.  So, the water change only requires that I swap out the container with soiled water for the one with fresh water.  This is the easy part.  The hard part is getting out of the roost without tripping over one of the birds.

Chickens like to rub their faces against their human’s leg to show affection in the same way that cats do.  I appreciate the gesture, but it’s a bit much when they’re darting between my legs and I’m carrying a five-gallon water feeder!

Due to their shenanigans, I always spill some water on the ground as I’m leaving the roost.  It’s not a big deal, but I noticed something interesting the first time it happened.  In their rush to get water the chickens will often drink from the puddles that form on the ground in their roost, ignoring the fresh water in their feeder.  This happens when I spill some on the ground and it also happens when it rains.

Based on my observations, it seems like the deciding factor is distance.  If a chicken is closer to the water feeder, they drink the fresh water.  However, if they are closer to the mud puddles, they drink the dirty water.  Convenience, not quality, is what matters to the birds.

I have a nice chuckle every time this happens, but it also raises some questions.  It’s easy to laugh at the chickens for their behavior, but are humans any different?  In the face of climate change, school shootings, and rising healthcare costs, it’s clear that we like to do the easy thing and to ignore the long-term consequences.

Thus, the problem of suffering is really a problem of short-sightedness.  We cause harm to ourselves and others because our desires stop us from seeing the world clearly.  We know what we want, but we don’t stop to think about the cost.

Buddhism teaches that both chickens and humans behave this way because of ignorance, which comes in two forms.  There is ignorance of the absolute, which convinces us that we are separate from the living beings around us.  And there is ignorance of the conventional, which keeps us from seeing the consequences of our actions. 

Conventional ignorance manifests itself as the desire to take things we don’t possess—greed—and to get rid of things we do possess—anger.  Thus, we arrive at the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, which form the foundation of human suffering.

Sadly, my chickens cannot overcome the three poisons in this lifetime.  Their animal instincts are too strong and their habits are too ingrained.  The best I can do for them is ensure that there is always clean water available to them and hope it balances out in the end.

For humans, however, things are different.  In his compassion, Buddha gave us the Dharma 2,600 years ago and those teachings have survived to the present day thanks to the kindness and hard work of the many teachers who came after him.

They solved the problem of suffering by systematizing the Buddha’s teachings; baking them into religious practices that help us remove our defilements in the same way that window cleaner and paper towels help us remove dust from a mirror.

When we keep the precepts, when we study the sutras, when we bow and chant at our altars, we develop wisdom.  And that wisdom helps us cut through the blurry vision of our desires, so we can see the world clearly.

It helps us tell the difference between dirty water and clean water.  When faced with decisions like, “Should I leave the dishes in the sink for my partner to clean up,” or “Should I post this mean-spirited hot take on social media,” we’re able to choose the thing that ends suffering for ourselves and others.

Thus, the Dharma helps us exchange our Chicken-Mind for the Buddha-Mind; ensuring that the water we drink is sparkling and pure.

Namu Amida Butsu

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Seth Levinson
Seth Levinson
6 months ago

re: “Thirsty Chickens and Dirty Water” thank you! Loved reading this today.