Does a cowboy have to piss? (MN 12)

So, I’ve been consciously taking time to get used to the new translations by Bhante @Sujato and so many things that sounded odd at first have now blended in just fine. But there are one or two things I haven’t been able to get used to.

In the Maha Sihanada sutta, SuttaCentral, this passage is one of them…

I would make my bed in a charnel ground, with the bones of the dead for a pillow. Then the cowboys would come up to me. They’d spit and piss on me, throw mud on me, even poke sticks in my ears. But I don’t recall ever having a bad thought about them. Such was my abiding in equanimity.

I realize that words for bodily functions are highly context specific, and the connotation can differ widely from country to country. But I just can’t imagine the Buddha saying “piss.” In fact just a few paragraphs down, he say urinate when referring to himself doing the deed.

The only real case I feel I can make is that in North America, and I would guess England, a monk wouldn’t use “piss” when they were teaching. It’s not profane, but it is vulgar. And quoting the Buddha saying it would seem really off. I’m thinking particularly of the Sri Lankan monks I know who teach in English and the reactions that parents would have if they said piss.

I’ll confess that from a North American perspective “cowboy” feels wrong as well. But it’s just odd/humorous rather than problematic.

Anyone else have thoughts on this?


Definitely my first reaction as a North American is to conjure up images of a man in chaps with a Stetson hat riding in a saddle out on the high frontier. Perhaps it is because I taught for a year at the University of Wyoming where the state and university symbol is the famous image of a cowboy on a bucking bronco, the name of which is Steamboat (the horse, not the cowboy), for trivia fans. Others perhaps won’t be able to resist the temptation to visualize the Marlboro Man, of cigarette advertising fame. I’m not exactly sure what a “cowboy” in ancient India would have looked like; probably not the Marlboro Man.

As for excreting fluid waste from one’s body, when I see a medical professional I like to use clinical terms such as “urination.” Seems like avoiding colloquial expressions leads to a more medical-sounding diagnosis. But maybe that’s just an idiosyncratic preference on my part.


Yes, I agree that urinate leans toward the medical. But as far as I know it is the only formal way we have to pee. In Ven Nyanamoli’s Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha “makes water” which is way too old fashioned.

Thanks, because I didn’t have anything else to do this morning. </sarcasm>.

So the interesting thing here is the word gāmaṇḍala vl. gomaṇḍala, which occurs three times in the EBTs. The meaning is unclear, although it is usually glossed by the commentary with something like gopālaka-dāraka, literally “cowboy”. But you are right, given the rather specific connotations of “cowboy” in English, it’s probably best avoided.

Gomaṇḍala is clearly attested in Patanjali in the sense “herd of cows”:

tat yathā goḥ sakthani karṇe vā kṛtam liṅgam goḥ eva viśeṣakam bhavati na gomaṇḍalasya
Just as a cow, once it has been marked on thigh or ear is special, and no longer part of the herd.

Since this sense is well-established in Sanskrit, I think it’s best to stick as close to it as possible.

Thag 19.1:57:
Gāmaṇḍalaṃva parinesi citta maṃ;
Mind, you dragged me around like a herd of cows

In the two cases in Majjhima Nikaya it clearly refers to people, and in a somewhat loutish or derogatory sense, so it probably means something like “[peasants] who look after cowherds”. I am tempted to translate as “bogan”. But given the obscurity of the word, perhaps we could render as “cowpoke”.

MN 12:51
Apissu maṃ, sāriputta, gāmaṇḍalā upasaṅkamitvā oṭṭhubhantipi, omuttentipi, paṃsukenapi okiranti, kaṇṇasotesupi salākaṃ pavesenti.
Then the cowpokes would come up to me. They’d spit and piss on me, throw mud on me, even poke sticks in my ears.

MN 93:18
ko nāyaṃ gāmaṇḍalarūpo viya sattannaṃ brāhmaṇisīnaṃ patthaṇḍile caṅkamamāno evamāha:
‘Who’s this wandering about our courtyard like a cowpoke?

As for “piss” vs. “urinate”, I don’t know, I think the assonance and the crude context justify it.


What about “cattle tender,” or perhaps “herdsman”?

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For me, cowpoke is even more humorous than cowboy. And it has the same connotation.

I have always thought they would be analogous to shepherds. Is there something wrong with cowherd? It is not so common, but easy to guess what it means. More explicit would be cow herder.

And I do agree that if the cowboys (or whatever they are) were describing what they were doing, they would definitely say they pissed on a monk. I just question if the Buddha would report it that way.

Thank you for taking the time to talk about this, Bhante.

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The hare krishna devotees talk about the ‘cowherd boys’ with regard to that krishna-lila where krishna plays as a cowherd-boy - as written about in the srimad bhagavatam. in that cultural setting they don’t wear big hats, ride horses and yelp yippee-yie-kiyo!

a person who tends grazing cattle.

Yes, but the point is that gomaṇḍala is not a normal word for a cowherd (gopī, gopāla, etc.) It’s a specific and apparently idiomatic term, only used in contexts of a derogatory meaning.


I wonder why they got a bad reputation! Hick, yocal and, bumpkin also comes to mind. How about ‘louts’ - a bunch of young mischievous louts may behave in this way. A lout, yobbo or, chav would put a stick in someones ear and make a nuisance of themselves. I wonder if a ‘herd of cattle’ means something like behaving like a ‘herd of sheep’ - a mindless gang of louts? ‘Way-ward boys’ who follow the herd - mindless conformity - like sheep or cattle? If, you were considering ‘bogans’ why not ‘drongos’ - a bunch of drongos? It would be quite uplifting and amusing to have a translation of the texts that used an Australian idiom. Nibidda could be translated as: had a gutful.

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Well, in that case, “cowboy” might not be the best fit. In North America cowboys enjoy a reputation of almost mythic proportions. The image of a lone cowboy tending his herd on the high frontier is akin to a Norse Viking in terms of its status as a heroic figure. Cowboys are known for their prowess at herding skills which they show off at rodeos. “Cowpoke” implies work of a lowlier character, but seems very specific to the American west. The sports mascot at the University of Wyoming is the Cowboys, but at football games it is not uncommon for people to yell out “Go 'pokes!” It’s a term of endearment, but definitely implies lesser status than “cowboy.”


@sujato :anjal:

I have pali sinhala dictionary it says;

gomaṇḍala - Collection or herd of cows.

gāma maṇḍala - Collection of villages.

I’m just wondering whether ‘gāmaṇḍalā’ is a person , a vagrant who roams about from village to village ?

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It’s difficult how the same English word has different associations and different levels of acceptability in different countries. When I moved from Australia to live in the States for a couple of years I was very surprised to find that words associated with the ‘bathroom’ had totally different levels of acceptability than they had in Australia.

Edit: In England and Australia bathrooms are places for washing; it was weird to hear someone speaking of going to the bathroom in a restaurant. The words that I find normal apparently weren’t acceptable … but what to do?


or a vagrant who hangs out with cows :rofl:


Maybe gāmandala was split at the wrong place to come up with gāma-mandala?



Sounds like gāmandala and gōmandala have two different meanings.

Perhaps the solution is to add a derogatory adjective to “herdsman” or “cattle tender” in order to specify the individual involved, something along the lines of “lowly herdsman” or “lowly cattle tender.” Would that work?

How about an word like ‘rascal’ which denotes the problem, but isn’t denigrating?


Yes, this is a possibility; Norman suggests reading two distinct terms, and at any rate the manuscript tradition appears to be confused. It’s also possible that all the terms represent some even less knowable dialectical term.

Yes, that could be another approach.


I hung out with cows a lot when I did a solitary retreat on a farm years ago. They are great listeners. :yum: