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Lions Roar : January 2015
I’d never before paid much attention to birds, but for me this particular one was what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “a bell of mindfulness.” The bird woke me up to the present moment. It was inevitable: I became both a Buddhist and a birdwatcher. For me, birding is a form of meditation—it’s just watching, just listening. I appreciate how birding encourages equanimity, how it helps me rest in ambiguity and uncertainty. In the field, I get a glimpse of small, brown wings disappearing through the branches of an oak. Then I look through my bird books and see page after page of almost indistinguishable little brown birds with their sub- tle markings and minor differences. Did the bird I see have yellow or tan legs? Was its beak straight or did it curve? I can’t positively identify the bird and I have to find some peace with that. It’s easy to find symbolism in birds—in the way they take flight, in the way they preen and nest and sing. Poets have long made wordy use of their wings, while mystics have revered them. In Buddhism, birds are used to teach ethics and concepts. Left: Rooster, pig, and snake, symbol- izing the three poisons. Detail from Bhavacakra (wheel of life). With per- mission of the Royal Ontario Museum. Ontario Museum © ROM. Right: The goddess Mahamayuri, an incarnation of Tara and protector against snake bites. She’s riding on a peacock, which symbolizes the ability to transmute poison. They are metaphors for our muddled, unskillful selves, and also represent our best, no-self selves. Buddhist bird lore goes all the way back to the beginning, or so the story goes. Siddhartha and the Swan One day, when the future Buddha, Siddhartha, was just a child, he and his cousin Devadatta went walking in the forest. Devadatta was an avid hunter, never without his bow and a sheaf of arrows, so when a wedge of swans passed through the sky, he aimed at the leading bird and pierced its wing. As the swan fell heavily to the ground both boys ran to it, but it was Siddhartha who arrived first. He cradled the injured creature in his arms and whispered comfort into its curved, milky neck. Then he extracted the shaft of the arrow and rubbed the wound with a cool and soothing herb. Eventually, Devadatta caught up to Siddhartha and demanded he hand over the swan, but Siddhartha refused. When Devadatta persisted, Siddhartha suggested that they bring the matter to the king, and so in front of the whole court Devadatta and Siddhar- tha each presented their side of the argument. They were both so persuasive that the court was divided; some people thought that the swan belonged to Devadatta because he shot it, while others believed that it was Sid- dhartha’s for nursing it. Suddenly, an elderly man appeared and the king asked him his opinion. “The prized possession of every creature is its life,” the elder stated. “As such, a creature belongs to whoever protects it, not to the one who attempts to take its life away.” Seeing the wisdom in this, the court awarded Siddhartha the swan. He sheltered it until it was fully healed, and then set it free. PHOTOBYBPK,BERLIN/ETHNOLOGISCHESMUSEUM,STAATLICHEMUSEEN/WALDTRAUTSCHNEIDER-SCHüTZ/ARTRESOURCE,NY SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2015 66