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Lions Roar : January 2015
Peacock in the Poison Grove When the monsoon started and the Buddha and his commu- nity of monks and nuns gathered for the annual rainy season retreat, they would often hear the plaintive call of the peacock. Ever since then, this bird with its electric blue throat and tail strewn with eyes has captured the Buddhist imagination. Peacocks are credited with being able to eat poisonous plants, snakes, and insects, and not only survive but thrive. For this reason, these boldly beautiful birds represent a particular way that we can relate to our mental and spiritual poisons. In the Vajrayana tradition it’s said that there are three ways of dealing with proverbial poison. The first, which is arguably the least dangerous option, is to avoid it. If you have a poison tree in your yard, chop it down. If you feel rage welling up in you, refrain from venting it. And if everyone else is drinking scotch, order apple juice. But poison—if used correctly—can be a medicine, so maybe you’d like to put your axe down and let that tree in your yard live. It’s important to remember, though, that you must be skill- ful to employ this method or else you simply end up poisoned. If you want to use the leaves of the poison tree as medicine, you need to know the correct dosage to use and the right time to take it. And if you want to use your so-called vices and unwholesome mental states as the path to enlightenment, you really need to know how to transform them. Finally, in the third way of dealing with poison, we take a page from the peacock’s playbook. The peacock struts over to that tree in your yard and just gobbles down a whole venomous branch because, to the peacock, poison is no other than nour- ishment. It’s what creates the brilliant plumage. Tenzin Wangyal, a lineage holder in the Bön Dzogchen tradi- tion, puts the peacock’s method into spiritual terms: “Instead of avoiding or manipulating poison, you host the poison. You bring naked awareness directly to the pain or poison, and dis- cover that the true ground of being has never been poisoned. In so doing, the pain liberates by itself.” The Bird That Stormed Heaven Fabulous and fantastical, Garuda is the lord of birds in both Bud- dhist and Hindu traditions. According to legend, Garuda had a five-hundred-year incubation and then hatched fully formed. His golden body was so luminous that he was mistaken for the god of fire and his wings beat with such vigor that the earth shook. One day, Garuda’s mother Vinata and her sister had a dis- agreement about the color of a horse’s tail, and apparently this sister was quite testy, because to get revenge she kidnapped Vinata and held her ransom in a serpent-pit prison. Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was to serve as payment, and Garuda— desperate to free his mother—stormed heaven to steal it. After that, however, things did not go quite as planned. Through subterfuge, Garuda completed his rescue mission, but the gods were hot on his heels and they eventually— with enormous effort—pried the amrita from his beak. In the fray, a few drops fell on some sharp blades of grass, and serpents licked these drops up, forever forking their tongues. Moreover, the god Vishnu managed to subdue Garuda and, taking him as his vehicle, granted him immortality. Originally, Garuda was always depicted straightforwardly as a large, powerful bird. Later images, however, show him as a “bird- man.” In Tibetan iconography, he has the torso and arms of a human, yet his thighs are feathered and culminate in talons and he has the fierce head of an eagle. It’s said that his two horns symbolize the two truths, relative and ultimate, while his two angelic wings symbolize the union of method and wisdom. Because Garuda hatches fully mature, he represents the Vajrayana view that enlightenment can happen fully on the spot, without a long gestation. Because he extends his wings without limits and soars fearlessly into space, he represents absolute confidence. As the lord of the skies, Garuda is tradi- tionally seen as an enemy of the lion, the lord of the earth. But in the Tibetan imagination, the rivals mate and give birth to a beast that has the body of a lion and the wings and horns of Garuda. A symbol of the union of earth and sky, the Garuda-lion is one of what are called the three victorious creatures in the fight against disharmony. The other two are also born of animal enemies. The fish-otter’s body is covered in the sleek, dark fur of an otter, but at the neck this fur gives way to scales. The makara-conch, on the other hand, is a dragonish water-monster, with its head and mane bursting from a spired shell. Ikkyu’s Crow There is only one thing more magical than wildly impossible avian-mammalian hybrids—an absolutely ordinary bird. In 1420, Ikkyu, the celebrated Zen master, poet, and troublemaker, was meditating in a boat on Lake Biwa when he heard a crow cawing and found himself rattled into satori, an experience of enlightenment. “One pause between each crow’s/reckless shriek Ikkyu Ikkyu Ikkyu,” he wrote. “No nothing/only those wintery crows bright black in the sun.” Above: Geese, lacquer, Japan, 19th century / V&A Images, London / Art Resource, NY SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2015 70