A guest article
My name is Jan J and I’ve been a practising Kadampa for many years. I’ve collected together some thoughts that have arisen as a result of mixing Buddhism (Dharma) with everyday appearances, including nature; and share them with you in this and future articles in the hope they might be of some small benefit to at least one person who reads them. These 4 anecdotes are all to do with birds.
Flights of fancy
Sitting in a garden yesterday, I noticed a bird behaving oddly – he was tapping on the shed window, flapping around a little, tapping again, flying off, circling back, flying into the window with a bump, and tapping again. He was clearly agitated and confused, and I was just trying to work out a way to help him when he flew off and landed in a nearby tree. Here he immediately relaxed and started singing.
It was then I noticed that the tree was perfectly reflected in the shed window.
Attracted to this reflection, he would fly at it and bump into the glass; then, seeing his own reflection and thinking it was a combative male, he would peck back to defend himself. He could have gone on like this for hours, distressed and confused, but, turning the other way for just a moment, he found the actual tree and was released from his illusory pain.
This is how we must appear to the Buddhas, living in our dream-like worlds of confusion. Sad as it was to see the bird hurting himself and feeling threatened, the saddest part is that it was all so unnecessary. The reflected tree and opponent did not exist, they were just mistaken appearances. I knew this, but didn’t know how to show the bird the truth. But with a simple turn of direction he was free from the illusion.
This for me was a teaching on compassion observing the unobservable. It isn’t just that the bird was hurt and confused, it’s the fact that it wasn’t necessary, it was all based on a mistake that can be corrected. So it is that all of the pain and suffering experienced in samsara by living beings isn’t necessary – it is ALL based on mistaken appearance. If we can just turn towards the truth we will also find what we need, we will be able to rest and find joy.
Because uncontaminated minds are completely unmistaken, anything directly perceived by them to be true is necessarily an ultimate truth. In contrast, anything that is directly perceived to be true by the mind of an ordinary being is necessarily not an ultimate truth, because all minds of ordinary beings are mistaken, and mistaken minds can never directly perceive the truth. ~ Modern Buddhism
This week I had the privilege of attending a transference of consciousness (powa) ceremony online for my friend’s mother. It was a very moving experience, one I will never forget. I had also asked for another friend’s father to be included in the powa and, by the end of the ceremony, I felt strongly that both these parents were already in the Pure Land and, together with Geshe-la, it was them who was blessing us.
Before powa started, Chelvi’s tribute to her mother touched my heart – for even though her mum had been taken severely ill in hospital, she kept saying that she had to get home to feed the birds. Even on her own deathbed, Chelvi’s mother was thinking of their well-being.
I was reminded of the story I was told of the Tibetan monk who, while the other monks were spending hours poring over books and debating, would be sitting outside on a bench feeding birds. Years passed in this way, as the monk grew older without achieving any high levels of qualification or reputation, and often criticized by the other monks for wasting time; but one day, when he was really quite old, he was asked to teach some Dharma classes. Thinking that these classes would be a failure, the other monks were astounded to see that instead they were very popular, filled with large numbers of young, enthusiastic students. Despite his having ‘wasted time’ on meaningless activities like feeding birds, the young students clearly loved the teachings of the old man.
He laughed when he saw his fellow monks’ confusion and explained that when he was feeding the birds he would always pray, “Today I give you seeds – one day may I give you teachings that will be the cause of your enlightenment.” He explained that the young students were the reincarnations of all the birds he had blessed with these words.
I have noticed that some people can seem to lack compassion, or connection, with human beings but absolutely love dogs and cats, happy to spend their lives caring for them. Others seem to lack compassion for living beings in general but will sacrifice their freedom to look after their sick parent for years on end. In a way, it doesn’t matter which living beings are the bridge to our love and compassion; what is important is the strength of that love and compassion. Imagine having compassion for a small flock of vulnerable birds that is so strong it overcomes your powerful self-cherishing mind, even in your dying days. That is compassion the size of a mountain.
We can also give to animals. Saving insects from drowning or gently picking worms up from the road is an example of giving fearlessness, or protection. Even allowing a mouse to rummage through our wastepaper basket without getting irritated can be a form of giving. Animals want to be happy just as much as we do, and they need our help even more than humans. Most humans have some power to help themselves, but animals are so deeply enveloped in ignorance that they have no freedom whatsoever to improve their situation. Animals have taken rebirth in a lower state of existence than humans, but we should never regard them as less important. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have complete equanimity and cherish animals and human beings equally. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune
Life is like a bowl of cherries
One was so greedy that instead of balancing in the tree’s branches like the others, he dropped down to snatch at the cherries on the ground. Thinking only of grabbing the next cherry, he failed to notice the cat stealthily creeping towards him. He was oblivious to the danger of his encroaching death.
My loud clap shocked the pigeon back up into the safe branches of the tree. The cat turned to look at me with sulky distain before moving off. But perhaps tomorrow the pigeon will be just as greedily engrossed in the next cherry, and this time, with no one to clap, death will creep up on him.
We are all like that pigeon, I thought – so attached and entangled by external appearances, so focused on the next latte, promotion, match on Tinder, that we fail to notice death’s constant stealthy approach.
How important would that next cherry have been to the pigeon if he had noticed death approaching? How much more important did the safety of the tree – his refuge – become once he realised the danger?
We think it’s depressing to contemplate death, or it fills us with fear and we avoid it – so as a result we remain on the unstable ground of samsara instead of rising up and seeking refuge in the wisdom of Dharma. Contemplating our approaching death is actually liberating: it’s through the realisation of impermanence that we gain the vital wisdoms of renunciation and refuge. With these realisations we are then motivated to engage in the practices that will ultimately free us, and others, permanently from the suffering of death. Just imagine how wonderful that will be.
Having confidence in our Dharma actions
Yesterday I was having quite a peaceful morning working at my desk, which looks out over fields, when I heard loud bangs and looked up to see a flock of birds flying skywards. One dropped like a stone. Then another. There were two hunters in the middle of the field cracking out multiple gun shots, and the birds kept coming. I understood why when I saw the beaters and dogs coming out of the woods, beating the birds into the air for the hunters. It was horrific.
It was clear enough to see but too far for me to stop them. Grabbing my phone, I put a request for prayers into the Kadampa Prayer Request Facebook group; and immediately kind Kadampas all over the world started responding with mantras and Buddhist images. Supported by my Sangha, I recited mantras and imagined that all the terrified birds were flying straight into Avalokiteshvara’s heart and protection. I didn’t see any more drop out of the sky; the shooting stopped very quickly. I continued to recite mantras for the hunters, for their suffering that is to come.
Philip Larkin identified our feelings of powerlessness in the poem Ambulances, when we cannot help those being taken to hospital:
Far from the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.
A Kadampa friend told me that when an ambulance goes by she recites Medicine Buddha mantras and ‘drops’ a Medicine Buddha onto the ambulance, who escorts them to the hospital. He can go where we cannot and help in ways we are not yet able to. What a wonderful idea.
The same is true of taking and giving meditation. I saw an image of a starving child and wanted so badly to stroke her head and let her know that she was loved; although she was probably already dead by the time I saw her. It is too painful to bear this loss of our children; but when we know we can use this pain to generate strong compassion to fuel taking and giving, or powa, and we envisage them running joyfully into the Pure Land, then the pain is lifted.
I think it can be hard to let go of our worry, despair, and pain for others – we can feel guilty moving our minds instead to joy. But as long as we have used Buddha’s methods with strong compassion and concentration, we can be genuinely confident that we’re making the most important difference in these tragic situations. If we cannot set ourselves free from pain, how can we open the door to freedom for others?
We need to have confidence in our Dharma actions. Make that difference for ourself and others.
Your comments for our guest writer are very welcome below!