I recently spent time with some chickens in Cartama near Malaga, where I was staying in a rural house with friends and attending the International Kadampa Fall Festival at the Spanish Temple for World Peace.
I fed them in their tiny coop – they had limited land and limited resources/food, and, despite their underlying sweetness, spent a lot of time flapping at and pecking each other, even when I tried my hardest to distribute the food far and wide. There were basically two groups – a mother hen (MH) with three adolescent chicks on the one hand and a rooster and two hens on the other.
MH would fiercely guard any and all food for her three teenagers, pecking the rooster and two other hens (all of whom, I might add, were considerably larger than her) whenever they came anywhere near. The rooster + crew were basically trying to keep out of her way; but you could see how they’d be driven to desperation and starvation if no one noticed their plight or got food to them. Occasionally they’d be driven to retaliation or start their own fights, usually not with her because they were strangely scared of her, but with the 3 large chicks.
In this way they were all acting as if the others had no right to be there and/or were very much in the way; and this was clearly driving them all crazy. They all had a right to be there. They all had a right to exist. They did exist. They had to be somewhere.
Self-cherishing and a whole range of delusions were on full display in that tiny corner of samsara. As a result the chickens kept acting badly and suffering a lot – there was little peace until they fell into the sweet oblivion of sleep at night. And I got to wondering, as you do, what I would do if I was a chicken in that coop – but a Buddhist chicken, even an enlightened chicken. I am asking you too – if you were a chicken who was working on or had even overcome your delusions, and you found yourself in that coop with no physical way out, what would you do to help both yourself and the others?
Self-grasping and self-cherishing, the delusions they spawn, and the negative karma created under the influence of those delusions are the source of all the misery in this coop. Any solution that ignores this will at the very best be temporary, like a bandaid holding together a gaping wound. If I and the other chickens cannot find a way to accept each other, love each other, and live in peace, no amount of chicken politics, diplomacy, or mediation can ever work to offset the “trouble-maker” of self-cherishing, as Venerable Geshe Kelsang once called it.
Compassion and wisdom are the real solutions to the problems in our world and bring real benefit to our world. So, if I could, I’d find a corner of the coop and meditate on these as much as I could, and then try to apply them to the situation at hand. Here is a really good guest article about this: A vision of hope in troubled times.
I was watching hundreds of ants in an ant hole yesterday – the scouts checking out my bicycle to see if it was a threat, the smaller ants racing around carrying twice their weight. Ants are notoriously busy helping each other and protecting their home, but the fact is that all this activity is taking place in an infinitesimally small corner of samsara. There is a temptation when we have a lot on to dive in there and sort things out from the moment we wake up – but, if at all possible, we need to take some time each day to get a more existential spacious Dharma perspective:
Unless we make some time every day to meditate we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish. We have to manage our time and energy in such a way that we can be of maximum benefit to others, and to do this effectively we need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
A chicken fighting for survival may not have much choice in when they can find a quiet corner to meditate, but insofar as anyone reading this does, it’s a good idea to choose a similar time each day and stick to it religiously. Not putting ourselves off by thinking this is just another item on an endless to-do list, but framing our meditation as the daily portal to peace and sanity.
It is the self-cherishing delusions that are creating all this trouble – these are the worst and only real enemies of all living beings. But me and those other chickens are not our delusions. If the chickens followed this view, I could see how there’d be actual peace in the chicken coop. And as Geshe Kelsang said in 2009:
If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”, but no-one understands how to do this.
One difference between politics and religion is which “side” we take. If someone asks a Buddhist “whose side are you on?”, the answer is the side of innocent living beings versus the depraved enemies of our delusions. No chicken is our enemy – they are all our kind mothers.
Lamrim in the line of fire
No one (at least not me) is saying that our delusions make it easy for us to pull this off, especially when we’re being pecked. A precious human life is one in which we have sufficient leisure and freedom to be able to attain liberation and enlightenment – perhaps in the chicken coop there might be a modicum of space and quiet for a Buddhist hen to be able to retreat into a corner and master her mind, or perhaps when the fighting is bad there isn’t.
Either way, until we have mastered our own minds, we need to keep going for refuge and praying for help. Anyone can do this in any religion and receive good results. This is providing we’re not praying for the death of our enemy chickens, for no holy being worth their salt is going to oblige that wish – you have to wonder whom we are actually praying to if that is what we are asking them to do.
All three scopes of Lamrim Dharma are applicable to life in the chicken coop, if the chickens only had access to it.
Initial scope Lamrim: This chicken life if highly fleeting – we chickens need to realize that this coop is not our permanent home, that we are travelers passing through. Within a few years or months we will already be in our next lives, a whole new dream; and all that will matter then is the quality of our consciousness and the karma we have created.
Intermediate scope Lamrim: Within the confines of the coop of samsara, there is never going to be any real or lasting happiness – the only way out is to realize that the chicken coop we normally see does not exist so that we can dissolve its dream-like structures away into emptiness and create a new endlessly spacious liberated world from wisdom and compassion.
Great scope Lamrim: And since the happiness of one chicken is insignificant when compared with the happiness of all chickens, we then need to find a way of showing our feathered friends how to get out too.
All this is easier said than done, but it still needs to be said (and done).
The three scopes are all included in the eleven reversals we learned about at the Fall Festival – so I would pass that knowledge along as well if I could.
Setting an example
Bodhisattvas work on two levels – seeking enlightenment as the lasting solution to one’s own and other problems, and going to the practical assistance of those in need, including giving teachings when possible. If I was a Buddhist chicken, I think I would need to set a good example and evoke curiosity in order to get any of the other chickens interested in any of this Dharma stuff: “How do you stay so calm in the midst of all this? How do you not become part of the problem? What is the secret?” At which point, as far as is possible, I could explain to the other chickens that there may be other ways to solve this conflict – understand their Buddha nature, control their minds and actions, equitably share the land and the resources, and above all learn to cherish each other.
Pecking palpably does not work. A couple of the poor innocent young chickens’ necks were plucked sore and red – and who did that help? Physically hurting each other does not work – it is asking for more trouble. For as long as there is the wish to harm others, it seems that weapons of destruction will manifest and be used in this world, whether beaks or guns. As the late Thich Nat Hanh said:
We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance.
As manifestations of hatred and anger, how can weapons actually do anything other than increase the hatred and anger?
I could teach them these four lines by Buddha, his brilliantly concise reply to someone who asked him to summarize all 84,000 of his teachings:
Cease to do evil
Learn to do good
Control the mind
And benefit others.
I could gradually convince my fellow chickens that, if there is to be any peace in the chicken coop, Bodhisattva chickens need to appear; and that the final solution is to realize emptiness.
A lot of patience required
To pull any of this off, a Buddhist chicken would need powerful patient acceptance for the very difficult conditions we find ourselves in, such as having even less to eat in the short term because we are not fighting for it, or if our meditation practice makes us the object of misunderstanding, derision, and so on. Althoughpeople are not evil, the delusions are, and they can make people perform unbelievably evil actions. It is hard enough not to rise to the bait with the people we live with who push our buttons and won’t leave us in peace – so how are we to stay calm when undergoing full blown attack?! One conclusion is that we need to start that training now, with any irritating people around us.
It turned out later that the young rooster + crew were also brought up two months ago by MH from a previous Batch #1 of fertilized eggs; but all of them have totally forgotten this – the rooster + crew remembering just enough to feel scared of MH even though she is half their size, and MH for her part seeming to have entirely forgotten that these were once her beloved children whom she would protect as fiercely as she was now protecting Batch #2.
We can be so myopic. Everyone has been our kindest mother and our beloved child, but we keep forgetting this. Indeed, when I left Cartama, MH was sitting on a third batch of eggs (and temporary peace had descended as a result). Our AirBnB owner David said he’d need to switch them out for fertilized eggs from a friend’s farm for she would sit on them for 21 days and continue to sit on them even after that when they didn’t hatch. Once the new children arrive, I fear that conditions in the chicken coop may well go from bad to worse as she forgets that she was ever the mother to Batch #2 as well.
No man or chicken coop is an island. It was striking how dependent on me (the human) the chickens were, and that, whichever side they are on, they cannot survive without outside help – if that ever stops, they’ll starve. Every single one of us is actually just as dependent on the kindness of all others in a global interconnection that we ignore to our peril. All the happiness there is in this world comes from recognizing this interdependence and cherishing others accordingly – but instead, over and over again, we follow our self-cherishing thoughts around the coop, flying straight toward the suffering we don’t want and trampling into the dirt any happiness that we do.
Over to you, your comments are most welcome below and I will answer them.