Wednesday, December 09, 2009

For the Birds

This past Saturday, we posted an item entitled Baby, Its Cold Outside, as a brief admonition to set out food and water for little critters. We received a few comments, but by and large, it slipped past without much ado. Most people just take such things for granted.

Anyone who spends any time at all around Buddhists will quickly come to understand that Buddhists show careful consideration for creatures of the oceans, earth, and skies. This is at the level of a truism: Buddhists care for all sentient beings. Usually, we just automatically acknowledge this, and then let it go without further question.

Doing something, without understanding why you do what you do, is one definition of mental illness. In that regard, I think it is actually quite important to question why Buddhists show such consideration, and in passing, also explore why Buddhists don't kill.

There are a number of ways to approach this topic, and I cannot say this one is better than that one, or that one is better than this one. I like the very basic approach, but you may want something more intellectually sophisticated, or erudite. So, if my very basic approach offends you, I apologize in advance for causing such offense. I am not very sophisticated or erudite.

I think we have to begin with the basic premise that all sentient beings are buddhas. You can find this precise statement in many different scriptural sources -- so much so, that I don't think it needs further elaboration or defense.

Therefore, if you kill a sentient being, it is the same as killing a buddha, and if you make an offering to a sentient being, it is the same as making an offering to a buddha. Actually, if you offer just a handful of seed or other food to a bird, it is infinitely better than if you offered a barge load of gold and silver to a buddha. It is not difficult to see why this can be true.

As buddhas express dharma, so too do all sentient beings express dharma. Just as buddhas and other great beings sometimes appear to us in dreams, and give us teachings and so forth, so do they appear to us as fish, or small animals, or birds.

Indeed, taken in an absolute sense, there is no time when the dharma is not being expressed by such creatures, as well as by the entire palette of nature or environment. For example: this could include the sounds and activities of creatures, the murmur of the ocean, and the shore, the sound of the wind through trees, or the interplay between light and shadow, when the sun shines from among clouds to illuminate the earth.

If a fish suddenly leaps out of the water and falls back with a splash, the water droplets glistening in the sunlight, then this is an immaculately pure and utterly profound exposition of the buddhadharma. If a bird suddenly takes flight from a tree, catches the wind, and soars through the sky, then this is nothing short of an exquisite discourse on great perfection.

Therefore, if you kill a sentient being, or even if you injure the environment, then you are interrupting the natural expression of the dharma in its ultimately perfect sense. Conversely, if you nurture or assist a sentient being, or if you protect the environment, then you are nurturing, assisting, and protecting the dharma in the most fundamentally wholesome way possible.

I could make similar analogy with sangha, and then you would have buddha, dharma, and sangha all nicely tied up with ribbons and bows, but I rather imagine you can do that for yourself. You know... just as the sangha implies a collective that activates buddha and dharma, so do the creatures, etc., etc., etc. I think if you want to see this sort of thing done to perfection, you can clout this link, and then go rooting around in a scholar's treasure chest -- or maybe a researcher's paradise -- introducing yourself to Padampa's conversations with animals.

The notion of borders, or boundaries, and the transcendence of borders to a state where boundary is unnecessary is a theme I have explored many times. As a general rule, I believe in collapsing, or erasing borders, and much of what I attempt to do is directed to precisely that exercise. However, in this particular instance, I want to examine the useful aspect of boundaries.

There is something that each and every one of us can do to assist the creatures that does not require much effort or resource. This is to establish boundaries within which all creatures great and small are protected. This can be the back thousand acres of your ranch way out West, or the roof of your tenement on the dowdy South Side. You can give refuge to the cockroaches under your refrigerator, if it comes right down to it. Here is a case where size doesn't matter. The objective is to establish a No-Kill Zone, and then embellish it as much as you possibly can, with food, water, shelter, and so forth.

As to the precedents for such behavior, Jamyang Norbu has just recently given us a truly valuable historical note entitled High Sanctuary: Wildlife and Nature Conservancy in Old Tibet. I do so very strongly commend this singular work to your attention. In fact, I will whet your appetite with this excerpt, on the subject of Tibet's National Bird Sanctuaries:
"Among his many observations of Tibetan national character Charles Bell noted that “Most Tibetans are fond of birds. Certainly the Dalai Lama was. Whenever I visited him, there was always a bird or two, not far away, perhaps a talking myna from India….” In the many stories and anecdotes I heard from my mother and other older Tibetans, there would be constant references to the birds of Tibet especially the crane (tung-tung), the lammergeyer (jha-goe) and the cuckoo (khuyu). They would sometimes mention a special shrine dedicated to birds somewhere near Tsetang, south of the Tsangpo, at the head of the Yarlung valley.
I first came across a written reference to this unique place in the Guide to Holy Places of Central Tibet by Jamyang Khyentse, the previous incarnation of my root guru, Jamyang Chökyi Lodrö. Khyentse Rimpoche mentions that this temple, the Yarlung Jha-sa Lhakang, is “famous” and houses the great image of rNam snan (Vairocana) made by the order of the Chogyal Pel Khortsen.
Professor Tucci, who traveled in these parts, provides us a little more information on the temple in one of his books. “Chasa (Bya sa), an ancient Sakyapa lamasery. On the lintel of the door, perhaps as old as the temple itself, eleven animals were carved.” 
But it was that intrepid explorer and one of the earliest Tibet experts, Sarat Chandra Das, who gave me the information I was seeking. “We forded the Yarlung river…and passing to the villages of Yangta and Gyerpal, we came to the old sanctuary of Yarlung, called the Chyasa lha-khang or ‘the resting–place-of-birds temple’, for the vast flocks of birds which pass here in their migrations making it a resting-place. It is situated on the banks of the Tsang-po, and is a finely built and well-kept edifice, with a courtyard and beautifully frescoed walls.”
A more recent reference is in a guidebook by Keith Dowman, who provides us with some historical information. The temple was built by Chogyal Pel Khortsen, the grandson of the Emperor Langdarma, at the end of the 9th century, and it “was renowned for its statue of Nampar Nangdze (Vairocana)”. Dowman also tell us that the site of this ancient monument “…one of the oldest foundations of Tibet”, and carefully preserved till 1959, “…now consists of small heaps of rubble marked by a tharchen pole.”
You will definitely want to follow the link to this article, given above, to learn more of the bird sanctuaries, and also to learn of the Tibetan environmental laws, known as the "Mountain Valley Edicts," together with the associated practices of "Sealing the Mountains and the Valleys." You will also want to keep Jamyang Norbu in your thankful prayers, for giving us this inspirational resource.

Sealing the Mountains and Valleys is nothing more than establishing the aforementioned No-Kill Zones, and it is an ancient and honorable Buddhist practice. Everybody did it. Keen students of Jigme Lingpa will recall that he once bought, and sealed, an entire mountain to prevent a swarm of bees from being disturbed for their honey.

I do not know of any true Buddhist who does not follow this custom, and there are even some not-so-true Buddhists who do a very good job of it, as well. To be perfectly candid, there are a considerable number of people who have nothing to do with Buddhism, who nevertheless put Buddhists to shame when it comes to establishing and equipping No-Kill Zones for critters. Even our little macaque friend, in the photo above, seems to be getting into the spirit of things.

Still, establishing such zones -- granting refuge, if you like that idea -- is a basic spiritual necessity that transcends religious labels. While we can say that everything is perfect in an ultimate sense, in a conventional sense, and because of our karmic propensities, we are born into this realm of interdependence where every life we take shortens our own, and every life we save lengthens our own. When you kill something, you kill a part of yourself. I don't mean this in a poetic, moral or ethical sense; rather, it is simply the way things work. Maybe I could persuade you by saying that in the same way the sangha of today is the buddha of tomorrow, so too does the wildlife refuge of today express the inherent potentiality of the ever-present buddhafield.

I mean that literally. I know from my own, direct experience, that something truly magical occurs when you establish a refuge. It is exactly as if the animals know it, and the word quickly gets around. All sorts of creatures show up out of nowhere, and what is really remarkable is their behavior.

Species that ordinarily prey upon one another seem to cease and desist. For example: in China, we have this marvelous place where rabbits and tigers live together. By the way -- most people who see the above picture would assume that the tiger is confronting the rabbit. Actually, those of us who understand rabbits recognize that the rabbit is confronting the tiger, probably laying down the law. 

Life is so much easier this way, don't you think? If the animals can do it, makes you wonder how, where, and why human beings manage to find so much difficulty.

Maybe we should get our ducks in a row on this one, eh?

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