Sunday, August 01, 2010

Cuckoo for Commentary

Above, is a member of the cuculidae, or cuckoo family that we in Western America refer to as a "roadrunner." This unusual character follows me around the property like a pet beagle, and as you see, even obligingly poses for photographs. 

A friend of mine was out visiting last week, on his way through Far East Taiwan, before journeying on to Taiwan proper, and then Mother India. A mutual friend of ours was driving us from restaurant to restaurant, when she had to stop for an errand, and we waited in the car. 

While we were waiting, my friend asked me, "Are there cuckoo birds in America? You know... like in Jigme Lingpa?" So, of course I explained that yes, we do have several species, but we do not regard them in quite the same fashion as they are seen in the revealed literature of Dzogchen. As most people understand, when Americans want to say somebody is crazy or disordered in a certain way (神經病), they say he or she is "cuckoo."

And not just Americans. I noticed that some Vietnamese people don't think very highly of the cuckoo. Someone once gave me a really splendid, Black Forest cuckoo clock, so I put it on the wall in my office.  I thought it was amusing. My Vietnamese secretary took it down and threw it in the garbage. "That thing is completely bad luck," she said. 

Now, in China, if you give someone a clock it is a terrible insult -- a threat almost -- and some Vietnamese people share that prejudice. However, this was not the whole of the matter. Making inquiry, I learned that she considered the cuckoo's call a harbinger of horrific bad fortune. Putting it together with a clock was too much for her to bear. 

The Himalayan Cuckoo, Cuculus saturatus

Such was not the case in the land of the lamas. The irreplaceable Jamyang Norbu has given us a lengthy account of Wildlife and Nature Conservancy In Old Tibet -- I believe we have linked to it before -- which is reinforced with satisfying chunks of cuckoo (khuyu) lore. The cuckoo, it seems, was the King of Birds.

Indeed, there was even a "Resting Place of Birds" temple, but I will let Jamyang Norbu tell the story:
[I]n pre ’59 Tibet, on the fifteenth day of the third Tibetan month (early May) a special ritual and celebration took place at this temple to welcome the cuckoo, the king of the birds, and all the other birds migrating north from across the Himalayas. Two officials were dispatched from Lhasa to welcome the king of the birds. In a park (lingka) by the temple, all kinds of grain – barley, wheat, peas and so forth – would be spread out on large felt sheets and mats. Tables would also be set up where butter tea, barley ale (chang), Tibetan cookies (khapsay), dried fruits and nuts would be served and where two special votive butter lamps called the khuyu chome or “cuckoo lamps” were lit.

It is claimed that the cuckoo does not fly directly to the temple, but stops at the Shel Drak or Crystal Rock before the Vulture Plain (Jha-goe Lingka), a few miles south of the temple. There he rests, preens his feathers and otherwise prepares himself for the coming event. The cuckoo king also dispatches a scout or emissary bird (khu-da), to reconnoiter the area ahead and check that preparations for the festival had been made and everything was in order. Then the cuckoo would fly to the temple and after calling three times, alight on the table and partake of the offerings. Flocks of other birds would also alight and begin to feed.
So, there is obviously more to this whole cuckoo business than meets the eye. Not only do we have vast numbers of the family scattered all over the world, and all manner of things to know about them, we also have special lamps, government officials, and all manner of elaborate circumstances.

There is a point here, and I am getting to it....

..... Vairotsana, eh? Cuckoo, eh?

The root transmission text of the Mind Series of Dzogchen is known as the Six Vajra Verses. It was received by Vairotsana from Shri Singha, in the eighth century. 

Shri Singha

Now, Vairotsana wrote this out, with commentary, in a work known variously as The Cuckoo of Awareness (Rig pa'i Khu Byug), or the Cuckoo's Song of Total Presence


A copy of this work was thoughtfully put away in the tenth century, in Dun Huang. There it laid for several centuries, until it was acquired in by Sir Aurel Stein, who spirited it away to the British Library, where translators have been massaging it ever since.

Here is the Tibetan:
sNa tshogs rang bzhin mi gnyis kyang
Cha shas nyid du spros dang bral.
Ji bzhin pa zhes mi rtog kyang
rNam bar snang mdzad kun tu bzang
Zin bas rtsol ba'i nad spangs te
Lhun gyis gnas pas bzhag pa yin.
Just six lines, as you see. The cuckoo does not need to sing a long song to make his presence known.

Keith Dowman, who has a web page devoted to the Cuckoo's Song, rendered it thus:
The nature of multiplicity is nondual
and things in themselves are pure and simple;
being here and now is thought-free
and it shines out in all forms, always all good;
it is already perfect, so the striving sickness is avoided
and spontaneity is constantly present.
Namkhai Norbu and Adriano Clemente rendered it thus:
The nature of the variety of phenomena is non-dual
Yet each phenomena is beyond the limits of the mind
The authentic condition as it is does not become a concept
Yet it manifests totally in form, always good
All being already perfect, overcome the sickness of effort
And remain naturally in self-perfection: this is contemplation.
Samten Karmay rendered it thus:
All the varieties of phenomenal existence as a whole 
 do not in reality differ one from another.
Individually also they are beyond conceptualization.
Although as "suchness" there is no mental 
 discursiveness (with regard to them)
Kun-tu bzang po shines forth in all forms.
Abandon all the malady of striving, for one has 
 already acquired it all.
One leaves it as it is with spontaneity.
My old friend John Reynolds rendered it thus: 
Even though the nature of the diversity (of all phenomena)
is without any duality,
In the terms of the individuality of the things themselves,
they are free of any conceptual elaborations.
Even though there exists no thought or conception of what
is called the state of being just as it is,
These various appearances which are created are but
manifestations of Samantabhadra.
Since everything is complete in itself, one comes to abandon
the illness of efforts
And thus one continues spontaneously in the calm
state of contemplation.
The wonderful Karen Liljenberg rendered it thus:
The intrinsic nature of Variety is non-dual, but
Particularity is free from complexity.
Suchness is non-conceptual, but
Kuntuzangpo is apparent in forms.
Having abandoned the malaise of striving, since one already has it,
through being spontaneously present, one leaves it as it is.
So beautiful, isn't it? So gracefully spare, and concise. Yet, like a crystal it contains the sun. I particularly enjoy John Reynolds rendering that line about "the illness of efforts." So true... so very true, isn't it?

Vairotsana's commentary to Cuckoo's Song isn't particularly well known. Samten Karmay gave a version in 1988, in his The Great Perfection, and Karen Liljenberg has her translation online, found by following the link given here. I particularly commend the latter to your attention.

So, then....
  • We have seen that there are so many different birds belonging to the cuckoo family. 
  • Although they seem different, they are in fact indivisible. 
  • While this seems complex, it is in fact the essence of simplicity. 
  • If you really want to single out one for examination, this examination does not need to become complicated, because the matter itself is uncomplicated.
  • When you look at or listen to cuckoos, you should not bring ideas with you. 
  • Just knowing them to be cuckoos seems quite enough, but sticking to this is actually impossible. 
  • Whether you look or you don't, the immanent essence of cuckoos is naturally manifest, and this requires no effort whatsoever.
So, don't waste any energy driving yourself cuckoo.

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3 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

True enough there can be birds and commentaries but they stay ordinary until somebody like you puts them together and makes them immortal. Thank you so much.

Joseph Feinstein said...

Wonderful post - thanks. I wonder how does the symbol of the cuckoo in Dzogchen relate to the old folk story told around Asia of the prince who became a cuckoo? He was trapped there in the body of a cuckoo by his best friend who went to usurp his throne. In his fragile state he met the Buddha in the forest and gained insight. He became the king of the birds by explaining the dharma to the other birds and by night went to sing at the window of his former princess. There are versions of this story from Tibet, India and SE Asia.

-o- said...

"The Alchemyst's Clocktower"
Automaton by Thomas Kuntz

clocks and towers
nothing but mechanical
wheels bent to control
empires -laughing