Birds in Buddhism

buddhist

“I don’t know anything about consciousness,” a Zen master once declared. “I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing.”

At the time Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, was responding to a query from a clinical psychologist (1). For lots of people, questions about consciousness can spin into heady discussions. However, Suzuki Roshi’s answer, both simple and poignant, sidesteps any intellectual grasping. His response points to awareness, not as an idea, but rather as experience. Here he refers to a common, everyday activity. Indeed, birds are frequently calling. But how often are we able to hear them over our thoughts?

That the late Zen master referred to singing birds is likely not a coincidence. Our winged neighbors are addressed similarly within Buddhist scriptures. The Maharatnakuta Sutra, for instance, likens the Buddha’s voice to the songs of birds (2). While explicating the Amitabha Sutra, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “If we live in mindfulness and our mind is concentrated, we can also hear the teachings of the Dharma in the sound of the wind and the sound of the birds.”(3) In essence, such aural qualities can be viewed as invitations to awaken to the present moment.

Symbols of Attachment and Enlightenment

Buddhism, of course like other religions, also employs avian imagery for figurative purposes. In art illustrating the cycle of suffering, the junglefowl rooster is centrally depicted within the Buddhist bhavacakra or great wheel of life. Native to India, this bird and its links to lust and attachment (4) have a long and widespread history. A more flattering image, on the other hand, is afforded the white heron and egret. Due to their graceful movements and patient concentration, these creatures have come to represent meditation (5) and spiritual practice. Herons with white plumage regularly appear in Buddhist poetry, the most notable being “The Jewel Mirror Samadhi”, attributed to the ninth-century Chinese teacher Dongshan Liangjie (6).

Buddhist poems occasionally sprinkle in observations regarding birds. Two important Japanese writers, Bassho and Ryokan, both mention them. So, too, does the 13th-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen. In one poem, he compares the way a white heron disappears in a snowy winter landscape to the practice of bowing (7). Below is another Dogen piece, as translated by Brian Unger and Kazuaki Tanahashi:

Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.(8)

The Zen master’s verse here employs an avian metaphor for awakened individuals of “Nondependence of Mind”. The idea is evocative of a much older teaching. Briefly in The Dhammapada, the historical Buddha compares the paths of fully enlightened beings to the “flight of birds in the sky” (9). In Dogen’s analogy, the creatures move across water; whereas, in the Buddha’s they pass through air. Regarding the latter, scholar Edward Conze explains, “The saints have their range in the Void [selfless non-attachment], and one can no more discern their tracks than those of the birds through the sky.”(10)

Going Beyond Death

Another notable winged creature in Japanese Buddhist poetry is the cuckoo. Haiku and other short verse often allude to the songbird as sign of imminent death and subsequent rebirth in a better realm. The reason for these connections, scholar Yoel Hoffmann seems to suggest, involves the dual roles of this bird as both harbinger of spring and deadly brood parasite (11). He provides numerous translations of such poems. Here’s one example:

Cuckoo,
let’s go—how bright
the western skies!(12)

Though the poet writes of his impending demise, his tone is neither gloomy nor fearful. The cycle of life continues, perhaps to a realm more conducive for enlightenment. “In the Jodo, or Pure Land, sects of Buddhism,” explains Hoffman, “it is believed that the dead are born anew in the Pure Land in the West, ruled by Amida, the Buddha of Everlasting Light.” (13) Death, thus, may be greeted not with dread but instead with optimistic acceptance. The next world may afford better opportunities for enlightenment. [On a side note, the visual arts often associate the peacock with Amida (or Amitabha) Buddha (14); whereas, Japanese death poetry interestingly favors the cuckoo.]

The notion of rebirth has been explained and imagined in many ways, with the idea first presented in the Hindu Upanishads (15). One finds the concept later among the earliest Indian Buddhist scriptures, especially in the fable-like stories collectively known as the Jataka. These tales, recalling past lives of certain members and associates of the early Buddhist community, often portray human personalities as previously existing as animals. According to the Jataka, the historical Buddha took many such forms before his enlightenment, including avian ones like the peacock, goose, vulture and quail (16, 17). In another tradition, the ancient Tibetan text The Precious Garland of the Dharma of the Birds depicts the Buddha as a cuckoo who offers spiritual instruction to the other birds (18). Again, the nature of rebirth and the emphasis on it varies in Buddhist teachings, and animals are considered just one form of possible rebirth among several (19, 20).

Other Birds in Scriptures

While not abundant, additional avian references in Buddhist scriptures exist. At least a couple are nominally derivative. For instance, near the Indian city of Rajgir stands a famous mountain called Vulture Peak. This is where the historical Buddha frequently gave talks to his followers. Scholar Edward Conze explains, “Its name was derived from the beaklike shape of the formations, a kind of rugged and jumbled natural amphitheater appropriate for such sublime teachings.”(21) Probably the most obtuse avian reference, though, relates to one of the Buddha’s most famous disciples, Sariputra. His name is based on that of his mother, who—apparently due to her large or accentuated eyes—was named after the sarika (22). The sarika, by the way, is actually a real bird. We know it as the mynah (23).

Buddhist scriptures do occasionally mention mythical avian forms. For example, in the Lotus Sutra, among the guardians of the Buddhist teachings are listed the garudas, reminiscent of the eagle-like creature in Hinduism, and the kalavinkas, birds supposedly unrivaled in their ability to warble beautiful songs (24). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen notes that the “… garuda is occasionally used as a synonym for Buddha…” (25). The phoenix, popular in other religions, holds significance for some Buddhists, too. According to scholar Thomas Cleary, the mythical creature can represent in Zen “… an enlightened one, rising from the ashes of the death of ego …” (26).

Summary

While this post focuses primarily on birds in Buddhist teachings and in literature influenced by the religion, more could obviously be said about our winged neighbors, particularly regarding their role in ceremonies. Of these, merit-based animal releases and the ritualized “sky burial” of Tibetan Buddhists come to mind. Since this post is getting rather long, though, perhaps I can return to those subjects at another time. If you’re interested, do feel free to click on the above hyperlinks, which lead to articles regarding such practices.

Like the previous birds-in-religion posts, this one is only intended as an overview. For next time, let’s move on to several Chinese religions that have co-existed for centuries with Buddhism. We will find more birds there!

Sources:

  1. Suzuki, S. Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki. Chadwick, D. (editor). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. p. 107.
  2. Zhang, Z. (editor). A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras: Selections from the Maharatnakuta Sutra. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1983. p. 77.
  3. Hanh, T.N. Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2003. p. 67.
  4. Corless, R.J. The Vision of Buddhism. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1989. p. 167.
  5. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 214.
  6. Leighton, T.D. “Dongshan and the Teaching of Suchness”. Zen Masters. Heine, S., Wright, D.S. (editors). New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 50-52.
  7. Dogen, E. “Bowing Formally”. Unger, B., Tanahashi, K. (translators). Moon in a Dewdrop. Tanahashi, K. (editor). New York: North Point Press, 1985. p. 214.
  8. Dogen E., “On Nondependence of Mind”. Ibid 7.
  9. The Dhammapada. Easwaran, E. (translator). Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. p. 102.
  10. Conze, E. The Buddha’s Law among the Birds. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1996. p. 57.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co. Inc., 1986. p. 142.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. p. 204.
  13. Hoffmann, Y. p. 141.
  14. Werness, H.B. p. 320.
  15. Keown, D. (editor). Dictionary of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 235.
  16. Conze, E. p. 49.
  17. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. Stories of the Buddha: Being Selections from the Jataka. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989. pp. 85-89.
  18. Conze, E. p. 57.
  19. Keown, D. p. 235.
  20. Harvey, P. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp. 32-39, 44-46, 59-60.
  21. Conze, E. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001. p. xvii of introduction.
  22. Lopez, D.S. The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988. p. 151.
  23. Olivelle, P. (editor). The Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 351.
  24. Reeves, G. (translator). The Lotus Sutra. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. pp. 54-55, 66, 374-375, 463-464.
  25. Fischer-Schreiber, I., Ehrhard, F-K, Diener, M.S., Kohn, M.H. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1991. p. 76.
  26. Cleary, T. (translator). Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005. p. 458.

Birds in Hindu Culture

hindu_JML

Two birds perch in a branch. One consumes the hanging fruit, both bitter and sweet, while the other simply observes. Eventually the first bird tires from eating. Having gotten its fill of pleasure and suffering, the creature turns to its joyful counterpart. The second bird has no need for the fruit. It has another source for nourishment: Wisdom.

The story of two birds, one of the earliest and most well-known in Hindu scriptures, appears in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. But what are we to make exactly of this parable? Well, the tree and its fruit supposedly are metaphors for the body and sensations, respectively. Feeding on the fruit is the bird, which represents a person’s soul, referred to Hinduism as the jiva or atman. The other bird, the content one watching nearby, is the world soul, known as the paramatman. Once the jiva is finally ready, the paramatman is available to guide the individual soul from its ignorance and suffering (1, 2).

Paring the Many to a Pair

Interestingly, several avian-related themes from the above parable reappear throughout Hindu religion, literature, and art. Like the bird indulging in the hanging fruit, feathered creatures frequently represent the sensual realm, especially the world of youthful beauty and lust. And similar to the wise and joyful companion on the tree, birds are also associated with spiritual bliss, freedom, insight, and wholesomeness. While one must be careful to refrain from egregious generalizations, Hindu culture provides ample instances of such avian symbolism. Plentiful are representations related to either the soul or the divine (3)—or either bodily yearnings or spiritual liberation.

In a culture of such rich, voluminous variety as that of India, birds undeniably emerge and operate on many levels. They, for instance, appear in the Panchatantra, a book of ancient fables (4). Several, such as the crane, heron, and pigeon, among others, are emulated in popular yoga poses (5). The peacock, a cultural and religious icon connected to numerous deities (6, 7), is India’s national bird (8). Crows, considered by some Indians as ancestors, are offered feed as part of a spiritual rite known as shraddah (9). These corvids also hold an honored place during Tihar, Nepal’s Festival of Lights (10). Yet, despite countless beliefs and portrayals, Hindu art, literature, and religion often render feathered creatures from the perspectives of hedonistic indulgence and spiritual awakening. For the purposes of an overview, comparing such depictions to one or the other of the two birds perched in the tree thus seems reasonable.

Wings of Carnal Desire

Birds have long been associated in Hinduism with sensuous longing and attachment. Hood College scholar Purnima Mehta Bhatt discusses some of these aspects. Though her assessment focuses on ancient Indian stepwell sculptures, she cites examples from other art forms. “In classical Sanskrit literature,” she explains, “especially the drama and poetry of Kalidasa and Bilhana, there exists the accepted tradition for lovelorn heroines to beseech the birds for news of their beloved.”(11) The same holds true, too, for heroes and male figures. A desperate King Pururavas in Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvasiyam, for example, implores several birds, including a cuckoo, duck, and goose, for the whereabouts of his lost love (12). Overall, accounts like these are commonly featured in Hindu literary works.

Some writers even liken lovers to avian forms. Bilhana’s 11th-century lyrical poem Caurapancasika employs metaphors in this regard. The pining speaker, forced from his mistress, elegantly compares her several times to a wild goose (13). Below is just a small taste of Bilhana’s sensual verse, as translated by Barnard College scholar Barbara Stoler Miller:

Her seductive eyes’ lashes playing
like a pair of mating birds
caressing each others’ bills. (14)

In the wake of this passionate affair lie beautiful memories and evocative language. Both, though, reinforce the speaker’s intense heartache.

The Ramayana, Kamasutra, and Other Texts

A precursor and influence upon both Bilhana and Kalidasa is the ancient masterpiece Ramayana. According to legend, a tragic event involving birds inspired its author. The sage Valmiki, witnessing a curlew in distress after a hunter killed its mate, then supposedly became motivated to first compose poetry (15, 16). Not surprisingly, birds frequently appear in his Ramayana, from major characters (e.g., vulture siblings Jatayu and Sampaati) to sightings of fowl. Regarding the latter, for instance, Lake Pampa is presented as an idyllic location populated with songbirds, waterfowl, and peacocks. However, at this point, the hero Rama can only relate to them with woe. When commenting on the creatures around him, he is overtaken with bittersweet passion. His wife has been recently abducted by the demon king Ravana, and the sight of mating birds serves only to magnify Rama’s sense of loss (17). A paradise for the senses cannot overcome his deepest despair.

Other dynamics of love and lust, too, are explored in Hindu literature. The most scandalous of these may be Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, which refers to birds in several bewildering ways. For instance, as noted by University of Chicago Divinity School scholar Wendy Doniger, the text encourages women to amorously gibber, mimicking the calls of parrots, doves, partridges, cuckoos, geese, and a few other birds. She also remarks that the ancient book advises, among its many arts of seduction, learning how to train either a parrot or a mynah to speak. In particular, for a man, Doniger explains, such pets could provide a predatory means “to lure a woman to his home …” (18). In contrast to these odd, creepy tactics in the Kamasutra, there’s the Sukasaptati: A talking parrot’s role in maintaining marital fidelity between a wife and her traveling husband is central to the framework of these stories (19).

The parrot’s prominence in erotic-themed Indian literature may seem odd, but the bird’s presence is not without warrant. In Hinduism, deities are sometimes associated with certain creatures. An owl attends Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and wealth (20); while Yama, the god of the dead, dispatches a dove (21). For Kama, whose realm consists of love, romance, and sexual desire, his animal attendant is the parrot (22). The god is occasionally affiliated with other birds, as demonstrated in Mahendravikramavarman’s short comedic play Bhagavadajjukam, which links the deity to the cuckoo’s call (23). Again, though, the parrot, once a popular pet of courtesans (24), remains Kama’s primary bird.

Feathers of Purity and Wisdom                                       

If the parrot and other fowl in the Kamasutra are reminiscent of the sensual, fruit-eating bird in the Rig Veda and Upanishads, what of an appropriate spiritual counterpart? Several possibilities exist in Hindu literature. There’s the eagle, revered in the Vedas and associated in multiple aspects with the divine. The raptor, for instance, is credited with bringing the bliss-inducing soma plant to the ancient Hindu priests (25). Also, Garuda, the fierce “king of birds” (26) and vehicle for several major deities (27), is described as possessing characteristics of this bird-of-prey.

While the eagle is a noble example, better candidates for this honor may be the birds referred to as paramahamsa (28) or arayanna (29)—either geese or swans. Like the eagle, they have links to the gods and heaven; however, these mythical waterfowl are also renowned for something more: They are believed to embody purity and wisdom (30). In his book The Essentials of Hinduism, Swami Bhaskarananda describes this bird as the “symbol of a spiritually illumined soul who has experienced the Divine Essence of everything by rejecting the worldly lures of the senses.” He adds that this creature “… remains in water and yet the water never clings to its feathers. Similarly, a spiritually illumined soul lives in the world, yet is never contaminated by it” (31). Such characteristics easily explain why hamsa and paramahamsa came to be used as laudatory titles for Hindu ascetics (32) and even for the god-avatar Krishna (33). Overall, the paramahamsa and arayanna seem almost ideal representatives of the second bird in the tree—excepting, of course, that neither swans nor geese possess the ability to perch on limbs!

Summary

As noted earlier, interpreting the variety of avian life depicted in Hindu art and literature with this dualistic approach (carnal desire vs. spiritual liberation) is inadequate for fully comprehending and appreciating the rich vitality of Indian culture. While stressing the dichotomy between the two birds of the Vedic parable provides an interesting starting point, we should not forget that this ancient religion has spawned numerous traditions, practices, and philosophies. From Indian culture, itself, have also come other religions. One of these was quite influential, spreading throughout the Asian continent. We’ll take a look next at the depiction of birds in Buddhism.

Sources:

  1. Doniger, W. Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988. pp. 34-35.
  2. Knapp, S. The Heart of Hinduism: The Eastern Path to Freedom, Empowerment and Illumination. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005. pp. 13-14, 260.
  3. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, DC: Earthscan LLC, 2011. p. 145-146.
  4. Olivelle, P. (editor, translator). The Pancatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 27-29, 51, 60-61, 64-65, 105-111, 118-121.
  5. “List of Yoga Poses: A-Z Asana Guide”, Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/pose-finder/.
  6. Knapp, S. pp. 172, 185-186.
  7. Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
  8. “National Symbols”, National Portal of India: http://india.gov.in/india-glance/national-symbols.
  9. Chaturvedi, B.K. Narada Purana. New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books Ltd. p. 50.
  10. “Festivals in Nepal”, VisitNepal.com: http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/nepal_festivals.php.
  11. Bhatt, P.M. p. 146.
  12. Sharma, T.R.S. (chief editor). Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology. Volume Two. Delhi: Wellwish Printers, 2004. pp. 294-297.
  13. Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. pp. 17, 23, 29.
  14. Miller, B.S. p. 19.
  15. Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 291.
  16. Chinmayananda, S. “The Essence of Ramayana”. Nityanand, S. (compiler). Symbolism in Hinduism. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 2008. p. 193.
  17. Sharma, T.R.S. pp. 93-100.
  18. Doniger, W. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 435.
  19. Satyendra, K. Dictionary of Hindu Literature. Delhi: Ivy Publishing House, 2000. p. 177.
  20. “Uluka – The Owl”. Nityanand, S. (compiler). Symbolism in Hinduism. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 2008. p. 317.
  21. Parmeshwaranand, S. Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Upanisads, Volume 1. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2000. p. 160.
  22. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 212.
  23. Sharma, T.R.S. p. 352.
  24. Bhatt, P.M. p. 146.
  25. Williams, G.M. p. 271.
  26. Cush, D., Robinson, C., York, M. (editors). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge, 2008. p. 263.
  27. Bhatt, P.M. p. 147-148.
  28. Bhaskarananda, S. The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World’s Oldest Religion (Second Edition). Seattle, WA: Viveka Press, 2002. p. V.
  29. Williams, G.M. pp. 58-59.
  30. Bhatt, P.M. pp. 145, 148-149.
  31. Bhaskarananda, S.
  32. Zimmer, H.R. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Campbell, J. (editor). Bollingen Foundation Series VI. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Mythos edition, 1992. p. 48.
  33. Williams, G.M. pp. 58-59.