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