An Avian Stray

The wounded magpie

Last Friday afternoon, I came home from various errands to find a magpie with a broken wing in the back yard. Seeming dazed, it was swung its head back and forth, as if its vision was impaired, and flapped wings in unsuccessful effort to fly. Then it would run, often in circles, falling over because its balance was off. The afternoon was hot, but the bird was fast enough to scoot away when I tried to set a water bowl nearby.

In the evening, I turned on sprinklers. As the sun got low, other magpies flew into the yard to peck at seeds or insects. The injured bird joined them to eat, but when they flew away, it made it’s way alone to a section of fence behind the cover of bushes. Hours later, when I took the dogs out before bed, I shone a flashlight to look, and the bird hadn’t moved. I wondered if the magpie, left behind by its tribe, felt something akin to loneliness.

I hadn’t been sure the bird would last through the night, fearing that injuries or a cat would finish it off, but in the morning, it was dashed around with more energy and coordination than the day before. I checked on it through the day, and that afternoon, was surprised to see it approach a squirrel that climbed down a tree in the shade where the bird was resting.

Magpie and squirrel

The magpie came close to the squirrel, who at that point, charged and drove it away, but this close encounter between two species I’d never seen interact before made me wonder again if the bird was experiencing something we would call abandonment.

We’ll never know, but such speculations can no longer be dismissed as mere projection or pathetic fallacy. I’ve seen numerous examples of this recently, including an article this week in The Atlantic, about an Alaskan Orca who carried her dead calf with her for 17 days:

“It is hardly anthropomorphic to ascribe grief to animals that are so intelligent and intensely social. Tahlequah’s relatives occasionally helped her carry her dead calf, and may have helped to feed her during her mourning…

The Lummi Nation, who live in the Salish Sea and also depend on salmon, have long understood this side of the southern residents. ‘We’ve fished alongside them since time immemorial,’ says Jay Julius, the nation’s chairman. ‘They live for the same thing we live for: family.’”

Our role in the magpie’s story came to a happy ending. We managed to scoop it into a cardboard box I’d drilled with air holes, and on Sunday morning, carried it to the Sacramento Wildlife Care Association, a wonderful organization that rehabilitates injured or orphaned birds and animals.

As I’ve said before, both modern physics and ancient Buddhist teachings agree that there really isn’t “a world out there,” out there.  The physical world we experience is what our limited senses configure out of swirling masses of energy and light. The meanings we experience are those we impute on a world that is far more dream than solid “reality.”

I never named the magpie for fear it wouldn’t survive, but in my favorite version of the dream, this bird, healed and nourished until it is strong again, will rejoin its fellow magpies, stronger than it was before, as a result of its time of trial and solitude.

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

A Buddhist Statement on the Separation of Families

“Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions…

Separating children from their parents and holding them in detention inflicts terrible and needless trauma and stress on young children that hampers and damages their development, causing long-term damage. This policy being employed on United States soil is morally unconscionable. That such egregious actions be employed as a deterrent for families seeking entry and/or asylum in the U.S. – using the sacred bond between innocent youth and their parents – is unjustifiable on any level.”

A Statement on the Separation of Families.

Mystic Mountain

Tsering Dhondup, born in Lhasa, Tibet, was 10 when he and his father walked over Himalayan passes to exile in India. Recalling the experience, he says, “In order to take my mind off the dangers that lurked beneath each step of the formidable Himalayan passes, my father told me a story so terrifying and riveting that it haunts me to this day!  Mystic Mountain is the story, it is also the rope that held me to life and helped me cross the Himalayas as a child.”

Dhondup now lives in San Jose, CA, where he translates Tibetan Buddhist teachings into English. He wrote and directed Mystic Mountain, a film version of the story his father told him, both because it’s a compelling psychological thriller, and “to help preserve the Tibetan language and enrich Tibetan oral storytelling.” Mystic Mountain was filmed in Nepal, close to the Tibetan border, where the often brooding landscape itself is a powerful presence.

After Kunga, the chief of a remote village is killed by sorcery and his body is stolen, his son, Tsewang, sets out to find the corpse. Everyone suspects Migmar, a sorcerer, who has gained black magic powers through worshipping Yama, the Lord of Death.

Everyone fears Migmar except a young girl, who understands how lonely he is, for she has the same feelings. The nature of the bond between the girl and the sorcerer is one of the core issues that unfolds as the movie progresses. You can watch the trailer here:

Mystic Mountain, produced by Snow Lion Films can be rented on Vimeo.

Additional information on the film and the filmmaker is available also. An 11 minute interview with Tsering Dhondup was broadcast in San Jose in 2015.

Anyone fascinated by the lore, the legends, and landscape of Tibet, as I am will enjoy this intimate glimpse into a land of mystery, legend, stark beauty, and people who live from the  heart.

 

A Fake World

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allen Poe

The world’s spiritual traditions tend to agree with these words Poe wrote in 1849, the year of his death. To Hindus, this world is “maya,” meaning “a magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem.” (1)

Buddhists call it “samsara,” a Sanskrit word for “wandering through, flowing on, aimless and directionless wandering,” signifying the involuntary cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we grasp the true nature of appearances (2).

Jesus warned his followers that this is not the place to store up riches. In 1999, the Matrix reframed the appearance/reality question for the twenty-first century.

Being spiritual, doesn’t give anyone a pass on consensus reality. As Ram Dass put it, “We have to remember our Buddha nature and our social security number.” 

Navigating samsara has never been easy. Truth is hard enough to discover when we are sincere, let alone when we are not. That’s one reason why Buddha placed a special emphasis on truth as a core value. Not lying was one of his Five Precepts. He said, “When anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, they will not do” (3). Continue reading

When real men speak

On Thursday morning, a Facebook post from India  announced the passing of Kyabje Gyalwa Trizin Rinpoche, 33d leader of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition. I never met His Holiness, but the spiritual teachings of one of his senior students, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, have been of supreme importance to me. For decades I’ve been a serious student of contemplative traditions, and have found no teachings of greater benefit.

The Dalai Lama with the 33d Menri Trizin, head of the Tibetan Bon Buddhist tradition

Later that Thursday, I saw a provocative post that quoted welterweight boxing champion, Floyd Mayweather, as saying that when Donald Trump spoke of grabbing pussy, “that’s the way real men speak.” 

The juxtaposition of these two posts – one about a man I greatly admire, and one from a man who claims to know about “real” men, highlights our collective confusion about almost everything.

What Joseph Campbell referred to as “the social function of myth” – the stories that teach us appropriate behavior, and our place in the larger culture, have completely broken down. Collectively, we agree on nothing, including, but not limited to, what a real man, a real woman, a real government, or a real president is like.

Few men and women in recorded history have had so much choice about their station in life, or greater anxiety about it.

Much of our our nation’s appeal, from colonial days on, was the hope that here you could reinvent yourself. From those who indentured themselves for passage across the ocean, to the westward expansion, to the “Do your own thing” rallying cry of my adolescence, this promise has been a sword that cuts both ways. Psychologists tell us that too many choices can be as stressful as too few.

In the late 80’s, Joseph Campbell suggested that the mandala of a future religion might be our world seen from space. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush revived a phrase used by Woodrow Willson and Winston Churchill, to speak of a “New World Order.” At the start of the tech boom and the end of the cold war, such dreams seemed feasible.

Now the world is contracted in fear. Nationalism, fundamentalist religion, and right wing conspiracy theories about “new world orders,” have replaced any near-term hopes of a greater good. With a reality TV star in the White House, the nature of “reality” itself has been twisted in ways unimaginable even a year ago.

The crumbling of outmoded concepts to make way for the is new isn’t always bad, but it’s usually painful. Going back is never an option. At this point, it’s good to remember that ideas of “real men” and “real women” are constructs with no essential connection to lived “reality.” If you want to know what a real man or real woman looks like, go look in a mirror. Only adolescents, or adults stuck in adolescence, have time to worry about such things.

The more important question is what do I want my life to be like? What attributes do I admire, and who embodies them?

I knew a ex-prizefighter at the gym. In his 60’s, he walked with a limp and was usually in pain from a lifetime of beatings he’d taken in the ring. “You have to be an idiot to make a living like I did,” he said. Though he was a nice guy, his was never a life I aspired to! Nor would I want to be a thin-skinned rageaholic, rising in the wee hours to fire off angry tweets.

On the other hand, after a lifetime of service to all living beings, when his time had come, Gyalwa Trizin, sat in meditation and left. Left his body, left this world. Over millennia, Tibetan masters have learned how to live and die in ways that lead to ideal or even enlightened rebirths.

I have been in the presence of a few such masters –  men and women, who live and act from the calm assurance that our difficulties are more like dreams than we know, and that there are paths that lead to life of service to beings, and when the time comes, a death that is free of fear. To my mind, this is something worth living for…

The Hungry Ghosts of Washington

Hungry Ghost Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c.

There are six realms of being in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Two of these, the human and the animal realms, are visible to our senses. The other four are not. Because all these regions are part of samsara, the world of “original ignorance,” (rather than original sin), even the apparently pleasant places are characterized by suffering, because, to quote the song by Iris Dement, “nothing good ever lasts.” We suffer until we learn to see through our illusions and delusions.

Traditional Buddhists regard the four non-physical regions as subtle astral planes where, just like the physical regions, beings sojourn for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on karma. It is possible to read them inwardly, as archetypal situations as well. Among the “lower realms,” where you don’t want to go, are the hell realms, where the dominant emotion is anger. Violent actions driven by anger can project beings into these regions after this life, yet when we see a person, or ourselves, seething with anger – red in the face, trembling, on the edge of violence, we see what a hell-being looks like, right then, without going anywhere else.

“Hungry ghosts” live in a world of insatiable craving, appetites that can never be satisfied. In eastern iconography, they are pictured with huge, distended bellies and tiny mouths that can never eat or drink enough. This is the realm of addiction, to anything or everything. In western art, Hieronymus Bosch shows us what hungry ghosts look like:

From “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

We all have a sense of the ravages of addiction to food, drugs, or alchohol. In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef says that life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. Some addictions will land you in jail. Some will win you applause. Some, like addiction to money and power can win you a seat in congress.

Beyond all the rationale, couched in economic terms and political rhetoric, there’s a greed that drives our current political strife that is an insatiable craving for wealth that can never be satisfied. When we read of American oligarchs trying to strip healthcare from millions for tax cuts for people who don’t even need it, remember this image of their inner nature:

Hungry Ghost, Japanese.

What are the odds that such beings can do anything good for their fellows or for the planet?

Notes from 2017: A Winter Feast for the Soul

Lotus flowers. Public domain.

Lotus flowers. Public domain.

The aphorisms in my previous post, on causes of happiness and unhappiness, are simple to say and understand, but not very easy to put into practice in the “thick of things.” I think that’s why the Dalia Lama speaks of practicing compassion – what we need to do to become skilled at anything.

At the same time, Buddhists believe compassion is part of our innermost nature, but it’s buried under the detritus of day to day living. That’s one reason why a core image is the lotus flower, which eventually blooms in original purity, but only after rising from the mud in which it germinates.

To aid in such practice, an international and multi-denominational contemplative practice begins tomorrow, Sunday January 15, A Winter Feast for the Soul. The event began about 10 years ago, and the intro page outlines the mission as:

  1. To support individuals in experiencing the benefits of establishing a daily spiritual practice.
  2. To create a global community of individuals committed to sustaining a daily spiritual practice for 40 days from January 15 to February 23 each year.
  3. To honor all forms of spiritual practice and to make them welcome to our Winter Feast for the Soul. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, journaling, reading spiritual texts from all traditions and philosophies.

One of the teachers participating is Anam Thubten, a Tibetan master I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog. Here is his statement on why this is so important, especially at this critical time. Please have a look, and follow the link to the site, given above, to learn more and to register..