(The following is another “note” I originally posted on my Facebook page in June of 2015. I do not own the copyright to the Buddhist text transcribed here, I just like it a whole lot and want other people to read it. If the copyright holder would like for me to remove this post, I will do so post-haste. — MNW)
I posted a while back that there were only two philosophers that I had any interest in. Those two philosophers, I said, are Socrates and Nietzsche. The reason these are the only two philosophers that I am interested in, I said, was that their philosophies were not based in proclaiming what is moral and what isn’t, and that sort of thing, their philosophies are based in questioning things.
The Socratic Method is essentially asking every question you can think of, and then questioning the answers you are given, and then questioning the answers of those questions, and so on, until the person you are questioning sees that their argument isn’t as rock solid as they thought it was.
Similarly, Nietzsche’s “Philosophy of the Hammer” expounded upon in “Twilight of the Idols” set out to figuratively smash to bits every philosophy Nietzsche had ever encountered. And I don’t remember exactly how this was put in that book, but Nietzsche invited readers to figuratively smash his philosophy to bits as well.
This sort of approach is basically the approach I take toward everything. I apologize to anyone out there in Facebook land who may have been offended by that. I mean well, I promise, no matter how annoying I get.
Anyways, I am not really here to talk about that, I am here to say that my earlier claim that Socrates and Nietzsche were the only philosophers I had any interest in was not entirely true. Those two are merely the only two philosophers one is likely to encounter in a philosophy class, or at least one that focuses on western philosophers.
I like Jesus’ philosophy a whole lot, for example. If everybody – heck, if every Christian – took “Love thy neighbor as thyself” seriously and applied it in their day to day lives, the world would be a much better place. The same goes for the Sermon on the Mount…except for that bit at the end about giving a divorced woman a “certificate of divorce” while the man doesn’t have to have one. That’s sexist as hell, and reflective of either Jewish or Roman law at the time, most likely. At any rate, if you ignore that part, there’s some excellent stuff there.
I also like some Hindu philosophy. The idea “brahman is all, and all is brahman” is pretty cool, I think. I read this in the Upanishads a few years ago, and it’s basically saying that all things are connected, from the sun in the sky to the ground under your feet. It may be a stretch, but I think it’s kinda cool that here and now, a few thousand years after the Upanishads were written, we now know that everything in the known universe is in fact constructed out of the same set of elements. The Bhagavad-gita is also pretty cool, if you don’t take it too literally.
I am also a big fan of Taoist philosophy. Prior to my finding out that actual Taoists in China have a whole system of saints and sages they pray to – which is much more similar to the Catholic system of saints than you may realize – I actually considered myself a “Taoist.” (Pausing for you to get that chuckle out. Feel better? Great.) I am a huge fan of Lao Tzu, especially the Tao Te Ching. It’s like every philosophy I have ever read, distilled down to short little passages. Chuang Tzu is another Taoist philosopher I like a lot, though I haven’t read much of his writings.
I also like Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) a lot. I do my best to adhere to it…but nobody’s perfect. I don’t physically abuse anyone, but harsh words can also be a form of violence, and for a person such as myself who spends a decent amount of time discussing things and arguing online, it is sometimes hard not to just say “OH MY GOD YOU ARE STUPID YOU STUPID STUPID IDIOT” or something.
(By the way, sometimes that’s all you can say. I am not trying to act holier than thou toward anybody here, I am just blathering about my own personal philosophy and philosophers I like. Feel free to apply Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Hammer to any and all of this. Pick my philosophy to pieces, smash the idols I am presenting to you. I want you to, believe it or not.)
I also like Buddhist philosophy a lot. Anyone who peruses my “notes” should see this easily. I can’t really explain it to you, but whenever I am feeling low, reading Dogen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra” makes me feel better. It may read as absurd nonsense to you, with its talk of how dragons see water and how there are mountains in mountains, but it usually brings me out of a funk when I am in one.
Anyhoo, the reason I am writing this is to share another bit of Buddhist philosophy with you all. I first read this in a Penguin Classics book called “Buddhist Scriptures” that was given to me by my very good friend Derek Jackson. It’s all or part of something called “The Buddha’s Law Among The Birds,” or Bya Chos, but I am not sure of the language it was originally written in.
Before I post it, I would like to point out why I think “demons” are mentioned in the intro. It isn’t because reading this will turn you into a demon or anything, it is simply reflective of Buddhism’s all-inclusive nature. In other words, the dharma is for demons, too. If demons learned the dharma, Buddhists might think, demons would cease doing demon-y things. There are figures in Buddhist mythology called Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are beings that could have already achieved Buddha-hood, which is supreme enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of rebirth, but who chose to return to Samsara, the world of desire and suffering that we all live in now. The Bodhisattvas, so the myth goes, returned to Samsara in order to bring more people toward enlightenment. One Bodhisattva legend I read was about a fellow who willingly went through all the hells in Buddhist mythology, just to try and save the souls suffering there. “I will not accept Buddha-hood until all the hells are empty,” this person said, in the myth or legend or whatever you call it.
You don’t have to literally believe any of that, by the way. I don’t, and I am not asking anyone else to. But I would be lying if I said Buddhist philosophy hasn’t had a positive influence on my life. And what I am about to share had a pretty big impact on me when I first read it, make fun of me if you want to. It won’t hurt my feelings.
And one more thing: don’t read this and think it’s just being pessimistic. “Pitiful” does not necessarily imply anything negative. The point of this – at least my reading of it – is to instill compassion in the reader.
I betcha never thought a bird might pity you…it’s possible, eh?
* * *
The Lord Buddha has said:
IN THE LANGUAGE OF ANGELS, OF SERPENTS, OF FAIRIES, IN THE SPEECH OF DEMONS, THE TALK OF THE HUMANS, IN THEM ALL I’VE EXPOUNDED THE DHARMA’S DEEP TEACHINGS
AND IN ANY TONGUE
THAT A BEING MIGHT GRASP THEM.
In order to teach the Dharma unto the feathered folk, the holy Lord Avalokita, who had transformed himself into a Cuckoo, the great king of the birds, sat for many years day and night under a large sandalwood tree, immobile and in perfect trance.
One day Master Parrot came before the Great Bird, and addressed him, saying:
Greetings, O great and noble bird! For one whole year, until to-day, You’ve sat there crouching, motionless, In the cool shade of a Santal tree. So silent, dumb and speechless; Does something anger or disturb your heart? When, O Great Bird, your trance has ended, Will you accept these seeds, the fine quintessence of all food?
And thus replied the Great Bird:
Listen then, O parrot skilled in speech! I have surveyed this ocean of Samsara, And I have found nothing substantial in it. Down to the very last, I saw the generations die, They killed for food and drink – how pitiful! I saw the strongholds fall, even the newest, The work of earth and stones consumed – how pitiful! Foes will take away the hoarded spoils to the very last, Oh, to have gathered this wealth, and hidden it – how pitiful! Closest friends will be parted, down to the very last,
Oh to have formed those living thoughts of affection – how pitiful! Sons will side with the enemy – even to the youngest,
Oh to have given that care to those who were born of one’s body – how pitiful! Relatives united and intimate friends, Children reared, and riches stored, All are impermanent, like an illusion, And nothing substantial is found in them. My mind has now forsaken all activity. So that I may keep constant to my vows. Here, in the cool shade of a santal tree I dwell in solitude and silence,
In trance I meditate, from all distractions far removed. Go thou – repeat this speech of mine
To all large birds, and to all feathered creatures!
The Parrot, skilled in speech, then rose from the middle of the ranks, and, swaying like a bamboo hurdle, saluted three times and spoke as follows:
Greetings, you great and noble bird!
Though you are weary and disgusted with Samsara, We beg you, give a little thought to us! Ignorant and deluded creatures that we are; The effects of many misdeeds in our past Have tied us to this suffering, bound us, chained us. We beg of you the good Dharma freeing us from suffering, We beg the light dispelling all our ignorance,
We beg from you the Dharma – the cure of all defilements, Birds of every kind assembled here,
We beg of you the good Dharma that we may ponder on it.
The Great Bird then spoke again as follows:
Smoke a sign of fire is,
The Southern cloud a sign of rain. The little child will be a man, The foal a stallion one day.
Deep thinking about death will lead to the unique and worthy Dharma. The rejection of attachment to the wheel of Samsara, the belief in the retribution of all deeds; mindfulness of the impermanence and mortality of this life – these are signs that we approach the unique, worthy Dharma. O Birds assembled here, is there anything of this nature in your minds? Tell me then your thoughts!
Thereupon the Golden Goose rose, shook his wings three times, and said: “nan stud nan stud,” which means “that prolongs the bondage, that prolongs the bondage.”
To remain from birth to death without the Good Law – that prolongs the bondage. To desire emancipation, and still deserve a state of woe – that prolongs the bondage. To hope for miraculous blessings, and still have wrong opinions – that prolongs the bondage. To neglect those things that turn the mind towards salvation – that prolongs the bondage. To give and yet be checked by meanness – that prolongs the bondage.
To aim at lasting achievements while still exposed to this world’s distractions – that prolongs the bondage.
To try to understand one’s inner mind while still chained to hopes and fears – that prolongs the bondage.
All you who thus prolong your bondage within this ocean of suffering, Try to grasp the meaning of my words, for they will shorten your bondage.
Thereupon the Raven with his great wings rose, made a few sideways steps, and said “grogs yon grogs yon,” which means “help will come, help will come.”
When you have been true to your vows, help will come in the form of a happy life among men. When you have given gifts, help will come in the form of future wealth.
When you have performed the acts of worship, help will come from the guardian angels.
When your solemn promises are made in all good faith, help will come from the love of the fairies. When you are alert at the sacrificial festivals, help will come from the Guardians of the Dharma. When in this life you learn to enter into higher meditation, help will come from the future Buddha. Learn therefore to gain these virtues, for help comes through them.
Thereupon the Cock, the domestic bird, rose, flapped his wings three times, and said “e go e go,” which means, “do you understand that? Do you understand that?”
Whilst you live in this samsaric world, no lasting happiness can be yours – do you understand that? To the performance of worldy actions there is no end – do you understand that? In flesh and blood there is no permanence – do you understand that?
The presence, at all times, of Mara, the Lord of Death – do you understand that? Even the rich man, when he is laid low, departs alone – do you understand that? He has no strength to take the wealth he gathered – do you understand that? Our bodies, so dear to us, will feed the birds and dogs – do you understand that? Wherever the mind may go, it cannot control its fate – do you understand that? We are bound to lose those we love and trust – do you understand that? Punishment follows the evil we do – do you understand that? Wherever one looks, nothing is there substantial – do you understand that?
Then from the centre of the ranks rose the Parrot, skilled in speech, and said:
Listen, you beings of this samsaric world:
What you desire is happiness, what you find is grief.
While you inhabit a state of woe, salvation is not yet at hand. Thinking on this must make me sad.
I now recall the good, the unique Law;
Hear it, you denizens of this samsaric world, Perennial for time without beginning. Because its benefits are so immense, Let us here recall that unique Dharma: ‘These ills in our state of woe are but the fruits of evil deeds, The karmic outcome of your own accumulated acts; For you and only you could make them.’
So now strip off the veil that clouds your thoughts: This life, like dew on grass, is but impermanent, And your remaining here for ever out of question. So here and now, think on these things, and make your effort! ‘The pain from heat and cold in hell
the hunger and the thirst which Pretas feel,
All are the fruits of evil deeds.’ So has the Muni spoken. Here, from within my heart, I make the vow To shun all evil – to achieve the good. From deep within my heart I seek my refuge In the Three Treasures ever changeless, Never failing, never fading,
Our precious ally through the whole of time.
In my mind, now free from doubt, is faith established. Resolved to know the holy Dharma,
I now reject all things in this samsaric world. And so, you great and noble bird, We, this assembly, beg you grant us Your esteemed instruction, teach us to understand the nature of all life!
So he spoke, and made three salutations.
Thereupon the Cuckoo, the Great Bird, spoke as follows:
Birds, large and small assembled here, well have you understood. In all the speeches you have made not one has denied the truth. Well have you spoken, well indeed! With undistracted mind keep well these words within your hearts. And so, O birds assembled here, the large birds and also the youngsters lucky to be here, hear me with reverence and attention!
The things of this samsaric world are all illusion, like a dream. Where’er one looks, where is their substance? Palaces built of earth and stone and wood, Wealthy men endowed with food and dress and finery, Legions of retainers who throng round the mighty – These are like castles in the air, like rainbows in the sky. And how deluded those who think of this as truth! When uncles – nephews – brothers – sisters gather as kindred do, When couples and children gather as families do,
When friends and neighbours gather in good fellowship –
These are like meetings of dream friends, like travellers sharing food with strangers. And how deluded those who think of this as truth!
This phantom body grown in uterine water from a union of seed and blood – Our habitual passions springing from the bad deeds of our past, Our thoughts provoked by divers apparitions –
All are like flowers in autumn, clouds across the sky.
How deluded, O assembled birds, if you have thought of them as permanent. The splendid plumage of the peacock with its many hues,
Our melodious words in which notes high and low are mingled,
The link of causes and effects which now have brought us here together – They are like the sound of echoes, the sport of a game of illusion. Meditate on this illusion, do not seize on them as truth! Mists on a lake, clouds across a southern sky, Spray blown by wind above the sea, Lush fruits ripened by the summer sun – In permanence they cannot last; in a trice they separate and fall away. Meditate on their illusion, do not think of them as permanent!
When he finished speaking, the birds all rose with joy, danced a while through the air, and sang their songs.
“Happiness be yours and gladness too – may you prosper!” said the Great Bird, happy that he had come there. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he sang, “the light shed by the Dharma of the Birds brings me happiness. In joy and gladness leap and sway together in this graceful dance! Sing your songs and may you thrive!”
“May you prosper, may you prosper,” he said, happy to be in that plentiful land. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he sang, “I am happy because the essence of the Dharma of the Birds has enriched you. In joy and gladness leap and sway together in this graceful dance! Sing your songs, and may you thrive!”
“Cu ci, ci ci,” he said, glad that all these hosts of birds had come together. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he sang, “I am happy because I could give you the Dharma of the Birds. In joy and gladness leap and sway together in this graceful dance! Sing your songs, and may you thrive! Sing your happy songs which carry far! Dance your greatly joyful dance! Now you have won your hearts’ desire.”
All the birds sang happy songs, leapt up and danced with gladness, and wished each other good fortune and abounding joy. They then accompanied the Great Bird for one whole day, and the great bird without mishap returned to India. On their way back, the birds of Tibet slept all together under a tree. The next day, when the sun of Jambudvipa arose, thrice they circled the tree where they had met, exchanged their hopes for another such joyful meeting, and each one, satisfied, returned on wings to his dwelling place.