The birds of sadness

‘You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair’

Chinese proverb

It is also said, that we are all subject to the laws of karma and yet a wise person is not enslaved by them.

We can’t prevent the birds of suffering. Those forces that can make us doubt, get anxious, fear and the other emotions and sensations that can arise and are familiar with. If you like, this is the first noble truth, that suffering exists. If we give these birds more than their due, by enticing them with seed, they can alight and nest. By getting involved in their patterns of flight and worry about them circling our heads and getting anxious about what it is they might do to us we help create the very conditions that enables this. By entangling ourselves in the machinations of others we join forces with them and become enablers.

So why is it hard to recognise when it is happening. You would think Mara’s armies would be easy to spot and repel. I suppose because it taps into that element of us that is intrinsically linked with who we think we are. Mara can be very subtle, and here let me just make the point that Mara isn’t a person but, if you like, the result of conditioning. It was the Buddha’s unstill mind, all those unresolved karmic threads coming to the surface. It is partly Mara that got us to the cushion. When we can’t untangle our conditioning which has maybe led to unhelpful ways of being from a deeper truth or way of being it leads to muddling up letting go and holding on.

The Buddha’s Enlightenment was him not getting stuck in the first noble truth. He was able to see through suffering, by accepting it first as a basic truth but essentially going on, and on, until he was able to experience what was beyond it.

‘Onward he passed

Exceeding sorrowful, seeing how men

Fear so to die they are afraid to fear,

Lust so to live they dare not love their life,

But plague it with fierce penances, belike

To please the Gods who grudge pleasure to man;’

Edwin Arnold The Light of Asia

He saw that if we stay in the extremes of life it will just repeat itself and there is no way out and the very thing that we are seeking will remain elusive. It is not a balance between suffering and joy. The middle way is not a happy medium. It, instead, suggests the state of natural balance which we experience when making effort, without an intentional aim. A better word would be harmony.

From the Enlightenment Festival Offertory;

“It takes a master of tonal appreciation to combine musical instruments in harmony in such a way that they produce the six tones of the sun and the six tones of shadow; in the same way a master like Shakyamuni, skilled in producing harmony among men, is needed to produce the magnificent sound of the Dharma.”

Harmony is an acceptance of everything first and foremost. Accepting rather than balancing off one thing with another. It is not putting our opinions and views on the scales and quantifying the result.

Mara’s armies are said to assail the Buddha with many distractions in a constant barrage. These appear as separate individual objects whether of mind or body which he has to deal with on an individual basis. But look at this from Bendowa by Dogen

When we let go, it has already filled the hands; how could it be defined as one or many? When we speak, it fills the mouth; it has no restriction in any direction. When buddhas are constantly dwelling in and maintaining this state, they do not leave recognitions and perceptions in separate aspects [of reality]; and when living beings are eternally functioning in this state, aspects [of reality] do not appear to them in separate recognitions and perceptions.” (1)

 Letting go, is all encompassing, it doesn’t pick and choose, completely filling all. So, everything needs attending to. In the way that Dogen speaks, yes, all is dealt with at once. In practice certain things, elements surface at different times. It is not that we concentrate necessarily on the one thing, but it does come into focus. Even the areas of our life that we are still not aware of are sorted on some level at the same time. Not everything arises at the same time but the process still takes care because it is all encompassing. The Mountain still state allows Mara’s arrows turn to flowers as they pass through us. When we turn towards the arrows we can see them for the flowers they are. We need to be willing to turn otherwise it can stay on our shoulder and be in the shadows. If we don’t turn towards that which causes suffering it will continue to ferment and stew creating more suffering. Suffering arises in the mind ferments in the mind and develops in the mind. We therefore learn that to turn towards that which appears is to see through it and not give it the chance to grow.

The world can sometimes rarely be to our liking. For very good reason, of course, at times. The behaviour of others can oft times test our patience, peace of mind and good sense. This leads us to wanting to do something about it, and indeed we have to. Who doesn’t want a safe environment to bring up a child, a work place that is safe or government that is fair to all. These things we may need to attend to on a personal level. Yet we can in the process unwittingly set up further suffering for ourselves and others. If we only concentrate on the result without looking at the process we get lost. Harking back to Dogens words “When we let go, it has already filled our hands” the process we can see and already know is all encompassing as an activity. To take greed as an example and we sense or see our wanting something (beyond what is needed), as grasping we don’t need to approach it as a problem that has a solution in the particular. It might come into our view in the particular yet we approach from the just dropping it as it arises aspect. Just dropping in the arising is more direct than trying to see what the answer is.

                     To sit still and not wonder why, how, who or when, is zazen. This is practising nothing in particular and yet is everything. It is not about fixing the problem or even fixing ourselves. It is not for us to fix the dharma. The dharma arises and we just look. The looking is transformative. It is tempting to analyse this into seeing, but that isn’t quite the way. By just looking we are in front of a mirror which just reflects. The mirror doesn’t decide what it shows. When we just look at anything what we see is ourselves looking back. When we just look it seems that we are looking with all of ourselves. Resting our eyes on what is there helps us to take it in through all our senses and just let it sit there.       In my experience this aids the transformation because we aren’t reading it in the way it might usually happen. It is not just looking at things either it is also true of events and occasions. Sometimes something happens and a question may arise in our mind, maybe one of distrust on some level. Does it help to dismember the thought and break it down so that we see if we are right to distrust. It seems to me that there is more going on than greets the eye. Is the distrust my thing which I have overlaid on the object, the event. Is there prejudice of some kind overlaying it. We make our calls as to what to do, but I find more and more that I would rather live from trust than not. Not blind trust, but a base of trust. A base of trust to me is a level of faith which helps sustain a harmonious relationship. This means we can breathe slowly and deeply in the face of adverse conditions. To not get caught in the five forms of desire.

 The desire for sensual experience

The desire to hate and dislike

The desire to disengage through torpor or drowsiness

The desire to be restless and anxious

The desire to be sceptical and uncertain

All of these, Mara threw, or put before the Buddha, under the Bodhi Tree. When sitting we see things or have thoughts about our life. Sometimes troubling or overpowering. We can be knocked off our seat if not vigilant. At times these are seen clearly in the mirror wall. Seen as images of the drifting wandering world. They can appear to be true, after all it matches what we think we know. All we are seeing is our view reflected back at us. This is how the birds nest in our hair. To prevent them from nesting we don’t want to make them other or the enemy that we need to shew away. This won’t stop them coming back and in greater numbers. Allow the birds to be, embrace them for what they are. The flying above us is the natural arising of thoughts and emotions. There is no need to blame the birds for our unhappiness. They are showing something of great value. If we can accept the birds and let them fly free we are not enslaved to them and can live a free life. The Buddha’s first teaching after awakening was to the 5 rishis he knew before.

 “Afterwards passed he, said they, by the hills

Unto Benares, where he taught the Five,

Showing how birth and death should be destroyed,

And how man hath no fate except past deeds,

No Hell but what he makes, no Heaven too high

For those to reach whose passions sleep subdued.

This was the fifteenth day of Vaishya

Mid-afternoon, and that night was full moon.”

 The Light of Asia, Sir Edwin Arnold

 The Buddha showed the Way, all we have to do is follow.


  • (1) Bendowa, The Shobogenzo. Great Master Dogen

 Translated by Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross