Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

At my house in Oakland, branches are within reach from a deck at treetop level and a deck at mid tree level; it has the feeling of a tree house.

Jays and crows perch on the top branches, at our eye level, or a little below. We can regard the bay with a bird’s view from the San Mateo bridge in the south all the way around to Mount Tam in the north. Turkey vultures skim the railing of the upper deck on their way down, down below to the flatlands. Sometimes, just watching from above, my gaze goes with them and I’m swept away on the back of a vulture, quite a ride.

At one point, the teacher Dongshan was asked, “How do you take the bird path?” and he responded, “You go with no self underfoot.” I ride on the back of a vulture, and in their way, the crows and jays live our lives. What path is the mockingbird following as it calls in the middle of the night?

This intimacy can extend to planes, too. Last fall, the Blue Angels flew, in formation, over the top of our house, so close that when I waved, I could see one of the pilots wave back and then, in a mysterious rhyme, five crows flew over our house, also in formation.

The image of the bird path image is ancient; it appears in the Pali text, The Dhammapada, “Like the path of birds in the sky, It is hard to trace the path of those whose field is the freedom of emptiness and signlessness.”  It appears again in a later Sanskrit text, The Ten Stages Sutra, which presents the stages of being a bodhisattva. Although it is all about the stages, in the introduction it says, “These stages are unattainable by mind and intellectually inconceivable, just as the tracks of a bird in the sky cannot be described or seen even by the enlightened, in the same way all the stages cannot be told of, much less heard.” To follow the bird path, I have feel my own wings.

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