Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

 …the instant that crow laughed
a hearer rose up from the ordinary dust.
In this morning’s sunshine
an illuminated face sings.

– Ikkyu (trans. by Joan Sutherland, in Acequias & Gates)


Sharing the World with Ravens

My first wake-up encounter with a raven was many years ago while standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I stood gazing out over the vast world of canyons, having finished the preparation for backpacking down to the Colorado River. It would take two days walking to reach the water that then flowed a mile beneath my feet. As I considered this prospect, a raven floated past, twenty feet above my head, and out over the abyss. She sailed nearly horizontally for several seconds, then abruptly tucked her wings, the left one more than the right, causing her to roll onto her back. Flying upside down she descended into the vast space of the canyon, tracing a parabolic arc of perhaps a thousand feet. Her upside-down dive lasted beyond my belief, her body vanishing with distance. I realized that a being who could, and would, take such a plunge was not going to be circumscribed by my comprehension.

Photo by Tim Walters

Once I was walking a long, deserted beach in northern California. The day was sunny, giving the ocean a dazzling translucent blue. Previous high tides had shaped a low plateau of sand, providing a bench of observation several feet above the current level of surf. As I approached this bank I noticed a raven perched on its top, looking out to the sea. Stopping a little ways from him I sat, joining him on the low viewing platform. For more than ten minutes we sat together, watching the breakers roll in. During that time the raven seemed to have no agenda other than to witness the waves. Being a Homo sapien I’m not sure how a Corvus corax attends waves, but the fact of his attention (to me!) was as plain as the great beak on his face.

Professional raven watchers have amply documented the intelligence of this largest member of the family Corvidae. A raven’s intelligence reaches beyond its impressive ability to solve artificial problems introduced by humans, such as extracting food from a vessel by using a tool (which they have fashioned). Such feats are impressive, since the raven reasons to obtain what she wants in a novel situation. These actions cannot be reduced to simple instinctual cleverness, since no wild raven ever encountered the scenarios provided by the scientists. More significantly, a raven’s wants are not confined by instinct. Individual ravens have personal desires, like wanting to gaze at the ocean.

The depth of raven intelligence shows up in activities such as play, deceit, partnering, and cultural transmission. For example, ravens will at times take care to be hidden from others when they cache food. But they learn this precaution only after they have taken food from another raven’s cache. Raven vocalization cannot be reduced to “calls” that have universal meaning; rather, context plays a strong role in determining the meaning of the call. A given raven may develop new voicings throughout its life, and the meanings of calls may change over time. Raven language has regional dialects: birds in the California redwoods speak differently than those in the Maine hardwood forests.  This implies that the young must learn the meaning of calls by cultural transmission. I have heard ravens voice a particular low, very long quork when floating in the depth of old growth redwoods. They seem to intone this note only when floating, not while flapping. In no other location or circumstance have I heard them speak in this way.

Raven expert Bernd Heinrich finds evidence of intelligence in the silly things they do.

“I often see ‘intelligence’ in my ravens in the stupid things they do. One time early in November 1992, I surprised a group of them in a fir thicket. They were noisy and raucous around a long-dry cow scapula. Gathering around a dry bone is ‘goofy.’ A chickadee wouldn’t do it, or a blue jay, or a crow. These birds would not be so foolish as ravens.” (in Mind of the Raven)

From a behavioral perspective it appears that goofiness attends the capacity to make a choice, to freely gaze. Doing that which serves no direct practical purpose – playing – is an essential feature of the intelligence appearing in some of us animal types. Dolphins dress themselves with colorful bits of sea flora, ravens slide down snowy hills, humans dance without partners.

Photo by Tim Walters

I have no personal experience of many of the reported signs of raven intelligence. I have just read about them. The croak of agitation, the sound of strong wings, and the strut of looking-for-trouble are the raven ways I mostly observe, and love. The indelible sign I do receive in nearly every raven encounter is direct and simple: when I look at a raven, the raven looks back at me. It was this exchange that inspired my desire to learn more about ravens, and it is this exchange that remains inviting and disturbing, What this returned gaze means, for me and the raven, depends on the situation, but in every case a raven mind appears behind the eye. Ravens have intentions, possess desires that are fluid, often unpredictable. I easily find the being of this shaggy bird equal to my own shaggy presence in this world. Perhaps my sense of equality stems from my reoccurring impression that this is also how the raven sees the situation. When a raven eyes me, he’s not reacting via a set of biological instructions. He’s assessing me, wondering whether I’m worthy of further investigation – typically I’m not, or not worth the possible danger. Less often he’ll risk it, and extend a brief curiosity.

Walking the Open Sky

Composing the track of a flying bird requires more than vision. Memory and imagination are woven with sight to create such a trace. (The raven draws with a broad wolf’s-hair brush, shaggy on the sky.) With bird tracks our active participation in the perception is evident. Perhaps the obviousness of mind in the action of bird-tracking led to the koan: Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds.

The swift and sharp seam a bird draws with its flight can leave my world rippling for a pay-attention-now minute. It resembles the ripples produced by the tip of a thin stick drawn across still water: a continuous wake of expanding circles. The moving point of contact, the center of the bloom, shaping the water into a traveling V. Once my adult son and I explored the possibilities of such stick sketching on water, oohing and aahing when one of us would produce a trace whose ripple evolution we found particularly sweet. A raven might recognize what we were up to – a human’s “being goofy around a long-dry cow scapula.” Watching the track of my son’s hand in the air, as he intently drew on the water, produced ripples down under, beyond my sight.

I don’t decide what tracks I’ll feel on the inside as well as the outside. Watching intimate family and friends I may feel fluttering in my chest – a loved one’s wings moving under my ribs. There is no advanced warning as to what particular trace becomes mutual: my heart drawing the shape of the world, as the world marks my heart. Zhaozhou said, “It’s like a seeing a word you’re not familiar with – you don’t know it’s meaning, but you recognize the handwriting.” In the fall, wild geese return to flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, circling in great loops that encompass the foothills where I live. In the evening light, hundreds pass overhead, their wings flashing between white and black as their bodies turn in the sun. Like rippling confetti, the flock’s shape another undulating V, ceaselessly shifting. Flying toward the horizon, the geese eventually diminish to dabs of ink, forming a living calligraphy on the sky. A single hand draws.

Engaged in such watching is not to possess freedom as an acquisition. In such circumstances I’m not an independent agent, marshalling my will into the action of gazing. Freely watching is allowing what appears to carry me, possess me, call me into attention. The other that calls could be a bird, a stone, a line of poetry. It speaks my secret name, the one I’m continually forgetting until I’m called away from my small dream of suffering, and into the vast dream we share.


Reasoning about Ravens

The raven and I are not familiars, and one must look back 300 million years to find a common ancestor. Raven intelligence evolved independently of ours, as evidenced by the fact that their brain structure differs from the design shared in common by intelligent mammals. Corvids don’t have a cerebral cortex, which was thought, by those of us who possess one, necessary for intelligent behavior. For years many biologists with expertise in neurology thought ravens incapable of intelligent acts due to their lack of this cortical structure. (At the same time many field biologists, who watched ravens, judged them to be plenty smart.) Ravens think with a different physical and electronic architecture than the one used to write this sentence. Rather than the sheet-like cortex, they employ localized, high-density clusters of neurons. Ravens found a route to embodying cognition, via natural selection, that differed significantly from ours. The resulting differences in neuronal structure and dynamics (cerebral cortex vs. neuronal clusters) are substantial enough that for years seriously cognizing brain scientists were skeptical that ravens could be as intelligent as they are. The raven way is not the human way.

Approaching the raven by way of reason and scientific methodology, we try to discover (among other things) the nuances of their behavior, the reach of their abstraction, and how executive-function manifests in planning and strategizing activities. We are careful not to foist too much of our understanding of own behavior onto the behavior of ravens – the scientifically unclean act of anthropomorphizing. Though it should be remembered that we ultimately ‘make sense’ of animal behavior, and judge it to be reasoned or automatic, based on our own human reasoning. It is parochial to assume that raven reasoning would appear reasonable to us. My non-scientific assessment of naturalists who study ravens in the wild is that they find them to be highly intelligent, emotionally rich, quirky animals, whose behavior is often surprising.

This reasoned methodology assumes that both the raven and their human observer are imbedded in a world that is external to their personal, or interior, worlds. In this view the interior world is produced by a little piece of the external world, i.e. conscious mind is created by the brain. A more accurate description is that consciousness is created by the entire body, with the brain playing a central role. But this more ‘embodied’ scientific approach still assumes that human bodies and raven bodies are ‘out there,’ making tracks in a world that’s essentially independent of what those bodies are thinking and feeling. Virtually all scientists see things this way. Highly doubtful that ravens see things this way.


Raven Makes an Offer

Photo by Tim Walters

The Chan approach, to ravens as well as anything else, is to set aside the belief that there are two separate worlds, internal and external. Suspending this fundamental framing, even briefly, shifts our view of things. We perceive no ‘inside’ embedded in an ‘outside’ (science), nor do we experience the ‘outside’ as an illusion created by our ‘inside’ (idealism). Rather, all phenomena are of the same nature, which is beyond the duality offered by inside/outside.

In one of Chan’s origin stories we find Shakyamuni twirling a flower before a group of assembled monks. His disciple Mahakashyapa sees the gesture, meets Shakyamuni’s eyes, and smiles. What passes between them is often described as the “special transmission outside the written teachings.” I imagine that Mahakashyapa smiled since he experienced the twirling flower as the intimate expression of himself. Commenting on this story, Roshi Koun Yamada observed, “It is extremely important for us to realize that the essential nature of our own self and the essential substance of the whole universe is one.”

I’ve never had a raven stand before me, or fly past me, twirling a flower. (Caveat: it’s easy to imagine a raven twirling an imaginary flower before an imaginary me.) But I have had ravens stand before me, or fly past me, and gaze my way. The raven does not offer a flower, she offers her attention – she’s sort of Shakyamuni and the flower rolled into one. I don’t know whether Shakyamuni’s gaze was human when he twirled the flower before Mahakashyapa, but the raven’s gaze is not. The one looking out from under shimmery eyebrows of blue-black feathers is not human. Yet, in that inhuman gaze, a sign is being given. It’s being offered for my benefit.

Looking out from under the eyebrows of a physicist, multi-universe theory has some distinct benefits. Important conundrums in understanding this physical universe are (somewhat) resolved, if one assumes there are many universes. I’ve heard no reports of human-scale effects caused by there being many universes. In fact, as one might guess, it’s thought to be extremely difficult to detect the presence of another universe. There’s no iPhone app, even in the development phase, to determine how many universes are near me, where are they located, and whether they are currently open. Experiencing the multiverse of physicists is an intellectual experience, similar in character to experiencing the chemical bond in O2. Not to worry, there are ravens.

Exchanging looks with a raven feels like different universes rubbing against one another. And this exchange does change my experience of this place, this universe. The nod of the raven weakens the dichotomy of inside/outside. I don’t know why a raven catching my eye would cause my boundary between inside and outside to liquefy. I’m not clear why that look of inquiry would cause a suspension of my certainty about the way the world is. Why it causes a pause over the use of ‘my,’ as in ‘my boundary’ and ‘my certainty.’ If it is true, as Koun Yamada claims, that my essential nature and the substance of the world are one, then that dark fire of substance known as raven reveals my nature to be more mysterious than I assumed. Who rises on these dark wings, stirred up from the nova dust?

Photo by Tim Walters

Before the Big Bang, before this moment, a look is exchanged. Breathing, the space surrounding raven expands and contracts.




Field Notes

Raven watching can cause me to wonder whether I’m awake in a dream. When reading “On Mere Being” I have similar feelings. Stevens creates the world in twelve lines, and it’s the world I’m dreaming. At its center sings a bird whose song is foreign, meaningless, yet it speaks directly to me in this dream we share. -CG

Of Mere Being

By Wallace Stevens

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

From The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play by Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).

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