Pedalling around all over the place is all very well, but sometimes I need stillness and contemplation.
In his book The Power of Now, Ekhart Tolle says that he has “lived with several Zen Masters – all of them cats.” In my discovery of the Buddha’s Dharma, I’ve been lucky enough to have been tutored not by cats, but by an insect, a baby rabbit and, most recently, a great tit (Parus major).
I’m not sure what kind of bug it was that gave its life to teach me about mindfulness, but I think it was a Myrmus miriformis.
I was sat in a field in Devon idly twiddling a stick in the wet Dartmoor mud, not thinking of anything in particular – certainly, nothing I can remember. I was folding the mud over the end of the stick and flopping it back again. Mindlessly.
In the split second it took to pick up one glob of the sticky, gooey mud and fold it into the next, a bug scuttled across the surface and came into view just long enough for me to see its creamy-brown, six-legged form, and then it was gone beneath the muddy micro-earthquake I had just created. Buried. Splat. Just like that.
Now, we’d been given strict instructions on this particular camping retreat that killing was not permitted in the field as it contravenes the Buddha’s first precept, which is to abstain from it. And I had just dumped the equivalent of a cart-load of topsoil on an innocent insect. Ooops.
Guilt ridden, I dug around with my little stick to try to rescue the poor little blighter, but to no avail. It was gone. In that moment my hand, eye and mind had not been skilfully co-ordinated, and a life was lost as a consequence. I had witnessed that, through my inattention, an innocent creature had suffered. It was a tiny life, but it taught me a great lesson about trying maintain attention in the moment, always trying to be mindful.
A few weeks later, I undertook my first silent retreat at Gaia House. Early one crisp and misty September morning I was practicing a slow-walking meditation on the lawn. I came close to the nun’s cemetery where a family of rabbits was grazing on the dew-covered grass. There was an adult and five kittens. Here too, killing was prohibited – and probably has been for generations – so the rabbits were completely unconcerned by my presence. For them, it was a known-to-be-safe area.
I stood and watched them for several minutes, and wondered at the fecund innocence of life and the undeniable cuteness of baby rabbits, before slowly moving on.
The next day, I took a walk along the lane. When I returned to the house, I saw the smashed and dead body of a baby rabbit by the side of the road. A car had probably hit it that morning. The family I had seen was now one fewer. Here one minute, gone the next: impermanent – as are we all. A key Buddhist principle explained to me by a small, bloodied, brown rabbit corpse. And not so cute, now, either.
Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form
Last week, I sat a silent Zen retreat back at Gaia House with the sparkling-clear Martine Bachelor, and the ever-erudite Stephen Bachelor. We contemplated the koan “What is this?”
I was spending some time alone in the lounge – an oak-panelled room with sash windows from floor to ceiling. I was gazing south-east over the freshly-mown lawn where mighty trees and the gentle ambiance combine to form a landscape where Constable meets Van Gogh, and the air is filled with the cawing of rooks, floating blossom petals of pink and white and the rapid-fire knocking of a woodpecker in the copse behind the house.
In a pot in a window’s reveal stood a white geranium. The nearby window was open at the bottom; a gap of just two inches for some breeze. A great tit hopped through the gap and settled on the rim of the pot. But, on seeing me, it panicked, turned tail and tried to fly back out of the room. Most birds are still more timid than rabbits.
But alas: where, to the bird, there should have been empty space, the emptiness was full of glass. The bird smashed headlong into this unexpected, invisible form. It fell back stunned into the plant pot. It lay there on its back, claws in the air, wings twisted, eyes staring at me, dazed and confused.
Slow and mindful, I approached the window and opened it fully. The bird took off and made its escape. I slid the window back to its previous position, careful to leave everything as I’d found it. Then I sat down, happy: a good deed done.
Birds are known for their small brains, and are often considered stupid. And I cannot say for certain that it was the same bird, or another one just like it, but the bird returned. It hopped through the window just as before, looked at me for a second and then took off across the room. It perched on the high top edge of the oak panelling near the door, opposite the window.
I was now between the bird and its path to freedom, so I re-opened the bottom sash window and made my way slowly around the edge of the room and back towards the bird to encourage it to leave. Again, the bird headed full-pelt into the ‘empty’ space towards the trees beyond. Again, it slammed into form where there should have been emptiness. The top half of the window was still closed.
The bird fell straight back into the plant pot in exactly the same condition as before, but this time it remained completely still: no twitching, no blinking. It looked dead. I opened the window again and picked up the bird, resting it in my warm, cupped hand. And I waited.
How do you know if a bird is in pain? I have no idea. If it were mortally wounded and permanently disabled, then the humane thing to do would be to ‘put it out of its misery’ – wouldn’t it? But that would leave me in a sickening dilemma. I wondered what its neck would sound like if I broke it.
Then, slowly, the bird began to regain consciousness. It blinked, but it still lay paralysed in my palm, staring at me. As a wild bird, it had almost certainly never felt human body heat before, and my hands seemed to be getting hotter.
I scrutinised it closely. What is this? Why would a bird make the same mistake twice? Why would any of us do that? Was there some kind of teaching to be heard here? Or am I just interpreting phenomena in any way that suits me best?
The bird started to preen the tiny mustard-yellow feathers at the roots of its wings. First the left, then the right, then back to the left; rapid, probing, prodding movements deep into its plumage. I thought it was a bit of a funny time for a spruce-up, but then I remembered that that’s what birds do when they’re stressed. The ornithologists call it “displacement activity”. I had seen robins doing it when they fight. They have a bout of beak-bashing and breast-stabbing over a territorial dispute then, when that all gets a bit heavy, they break off the fighting and have a little preen before re-entering the fray. This bird must have been terrified. It was unable to escape, it was being stared at by a big, hot, monster-human and it was getting hand-roasted. The only thing it had going for it was that I wasn’t a cat.
After several long minutes of just breathing and staring, it fluttered. It didn’t get anywhere, but it looked as if its wings would work. It fluttered again, turned itself over and perched on my finger, its tiny heart pounding while it panted hard; its feather-ball breast pumping in and out twice a second; its bright-black eyes staring wild.
Then it was up. Its wings buzzed in the air. It rose a few inches, then dropped back into my hand. It tried again. This time, it made nine inches of altitude before falling back, and I caught it again, and waited some more. A minute or two later, on its third bid for freedom, it managed to rise a foot before making six feet of level flying out into the open space. It reached the safety of a nearby bush, perched and looked back at me.
What is this?
Since the 1930s, physicists have been telling us that the atom is made almost entirely of space and, therefore, everything we think of as solid – the entire universe, in fact – is made of nothing but emptiness and vibrating energy. I’m told that if you scale up the nucleus of an atom of iron to the size of a football, the distance between it and its first electron-shell would be equivalent to the length of football field, and the electron the size of a peanut. Some philosophers have taken this and used it to argue that all solidity is an illusion.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein
This would seem to solve the ancient Zen conundrum that “Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.” But, as Stephen Bachelor reminded us, through one of those traditional Zen tales, this might not be very important in the human scheme of things – or particularly useful to great tits.
The story goes – in the usual way – that a student went to his master and announced that he had grasped the meaning of emptiness, and had come to realise that everything in the world was, in fact, nothing but emptiness. The master picked up his Dharma-stick and whacked his student hard on the arm.
“Ouch!” said the student, confused. “That hurt. What did you do that for?”
“Not so empty now, is it?” responded the master, rapping his stick on the table.
Blossom drifts, rooks caw. A bird arising flies from White geranium.
The naïve realism of Zen: just keep asking yourself “What is this?” Maintain your beginner’s mind. Eschew fixed categories, absolute answers and strong opinions. It might leave you perplexed but, in Zen, that’s a good place to be.