From the swan that Siddhartha nursed as a boy to the fantastical Garuda—Andrea Miller explores the intriguing role that birds play in Buddhist mythology and teachings.
Crows, six-panel screen, Japan, Edo period / Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, Seattle Art Museum.
In my freshman year of college, my religious studies class was at the sleepy hour of two o’clock, and to make matters worse the professor was hypnotically soft-spoken and wore tired shades of brown. So on the day that he slowly enumerated the four noble truths on the board, I failed to experience the flash of insight, which many Buddhist converts talk about; the only thing I felt was my heavy eyelids.
Then I glimpsed movement.
I was sitting by the window—sunlight pouring in—and a dark, glossy bird I didn’t have a name for had landed on the stone windowsill outside. If it weren’t for the glass, I could have touched it—I was that close to its iridescent purple and green sheen, blunt tail, and yellow bill. Watching the bird tilting its head as it looked at me with alert, shiny eyes, I was suddenly wholly focused.
I’d never before paid much attention to birds, but for me this particular one was what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “a bell of mindfulness.” The bird woke me up to the present moment.
It was inevitable: I became both a Buddhist and a birdwatcher.
For me, birding is a form of meditation—it’s just watching, just listening. I appreciate how birding encourages equanimity, how it helps me rest in ambiguity and uncertainty. In the field, I get a glimpse of small, brown wings disappearing through the branches of an oak. Then I look through my bird books and see page after page of almost indistinguishable little brown birds with their subtle markings and minor differences. Did the bird I see have yellow or tan legs? Was its beak straight or did it curve? I can’t positively identify the bird and I have to find some peace with that.
It’s easy to find symbolism in birds—in the way they take flight, in the way they preen and nest and sing. Poets have long made wordy use of their wings, while mystics have revered them. In Buddhism, birds are used to teach ethics and concepts. They are metaphors for our muddled, unskillful selves, and also represent our best, no-self selves. Buddhist bird lore goes all the way back to the beginning, or so the story goes.