Category Archives: compassion

Change and the River

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Drawing Down the Moon_0003

For our new prompt, Michelle and I are changing our focus from the Moon to rivers. I began with the previous post, which still included a big old full moon.  Writing this I began to wonder about the meaning of that Moon in relation to the subject of compassionate acts. I remembered the way Islam divides charitable deeds in several categories – zakah, which is an obligatory giving incumbent on all Muslims and sadaqah, which is private giving over and beyond one’s obligatory tithe. Sadaqah itself has two components -an open-handed kind where one is seen to be doing good works (inspiring other to do the same) and a secret kind, even more meritorious, in which the gift is given anonymously (so secretly that “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing”). In my previous collage, no one except the Moon is witness to the monk’s act of compassion. I like the idea of anonymous giving because it seems cleaner, somehow.  On the other hand public acts inspire and inform others.  I think its wise to promote both kinds.

Zakah is derived from the verb zaka, “to thrive,” “to be wholesome,” “to be pure.”  Charitable giving is seen as a way to purify oneself from the pollution of greed.  Which brings us back to rivers and flowing waters. Rivers have long been associated with purification.  Partly, I think, because they represent change. Heraclitus said it many centuries ago, “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

Nothing represents change more than a river. They move constantly undulating across the plains and carving furrows through mountains. A river is by definition moving water, unlike a sea, lake, pond or puddle it cannot be defined as a body because it is polymorphous, continually changing shape. It is change that purifies us and redeems us, for the past can never be erased or changed – all we can do is make the present count.   To do that we need to do it differently.  Even if it was good before,  we must accept that we cannot duplicate it.  Attempts to stop change result in stagnation.  We tend to think of dams as good things, ways to control nature (read “change”), but in fact dams kill ecosystems, reduce the fertility of the land and create the possibility for flooding larger by many degrees of magnitude than nature creates on its own.  We are a metaphor of the river.  Our own emotions and psyche reflect the same phenomena; dammed thought and feelings damn us to all sorts of ills, some long-lasting, some so insidious their effects don’t appear for years.

We go down to the river to pray, to wash, cleanse, refresh, renew.  Stepping into the current we become current, we become relevant.

Standing in the river, I am continuously present to what is, instead of what was or will be.

 

 

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Fish Releasing Ceremony of Compassion

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Monk and fishC Series 12-3-2010 1;55;08 PM

The people of Han-tan presented doves to Chao Chien-tzu on New Year’s

morning. He was delighted and richly rewarded them. When a visitor asked the

reason, Chien-tzu explained: ‘We release living things on New Year’s Day as a

gesture of kindness.’ [The visitor replied]: ‘The people know you wish to release

them, so they vie with each other to catch them, and many of the doves die.

If you wish to keep them alive, it would be better to forbid the people to catch

them. When you release doves after catching them, the kindness does not make

up for the mistake.’ ‘You are right,’ said Chien-tzu.

~From the Taoist text, Liezi, dated to the third century CE.

 

The release of fish into a river or birds into the air is a practice common to all schools of Buddhism. Actually it predates Buddhism and seems to be a Chinese practice well established in Taoist practice by its first recorded written mention. Though modern ecologists argue against the practice – introduction of invasive species, trauma and harm to wild animals during their capture for release, pollution spread of disease, etc. – it is easy to understand why the practice caught on and became so widespread. I first encountered it in Thailand where vendors sell birds for small amounts of money so people ca release them. I have a sneaking suspicion the pigeons simply return to their dovecots and are sold repeatedly. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful feeling to release a caged creature and watch it fly away. My own heart fluttered in response and I entered the temple in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving. I can’t help but think it enhanced the sincerity, if not the efficacy on my prayers.

 

In Thailand, many households keep large ceramic jars beside the front door to hold the living fish that will become their supper at some point. In a land without refrigeration this makes perfect sense, especially since the best time to fish is at dawn, before work starts, when fish rise to feed on insects. On special days, particularly on Buddha’s birthday, saffron is added to the water to sanctify it and the fish are released back into the rivers from whence they came.

 

One of the things that rivers represent is “universal potentiality” and the “fluidity of form” and the fish is seen in many cultures as a symbol of death and rebirth; the continuous cycle of life. It makes sense symbolically that to release a fish would be to enhance the effects of one compassionate act giving the consequences of that act a chance to morph and change form and spread in effect.

 

Sacred and magical as rivers may be, they are probably more associated with human endeavor, history, and culture than any other natural phenomenon. They flow through every kind of environment and have been since the beginning humanity’s road to distant places. We settle by rivers, our cities depend on them. They are nature’s highways and we have used them through all the days of being human and before.

 FREDERICCHURCHSMALL

Rivers live in our hearts, our poetry, our art and music –Handel’s Water Music , the Hudson River painters, the River Alph. They drain the land so plants may grow and move the waters back to the sea where they become refreshed, cleansed and reusable. They are the veins and arteries of Gaia and carry her lifeblood within their banks. To return life to the rivers is a sacred and profound act when done symbolically and even more so when actually accomplished as the completion of a physical task.

 

Hercules is portrayed in myth as cleansing the Aegean stables by rerouting the beds of the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth. Pete Seeger brought us full circle when he attempted the Herculean task of cleaning the Hudson River which had been receiving the waste of human lives and their factories for hundreds of years. Thanks to his leadership the Hudson once again has sturgeon fish swimming up its rivers and tributaries to breed. I can think of no greater act of compassion.

The White Ibis

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The White Ibis

The White Ibis

 

The White Ibis

We are still exploring “Birds”. I’ve selected this week the White Ibis. Back in the 1980’s I had a retail store called, Ibis gifts and jewelry. The shop was located on the corner of my local shopping village in Oakland, CA. When I decided that I was going to open a retail store it needed a name. I wanted to use the name of an animal or a flower. I briefly considered the flower Trillium. A Trillium is a tri-flower perennial herb that is part of the Lily family. I was looking for a symbol to use as the logo.

I finally chose an Ibis to be my store’s symbol. The logo was two Ibis heads looking into the future. They were framed by an arched window with the words Ibis gifts and jewelry written below. I loved the curved beaks of the bird design. We had wooden exterior  signs made and painted the birds in flight high on the tall long wall of the store. Like cranes, herons and spoonbills the Ibis looks quite graceful in flight.

In my collage I have a white Ibis and the Ibis headed Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth is the god of knowledge, hieroglyphs, wisdom, the moon and magic. In nature the long-legged birds wade in shallow water, their long down-curved beaks searching the mud for food, usually crustaceans through they also eat snails, small lizards, flies, crickets, beetles and grasshoppers.. Most Ibis nest in trees. The word Ibis comes from the Greek/Latin and probably ancient Egypt. There are 28 different species. I took a field trip to the San Francisco Zoo to visit the Ibis that live in Northern California.

In Steven D. Farmer’s book, “Animal Spirit Guides” the Ibis is listed as a bird that reminds you that everything is sacred. Call on Ibis when you want to “Follow your heart and trust in its wisdom.” Ibis seem to know when weather will turn bad. When a storm is brewing, the Ibis are the last to leave the shore-line and the first to return when the worst has passed… If an Ibis is part of your life “Keep your eyes, ears and heart open in order to notice the miracles around you each and every day.

Kwan Yin and the Fox

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Kwan Yin and the Fox

One foggy night, long long ago, Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, was passing through the narrow streets of a small rural town on the banks of the river Mu. Smoke from cooking fires combined with the damp cold air to produce fevers and loud hacking coughs that shook the thin paper walls of the houses and caused the entire population to toss and turn in fretful sleep.  Kwan Yin moved tirelessly from house to house laying cool fingers on hot foreheads, dripping her sweet balm onto the parched lips of sick children.  With so much human misery voicing discomfort and fear it was astonishing that her ears picked up the faint whine of a distressed animal.

It was coming from beneath an old overturned rowboat on the banks of the river.  A bent oarlock kept one side barely raised above the mud, while the other lay half-buried in muck.  Bending down to peer beneath the boat, Kwan Yin spied two emerald green eyes glowering from a far corner.  The smell of blood and urine and the sharp musk of fox told her all she needed to know.  The animal had become trapped, who knows how many days ago; faced with starvation, unable to extricate itself, it had begun to gnaw at its own paw in a last desperate attempt at freedom.

“Hush,” she hummed. “Hush, now.  Lie very still.”

Grasping the edge of the splintering wooden boat, the goddess heaved with all her strength, but he boat refused to budge.  Dropping to her knees, she dug a small hole in the dirt.  Placing her lips close to the ground she called softly, “Izanami, Sister Earth, can you hear me?”

The ground trembled beneath her knees.

“Please, dear sister. Grant your unworthy little sister this one small favor.  You hold a rowboat, old and crumbling, painted blue, half-buried beside the River Mu.  It holds one of your living creatures captive.  I beg you to release the fox into my care.”

The sound of tumbling rocks grinding against each other rose out of the hole.  Kwan Yin listened patiently to the familiar grumble.  She knew the lecture by heart – “Stop interfering, taking every disaster to heart, attempting to change the natural course of things …”Finally, the lengthy tirade ground to a stop.  The hole snapped shut as the river bank gave a convulsive twitch and flipped the row boat up in the air.  It landed with a splash, half in and half out of the water, drenching Kwan Yin’s white kimono.

She shook out her wet robes and tore a strip off the bottom of her underskirt.  The fox bared its teeth as her hand approached the mangled paw, but the fight went out of him at her touch.  His heavy sigh, sounded like a sob, like giving up, and for a moment she thought him expired.  Then his pink tongue, rough as a cat’s, licked feebly, twice across her fingers.

At that moment lights appeared at the end of the cobbled lane.  Gongs sounded, men shouted, and cymbals clanged.  A shaman’s voice rose above the crowd, exhorting the angry mob to search out the fox spirit who had brought sickness to their village.  Scooping the fox up in her arms, Kwan Yin stepped quickly into the rowboat.  The sudden redistribution of weight dislodged the boat from its loose mooring.  A moment later a strong current seized them in its grip and bore them away.

Muffled in darkness with nothing to see or do, the unlikely companions soon fell fast asleep.  They awoke in the midst of a snow-covered forest.  The boat drifted along more slowly now, closer to the banks.  Once or twice, Kwan Yin managed to snatch a branch of frozen berries from an overhanging bush.  She fed them one by one to the fox along with mouthfuls of snow, melted in her cupped palms.

The fog had dissipated and though the days remained overcast, at night the skies cleared to reveal a strange star burning large, low and bright on the western horizon.  The beautiful compelling light seemed to be guiding them. The two companions took to sleeping during the day and sitting awake at night to sing and yelp at the beautiful sight.

As the fox recovered, his red fur began to shine and his nose gleamed shiny and black. The green eyes sparkled with mischief and his scraggly tail fluffed out into a glorious bush.  One day he spoke.  “Tonight is the longest night,” he said conversationally,

Kwan Yin glanced at him, “You needed have bothered pretending not to talk.  I can read minds and I speak the tongue of every sentient creature.”

The fox looked crestfallen for a second.  “I knew there was something funny about you – you never eat or drink.”

“What do you mean – the longest night?”

“You mean you don’t know everything?”

She shook her head.

“It means the year is changing.  Winter is coming, but at the same time the light returns, the days get longer.  Tonight is a magical time of transition. Anything could happen.  Perhaps, our journey will finally come to an end”

No sooner where the words out of the fox’s mouth when the boat bumped into the bank and stuck fast in a tangle of roots.

“It’s almost midnight, “whispered the fox.

“Somewhere, a baby’s being born, a radiant child, a special child.  I can sense the mother’s labor pains and feel her joy,” replied Kwan Yin.

Above them the star flared.  It shone on the snow shrouded trees where one bare branch burst into flower.

“Time to go,” said the fox.  He jumped into Kwan Yin’s arms, licked her face and jumped.  The snow flew up in flurries, sparkling in the moonlight.  She blinked and he was gone.