Tag Archives: rivers

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.

 

 

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.