Friday, May 25, 2007

snakes and birds

This morning, my wife and I were walking the famous dog Isabel down to the Hudson at 6 a.m., when I was struck by the sight of two mockingbirds landing on a utility wire.

"Something truly extraordinary must have happened on this planet," I remarked, "in order for reptiles to have grown wings and taken flight."

In the process of transformation on earth, absolutely remarkable things have taken place. In this particular case, scaly, earthbound creatures transformed their outer coating -- that is, their tough, stiff protective scales -- into refined, delicate, airy new structures called feathers. If there ever was a more extraordinary transformation, it's hard to think of it. The nature of the transformation, when combined with further coordinated changes in physiology, specifically metabolism and bone structure, allowed these creatures to transcend their earthbound origins and move into the skies.

In the process, they separated from each other so completely that their original relationship became obscured. When mankind arose, his mythology incorporated them as opposing entities: on the one hand, the snake, the dragon-- evil, poisonous, scaly creatures of the nether regions. On the other hand, the Eagle, the Peacock, the dove-- elegant creatures that soar above us, embodying noble qualities that we earthbound organisms can only aspire to.

In our cultural and scientific infancy, we were unable to see the connection -- that these creatures are cousins to one another, two ends of a single stick bound together through time by a force we call evolution. Without reptiles, there could be no birds. So convinced were we that no such relationship could exist that we ultimately went so far as to negate and erase their origins in our science, creating yet another myth:

the dinosaurs are extinct.

Now we know that the dinosaurs, those lumbering, toothy, carnivorous beasts that seem to come up from the very depths of our collective unconscious itself, are still with us. They have transformed themselves from the creatures of our nightmares to animals that populate much sweeter dreams. Instead of claws that rend and tear, teeth that bite, they offer us songs that lift the soul.

Perhaps we are equally mistaken about the lower nature of man. Do we measure its potential correctly? It's true that we are violent, nasty, dangerous creatures, but can the scaly, hardened scutes of ego we cover ourselves with open-- to breathe, to let air flow through them, and to lift us up, instead of weighing us down in the soil of our worldly attachments?

Perhaps the idea is too romantic. Then again, as I often maintain, perhaps every lesson we need to learn, every intuition we need to have, is already present before us in the lessons of nature.

As I consider the trees, half of whose existence is lived in dark regions we cannot see and do not know, I realize that they draw half of their sustenance, all of their stability, much of their nourishment, from these parts that tap into the marrow of mother Earth. In the same way, we need our lower in nature to anchor us.

Consider it an investment, to see how we are animals. As we discover the humility of being a part of organic life on Earth, we open the doors to the sky and, like the birds, grow feathers, learn to fly.

In Dogen's Shobogenzo, there is a chapter called "Hokke Ten Hokke." "Hokke" means "The wonderful universe, which is like flowers itself." The word "Ten" means to turn.

So this chapter is entitled, roughly speaking, "wonderful universal flowers turning wonderful universal flowers."

At the very end of the chapter, the last two lines state, "the past was exhalation and inhalation, and the present is exhalation and inhalation. This we should maintain and rely upon as the flower of Dharma which is too fine to think about." (quoted from the Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha.)

Every thing is like this, my friends. When you are hungry, seek this food. As we go forward over this Memorial Day weekend, let us remember the present as exhalation and inhalation, and hope that our flowers open and bloom,

...with the assistance and blessings of God.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

love to all,


  1. What is this picture?
    What is the meaning of the gems in the bird's nest?

  2. this picture is a drawing of mine done with colored pencils, circa 1990 . It is about 30 x 40 inches. It represents the classic confrontation between the bird and a snake, which has many parallels (and no doubt multiple meanings) in world mythologies. one could characterize it as a struggle between higher and the lower, although we would generally understand the need to be one for reconciliation between higher and the lower.

    Gems generally symbolize wisdom, or something of great value. In Buddhism, there are things called wish granting gems, which represent, in my experience, esoteric inner visions that may offer a further possibility.

    You can see another example of my colored pencil drawing at


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