THE LATE KARMAPA loved birds. Westerners called the regal guru “the St. Francis of Tibet,” for he was often seen at his monastery in Bhutan with birds perched on his shoulders or eating from his hand. Song birds and birds of silence, those of brilliant plumage and dull-breasted females, carnivores and seed eaters—all were welcome in his court.
Once I heard about a time during the mid-seventies when the Karmapa and his retinue were staying with some young American friends at the splendid Oberoi hotel in New Delhi. Inspired by Baba Ram Dass, Leo Heistein had quit his medical practice in California and he and and his wife Susan had come to India to study with a secluded mountain yogi. But having met the Karmapa several years earlier and recognized the supremacy of his wisdom mind, they had courted his friendship and eagerly responded to his suggestion that they join him on his visit to Delhi. In his presence, they maintained the strict vegetarian diet of their Vedanta tradition, and would sometimes engage His Holiness in friendly debates about the different views of “self” expressed in the Brahmanic and Buddhist traditions.
One afternoon during their stay in Delhi, the Karmapa suggested that they visit the Jain hospital for birds in the old section of the city. A black Mercedes with a mango-turbaned chauffeur transported them through the dense maze of the Lajpat-Rai, the market that nestled into the shadows of the ancient Red Fort. The smell of dust filled the air and smoke-twists rose from the dung fires that heated vats of oil-drenched take-away foods, which were handed to customers wrapped in sheets of newsprint. The driver yelled and waved his arms at the throngs of people, sacred cows, and laden ox carts that jammed the narrow streets. From inside the Mercedes, they saw men walking naked, carrying nothing, their gaunt dusty bodies drawing no attention, while women, holding deformed and blind babies up to the windows, moaned “baksheesh, baksheesh.” Everywhere puddles of yellow shit, and betel leaf spittle coughed up like blood, were ground into the dirt streets by fast-moving bare feet.
At the entrance to the red brick hospital they were greeted by attendants swathed in white cotton and who, in keeping with the Jains’ indiscriminate reverence for life, wore white gauze masks over their mouths to prevent the unwitting entrapment of invisible organisms.
They had barely passed the entryway when uncaged birds began to gather around the Karmapa. Some had little splints like toothpicks to help heal broken bones, others hobbled with a lame leg, and one female peacock had no legs at all. The Jains were very polite to the Tibetan holy man and gladly escorted him and his friends through the hospital.
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