One cool summer evening we call the monastery chickens. Only two return.
Hima is nowhere to be found. Flashlights in hand, we monks search the surrounding shrubbery, calling out Ina-Suki! in the hope that she will pop out from behind a berry bush or boulder or bramble. But as night begins to fall, we know it’s next to impossible to find her—and almost impossible for her to find us. Chickens fall into a stupor at dark. All we can do is hope that she finds shelter high up on the branch of a maple tree or in a hidden burrow.
You see, the monastery is not only home to my fellow monastics and me, but also to three rescue chickens: Yama, Yamaka, and Hima. Though all three are from the same brood, Yama and Yamaka are almost identical, adorned with black, red, and gold feathers. Hima, on the other hand, is smaller, with a coat of gray, black, and blue that shimmers in the light. That’s why she’s named Hima, which in Pali means “snow.”
Our small monastery in New Jersey, formerly a Catholic abbey, isn’t the chickens’ native habitat, of course. Spanning just under an acre, the property is surrounded by several single-family homes and a town park. A row of pine trees separates the public picnic area from our walking meditation path. By daythe chickens roam the monastery grounds as well as our neighbors’ yards, foraging for worms and treating themselves to dust baths. Sometimes you might even catch them sitting in meditation on the back porch or preening their feathers in the shade of a pine tree.
We have a nightly routine: before sundown, we call out Ina-Suki! and they come running —or rather waddling, in the ungraceful way chickens do. We toss them some feed and close them in a wooden coop, where they roost for the night. After sunrise the next morning, we let them out for that day’s new great adventure.
I realized this recently: the chickens are an integral part of our monastery life—part of the sangha, part of our family.
The next morning, I steal glances out the window, hoping to see Hima in her gray-blue plumage strutting through the garden, but I never do. During walking meditation later on, I take a stroll through the park next to the monastery. And there I happen upon a pile of gray feathers scattered about the base of a tall oak tree. My heart sinks. Bending down, I see that they’re clearly Hima’s feathers—proof that she’s been attacked.
Was it the hawk that soars overhead almost every afternoon? Or one of the foxes that prowl the perimeter of the monastery grounds? Maybe a bold and shameless raccoon? I feel a lot of things, but I’m not angry. Mostly I’m just sad.
I search for her remains but find nothing. Is it possible that she survived?—chickens have many more feathers than we think. But it’s more likely that our little Arctic chicken was killed, dragged off somewhere, and eaten.
Life is uncertain. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we think. “Tell me something I don’t know.” We see and hear this phrase so much that it’s become a truism, a cliché. Buddhists are supposed to contemplate the unpredictability of life in each waking moment. This is the teaching of annica, impermanence. And while theory and concepts about annica are easy to quote, for many of us they can remain just that: ideas that haven’t become truly integrated into our lives. That is, until something happens that we simply cannot ignore.
When we come face-to-face with the death of a being we hold dear, it’s like the sudden jolt of whiplash or the shattering of a glass that’s slipped from our hands. How can this be? It’s too soon. It’s too painful. It’s too this or that. But when we return to the contemplation that life is uncertain and everything is impermanent, we realize—if we are honest with ourselves—that we foresaw this outcome all along. We just forgot.
The Buddha taught that there is no way something born cannot die. It’s simply the way of things, the way of the world. And when we penetrate this truth with clear understanding, then death is no surprise. It loses its sting.
That is the ideal, yes, but it’s also a way to comfort ourselves after tragedy.
In my case, I acknowledge that it does hurt to lose a dear feathered friend—the sweet hen who yesterday leaped for a cookie from one of the monk’s hands, the little being who scampered away every time I tried to pet her, until she finally let me—the day before she disappeared.
And although the loss hurts, I know I can use it as motivation for my practice. In fact, I owe it to her to cultivate compassion and harmlessness toward all beings—even toward the hawks and the foxes and the raccoons, who unfortunately must kill to survive. And I will reflect on how lucky I am that I don’t have to kill to survive, that all around me beings can feel safe.
May I never forget that life is uncertain, and may I use all of my energy to practice kindness and compassion to all. And may you be happy, dear Hima, swiftly attaining awakening for the benefit of all beings.
The next day the fox kills another of our hens, Yamaka.
One of the monks hears her cry out, but by the time we go outside it’s too late. We find her limp and lifeless body on a neighbor’s lawn, neck bruised and broken.
Tears fall. A grave is dug amid a ring of pine trees. We collect Yamaka’s remains and carry them there. We bury her and place a stone marker on top of her grave. Then the resident community gathers for funeral chanting to say goodbye once more. In our hearts we wish: May she remember the dharma and her time with the monastic community. May she attain the most sublime, the most peaceful, nirvana.
Oh, conditions are impermanent.
Their nature is to rise and fall.
Having arisen, they cease.
Their stilling is true bliss.
—Parinibbana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 6.15), trans. Bhikkhu Sujato
We soon realize that Yama, the remaining hen, can’t stay with us. In the days following Hima and Yamaka’s deaths, she’s grief-stricken and afraid. She no longer comes when called—Ina-Suki!—and she simply stares at the dried worm treats she once devoured. Most significantly, the fox is still on the prowl.
One of the other residents at the monastery discovers an animal sanctuary a few hours north in rural New Jersey. With its wide open fields and secure fencing and netting—not to mention dozens of other chickens—it’s the perfect place for Yama.
On a balmy Wednesday we corral her into a cage and drive her to the sanctuary. When we arrive, the on-duty attendant greets us wearing full farm attire—baseball cap, t-shirt and jeans, hoodie wrapped around her waist, and rain boots. She lifts Yama out of her carrier, pets her, and speaks to her softly. Their instant connection is a relief. Yama will quarantine for a short while before joining the other chickens, so we say our goodbyes in the clinic, wishing her long life, happiness, and security. Be well, good friend, I think to myself. We’ll miss you.
As Buddhist practitioners, we aim to let go of our attachments. At first, grieving for something or someone we’ve lost may look like clinging, but it’s actually a process of acknowledging our loss, which allows us to heal from the pain and loosen our grip on the past. Grieving may happen through ritual and ceremony, or it may come about simply by gathering in community; both pathways give our pain room to breathe.
The deaths of our chickens showed us that saying farewell deliberately would save them and us the most suffering. It’s only when we face the inevitability of death that we can begin to transform suffering into liberation.
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