Wildness can often temper our lofty thoughts. At Green Gulch Zen Center, there are sometimes spider webs high up in the rafters of the meditation hall, and I’ve always found it wonderful that, while all our Zen activity (or inactivity) is going on below, there’s another kind of life occurring in the wilderness area far above our heads, in a place that’s almost impossible for some of us to reach.
On warm days, when the zendo doors are left open and coastal conditions are favorable, the sound of breaking waves occasionally travels from Muir Beach to the ears of those gathered here. It is not difficult at such times for a sitter to welcome this kind of momentary intrusion and to realize that, in the midst of one’s self-imposed quietness, there is still something nearby that twists and thrashes, that’s loud and uncaring, unbounded and unpredictable. The ocean does not meditate, and the only precepts it lives by are those of wind and gravity, the pull of other planets, and the law of storms.
For many years now, I’ve been studying seabirds, marine mammals, and the intertidal life along these shores. But there is one bird in particular, the storm petrel, that I find of particular interest. It is the smallest of the world’s seabirds, roughly the same size as a sparrow, and weighing not much more than an ounce. Yet they thrive in the unprotected waters of the open sea, exposed to winds of the highest velocity, towered over by waves of the greatest magnitude, and hunted by larger, fiercer birds, sharks, and other predators. The storm petrel is able to survive only by taking refuge in the vast ocean that surrounds it. Rather than allowing themselves to become overwhelmed by the enormity of their environment, these fragile and diminutive birds follow the paths of least resistance. During the worst weather, they place themselves deep down in the troughs of waves, using their delicate feet to push themselves away from the moving walls of wild water next to them, and letting the howling winds shear across the crests of waves high above. This is the bird’s own spontaneous dance of resourcefulness and survival, and it is only one example of the countless ways in which sentient beings take refuge.
When thinking about seabirds, a person must also dance between the imposing walls of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy. The birds themselves seem so gallant, so mysterious, so spirited, that it is difficult not to burden their description with our own human desire, conceit, and admiration. The birds are what they are, and anything we add to that should be held suspect.
As a person interested in natural history, and as a Buddhist, I often find myself confronted by things that seem to be just overhead and out of reach. I study seabirds because I know their range is limitless and realize that my questions concerning them are endless. But I study Buddhism so that, someday, I won’t have to study it anymore.
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