Outside the south window of my house is a small patch of weeds that never gets mowed because it lies between the fuel tank and the wall. Every year in early spring, three or four frogs take up residence there, singing at intervals throughout the day, often while I am chanting. A few years ago, when I placed the altar next to the window, I had not yet noticed their song. Now I would never consider moving it.
Even though the frogs sing only three or four weeks out of the year, I have the vague feeling that even when I can no longer hear them, they are there all the same. Sometimes when I am chanting late at night, I can sense their seedlike bodies under a foot or more of snow, patiently waiting to be reborn. I know that I am supposed to be chanting to the mandala on the altar, but having come to Buddhism through haiku poetry, the truth is, I am often singing to the frogs.
The Japanese priest Nichiren wrote, “Frogs feed on the sound of their mother’s voice, and if they cannot hear their mother’s voice, they will not grow. The insect called kalakula feeds on wind, and if the wind does not blow, it will not grow.” I don’t know whether the kalakula actually feeds on wind, as Nichiren says, but having developed an affinity for frogs, I find it entirely believable that they feed on their mother’s voice. In the early springtime, before the trees have begun to bud and my spirit has long since flagged under the forced weight of winter darkness, I have felt myself quicken at the sound of their voices, have felt eternity open up like a heavy gate on its hinges to reveal an endless tableau of beings, all living and dying without end for one another—and singing all the while. My teachers have all gone now, but I have been adopted by the frogs. I have no argument with the various meditation schools of Buddhism, with their comparatively “silent” programs for human happiness. But I have a bone to pick with master Dogen, who in his Shobogenzo wrote, “People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever.” We all say rash things from time to time, and sometimes even foolishly put them into print. But I am not one, even eight centuries after the fact, to endure the slander of frogs. Human programs for happiness are nearly always shallow at the root. With its reliance on competitive free enterprise, the capitalist vision overlooks the happiness not only of the poor but of the whole natural environment. Even the arhat, in his heroic quest for enlightenment in this lifetime, overlooks the plight of ordinary beings who lack the opportunity or inclination for such rigors. And Dogen overlooks the frogs.
Frogs aren’t storming the gates to nirvana and will let virtually anyone, save for a mosquito or two, pass before them into buddhahood for the price of a song. Even those without the courtesy to sing along are not denied entry. Frogs are natural bodhisattvas. They have died by the quadrillions since the introduction of pesticides. Even before that, they filled a kalpa’s worth of Ganges rivers with their bodies every year without begrudging their lives. And I believe they did so happily because of their song.
The Chinese master T’ien-t’ai wrote, “Voices do the Buddha’s work.” I understand what he meant. Whatever realization may come by way of silence, our happiness is never won that way. Happiness is not happiness unless it is shared. For happiness is the one thing in all the world that comes to us only at the moment we give it, and is likewise increased by being given away. Even the so-called “insentient” beings of the natural world—rocks, water, dust motes, sand—understand this truth and therefore never hold back anything of themselves. We may sit at the feet of the wisest lama or Zen master, and if he fails to understand this truth, we would do better to take our teaching from a stone.
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