2021-05-10 Stories - The Parrot and the Fire
3:14PM May 10, 2021
Good morning and good day to all of you. I think I see now that we're coming into that time of year when we have a light show. The Buddha looks like he's disappearing in the shadows for a while, and probably I will too. Maybe if I remember tomorrow, I'll try to put up another light in here that will help you see better. But I don't want it to take away the wonderful light show that happens on the wall at this time of year.
I want to start by expressing my gratitude to my friends, Paul Haller and Fu Schroeder, for teaching these last two weeks. I was with you all during that time. I was also meditating and listening to them. I was delighted and really happy to listen to their wonderful teachings – their teachings and also their own wonderfulness. The years of practice that are so palpable in them. They got to share themselves with you, and you got to meet them.
Partly because of what's happened in the last two or three weeks, I feel a little bit hesitant to just jump in and offer some new teachings that are in the mode that I've usually been doing this last year. So I thought that it would be a nice transition for me to tell some stories – some Buddhist stories. I remember that Fu, in particular, is very fond of stories.
There is a theory – in the field of religious studies – that for most religions, stories are more important than doctrine. At least for most people, the stories of their religion are what they take in – to evoke their imagination and provide examples of how to live their lives. I don't know how true that is universally, but it is an interesting theory and, certainly, stories are important.
The first story I want to tell today is one that may be poignant for California these days, where we have a lot of wildfires. Already, we have more wildfires – so early in the season – than we did last year. So we'll see what happens for the rest of the year. But wildfires.
In the ancient world, in India, there were Jataka tales – tales that are kind of like Aesop's fables, having to do with animals, usually. There is one main character in these stories that turns out to have been the Buddha in a previous life. Maybe he is developing the virtue, developing himself to become the Buddha sometime in the future.
This story involves a parrot and a great forest fire, which sweeps through the jungle. And as a bird, the parrot can relatively easily outfly the fire and come to safety. But as this little parrot is flying away, he sees that underneath them, all these animals are running through the forest to get away from the approaching fire. However, they're coming up against a great lake, and it looks like they are going to be trapped against the lake. Many of these animals cannot swim. They are stuck between the approaching fire and being burned – and the lake where they would drown.
The little parrot says, "I have to do something. I can't just let this continue the way it is." So the parrot dives into the lake to make its little wings wet, and then flies over the hottest part of the fire, flaps its wings, and sprinkles little drops of water onto the fire. And does that over and over again, back and forth, back and forth. It doesn't really make any difference for the fire. There are only a few drops coming down and they probably evaporate before they even hit the fire. But the parrot keeps doing it.
And, because of the parrot's great dedication, sacrifice, and virtue, there is an impact in the unseen world of ancient India. And that is that the great god, Brahma – kind of like the Zeus in the pantheon of ancient Indian gods – the great god Brahma's (or Sokka, depending on how he is named) – his throne heats up. Apparently, that is a phenomenon in the unseen world. When someone on the earth is being very virtuous, it heats up the throne of the great god. So he decides to come down to see what's going on, and do so, he turns himself into a great eagle. He flies down, and he sees the parrot and what the parrot's trying to do.
And he flies back to the parrot and says, "You know, this is ridiculous. It doesn't make any sense for you to be doing what you're doing, because no matter how many times you drop some drops of water onto the fire, you are not going to extinguish it. You are not going to save your friends. It doesn't make any sense, what you are doing." And the parrot flying next to the eagle – flying back to get more water – says, "If not me, then who? And maybe, if I keep doing it, I don't know what the consequences are. I don't know what will happen. But this is what I have to do."
This moved the great god tremendously – to see the steadfastness, courage, and dedication to be of help to others, no matter how seemingly pointless it is. Inspired by this, the great god created a great rainstorm – a massive rainstorm – that very quickly put out the fire and saved all the animals. Then the parrot said, "Yes. You see? You never quite know. I couldn't quite know what effect my efforts were going to make. But you see? They worked."
The idea I like in this story is the naturalness with which the parrot helps others – that his whole being is dedicated to doing this. I liken this to parental care. Some parents would do the same for their child. They would do whatever it took. They would sacrifice themselves for the life of their child. There is something almost natural in parents caring for their kids.
You see that in the natural world as well. So many mammals – animals – care for their young, sometimes at tremendous sacrifice, with dedication and the willingness to die for their little kids that is necessary to protect them from predators or from anything else. And this kind of parental dedication and care – exactly what the nature of that care, love, or that devotion is, I don't know. But it does feel that when it occurs – it doesn't have to always occur – but when it occurs, it has a kind of naturalness.
And so this parrot was simply acting on its natural instincts, with a naturally good heart that was not limited by a small sense of self, constructed by me, myself, and mine: "What's in it for me? Will people like me, if I do this? Will I be praised?" Or maybe, "I have to do this because then I avoid condemnation. People won't think badly of me that I ran off and abandoned my friends." All these are kinds of calculations and concerns of self that are a contraction, a constriction, and a limiting factor to how people can live their lives.
All of the stories we live in – both imagined stories, and stories that predict the future and what this all means. When all those can fall away (which is part of the function of meditation), then we tap into something very different – a very different orientation, set of values and way of being in the world that is not boxed by in or limited by conceit, stories, ideas of "should" and "shouldn't" – even ideas of obligation and what we are supposed to do.
The parrot was not living under some duty-bound rule that he was supposed to save all these other beings. But I think of it as just the natural movement of a good heart. And then, we don't know what the unseen world will do. We don't know what the effects are going to be – the impact we have. Sometimes people do a small act, and it has a huge impact and changes the world.
The teenager, a seventeen year old – who filmed George Floyd's murder – she had no idea that she was doing anything other than trying to record it – to have justice by having a record of what she saw. But her little action had a huge impact on the nation and the world. So we never know. And maybe we shouldn't know the impact we have.
I'll end with one more little story which comes from the Sufi tradition. There was a genie, who came to a Sufi and said: "I will grant you two wishes. And what will those wishes be? You can have anything you want." And the Sufi says: "Wherever I go, I want to benefit people. But I don't want to know that I'm doing it." And so the genie gave the the Sufi a big bag to carry. Imagine a special bag that had seeds of all kinds of wonderfully beneficial plants. And it had a little hole in the back. As the Sufi was carrying it and walking along, the seeds would fall out of that backpack onto the ground. They then would sprout and create new plants. But because it was always happening behind the Sufi – the Sufi's always traveling on – the Sufi never got to know the way in which he was benefiting all the people behind him through growing plants, food, forests, trees, and whatever it was.
So who knows how the unseen world responds to our goodness and our care which comes not from obligation, but from the awakened goodness in our own hearts.
May we all be parrots. Thank you.