Archive for November, 2012

sparrow in the cold winter


Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who’s traveled far and cries for rest?
“Not I,” said the Oak Tree,
“I won’t share my branches with
no sparrow’s nest,
And my blanket of leaves won’t warm
her cold breast.”

Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word?
“Not I,” said the Swan,
“The entire idea is utterly absurd,
I’d be laughed at and scorned if the
other Swans heard.”

Who will take pity in his heart,
And who will feed a starving sparrow?
“Not I,” said the Golden Wheat,
“I would if I could but I cannot I know,
I need all my grain to prosper and grow.”

Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”

Lyrics from Sparrow by Simon and Garfunkle



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Praise Them

Praise Them

The birds don’t alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
astonishment collects
in chill air. Be glad.
They equal their due
moment never begging,
and enter ours
without parting day. See
how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We’re the nervous ones.
If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn’t hear
what singing completes us?

~ Li-Young Lee ~

(Book of My Nights)

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Once upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman. The old man, who had a kind heart, kept a young sparrow, which he tenderly nurtured. But the dame was a cross-grained old thing; and one day, when the sparrow had pecked at some paste with which she was going to starch her linen, she flew into a great rage, and cut the sparrow’s tongue and let it loose.

When the old man came home from the hills and found that the bird had flown, he asked what had become of it; so the old woman answered that she had cut its tongue and let it go, because it had stolen her starching-paste. Now the old man, hearing this cruel tale, was sorely grieved, and thought to himself: “Alas! Where can my bird be gone? Poor thing! Poor little tongue-cut sparrow! Where is your home now?” and he wandered far and wide, seeking for his pet, and crying: “Mr. Sparrow! Mr. Sparrow! Where are you living?”

One day, at the foot of a certain mountain, the old man fell in with the lost bird; and when they had congratulated one another on their mutual safety, the sparrow led the old man to his home, and, having introduced him to his wife and chicks, set before him all sorts of dainties, and entertained him hospitably.

“Please partake of our humble fare,” said the sparrow. Poor as it is, you are very welcome.”

“What a polite sparrow!” answered the old man, who remained for a long time as the sparrow’s guest, and was daily feasted right royally. At last the old man said that he must take his leave and return home; and the bird, offering him two wicker baskets, begged him to carry them with him as a parting present. One of the baskets was heavy, and the other was light; so the old man, saying that as he was feeble and stricken in years he would only accept the light one, shouldered it, and trudged off home, leaving the sparrow family disconsolate at parting from him.

When the old man got home, the dame grew very angry, and began to scold him saying: “Well, and pray where have you been this many a day? A pretty thing, indeed, to be gadding about at your time of life!”

“Oh!” replied he, “I have been on a visit to the sparrows; and when I came away, they gave me this wicker basket as a parting gift.” Then they opened the basket to see what was inside, and, lo and behold, it was full of gold and silver and precious things. When the old woman, who was as greedy as she was cross, saw all the riches displayed before her, she changed her scolding strain, and could not contain herself for joy.

“I’ll go and call upon the sparrows, too,” said she, “and get a pretty present.” So she asked the old man the way to the sparrows’ house, and set forth on her journey.

Following his direction, she at last met the tongue-cut sparrow, and exclaimed: “Well met! Well met, Mr. Sparrow! I have been looking forward to the pleasure of seeing you.” So she tried to flatter and cajole the sparrow by soft speeches.

The bird could not but invite the dame to its home; but it took no pains to feast her, and said nothing about a parting gift. She, however, was not to be put off; so she asked for something to carry away with her in remembrance of her visit. The sparrow accordingly produced two baskets, as before, and the greedy old woman, choosing the heavier of the two, carried it off with her. But when she opened the basket to see what was inside, all sorts of hobgoblins and elves sprang out of it, and began to torment her.

But the old man adopted a son, and his family grew rich and prosperous. What a happy old man!

Japanese  Folktale

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Once upon a time, there was a sparrow who was very neat and clean. Its nest was spotless and it always washed up before eating. One morning, the sparrow found a bean and was overjoyed that it didn’t have to search the neighborhood for food. As was its habit, it went down to the river to wash up after putting the bean away safely on the bridge.

When the sparrow returned expecting to eat a fine breakfast, alas, the bean was nowhere to be found. As it was looking everywhere for its food, it saw a carpenter walking up the bridge. The sparrow went up to the carpenter and said, “I have lost my bean. Please help me find it.” “Who’s going to listen to you?” said the carpenter and continued on his way.

Just then the sparrow saw a soldier walking up the bridge. It pleaded with him to help find the bean, but the soldier too was uncooperative. “Who’s going to help a sparrow?” he said and walked away. Then a captain came up the bridge, but he wouldn’t help the sparrow either. And then a minister, but no help from him too. He just laughed and kept walking.

The hungry sparrow became desperate. Then the king came riding on an elephant. The sparrow was certain that it would get justice from the most powerful person in the country. But the king pretended not to hear the sparrow’s pleas and said nothing. As the sparrow sat there dejected, an ant came up and asked, “What’s the matter? Didn’t you see the king pass by?” The sparrow then told the ant how everybody from the carpenter to the king had ignored its appeals to help it find the lost bean.

“Don’t worry,” said the ant. “We will find the bean somehow.” The ant then crawled up to the elephant’s ear and said, “Tell the king to find the sparrow’s bean or I will go inside your ear and bite you.” The terrified elephant turned to the king and said, “You better help the sparrow, oh king, or I will throw you off my back.”

The king was startled. He immediately summoned the minister and ordered, “Help the sparrow or you are fired.” The minister called the captain right away and said, “Do whatever the sparrow says or you are in trouble.” The captain then called the soldier and gave him explicit orders. The soldier, in turn, found the carpenter and told him, “Find the sparrow’s bean or I will hang you from this bridge itself.” The carpenter searched for half a day and finally found the lost bean, and the sparrow had a satisfying breakfast that day.

The Sparrow’s Lost Bean  Nepal Bhasa:  चखुंचायागु तंगु कयगू, Chakhunchāyāgu Tangu Kaygu) is a Nepalese folk tale that ranks among the most popular children’s stories told among the Newars of Nepal Mandala.

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Bird Watching

Many of you have been asking about all the thoughts that go through your mind during zazen. Invariably, these questions all imply that somehow having thoughts is a problem. But it is not as simple as that. We are here to observe our life as it is. As Dogen said, “To study the Way is to study the self.” So if thoughts are what occupy our minds that is where we have to begin our study.

We sit quietly like bird watchers; our “birds” are our thoughts. So having thoughts isn’t a problem, they’re what we’re here to look at. But this being New York, the variety of birds is pretty slim. Pigeon, sparrow, robin, pigeon again, pigeon, pidgeon… Once in a while a peregrine falcon swoops down and eats a pigeon. But mostly sitting here in New York we get accustomed to seeing the same familiar species over and over again. This is what the process of labeling our thoughts is all about. We recognize that the myriad individual thoughts that pass through our head all end up belonging to a few familiar species; worry, pain, expectation, distraction. Once you categorize thoughts this way you find you can get through long stretches using very few labels. I once went through a week long session not needing more than 6 labels for all my interesting and varied thoughts!

So the first step in working with thoughts is not finding a technique  to make them go away, but to observe their varieties carefully and make  a simple set of labels for yourself. And then, instead of following the thought all the way along, once you recognize what species it belongs to, put a label on it and return to your quiet observation of the field. When we see that certain themes recur over and over again, accompanied by strong feelings and bodily tensions, those are the ones we zero in on, and try to focus ourselves wordlessly on the accompanying physical sensations. Species of thought that we recognize as “distractions” (what’s for lunch; where did I leave my hat) we acknowledge, label and step back from.

After we’ve been bird watching for a long time, one day we may suddenly be struck by a view of the clear empty sky through which all our birds are flying. Many of you have had that experience in one form or another. But our basic practice is not gazing into the sky – it always returns to watching the birds.

Barry Magid

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“If you don’t look at things through your concepts, you’ll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities. It’s a great help to have similarities, so we can abstract, so that we can have a concept. It’s a great help, from the point of view of communication, education, science. But it’s also very misleading and a great hindrance to seeing this concrete individual. If all you experience is your concept, you’re not experiencing reality, because reality is concrete. The concept is a help, to lead you to reality, but when you get there, you’ve got to intuit or experience it directly.”

– Anthony de Mello

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He’s no artist.

His taste in clothes is more dowdy than gaudy.

And his nest – that blackbird, writing pretty scrolls on the air with the gold nib of his beak,

would call it a slum.

To stalk solitary on lawns, to sing solitary in midnight trees, to glide solitary over grey Atlantics – not for him: he’d rather a punch-up in a gutter.

He carries what learning he has lightly – it is, in fact, based only on the usefulness whose result is survival. A proletarian bird. No scholar.

But when winter soft-shoes in and these other birds – ballet dancers, musicians, architects – die in the snow and freeze to the branches, watch him happily flying on the O-levels and A-levels of the air.


Norman MacCaig.

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