The Buddha and the Hummingbird

As usual, this is presented as a work of fiction.   Some details of the events that unfolded have alternative interpretations.

The Buddha and the Hummingbird…

The hummingbird makes me smile. My heart goes pitter patter boom boom and I start to hum Beethoven’s 9th symphony… bump ba na na da na na na bump ba na na da na na… Yeah, I know, the medicine cards are not real. I don’t really believe them. But pulling the hummingbird as my morning coffee card is certainly a nice way to start the day…

In case you are unfamiliar with the mythology, the hummingbird theoretically represents JOY. That spontaneous exultation of good feeling that bursts forth from the center of your being and makes you want to sing or shout or cheer. Sometimes the sensation of JOY is a response to a particular incredible or wonderful event that you experience first hand: witnessing the birth of your child, saying yes to a marriage proposal or even winning a contest or sporting event. Sometimes the sensation of JOY emerges in response to less dramatic but nonetheless stimulating experience in day to day life: watching a mini-miracle in the natural world or hearing a favorite old song on the radio that you have not heard in a long time. And sometimes the sensation of JOY emerges for no apparent reason whatsoever. All of a sudden, you just feel like singing and dancing. The hummingbird as a symbol is not concerned with the cause of the joy or the environmental factors that bring about joy. The hummingbird is an image of the joyful sensation itself. In other words, looking at a hummingbird is like witnessing a visual manifestation of JOY as a concept.

Of course, the other side of JOY is sorrow. And as the universe is constructed; you can’t have one without the other… The hummingbird only appears for a moment… suspended in the air by the power of divinity… so beautifully iridescent…like an angel from a fantasy dream… it seems ready to speak… say something. But then it zips away and is gone. You are left with a feeling of absence that lingers and leaves you wondering what words the hummingbird would have spoken if it had remained.

Have I mentioned yet that we live In Paradise? Buddha Hill in the Catskills is a pretty special place. Joy is a common sensation for me and my family here and we also frequently see hummingbirds. I can’t help but wonder what my old friend Buddha would say… hmmmm enlightenment? Release from the sorrow necessarily means release from the joy? Does that mean there are no hummingbirds in Nirvana? If that is the case, well then, you can keep your enlightenment and your Nirvana, I’m going to stay right here in Paradise with the hummingbirds.

Actually, in a way, it’s the perfect expression of the spiritual conundrum… the debate… the challenge of all spiritual metaphors. To fully “embrace God” or “become enlightened”, we are taught that we must somehow give up or release ourselves from worldly or material desires. Some people meditate while others pray and fast. If you think about it, the objective seems to be to deny your humanness or animal nature in order to find peace?

The Buddha story is illustrative… Guatama was a 29 year old princely dude living the dream. He was a 01 percenter with an Ivy League education and a seat on the board of a very big multi-national corporation. He had it all. But then one evening he went for a walk with his eyes open. He saw a crippled guy crawling along the street. Then he saw a very old and worn out man huddled uncomfortably on a park bench. Then he saw a dead dude sprawled out on the sidewalk. The three visions changed Guatama’s life. He could no longer live comfortably in the lap of luxury. He gave it all up to live a life of homelessness. He sat under trees with his legs crossed and tried to figure out why? Why is all life suffering? Then one day, he was “enlightened.” Hmmmm. By non-attachment to material things and worldly desires, you can release yourself from “the inherent suffering of human existence.”

But is that something you really want to do? Aye… there’s the rub…. Non-attachment… but what about love? Isn’t love a kind of attachment… Intense attachment? What exactly is; un-attached love? Non-monogamy… swingers? A question to keep the Buddhists talking for days.

Guatama only sat around with his legs crossed under bodhi trees for ten or fifteen years. By the time he reached his mid-forties his thinking evolved and he came out of the forest and started speaking to people about “the middle path.” He then started collecting some hefty fees for big speeches. Elaborate festivals were held in his honor. He was welcomed at palaces and mansions and deluxe condo resort events. He was still technically “homeless” and he welcomed his followers into the “fellowship of homelessness”, but he now lived a pretty good life in the material sense. He wasn’t “attached” to material wealth, but he was able to enjoy it nonetheless.

Now is, of course, a few thousand years later so Guatama’s teachings have evolved. It is questionable if he would even recognize modern “Buddhism.” Unlike the Buddhist monks I met traveling in Asia, most of the American Buddhists that I know personally have lots of money and material wealth. Indeed, several I know even invest in the Imperialist stock market. No doubt there are poor Buddhists too and perhaps my perspective is skewed by the nature of my work but I can’t help but wonder about the contradiction. Apparently, under modern Buddhism, a person can “own” as much material stuff as they desire as long as they are “not attached” to the stuff that they “own.” Hmmm, kind of makes me scratch my head.

So here we are on Buddha Hill living the American upper class materialist dream. We have everything; hot tub, barbecue, trampoline and exercise machines… but we don’t own any of it. We are renting… using… possessing… Temporarily occupying while I re-arrange the rocks on the landscape. The “owners” are far away living in another state. Thankfully, they are “Buddhists” and “not attached” to this incredible place that we are free to use.

The central room in the house is a room we call the “Buddha Room”. The “owners” would probably call it the shrine room or the meditation room. It has incredibly high cathedral ceilings with wide sky-light windows at the top. No furniture to sit upon but there is a beautiful hanging chandelier suspended above and an amazing Asian carpet with intricate designs that covers the entire floor. There are awesome tapestries with different mythologically Buddhist images on the walls and there is a wicked cool Buddha statue surrounded by electric candles on a hand-carved wood altar…

I’m not a much of a meditator, but it really is a great room for meditation. Sitting perfectly still doing nothing is just not my nature. Instead, I juggle. I only use bean bag hackey-sacks because I don’t want to break anything. But juggling is almost the opposite of meditating. Or is it? I also like to lie on my back in the middle of the carpet and stare up through the sky-lights. In the daytime, I watch the clouds float by and at night there are stars and sometimes the moon. I do my stretching exercises/yoga routine in there sometimes too. We even use the room as the imaginary “Death Star” when the little one and I play Star Wars. So the room has many uses. It is a beautiful amazing room. It is a symbolic room. It is a metaphorical room…

The crazy thing happens on a sunny Saturday in early June. It is a perfect day… a wonderful day… a joyful day. I went to the Farmer’s Market in the morning and then made a nice big brunch for Ms. B., the little one and myself. I am now reclined on the couch in the living room sipping an after brunch cup of coffee while my two loves play games just outside the front door. I’m not sure if they are watching ants, picking strawberries or just rolling around in the yard but I can hear them laughing and giggling through the open door. It is an idyllic moment and I am thinking actively about how idyllic it is… Like from a Norman Rockwell painting but with sound. The sound of my family’s playful giggles pushes the joy button at the center of my soul and sends ripples of happiness through my whole being…

And then it happens…. a beautiful hummingbird flies right through the open front door and all the way into the Buddha Room.

“Oh no,” says Ms. B. as they rush inside to see.
“He’s trapped Momma,” says the little one, “what can we do?”

I rise from the couch in the living room and walk down the hall to the Buddha Room to see with my own eyes. Sure enough, the scene that unfolds now is like from a myth or fable or ancient legend. The storyline is so thick, the metaphor is so dynamic that I can hardly believe it happens in real life. The hummingbird is circling the chandelier in the middle of the Buddha Room. Round and round it goes like a character in a story looking for answers in a glittering globe. But then, suddenly, it stops or hovers in mid-air and looks up at the blue sky in the skylight. It seems to hesitate for a second as if making a decision and then shoots for the skylight window like a rocket ship. Slam… no, more like SMACK…. or pu-twang. It crashes into the closed window and falls backwards through the air tumbling towards the chandelier… Oh no, this is a disaster.

But then, something amazing happens. Just before the hummingbird crashes into the chandelier, it recovers and starts flying again… fluttering about…zipping from here to there, flying around the chandelier, precariously close to the chandelier, but not crashing into it. Once again, it circles the room. It looks up. Oh no, he didn’t learn his lesson. He sees the blue sky through the skylight, he shoots for the heavens like a rocket ship. And again… Slam, smack… pu-twang. He falls backward after crashing into the window and tumbles towards the chandelier. “He’s done for this time,” I think, “it s going to be a serious mess to deal with”.

But no, I’m wrong. I swear it is like a miracle to behold. As if the hummingbird is an acrobat performing tricks at a circus. Just before she reaches the chandelier, she somehow regains her composure again and starts to flutter and fly again. She zooms about the room…. circling the chandelier. When the bird stops and hovers for a third time, looking up at the skylight, a zillion thoughts rush through my head…. She must see the glass window now. Or at least know it is there. Maybe she thinks she can smash through. But that is impossible. Will she kill herself trying to escape? Help me Buddha, I really don’t want my little one to witness a hummingbird suicide. There must be a way to direct her towards the open door… But I don’t speak hummingbird, and the bird is focused on the skylight. Honestly, it is slightly horrifying to watch unfold because I know it is going to happen and there is nothing I can do to stop it. Sure enough, the little bird shoots for the blue sky like a little rocket ship. Slam, smack pu-twang…

This time however, she hits the window in a different spot and falls at a different angle. Instead of tumbling towards the chandelier, she goes sideways into a wall and somehow gets tangled in a hanging tapestry on her way to the floor. She’s not moving at all. Hanging by a single claw stuck in the fabric.

“Is it dead?” says the little one?
“I don’t know,” I answer, “maybe only injured or in shock. Let’s try to save her.”

Ms. B. retrieves a bath towel. All three of us go close to perform the operation. While Ms. B. holds the folded towel beneath the bird, I gently push the tiny claw free from the fabric. The hummingbird plops down on the towel. She is still breathing but her eyes are closed and she barely moves. Only the tiny feathered chest rises up and down to indicate life still lives. But it does live.

Our somber and anxious procession makes its way across the Buddha room. Ms. B. holds the towel with unconscious bird in front or her as myself and the little one walk beside it. Truly incredible to look at. The tiny body of blue and green feathers… like a toy but breathing and warm. We cross through the hallway and out the front door.

“Can I hold him Momma?” Says the little one.

“No sweetie,” says Ms. B.. “he is hurt badly already and we don’t want to hurt him anymore.” She lays the towel down on the grass. “If we leave him alone, maybe he will recover his senses and fly away.”

“I promise to be careful,” says the little one, “I won’t hurt, I just want to touch.” As she reaches out to pet the tiny creature, however, a strange wind blows through and something magical happens. Suddenly, the little wings start to flutter. The tiny hummingbird rises to its feet and leaps into the air…

As the tiny bird flies off into the sunshine, my entire family erupts into cheers. We clap our hands and shout with joy… “FLY BE FREE…FLY BE FREE!”

“Wow, Daddy,” says the little one when the hummingbird is out of sight, “was that a miracle?”

“Yes sweetie,” I answer, “I think maybe it was a miracle. A sign from the gods. Joy to the world!”