the forest is humming

Yellow jackets. The forest was humming with them. The air vibrating, pulsating. A sign of summer.

Birds. In the spring and summer, the birdsong is alive in our neighborhood, and our back yard. We also have turkey vultures flying overhead and roosting in the tall fir tree beyond our deck–high above the Willamette River below. I knew turkey vultures feasted on dead animals, but wondered how they could ever consume the flesh of all the birds in my neighborhood dying throughout the summer and fall. For all the living birds, I rarely saw a dead one. What happened to all those birds when they died?

Recently I was at the Abbey for a personal day of mindfulness, spending most of the morning and late afternoon up in the woods on Abbey land. During my morning walk I came upon a small bird, obviously sick, almost dead. A slight shudder and fluff of its wings was all the movement it could manage. I put a bit of water on the ground near it, and offered a quiet prayer that it would be well and not suffer greatly.

When I walked past that bird in late afternoon, it was dead, lying on its side. This time, just a few hours after my morning walk, the bird was swarmed with yellow jackets. The hum around the bird was an amplification of the humming forest.

I used to think of yellow jackets as dangerous pests. I have been stung and bitten by them in the past. Earlier this summer I disturbed (kind of broke) a yellow jackets’ nest hidden in some dried leaves near the side of our house, and they were fierce in their protective attack. So I left them alone and have been watching them, rebuild their nest and continue their lives. They are quite industrious and not so dangerous as I had previously thought.

Then, watching the yellow jackets consuming the bird’s flesh, I realized that maybe it was yellow jackets that helped to take care of birds when they die. Suddenly, the humming in the forest took on a deeper meaning for me. The death of the bird was the continuation of the yellow jackets in the form of nourishment. And the forest was alive with the humming of yellow jackets. Birthing and dying–the forest was full of it.

The Buddha taught that this is because that is. This is not because that is not. When causes and conditions are sufficient, manifestation happens. When causes and conditions are not sufficient, manifestation ceases. The conditions of the seasons help to manifest new birds in the spring and summer. The manifestation of birds and insects helps the yellow jacket wasps to manifest. The Buddha called this interdependent co-arising. Thay has called it interbeing.

Something is not born from nothing, and when something dies it does not become nothing. Thay has taught that birth and death are only manifestation or non-manifestation. Everything exists in the ultimate dimension. Its manifestation in the historical (that is, physical material) dimension depends upon causes and conditions. Even the birth of understanding (in this case, mine) depends on causes and conditions 🤗

Soulmates of the Buddha

At this year’s 21-day retreat in Plum Village, France, Sister Annabel (Sư Cô Chân Đức)  gave a talk about the title of the retreat, “Soulmate of the Buddha.” It was based upon Thay’s teachings during the 2012-13 winter retreat that he offered in Vietnamese to the Plum Village monastic community.

Sister Annabel said that after the Buddha became enlightened he thought, “What I realized at the foot of the Bodhi Tree is very deep and wonderful. It cannot possibly be described in words.” The experiences that liberated the Buddha were impossible to put into words. That is why initially he did not want to teach. But the Buddha eventually decided to teach anyway. Why? God Brahma told him that people in the world, they suffer so much, and they need the teachings very much. So he began. He also realized that he needed to offer the teachings in a way that was appropriate to the people he was teaching.

After the Buddha’s death, his teachings were transmitted orally for four hundred years. Things may have been added or lost, based upon the understanding of the person(s) transmitting the teachings. Then every time they were written down it could be the same thing. As Sister Annabel said, when we write down what the Buddha said, the truth of what we are writing depends upon our understanding. Are we transmitting the deep teachings of the Buddha? She said that our understanding depends on our practice. If our practice goes a little bit astray, then our understanding will do the same.

So, in the winter of 2012-13, Thay taught for three months on the subject, “Soulmate of the Buddha.” He shared many “correctives” to what he saw as the lack of understanding that has caused Buddhist practitioners to go astray over time. Many of these “correctives” can be found in the 40 Tenets of Plum Village Buddhism.

Sister Annabel said she’s not sure if “Soulmate of the Buddha” is a good translation–maybe it could be “someone who understands the Buddha.” She said not to get caught in the translation, as it may cause us to go astray! She offered this question as a way to explore the deep meaning of the Buddha’s teachings: “Have we understood the Buddha yet?” We need to give ourselves space and time to understand the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.

The deep teachings of the Buddha help us touch a dimension that is beyond time and space. And yet it can only be touched right in the midst of this very life we are living in the present moment. I invite us to continue this practice of exploring the teachings, questioning and practicing so that we may be living continuations of the Buddha, soulmates of the Buddha.