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Birdsong Dharma

I carried my heavy copy of the Anguttara Nikaya out with me to the blue bench in our temple garden. I’d had a long morning of work and now I needed to start writing this article. I opened the book of the Buddha’s teachings at my bookmark and studiously started reading the next sutta.

Bhikkhus, there are these six unsurpassed things. Which things?

I read the following sentences over and over, but my focus kept wandering. The birdsong kept snagging my attention instead. I tried once more to concentrate—must ingest more Buddhist wisdom! And yet again the birds interrupted me. I admitted defeat, put the book down beside me, and opened my ears.

The birds serenaded me as I sat in the sunshine, taking in the beautiful view across the valley. The far distance was hazy and I could see houses, fields, the curves of the hills beyond. . . . My shoulders began to relax and I breathed. Here was the Buddha’s message for me: don’t force things. Take some time to rest and enjoy what you have all around you.

Sometimes I find the Dharma in the Nikayas or other Buddhist texts. Sometimes I find it in the words of teachers from other religions. Sometimes I find it in the people around me, mostly when they’re not trying to be helpful, but simply speaking from their own experience. Sometimes, like today, I find it coming directly from our beautiful Earth—through birdsong and blue skies, through a walk in the damp woods, or through a stone in my shoe.

I have a tendency to want to control pretty much everything, including how and when I receive the Dharma, and the creative process. The next thing on my list that morning was writing this article, and so the plan was to spend 10 minutes reading the next sutta in the book, to become inspired, and then to write it. As usual, things-as-they-are intervened. In this case, things-as-they-are were my fuzzy brain, my preconceived ideas about how things should be, and the birds. Once I relaxed, an insight emerged quite naturally from life-as-it-is.

This urge to control is a consequence of my fear. I only need things to go a particular way when I am afraid of the alternative. This imagined alternative can range all the way from vague inconvenience or preference to absolute terror. I notice myself trying to subtly manipulate people into liking me because I am mildly afraid of being disliked. I hang back from hugging my friend because she told me she had a stomach bug last week and I’m afraid she might still be infectious. I avoid stroking my old cat because his bony ribs remind me of death.

My Buddhist teacher Dharmavidya David Brazier says that the antidote to all our fears, all our attempts at controlling, is more faith. If I was less afraid of being disliked, I could be freer to be myself. If I didn’t have a phobia of vomiting, I would be free to hug my friends or walk fearlessly around hospitals. If I wasn’t afraid of dying, I could be more present with my old cat as he moves towards his own death.

After sitting on the bench for a good while, the impulse arose to flick through the Nikayas and to see what I might find. This urge was driven by curiosity rather than “ought”—there was no fear of not finishing my article, or of not being a “clever enough Buddhist” to write a good one. On the second page I opened was the beginning of a sutta titled Urgent (AN 3:92). It began by describing the three urgent tasks of a farmer—ploughing the field, sowing the seeds, and irrigating and draining the field. It then went on to say that, after completing these tasks, it was pointless for the farmer to try to control the process any further:

“This farmer has no psychic potency or spiritual might [by which he could command]: ‘Let my crops start growing today! Let them mature tomorrow! Let them bear grain the day after tomorrow!’ But with the change of seasons there comes a time when the crops grow, mature, and bear grain.” (325)

The Buddha went on to list the urgent tasks for bhikkhus—to undertake training in higher virtuous behaviour, in higher mind and in higher wisdom. They weren’t in control when they became liberated from the taints—that was something that would happen in the Buddha’s time, not theirs.

This teaching felt like the perfect accompaniment to the experience I’d just had on the bench. It is so tempting to try to control the things we are not in control of. “If we could just influence this person, or make this purchase, or become a different sort of person . . . then everything would be perfect!” Spiritual practice can be misused and tangle us even more in this delusion—if only we sit enough zazen, or chant enough mantras, or perfectly adhere to the precepts. . . .

On the other hand, when we truly acknowledge the limits of our influence, we can fall into the opposite temptation, which is to give up altogether. In my recent work as an eco-activist I have become very familiar with this risk. I am so small, when I compare myself to the huge corporations and systems of government. What point is there in putting any energy into changing the world? Aren’t all of my attempts doomed from the start?

The Buddha, as he often does, sensibly advises us of a middle way through these two dangers. We see the things we can do—plough the field and plant the seeds, or sit on a bench and rest after a hard morning’s work. We then hand the rest over—we don’t try to make the plants grow more quickly, or force ourselves to read Dharma books when we are tired. We trust that the grain will be ready and the inspiration will arrive when the time is right.

When I remember this, I actually feel a great deal of relief. I don’t have to control the universe after all! I just have to do my little bit. Sometimes I’ll get the results I want, and sometimes I won’t. If I rest in refuge, then I’ll be okay either way. 

As I finish this article, I can see the sunlit bench from my office window. It seems to be calling to me. I think I’ll take a cup of chicory out, and a few books. Maybe I’ll see what the birds have to tell me today. . . .


Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

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