The Conference of the Birds

I recently saw an extraordinary video art installation created by the contemporary Iranian artist Morteza Ahmadvand. It’s title – “Simorgh” – is drawn from a famous Persian epic poem entitled “The Conference of the Birds,” written in around 1177 by the poet Attar. Birds play a big part in Persian literature. In this poem, the birds of the world gather to select a king and go on a journey to find Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird something like the phoenix. One by one, birds drop out, with excuses as to why the journey is unendurable. En route, the birds have to cross a series of seven valleys to find the Simorgh.

I think it’s fair to say the Simorgh represents something like enlightenment or union with God. The valleys represent what we might call delusions or traps or defilements in Zen, but they’re the Sufi version. They are Yearning, Love, Mystical Knowledge, Detachment, Unity of God, Bewilderment and, finally, Selflessness and Oblivion in God. For Sufis, these represent challenges on the path to realizing the true nature of God. There are interesting parallels in the language of Zen, and especially interesting to me is the last – Oblivion in God – which we could call sticking to the emptiness side.

Eventually only 30 birds arrive in the land of Simorgh, but all they see there are each other and their reflection in a lake. There’s no Simorgh. In other words, God, what we might call reality, isn’t separate from the present moment in this physical universe, but is existence itself in its entirety. Sound familiar? “That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.” After crossing the seven valleys, what the Sufi spiritual traveller finds is called Baqaa. From what I’ve been able to discern, this comes close to meaning something like what we call “Original Nature.”

I learned about the poem and a little bit about Sufism because I was so taken with the video. The video shows 30 birds together in a wire birdcage the shape of a rectangular box about four or five feet long, a foot high, and a foot wide. They are ordinary birds – they look rather like robins. At one end of the cage, a door in the top is open, so the birds are free to go and return. And there’s a supply of food and water in the cage. The video lasts about 8 minutes and it’s clear there’s some compression of time, so what you see might have taken longer – maybe hours, maybe a day or more. Hard to tell.

Ten of the birds in the cage have just been caught, having been born and lived only in the wild. Ten have been born in the wild, but lived for a time in captivity. And ten have been born and lived their entire lives in captivity, never in the wild. The birds all look the same. They’re the same species. And what happens through the course of the video is that twenty of the birds leave the cage. A few leave, come back, and leave again. But at the end, ten – presumably the ten born and raised in captivity – have never left and presumably never will leave. This result was not engineered by the artist. It was an experiment to see what would happen. And this is simply what did happen.

As I watched, I began to think about Zen practice. These 30 birds were all in the same circumstances and 20 of them had the freedom to come and go and 10 did not. Ten didn’t know how to leave and they didn’t. They remained in the cage. That outcome was not entirely surpising. But what I found rather more interesting was that even though all 30 birds were placed in the same cage – placed in identical conditions – the 20 who had some access to their original wildness, or you could say to their free nature – in effect did not appear to experience the cage as confinement.

Of course it was physically identical to the cage that imprisoned the 10 birds born in captivity, but it was also something entirely different. The birds were all in the same cage and yet they were not in the same cage. Ten birds had no concept of confinement and another ten were able to be unconfined by confinement even though they’d experienced it previously. There was no confinement in the deep core of their bones. There was freedom. They could move freely, eat the grain, drink the water, leave, return, fly around as they wished. Their present conditions didn’t determine things. Something deeper did.

This experiment, this video, is a window on what we’re attempting to do in practice. I’d say it’s the “middle” ten birds born wild but with some experience in captivity that I identify with. You could say all humans were born unconditioned and raised in captivity, but that our captivity hasn’t entirely erased our unconditioned nature. You might even say there’s something in us that’s unconditionable. And that unconditioned or unconditionable part, that mind or heart or whatever you would like to call it, that freedom of movement that is unhindered by circumstances, is what we’re locating and waking-up in zazen and in practice more broadly.

We all live in a cage of some sort, which is to say we all live in conditions and it is the nature of conditions to be intrusive and confining. But there’s always a kind of opening we can find and use and Zen practice is one route to such an opening. We can experience our conditions as confinement or we can move about freely in them and Zen practice is a way to discover and cultivate that freedom of movement.

Some Zen teaching seems to promise absolute freedom, as though it’s possible to function entirely unhindered by conditioning, circumstances, and desire, finding a free and appropriate response to every moment as it arises, and that anything short of this absolute freedom is a sham or a failure. I believe it’s possible to catch sight of such freedom and to touch and taste it, but that finding and actualizing freedom in daily life and everyday awareness moment after moment is really a gradual business and a matter of degrees and of a lifetime of effort.

Unlike the birds in the video, none of us has lived entirely in the wild, unconditioned by captivity, metaphorically speaking. While zazen and kensho connect us with our “wild” or original nature, I do not believe they erase our conditioning entirely. If you can find evidence to the contrary in the lives of actual human beings, please let me know. But I’m not expecting to encounter such evidence any time soon.

If you take up spiritual practice and find an open door in the top of your cage, you will find yourself increasingly able to move about freely, without the sense of confinement you may otherwise feel. And you may have the impulse to cluck like a little bird and point the opening and your found freedom out to other birds in your flock. It may seem odd to you that some birds don’t seem to have the impulse or capacity to leave the cage. They appear to be satisfied with a cage that you have experienced as confining and insufficient for your life. You may wish to straighten them out about this.

In our ceremonies and chants we vow to “save” all beings. What does this really mean? Does this mean showing others the door to the cage that you have found and trying to persuade them to use it? Please be very careful about your judgments and impulses in this regard. Go easy. Personally, I think the best route is to find and cultivate your own freedom and let the result be a light for others – to notice or not, as they are inclined.

(Notes from a talk on 8-17-13 at Zen Center of Fresno)