Teachings from a Spring Robin

amrobinhdrEvery spring, there is a red robin who comes to enlighten me as to the condition of life. Although it is not the same robin season after season, I feel we are old friends. We know one another well.

Here is the scene: I often sit in bed with a cup of strong tea and the candles lit for a time before zazen – against the ideal rules of order, it is coveted time of contemplation I’ve enjoyed for decades. Outside the picture window, Mr. Robin sits on a tree branch a few feet away from the glass. He stares for a moment, and then hurls himself at the glass, presumably to take care of the “other robin” he sees threatening its space. He usually lands on the sill, unharmed and obviously unsuccessful, and returns to the branch only to repeat the process. This goes on for an hour or more until the light from the east shifts or some other call of duty preempts his routine.

This used to drive me crazy.  I’d tried to dissuade him by whapping the glass, hanging props to scare him away, only to rile him up more. I used to think I was trying to save him from harm, but really, I was far more interested in saving myself from having to experience the ruckus and preserve my peaceful space! Having given up on that folly, now I usually just carry on, ignoring him for the most part with a peripheral acceptant appreciation of the valiant attempt and seeming lack of alternative from his point of view.

Watching this tragi-comedy unfold, I think of my own day to day hurling against the glass – those moments of seemingly clear action at a reflected threat found in an envy, an ambition, or a resentment. It looks so real! we plead with the universe or whoever will listen. That person really DID take my place in line! I was supposed to have that situation in my future! It is really how things look. Dogen says with great compassion in his Genjo Koan, When you sail out into the middle of the ocean, the ocean looks like a circle and does not look any other way. Accepting the truth of our projections is continual practice and paves the way to meet our circumstances as they are – to be open, to be surprised, and to be responsive.

Mr. Robin has another teaching as part of his dance. In between the fighting rounds, my bird friend spends some quiet moments on the sill, right up against the glass and turns his head sideways and looks in. I imagine he sees the candles and my silhouette, wondering if perhaps things aren’t as they seem. Then he pecks at the glass a little, hops to the left and the right and flies back to his branch only to repeat his usual attempted solution. I think of those little breaks in his pattern as his first moments of awakening, his own contemplation:  There’s something else in there but I can’t get at it, and worse than that, I don’t know what it is…what is it, what is it? This only lasts a short time – there’s nothing to mate or fight with sitting on the windowsill looking in. Without something to grasp, he returns to the usual routine and the drive of life.

At first, I envisioned a kind of enlightenment for Mr. Robin in which he would stop this craziness, see into the profound nature of delusion, and just sit on the branch. Letting go of the struggle, he could become an example to other robins that would be quite curious and inspired by his bizarre yet benevolent change of character. It’s not a bad plan, but there is another move to explore which is subtler yet: to return to the activity of being a bird with great compassion and clarity of mind. Although there are moments when we behold the seeming other through the invisible barrier, there is the particular thing to do in this moment that is not separate from enlightenment. A robin’s nature is to protect the nest and hunt for food for his charges. The witness is reflecting behind the reflection. My pen, the window, these two sides all become one activity of enlightenment. Though it is important to see the delusion of the reflected robin in the window, and the futility of repeated attempts to vanquish its image, the harder motion is to let go of the desire to live on the other side of the glass beyond the vicissitudes of life, a place where we are not touched.

A whole practice involves all of these things. Sometimes we see the emptiness of the reflection, sometimes we hurl our bodies wholesale into the moment, and sometimes we are the curious meeting of eyes across the limited view of the ocean. My teacher would say freedom lies in the non-opposition to all of these states. That motion becomes an endless stream of practice and has the most profound effect in how we live our life in this world, on this side of the glass, but not separate. By now my winged friend has moved on to searching the garden for worms, telling me there is only so long one can reflect about reflections!  I will have to do laundry and prepare for class. We will both be back tomorrow. Old friends.

– Palms together,


Zen Practice in the Garden

sunflower-single-yellow1Perhaps I love the garden most for this combination of engagement with the world’s needs and those long hours when I find myself alone in paradise in the cool of the day. The evening light is slanted and pale green and wind moves through the gaps in the dark rosemary hedge like blue smoke over the uncut lavender. Ask me then for three good reasons to garden and I will tell you: for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, and for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind.

– Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

To be a farmer in this modern world is to engage a kind of intuitive Zen training. It delivers to your doorstep the intensity of love and loss amongst the practical deeds required for sustaining life. It juxtaposes visions of perfection with the ordinariness of the unfinished and the mundane. It forces the question of life and death before you’re inclined to ask. Like all spiritual paths, to farm requires great will and great surrender. What could be missing on the path of inquiry into the meaning of this life?

The answer of course, is nothing. And yet, without a method, we have the human habit of being blind to what is most close to us and disconnected from our purpose. This is true whether you live in paradise or prison. (Sometimes we’re in both one after the other!) Through Zen practice, this wholehearted act of just sitting, we learn how to care for the garden in an entirely new way.

It is in this empty field that I welcome the return of spring, meeting new and old friends amidst the sunflowers and oryoki bowls. To serve this dharma hall, to balance the calling of formal practice and field activity, and to meet one another in our fullness, is the most wonderful gift I can imagine for this lifetime. The one right way to practice is a moving target. We are all very fortunate to live in a time of great renewal in the west where the koan of how to integrate Zen practice outside the historical prescription of the monastic tradition presents endless possibility and contradiction.  This friction is actually an asset – it keeps us from grasping onto easy formulas and revitalizes the intimate conversation of what it means to engage spiritual practice. When we move from our true center, the answer to that question will ultimately takes care of itself.

In a recent Insight Journal article, David Loy, who writes about Buddhism and climate change, passes on this lovely quote from Nisargadatta: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two, my life turns.” I look forward to sharing this dharma garden, in all its minutiae and metaphor with you all this coming season, for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, and for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind.


Many bows to good friends on the path, and Wendy, a gardener’s gardener.


Palms together,



Johnson, W. (2008). Gardening at the dragon’s gate. New York: Bantam Dell.

Loy, D. (2010). Bursting the bubbles. Insight Journal, 33.