Lambing Season: Listening and Practice of the Precepts

January. It’s lambing season. In the midst of constant cold 40 degree drizzle, thunder storms and winds at 60 mph, hail and occasional snow, dozens of beautiful little white twin lambs arrive in our pasture, often bleating in call and response to their mother’s voice. The lambs have no idea there is any other season in which to be born, and appear quite delighted to be alive. They wag their tails, enjoy a continual supply of milk, and scamper around with their siblings curious about everything that meets the eye. This morning, I was awoken by a persistent cry from a lamb and what sounded like a reply from its mother in the distance. I had been sick all week, and although Sunday morning is coveted time with tea and contemplation in bed, groggily I put on my clothes and went out to see what was up. It reminded me of an instance this past summer.

It was July and the farm was shorthanded and not having enough time to keep up with the weeding. I was in a bad mood, putting in lots of overtime to help us catch up, skipping dinner one night to go out to plug away at the large bulbing onion planting in a field we call “South Dakota.”  In my absorbing resentment, while I ruminated on “who dropped the ball to get us in this state,” I noticed in the distance a large sheep by the fenceline between our field and our neighbor’s property. The sheep was separated from the others in the flock, was baaahing steadily and would stop for some time, and start again. I couldn’t see anything from where I was and assumed it was perhaps in heat, calling to a neighboring male to announce that her dance card was open. I’m not sure why, but half way through my weeding, I decided to take a break and go over and investigate. It was only when I got right up to the sheep, that I saw, there tucked in the tall grass on our side of the fence, a single little lamb sitting peacefully, while the mother tried to call it back to her side of the fence. It was so small. It had slipped through the 8 by 8 inch hog wire sections and didn’t have the legs yet to get up. Instantly, I picked it up and squeezed it back through the fence section, and mother and offspring happily returned to the flock. The mother had likely been calling off and on for hours.

Later I worried what would have happened to that little lamb had nightfall come without being reunited with its mother, or had I just continued to ignore the mother’s distress call. I also noticed how simple it was to respond to the situation, without thought, when I saw what was needed. Though they technically belong to our neighbors, it made it easy today to just go and check on the lambs without deliberation. We are the ones close by. (They were all fine by the way, perhaps just enjoying a Sunday morning choir).

As we study the Buddhist precepts that include cultivating and encouraging life, and responding from a mind of interconnectedness, I like to emphasize to students how important it is for each of us to find where we already have these experiences of natural response to life, including people, plants and animals, where compassion is effortless.  Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, means “she who hears/perceives the cries of the world.” The Bodhisattva precepts call us to listen deeply, and often, right action follows from that activity without anything added. If there is no listening, sometimes we get stuck responding from our ideas of what we should do and get very entangled in an inner debate trying to predict outcomes.  For myself, when I was absorbed in my anger, I didn’t have space to listen, (well, I was listening, and that was to my very familiar “woe is me” soundtrack) until finally something drew me forward to meet this mother sheep.

Retrieving her lamb for her was not only saving the lamb, it was saving myself, from myself. So when we practice precepts deeply, it’s hard to say in the end who is helping whom. Saving all beings really means just that, saving all beings. My teacher likes to talk about practicing these precepts “from the inside out.” Often the precepts that read as prohibitory rules can feel very constrictive at first, and we can obscure their subtle action by imposing a spiritual superego to monitor, judge and criticize our actions, guaranteeing another part of us that will often secretly work to undermine that imposition and align with our instinct. The precepts go beyond this inner good/bad split and the goal of “finally becoming a good person,” and invite us to let go and become intimate with listening and responding. (Though genuine “feeling good” or joy does come with practicing for the sake of practicing).

Listening to lambs separated from their mothers means not only listening to those around us but listening as well to lost lambs within us. In zazen, we open up to our deepest innermost experience and widen our circle to the furthest horizon, nothing left out. Inviting our awareness in and down is equally balanced by expanding out and up. What are the lambs inside of us that need to be heard and returned? What forgotten innocence or tenderness could use our attention? How can we have empathy for others if we do not know what it feels like to be small, to be lost, to be lonely? Tending to these lost and cut off parts are also the practice of the Buddhist path, without which we become glib and pine for a transcendence that excludes this world, the world right before you this instant. The precepts have a particularly powerful quality when we practice from a place of “happy to be alive.”

Every lamb is born in the right season. Just listen.

Palm to palm,