By Earl Smith
One of the core ideas of Buddhism centers on the first steps on the path to self-knowledge. Here are some thoughts that might help you start on that journey. We’ll go together.
Let your imagination transport you to a small pond somewhere within a leafy wood. Let’s say the time is early afternoon on a day in late-September. The leaves have begun to turn, the trees are beginning to wear their traditional fall colors, a growing profusion of reds, oranges, and yellows are showing up among the still green. Here and there around the pond are scattered small stands of pines, mostly in the sandy soil that makes up the pond’s edge.
The air is cool but not cold and the wind is occupying itself by gently rustling the leaves, caressing its way through the pines, and moving about the wonderfully warming earthy smells that abound in a wood by a pond on an early fall day. The autumnal equinox is approaching gently.
Directly across the pond you see a maple that has grown a bit too close to the bank. Against the background of the green of the pines, it stands out like a brilliant and concise statement of being in the moment. The tree leans over the water and has begun to drop a few leaves onto the surface of the pond. The breeze plays them around like small boats, a colorful regatta.
As nature has provided a welcoming stone some way back from the pond’s bank, you go over and sit down in this wonderful place, absorbing the marvelous feeling of being in such a tranquil spot at such a gentle time.
As you sit, your mind begins to settle into the rhythms of the space around you. The warmth of the sun, the caress of the wind, the wonderfully earthy smells, here and there a bird calls out.
After sitting quietly for a while, you notice small movements along the bank of the pond. Here a squirrel moves down a tree and across the ground, poking its nose into the accumulating layer of leaves, searching for acorns. There a small grass snake moves off a warm rock that has been its roost and starts to hunt along the water’s edge. Now a chipmunk scampers out from under a fallen log, grabs a bit of something, and then scampers back to its sanctuary. A ripple disturbs the surface of the pond announcing the presence of some sort of fish. Nature is going about its business before your eyes.
From high above you hear a deep throated gwark and, as you look up, a large dark form flies over your head and towards the opposite bank. The raven drops lightly onto a branch which hangs out over the water, its inky black plumage a sharp contrast to the bright orange of the leaves.
The bird settles in slowly and methodically, as if completely at ease and unconcerned with its surroundings. As soon as it finds itself satisfactorily arranged it turns its attention to you. The bird seems intensely curious. You start to wonder what it is that this bird finds so fascinating. Not only are you the object of the bird’s curiosity, but seemingly the sole focus of that inquisitive gaze. Ravens can make you wonder when they look at you that way!
For what seems like a long time the bird sits and stares back at you, like some Zen monk, completely at peace and contained within itself. After a while you begin to suspect that the attention is something more than simple curiosity. You sense that the bird is waiting for something, waiting for you to do or say something.
It occurs to you that the raven might be posing the classic question that Zen masters sometimes present to their students at the beginning of a teaching session. “Do you have a question?” the bird’s gaze seems to ask.
While you are normally not the kind of person who thinks that a bird would ask you such a question, (or any question at all for that matter) its gaze starts things working between your ears. “Suppose I could ask this bird a question and suppose the bird could answer. Maybe there is ancient wisdom in that darkly feathered head that could help me understand something about who I am or why I’m here.”
Well, since there is no one else around to overhear, you figure you might as well talk to the bird. Something in its demeanor seems to communicate that it is not only waiting for your question but fully capable of teaching you something that you might never discover on your own.
Like Aladdin of the three wishes who has just let the genie out of the bottle, you gaze across at your rather peculiar looking genie and wonder “What should I ask?”
What indeed, as you sense that only one question is going to be allowed. How to choose! What to ask! So, you sit there, and the raven sits on its branch, and the pond rests between the two of you.
Suddenly, as if growing impatient with the waiting, the raven rasps out a low guttural gwark, “Come on, let’s not take all day, I may have an eternity, but you certainly do not,” the bird seems to say!
So, you decide. Maybe it’s going to sound sophomoric and maybe I’m going to look foolish, but it’s one of the things that have been bothering you more and more these days. So why not ask? Why not take the chance on not being very happy with the answer?
“Who am I, really?” The words come out almost before you think of them. “There, it is asked. What say ye, darkling monk?”
With ease and grace the raven spreads its wings and glides down to the edge of the pond. Once on the ground this graceful spirit of the skies becomes something else indeed. With an awkward and waddling walk the bird moves to the very edge of the water and looks in at its reflection.
The next gwark is more one of impatience. “If you are going to learn, get over to your edge of the pond and do as I am doing.” So, you rise and gently walk over to the bank. You kneel and gaze into the water. What you see is very disturbing. You had expected to see yourself gazing back but instead the wind-driven ripples on the pond’s surface have broken your reflection into a million pieces and you are confronted with a mad patchwork of parts, torn images, scattered pieces, disjuncture, disorganization.
Thinking that this is some sort of cruel joke, you look up at the raven. The bird has been staring intently at you. As your eyes meet, the raven again looks down at the surface of the pond.
Well, you’ve come this far! So, you return your gaze to the surface of the pond. But, as you do, something amazing happens. Just as your eyes focus, all the ripples calm and your reflection comes through, unified and clear. What is even more amazing is that you can see at the edges of your vision that only the part of the pond’s surface that holds your reflection has calmed. The rest is as rippled as ever.
Then, as magically as they cleared, the ripples return to the pond and you are again looking at a broken reflection of a million pieces and a mad patchwork of parts. You sit back on the bank and look at the raven.
“Well traveler; have you got it?” seems to be in the bird’s intense gaze. “If you have or you haven’t, I’ve done all I can do here and am needed elsewhere.” At that the raven flies up to the branch and then launches itself across the pond, skimming so low that its path creates a wake as it goes. Just before it reaches your side of the pond it climbs steeply and flies off over the trees and out of sight. Then a loud, low gwark comes echoing over the waters.
So, what does Raven know that you need to learn?
Earl Smith resides in Washington, DC. He writes both fiction and poetry drawn from his life experiences. Earl received a PhD from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland, an MMS from the Sloan School at MIT, and a BA from the University of Texas. An itinerant, he has lived all over the world, played the great game (intelligence) internationally, founded six companies and two non-profits and lived in Manhattan for almost two decades. Now he contemplates and exhales storied and poems.