The Zen Art of Teaching Birds To Fly

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

In teaching Buddhism, and especially zazen, I am constantly reminded of Dogen’s statement that “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.”  This is not only the essential ingredient in his Genjokoan, but also the driving force that moves us along our encounter with the Buddha’s primary teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The Zen master, Shohaku Okumura Roshi, tells us that the word study that Dogen uses in Japanese is narua.  Okumura tells us, “Narau comes from nareru, which means: to get accustomed to, to become familiar with, to get used to, or to become intimate with.  This is not simply intellectual study.”  He continues to tell us that the Chinese character for narau is written in two parts.  The first character means “bird’s wings” and the second one means “self”.

This explanation took me back to an experience I had many, many, years ago when I had a large house that was divided into two apartments.  I lived upstairs, and I rented the downstairs.  One of my renters was a young single mother with two sons.  The older kid was about six and his name was Jimmy.   Like most boys his age he was always hanging around watching what I was doing; mowing, fixing a stuck door,  planting a tree, that sort of thing.  He was just very curious, and generally was not annoying.  I could not drive my car into the garage that he did not come running to see what I brought home.  One day as I drove up I noticed under the large tree in the back yard a commotion on the ground.  It was a bird that seemed hurt.  But after a moment I realized that what I was observing was a young bird and his mother higher up in the tree teaching him how to fly.   She would hop down, then fly back up and call down to him.  He would hope around and try to fly a few feet at a time.  This was repeated over and over.  As I was transfixed on this event Jimmy came running up.  I pointed out the bird on the ground and ask him what he thought was happening.  He said he thought it was hurt or sick.  When I pointed out that the bird on the ground was young and was being taught, through encouragement, how to fly by his mother up in the tree, he was truly dumfounded.  I remember this so well even now.  He looked up at me with those blue eyes and a look that was overwhelming and said “I thought birds could fly by themselves.”  He was transfixed as I too was on what was happening.  But what he said next was very memorable.  With a true look of wonder Jimmy said “I didn’t know that.”   Even for a six year old, this was a moment toward understanding and wisdom.  As a young person himself, there might have been a connection some how with the bird and his own growing experiences.  Kind of like narau.  In many ways, we too have to learn how to fly.  This is an essential meaning to how Dogen engaged zazen.

When we engage zazen practice, we engage this study-of-the-self admonition.  We study the self in order to awaken to how we are.  That awakening awareness is what drives the change necessary for our self-flourishing.  In other words, we must learn to fly too.  We awaken to this notion of the self being the only foundation that is none other then our Universal expression.  Like the baby bird that has the ability to fly and yet does not know how until it observes the skillful teaching of the mother,  our zazen practice is driven by the skillful teachings of others that have gone before us and the observation of this self we call ’I”.

As flying is an essential attribute for a bird to be a bird, so is the study of ourselves essential for discovering our human natures.  We awaken to what truly makes us human when we gain a quiet abiding body-mind that is the self of our Buddha natures.  Then we too will fly with the birds.

The Study Of Self:
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.  To study the self is to forget the self.  To forget the self is to be verified by all things.  To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of self, and the body and mind of others, drop off.  There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped.  We endlessly keep expressing the ungraspable trace of realization.”

— Dogen Zenji from Genjokoan

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