2014 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, a captive female named Martha. As I have a weird obsession with these extinct birds, it's safe to say I'll be posting about them over the coming months. Here is a poem in their honor. I hope you like it:
Lately I’ve been reading about Buddhism,
drawn by fantasies of
expansive stillness, and the impersonal
benevolence that I might find by sitting
and counting my breath, if I can
persist for long enough to get there.
Despite my best intentions, these
teachings trouble me—the last chapter, for example,
with the practice of tonglen,
the giving and receiving meditation,
in which I am to give my health and
happiness to other sentient beings,
taking, in return, their pain, their fear,
their hunger, and their want. I think if
you could do this, and really mean it, you
would already be enlightened. Your
love for the world would be so
singular and so perfect if you could
offer yourself as its sacrifice.
Partly I object because I am too
wounded, too selfish, too hesitant
to ask for the world’s suffering.
I’d prefer that someone else take on
my suffering instead. But even if
I were equal to the task, how could I be
sure to find each sentient being?
What about the lost beings, the missing
ones? My meditation might skip over all
the spaces they used to occupy.
The bodhissatva vow promises to find
each being, though they are uncountable,
and set them free. But what of the dead?
The extirpated? The extinct?
Can I send them my happiness?
Can I accept their pain?
The passenger pigeon, for example,
whose flight once darkened the sky, as
there were so many of them,
vanished a century ago.
Can I offer them my lovingkindness,
my wish that they be free from pain?
I might even be willing to take on
their suffering, and the panic they surely felt,
watching the flock drop by the thousands—
bullets tearing muscles strong enough for flight,
and unexpectedly so fragile,
landing, one after another, in the muddy fields.
Surely, some died in an instant,
their wings dropping them into Nirvana,
as suddenly and inexorably as a monk who,
after a decade of stillness, exhales,
and has the world crack open,
all of its passenger pigeons tumbling in,
flight and pain both, and just like that,
he gets it. The world we have,
so insufficient. Enlightenment.
It was not like that for every bird.
Some must have shook and trembled,
wings twitching, perhaps for hours on the ground,
victims of a careless shot. Others
smothered beneath the weight of the perished flock
layered over them.
This did not happen only once, of course.
It takes a dedicated carelessness
to extinguish a species.
How many of us would it take
to absorb pain and terror of this magnitude?
Do we need a billion meditators
for a billion lost beings?
Could I be the first?
I don’t want to send them vague and empty
thoughts of kindness. I’d rather offer
these lost flocks my bones to roost,
and my heart, like the mast of the
beech trees, also vanishing, for their banquet.
If these lost birds could soar again
what an insignificant offering
would be my cells and corpuscles,
my mindful exhalations breathing them
back to life.
And yet, I finish the book, and let it
fall to my lap. It’s not that I don’t want to try
these selfless meditations: the lovingkindness,
the giving and receiving. But what would hurt the most?
Realizing that my every good intention
is not enough? Or that the pain of
these lost beings is really my own?
For I am the one who lives in this world
day after day, without them.