Karuṇā: Dharma of Compassion

We placed our new bird feeder in the backyard, right off the deck. I bought a top shelf mixture of nuts, sunflower seeds, and dried berries: foods that help fuel birds’ bodies during the cold months. I also bought a bag of sunflower kernels. Protein and carbohydrates, all good stuff. I hung it Sunday morning: by lunchtime, the birds had found it and were enjoying their munchies. The first bird to the feeder was a tufted titmouse. I was delighted at how quickly he found it. Birds are smart little creatures. We’re really enjoying watching them come and go.

My master gardener studies included ornithology, as well as entomology. Birds and insects are as much a protocol in gardening practice as plants and seeds. So I learned a lot about bird feeding then.

Good bird feed is pricey. The bargain basement stuff – consisting of largely milo, cracked corn, and wheat – is virtually useless to birds. No, if you’re going to do backyard bird feeding, it’s going to cost you. Ground rules include starting in autumn, ending in spring, and never letting the feeder go empty. So it’s also a continuous responsibility. I started late this year, but the birds don’t seem to mind. I’ll have to keep feeding straight through spring.

There’s a dearth of birds’ native food now, and many, many birds die of starvation in winter. That’s a horrifying reality. During the coldest winter nights, I’ll worry about the birds outside. All animals, in fact. We’re so blessed to have warm homes and warm people to snuggle with.

When done right, feeding birds in winter embodies compassion. The Tibetan term for this is karuā – lovingkindness and compassion. It’s the highest aspiration of any Buddhist. Practicing compassion toward all things that live – animal, vegetable, mineral – not only blesses the recipient, it blesses the giver.

This is not about Western, flawed notions of karma, where karma delivers a sharp comeuppance to someone you or I may be angry with. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Karma will get him’? No, it won’t. Karma is not a cosmic bellboy meting out counterplay. That notion, so popular in the West, is based on persistent selfishness and obsessive, regressive anger.

The truth is, karma lives in our hearts, and only in our hearts. We generate it through our words and actions, and live with it ourselves. It can either bless or curse our minds, but it’s all in our minds. Generate good mind karma by being kind and loving unconditionally. This, all Buddhists know, is the key to breaking the cycle of samsara.

Lao Tzu, peerless master and teacher of the Dharma, author of the Tao Te Ching, said, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”

And as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose example of morality benefitting sentient beings is incomparable in the universe, whose compassion is the source of all goodness, may he be praised, said, “With kindness, with love and compassion, with this feeling that is the essence of brotherhood, sisterhood, one will have inner peace. Compassion is the basis of all holiness and all peace.”

These are truths that apply to the tiniest birds in your backyard. Put up that feeder, keep it full, and let your Karmic mind soar. It’s all good.

Peace on Earth

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