All this clear, cold day in the coast range of northern California, I’ve been interviewing three of my oldest friends: Georgette Leblanc, Henry Thoreau and Daisetz Suzuki. We’ve been staying warm by the woodstove in a friend’s cabin, off the grid of electronic distraction. I’m picking their brains for clues to a lifetime of reading, thinking and Zen practice. For forty-five years I’ve been on a meandering path with one or another of them—and now, in the cabin with all three at once, I’m following “the bent of my own genius, which is a very crooked one,” as Thoreau puts it. (By genius he means genie, that magical being by which my life has been steered, which obeys the directives of a single, idiosyncratic master: myself.)
Still possessing the books I had originally discovered in particular places and particular times, just when I was ready for them, I have them now before me. I take pleasure in them physically as well as mentally: their texture, the wear and tear of many readings, marginalia. The circumstances in which I’ve read them are preserved, like pressed flowers, within their covers: sounds, smells, sensations. Each book features protagonists setting forth on adventures that eventually lead back to where they started, although to starting points of a different hue than before, changed by their journeys. Each returns with a reward, a message, a moral.
And in each, as I engage with it in mental dialogue over the course of the day, I see angles that I hadn’t noticed in my first or even second or third readings—angles evident to the sadder, and perhaps wiser, mature eye of a lifetime reader (although what that wisdom is, exactly, remains obscure to me.) Fresher readings, if I can trust my recall, seem to have been imbued with a quality I have somehow lost along the way. All day I seek for that now-obscure quality.
The Children’s Blue Bird, written by French actress and novelist Georgette Leblanc and first published in 1913, first appealed to me through its illustrations more than its text, and still does. Opening it, I go first to the title-page illustration showing two Hansel-and-Gretel-like children in the bedroom of their woodcutter’s cottage, a black bird in a cage over their bed. Commissioned to bring back the Blue Bird of Happiness, they pursue it through various kingdoms, from the Land of Memory to the Graveyard, and finally back to their own bedroom, where they find it singing over their bed, not the same dark shape but now sky blue. The archetypal happy ending shows that one already possesses that which one seeks. It is found right where one is: at home—although one learns this only after wandering away on a search. It’s a moral that imprinted itself deeply on my psyche, influencing my later readings of the archetypal heroes’ journeys, from Homer’s The Odyssey to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. No doubt it also represented an early opening to the Dharma of Seeking What Was Never Lost.
As I turn to the last illustration, showing the children’s return, I see what I must have overlooked as a child: the bird is in a cage. A wild bird of any hue, I think, has no place in a cage. This puts me in mind of William Blake’s “robin redbreast in a cage/Puts all heaven in a rage.” It disturbs me to think that such a bad seed could have been planted so early in me—the delusion that happiness could be contained. I wonder what unhappiness has sprouted in my life on account of it.
My first copy of Walden was given me by my mother as reading to edify me, at age sixteen, during a two-day cross-country bus odyssey to my grandfather’s Illinois farm. That copy’s pages, still redolent with the odor of old wood and fresh mown hay, echo with the trill of red-winged blackbirds. Emerging from the play of childhood, mentored by my grandfather in the first real, hands-on work of my life—chopping corn cobs to feed the chickens, gathering eggs, baling hay—I was also ready for the literary tutelage of Thoreau, a man who knew how to work with his hands as well as his head: building his own cabin, baking bread on an open fire, growing beans, surveying farms and fields. I found in Walden a manual for mens et manos, working with head and hands, living the simple life.
I have that book before me now, its covers falling off from so many readings, sentences and phrases abundantly underscored. In those marked-up pages I make out the optimism of my teenage years. “The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles!” Geometry on a grander scale than I was getting in my high school math class. “Simplify, simplify.” Nothing could have seemed simpler. “We crave only reality.” Dictums straightforward, serviceable, practicable. Other passages were beyond intellectual reach but within that of intuition: the phrase “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me” was, to me, a first hint of at-one-ness and of myself in a beneficent world.
But I was utterly puzzled by another passage, a fable that seemed uncertain, inconclusive, uncharacteristic of the otherwise self-confident and competent Thoreau: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail.” He questions those he meets. No one can tell him the creatures’ whereabouts, but many are as keen to join the search “as if they had lost them themselves.”
While I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, that passage was predictive of an impending loss of my own, later that idyllic summer. A gunshot is impressed upon these pages alongside the trilling of red-winged blackbirds. My grandfather had entrusted me with a gun, as he’d entrusted his sons, my uncles. Armed with it, I felt myself stepping into manhood. At first I practiced shooting bottles and cans. Eventually, bored with tame targets, I moved on to wild ones. Aiming at birds in the trees the morning long, more for the thrill of pulling the trigger than expecting to hit anything, I was shocked when a blackbird fell fluttering to my feet. No longer singing. As the bird died, so did my innocence. I gave the gun back and never took up another. There was one less blackbird in the world and, for all my regret, no atonement. It seems I’ve been seeking what I’ve lost—not just a blackbird but an innocence—ever since.
I took up Walden again in college, for an American Literature course. In the chapter “Sounds,” I underlined, “Sometimes, in a summer morning . . . I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house.” Thoreau’s utterly open communion with the birds seemed a wistful sequel to the tragic termination of my own communication with a blackbird. Later in the paragraph, I underlined—twice—the line “I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation,” and added a question mark in the margin. Rapt reverie, contemplation, the Orient: new directions.
During that same year, nudged by friends who’d been to the Zen monastery at Tassajara, I had taken up the very oriental contemplation practice of zazen. I had this advantage over Thoreau, with his limited mid-nineteenth-century America exposure to the wisdom of “the Orient”: what he’d come upon randomly on his crooked road, I possessed in the pages of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. When the book came to me in its rounds hand-to-hand, I knew I had a map of the route, a manual for living the Zen life.
I look over the copy of The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk that I’ve carried over all these years, from temple to temple, East, West and Northwest, rereading it from the perspective of having walked that route. Between its covers I smell incense, hear temple bells and chanting. I almost feel the whack of the kyosaku, the “painful stick,” between my shoulder blades. I turn to the book’s first illustration. It shows a young monk striding along, black sleeves of his robe flapping like wings as he seeks a monastery in which to train. I’m reminded of myself forty-five years ago, on my merry way to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The next plate shows a monk prowling the Zendo carrying the kyosaku, on the lookout for sleepy and distracted monks to wake up. Another shows our hapless monk cowering under the upraised staff of the scowling teacher. I know the benefits of those sticks, but they’re not what I need now. They may not be what I needed then. I refuse to let them strike me and I refuse to strike others. I’ve laid away the kyosaku as I once did the gun. In Zen rhetoric, the kyosaku represents the sword of Manjushri, Bodhisattva of wisdom. The sword can kill or it can give life—but from the angle I’m looking at it, I see more killing than living.
I close up my books. It’s getting toward the end of the afternoon. The sun declining through the trees, I walk to the woodshed to fetch firewood. It’s that blue hour between day and night, in a melancholic month and a sober season of my life, and among these cedars and oaks and madrone I find no sympathy. Perhaps it’s only this mood, but it seems to me that all trails have come to a dead end. Happiness caged. The bird flown and no one knows where. The promise of a summer and the innocence of boyhood blighted with a bullet. Aiming and maiming. Simplicity devolving to complexity. The would-be monk whacked by the kyosaku. Millions of words and no last word. Tens of thousands of hours of zazen and no movement.
I return to my cabin. I make a fire in the woodstove but can’t seem to get warm. I heat supper but the food does not satisfy and I leave it half eaten. I seem to have lost my taste for anything at all. I go outside. There, away from the fire, food and my books, I’m totally off the grid—and yet I sense a vestige of the camaraderie I’d been enjoying all the day long. Thoreau, well acquainted with the night, is at my shoulder, whispering into my ear, “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.”
I wait for what comes. By this time the sky is nearly black. I abide in the darkness, letting my eyes adjust, finding it surprisingly soft and restful, soothing to the mind. In the stillness, I’m aware of wings fluttering in the cedars overhead, sleepy bird chirps. As my glance lifts, so do my spirits. I’m cheered to think that, among those shapes fading into black, is my very own blackbird. Chords of an old familiar song resonate in my inner ear, the voice of Paul McCartney singing, Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these broken wings and learn to fly. Yes, it is my blackbird. All your life, she’s singing to me, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.
And the next.
I go back inside and reheat my supper on the wood stove. The fire cheers me and I can taste my food again. It would hurt my eyes to read by the kerosene lantern, and anyway, I’m sleepy. I crawl into bed looking forward to morning and what new bend in the crooked road I might follow with my trio of genies.
Patrick McMahon has been a contributor to Inquiring Mind since 1997, writing on literature, East and West. As a member of a sangha that includes two cats and as an occasional peripatetic monk, he persists with his training as a Zen Buddhist layperson in Oakland, California, at the Persimmon Tree Zendo, an affiliate of Ring of Bone Zendo. He is presently participating in an oral history project exploring how Bodhidharma came to the Northwest.
From the Spring 2015 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 2)
© 2015 Patrick McMahon