Top
Back to list

The Birds of the Snow Mountains

Cyanocitta cristata

"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" When I hear these words, my heart warms. Winter indeed never fails to turn into spring. But the word "winter" may remind many people, including me, of the snow-covered mountains of the Alps or the white mountain ranges of the Himalayas.

There is a commentary on the Lotus Sutra called Hokekyo jurin shuyosho, which includes the legendary story of Kankucho (literally, birds tormented by cold). This commentary is a well-known Chinese work on the Lotus Sutra, the highest Buddhist scripture expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha in India. The story is as follows:

In ancient times, there were mountains in India called the Snow Mountains. These mountains were so high that the cold there penetrated to the marrow, and, as their name indicates, snow lay deep on the ground throughout the year. In these mountains lived two homeless birds called Kankucho. When evening fell and darkness gathered, the female bird, unable to bear the cold, would cry, "I'm perishing from the cold!" To which the male bird would reply, "Let's build a nest when the day dawns." But as soon as the sun rose and the birds were bathed in the warm sunshine, they forgot all about the cold which tormented them during the night. They reasoned: "We might be destined to die today or tomorrow; nothing is changeless in this world and we are strangers to eternal peace and tranquility." Thus they spent their entire lives in vain without ever building a nest.

This story may bring to mind "The Ant and the Grasshopper," which appears in Aesop's Fables: "Why should we work assiduously when we never know what tomorrow may bring?" This ostensibly wise attitude makes the birds all the more pitiful.

I believe this story offers a penetrating insight into the darker side of human nature. There are more cases than we imagine where people habitually make great efforts at pretense but betray their true nature at a crucial moment. No matter how serene another's life may appear to be, that person invariably has some suffering or trouble which others are not aware of. Even though human beings may not suffer as often as the Kankucho birds who were tormented every night, we are destined to face great difficulties at least several times or several dozen times in the course of life, with hardly more than a staff to lean on. If we wait till the last moment, however, no matter how frantically we prepare either to retreat or to advance, as time is irreversible, it will be too late. Then all we can do is cry out in agony just as the birds cried in distress from the bitter cold of the Snow Mountains.

What I mean by a staff is some steadfast belief, or a firm mind which remains unperturbed even in the face of the greatest difficulty. I tend to believe that the nest the Kankucho birds kept vowing to build implies more than a warm dwelling place. It implies a foundation on which an unwavering mind and a spirit that will neither be carried away by pleasure nor defeated by suffering can be established. The foolishness of the Kankucho birds represents nothing other than the vulnerability of the human mind to change and fluctuation. It also indicates the human tendency to take the line of least resistance, avoiding immediate tasks that require prompt action.

You can live like rootless grass adrift at the mercy of the waves, or you can live up to your convictions. I firmly believe that this choice will determine whether or not you can make your life worth living. If you choose the latter, I think you will need a deep solid core in your life. In order for you to develop that core, you must make constant efforts to train yourself spiritually.

▲ Back to top