Birds play an important symbolic role because they travel in 3 of the 5 traditional elements: air, earth and water. In mythology, the Celestial Bird adds the element of space to that repertoire and the Phoenix, fire.
The Hamsa is a celestial bird that is the vehicle of Indian deities, Brahma and Saraswati. It most often depicted today as a swan -- sometimes the word is translated by gander [male goose] but it is not to be considered an ordinary bird at all. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, entitling one of his books Flight of the Wild Gander, was referring to this bird.
Their remarkably expressive voices, variety of form and sometimes spectacular coloration contributes to the prestige and mythological importance of birds. For example, the Kalavinka is a bird of a Buddhist paradise whose voice is described in part 16 of Ashvaghosha's Acts of the Buddha as the most beautiful of all voices -- so clear and melodious.
After becoming popular in 9th-century Japan, a Chinese T'ang dynasty opera featuring the kalvinka became known by that name. It is still being performed today. Four little boys with wings and flowery crowns play little cymbals that are intended to imitate the kalavinka's timbre.
Besides mythological birds of the celestial class that include the hamsa, the garuda and the kalavinka, many ordinary kinds of bird, such as the peacock, dove, goose -- especially the beautifully marked bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) -- and the ruddy [reddish] duck, the parrot, owl, crow, raven, vulture, eagle, cuckoo, crane and the common cockerel (gallus, rooster) also figure prominently in mythology, folklore, literature and iconography.
Important meaning is attached to the behaviour of birds. For example, the surface of Sikkim's Khecheod-palri Lake is surrounded by trees but it is kept stainless as a mirror. As soon as a leaf falls on the water's surface, a guardian bird arrives to snatch it away. Here, the lake can be compared to our stainless Buddha Nature, and the tidying birds are like our attentiveness to our own mental states.
In the cultures of Asia, no creature is considered more sexually active than a bird. A cock is any male bird. Not surprisingly, it is an English slang word for the male organ.
Birds are also seen as symbolic of fidelity, duty and devotion. Who has not been impressed with the lengths to which parents will go to guard the nest and care for their hatchlings? But also, many birds pair off for a lifetime.
This duality is taken in a different direction with the image of a bird with two heads. For example, in thangkas (Tibetan painted scrolls) sometimes there appear two double-headed birds. The parrot represents two early masters, Kawa Peltsek and Choro Lu'i Gyeltsen, who first rendered the Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan from Sanskrit. The other is a duck that stands for two 8th-century Indian masters, Shantarakshita and his student, Kamalashila.
There are many folktales in which women or men transform into birds, especially swans. The Brothers Grimm collected a tale about a sister who had to make shirts that would keep her brothers in human form. The ballet, Swan Lake has two swan maidens under the spell of an owl magician. This type of motif often derives from sacred teachings or mythology. Here, the metamorphosis is suggested by this very ancient Mycenaen [very early Greek] image of three goddesses, who seem to have arrived in the form of 3 swans. They are presenting an offering to their champion.
Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war, is represented by the owl which is also the symbol of her city, Athens. For centuries from around 600 BCE, the owl on the back of a silver tetradrachm identified it as being a coin of true value.
The owl (Skt. ulooka) is also the vehicle of Hindu goddess, Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu. She, who is also known as Shri, is now mainly worshipped as the source of prosperity but is also the source of wisdom.
With their long thin necks, impressive size and wing-span, the crane seems like a hybrid of the naga and the garuda (mortal enemies in the region's mythology.)
The black-necked crane, with its all-white body and black serpentine head and neck, especially symbolizes the union of wisdom and compassion. It also appears to wear a sign of blessing, for the top of its head is marked with scarlet. The ICF says that most species "flash the bright red patch on top of their heads to an opponent or predator to indicate growing excitement."
The mother of the 17th Karmapa had had 5 daughters and, desirous of a son, she and her husband went to see an eminent lama, who performed a ritual for their benefit. During her next pregnancy, Loga dreamt of three white cranes offering her a bowl of yoghurt surmounted by a golden letter. The special birds told her that they had been sent by Guru Rinpoche and that the letter was one of recognition indicating the child was an incarnation. They told her to keep this a secret until the right time.
When the great Egyptian goddess Isis searches for her murdered mate, she flits around the cedars of Lebanon in the form of a swallow. She resurrects her mate Osiris to engender their son, Horus. In the religion of ancient Egypt, there are two forms of Horus.
The "greater" Horus is depicted as a type of predatory bird known as a raptor. In a much older Egyptian myth than that of Isis and Osiris, Horus in Falcon or Hawk form is the Creator who brings mud and twigs to establish the earth in the cosmic waters. Then, at a later stage of Egyptian culture, the guide to the Afterlife is Hawk-headed Horus.
Far-seeing, high flying predatory birds are often symbolic of the Sky God and/or the Master of Life. For example, the flag of Genghis Khan is described as having displayed a falcon with a crow in its talons.
The eagle symbolizes power and nobility in cultures around the globe. The Romans, in Imperial times, used it as their emblem of state. It represents Jove's (or, Jupiter's) eagle, which is often depicted clutching the thunderbolt that the god launched at the giants when he suppressed their rebellion. (This device also appears on the seal of the USA.)
1300 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte topped his military standards with a wooden eagle that soon became the prize of collectors.
To indicate that a queen was legitimate; that is, an embodiment of Maat, she was depicted wearing the vulture headdress, the wings hanging down on either side of her face.
The vulture was the first animal to be considered so sacred that embalming of its corpse was in order. It is also the only bird with a sense of smell? It can actually detect the chemical scent added to natural gas, so that we know there is a leak. Therefore, it is useful for monitoring the condition of pipelines. (CBC Radio, 9:45 am, Sept. 21, 2007.)
Doves and Pigeons
The common pigeon columba livia that is found almost everywhere evolved from the wild rock dove. In many languages there is no distinction between the two.
In classical mythology the dove is sacred to Aphrodite/Venus, pulling her chariot through the heavens. When we say that a couple sit together billing and cooing, we are making reference to typical dove (also, pigeon) pair-bonding behaviour.
Also, the special collective nouns used for animals are known as venereal terms (after Venus, Roman goddess of "love" whose vehicle is the dove. Some of the most interesting ones relate to birds: a bevy of quail, an ostentation of peacocks, but a murder of ravens, an unkindness of crows.
Bird courtship activities and the cooing that accompanies them feature in the poetry of the Old Testament. However, the reference to turtledoves (Streptopelia orientalis) appears in older Biblical translations simply as, "turtle." That contraction certainly left many school children wondering about "the voice of the turtle that is heard in the land."
Domestic breeds are believed to have been developed during the Crusades, when the Muslims frequently used courier pigeons. Marco Polo, in his 14th-century diaries says that the trade in pigeons was very brisk everywhere along the Silk Road. Raising pigeons was a prestigious hobby that had a cachet acquired from the bird's association with the Mogul rulers who had introduced it into the Indian sub-continent.
Europe had no original breeds of its own; the first fantail pigeon in Britain was given to Queen Elizabeth the First in the 1600s by Emperor Akbar, ruler of India. (Though Babar was fond of keeping pigeons, it was his grandson, Akbar, who was the true devotee.) One of his ministers, Abdul Fazal, reported that whenever the king traveled, the pigeons sometimes numbering more than two thousand went along in special carriers. All Indian palaces and havelis (mansions) had dovecotes for these birds, and they were introduced into the imagery of Indian culture from this period.
Marpa and the Pigeon
A pigeon features in the life of Marpa the Translator, who brought many Indian scriptures to Tibet:
One day, Tarma Doday, the eldest son of Marpa and Dagmema who were both accomplished masters of highest Buddhist yoga, was thrown from his horse. His body experienced a fatal skull fracture, but as the young man was dying he was able to begin a special practice that would enable the transfer of his consciousness from his mangled body into that of any available corpse.
For this kind of transference to be successful, the receiving body would have to be in condition good enough to support life, but although friends and family searched all around the vicinity, no suitable human body was found.
During that time, high overhead, a hawk struck a pigeon but did not manage to catch it. The lifeless body fell out of the sky and someone managed to collect it and brought it quickly back to Marpa.
Marpa placed the bird's still-warm body on the breast of the dying young man. As the youth's body became still, the bird began again to breathe and its feathers began to ruffle.
Marpa fed and carefully tended the bird for several days until, during his meditations, he received a sign that in India there was a suitable human body. So, drawing a map for Tarma Doday, he indicated the way from Tibet to India and lifted the pigeon off into the air in the direction of the grounds where the corpse would lie.
When the pigeon finally arrived after its long journey, it landed on the newly dead boy's chest and was able to transfer his Tarma Doday consciousness back into a human form once again.
Seeing the body stir when the pigeon landed on the boy, the townspeople were convinced that a great miracle had taken place and came to call the boy Tipupa, meaning pigeon-person in Tibetan. He eventually was sent to Machik Drepay Dolma (Machik Labdron) to become her student. Tipupa became renowned as a greatly accomplished yogi in his own right, and Rechungpa was one of his students.
How the Parrot Got Multi-colored Feathers
The Indian god of love is Kama and his vahana is the ring-necked green parrot, but why?
It is well known that when people are enamored they mirror each other's speech and gestures. Despite the importance that appearance seems to play in our materialist culture, often in matters of physical attraction, "love is blind." Thus Kama earned the name, Ananga (without form.) Similarly, the parrot was thought to have no cry of its own but can deceive us into thinking that a nobler bird is on the scene. Both deity and vehicle then, are agents of deception.
A traditional Asian belief is that geese have the ability to strain any water from milk, thus they purify it for us and their presence prevents any unscrupulous dairyman from diluting his product.
In ancient Rome the goose was sacred to Juno, lawful wife of Jupiter. It, like the swan, the duck and the dove, forms a lifelong pair-bond with its mate. At a key time after its hatching, it "imprints" on a parental individual (bird or not) which it will follow faithfully no matter the consequences.
In 387 BCE the Romans were besieged by the Senones, a Gaulish tribe under chief Breno that had penetrated to their defenses near the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill. Though the Roman company was lacking food, it resisted the temptation to eat the geese. This fidelity and discipline saved their lives and that of the city.
It was Marcus Manlio who heard the cackle and flutter of Juno's gaggle of geese. Keeping his wits about him, he overcame the stealthy Gaul throwing him onto the rock below. With the noise of the geese growing louder, his shouts raised the others who woke up and armed themselves. The invasion was repelled and Rome was protected for over 800 years (until its sack by the rebel, Alaric the Magister militium for Thrace.)
The geese were commemorated in a ritual in which, resting on purple cushions, they were paraded around the corpse of a dead dog as a reminder of their superiority to the watchdogs that had been negligent in their duty, having failed to sound the alarm.
A gander is a male goose, and the mysterious bird that represents spiritual power is often referred to as the Wild Gander.
A flock of flying geese is called a skein -- like a loose hank of wound yarn.
Who is the hero?
Despite its aggressive competitive strategy for nature's limited resources -- many varieties of cuckoo lay eggs in the nest of other species of birds -- we love to hear the cuckoo's clarinet call. The cuckoo is a harbinger of warm weather and the easy time of the year: "Sumer is icumen in, Laud sing Cuckoo." ~ a mediaeval English song.
This traditional association is also preserved in the words of an American folksong: "The cuckoo, Is a pretty bird. It warbles as it flies. It never, Hollers Cuckoo, 'Til the fourth day, Of July."
In Tibetan tradition, the cuckoo was considered the king of birds and magical powers were attributed to it. For example, they say the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara manifested in the form of a cuckoo to teach the Buddha's dharma to the birds of the Himalayas.
For Buddhists, the sound of the cuckoo is evocative of the 6-verse text, The Cuckoo's Song of Total Presence. This fundamental Dzogchen text concerns the universally permeating nature of Mind -- non-dual, non-discursive, radiant, spontaneous and free.
Probably since time immemorial, the activity of birds has been regarded as significant, especially as a portent or indication of what the future will bring. Color and particular formations of a flock play an important role. Also, in Western folklore, a bird that flies into the house is considered a harbinger of bad luck.
". . . signs indicating that the practitioner will receive the Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' blessing include: seeing cranes, geese, ducks, swans, pheasants and other auspicious birds flying overhead or hearing their calls . . . ." ~ Dorjee Tseten < link no longer available
The patterns created by birds in flight have probably been used as oracular signs since earliest times. However, there are other observable qualities that lend themselves as symbols of the Buddhist view: the simile of the bird's shadow.
Chandrakirti (late 6th century,) a disciple of Nagarjuna who emphasized the role of compassion, said, "We are just as the leader of the swans, who by relying on two broad wings, can fly across the ocean to its destination. So too should a great bodhisattva, the heroic being, by relying on the two wings of method and wisdom, cross over to the great city of freedom."
In our dualistic culture in which white is good and black is not, black birds are often regarded as harbingers of death:
Certainly birds appear in traditional depictions of the Karmapas, especially with relation to legends of their birth. One bird that figures prominently is the Oriental cuckoo (Cuculus saturatus.)
Language of the Birds
An ability to understand birds (sometimes, other animals) is considered one of the super-abilities that an especially devoted, disciplined or virtuous person can attain. For example, the Talmud (L. Ginzberg. Legends of the Bible, 1909/1992) says that King Solomon's wisdom came from this ability, conferred as a divine gift.
Among the Troubadours, wandering musicians of Southern Europe, who flourished in the 11th century, and even into the Renaissance, the idea continued. It was also believed that one could master the speaking of it. Known as la langue verte (Fr: the green language,) it was thought to be the key to wisdom in the sense of perfect knowledge.
Sometimes, it is granted as a boon or reward for virtuous behavior.
The 16th Karmapa (d. 1981) is remembered as having had a special relationship with birds. While he was in Los Angeles as part of his 1980 North America tour:
An anecdote is told of how he taught one bird to repeat, Karmapa Khyenno. One day, the bird said the mantra just as he was walking in with some guests, but when Karmapa pointed at the bird, it fell down dead. The visitors were told that the bird had been enlightened, at that moment.
Sempa is the name of the 16th Karmapa's beautiful rainbow lory (or loro,) a small parrot that has been living for over 15 years with KTD's resident artist Thinley Chojor, his wife Winchu, and Yangchen, the melodious chihuahua.
I-tsing, a Chinese pilgrim of the 7th century CE, recounts a legend about the brahmin Maitricheta, who composed the Satapańchasatka, a collection of over 150 verses in praise of the Buddha.
Other famous birds include the Fire-tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga ignicauda) These bright birds of Southeast Asia seem to follow the sun as it sets in the western sky. Other inspirational birds are the bulbul and the hoopoe (Upupa epops.)
A Bird in the Hand . . .
A well known aphorism goes. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," which means we should enjoy what we have rather than dreaming of acquiring something we might never get.
But nowadays "a bird in the hand" could mean you can get very sick: Treat birds with respect, especially considering West Nile virus. N5H1 another, more dangerous, bird virus has been found. Therefore, avoid handling dead birds with your bare hands, and always wash your hands well after handling and or refilling outdoor bird feeders.
Shantarakshita and Kamalashila: The two Indian masters had been invited to Tibet by King Trisong Deutsen. Kamalashila is especially noted for having successfully debated Chinese teacher, Huashang Mahayana, concerning the idea of "sudden realization" as taught by that monk. Kamalashila championed the gradual path and his Stages of Meditation in the Middle Way became an integral part of the Tibetan canon.
falconry: This is an ancient hunting sport where a trained (but not tame) raptor is especially taught to catch prey in its talons (claws) but not to eat it. The sport has a special vocabulary of its own that derives from Central Asia: A tiercel is a young male falcon, an eyas is a fledgling. The haggard is the female falcon, larger and a better hunter than her male counterpart.