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Zen Stories - 5 - Life of a Bird

Zen masters are known for their practical knowledge. Once upon a time, a person approached a renowned Zen master by holding a bird by its neck tightly and hiding his hands behind his back. He wanted to test the master and asked thus, “Is the bird in my hands alive or dead?” Were the master to tell the bird is alive, he wanted to prove him wrong by wringing its neck and killing the bird. On the other hand, if the master said it’s dead, he wanted to leave it free. His intention was to prove the master wrong in any case.

The master answered briefly, “Life of the bird is just in your hands.”

Zen stories are very small, but the meaning they carry is very deep. Zen philosophy teaches to live in the present. It teaches to view the world with eyes of an unbiased open mind and not based on the past experiences.

The world is ever fresh. Present day is never like yesterday. Everything is changing in this world. But man buries himself in the past. He is unable to disconnect from his past nor is he able to live without planning for the future. However, followers of Zen are not like that. Each day is a new day for them. Not only each day, but every moment is fresh and new for them. Just like little children, they also look at everything in wonder. Zen teaches the same approach.

Nature reveals its secrets to those who live in the present leaving their past behind and not worrying about the future. The state of “Satori (absorption with awareness)” known in Japan can be experienced by such people. Only people of pure minds can attain to this state because they are not pulled by the strings of past attachments or future plans. Little children are always in this state. That's probably why Jesus said, “Unless you become like those little children, you cannot enter into Kingdom of God.”

By being in the present, one cannot say what happens in the future. No thought pertaining to that will arise in the mind. So, in this story, Zen master merely mentioned what the present situation is. He said that life of the bird is in the hands of the person holding it. That means, he did not answer based on his assumptions of future possibilities. Anything might happen; whether the bird lives or dies lies in the hands of the questioner. But, the master only mentioned what is at the moment.

Many masters teach people to remain in the present. Only a few demonstrated it by being in the state. Such masters are very few and can be counted on fingers. In the present times, we can find many gurus who preach these kind of teachings, but we do not know how many actually practice their teachings themselves. Evidently, these teachings are misunderstood by the present generation of youth leading to self deceit.

As the teaching asks us to live in the present, most of the young people think that they do not have any responsibility towards their parents and they need not help anyone, as everyone has to suffer their own fate. They think living in the present means to live without consideration or concern for any one but themselves. This is a false and self deceptive philosophy - a pseudo philosophy. Such an attitude arises out of misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the philosophical concepts.

I stayed at Osho's Ashram in Pune for few days in 1998. One day, while searching for a certain auditorium I approached a woman follower from another country who was looking at the bills in a stall. She was annoyed with my enquiry and answered, “We don't help anybody. You have to help yourself”, I was amused and questioned her, “What’s wrong in helping someone?”. For that she answered, “I’m living in the present.” To this, I said, “I am afraid your response comes from a prefixed idea, which obviously cannot be your so-called present.”

I do not know how she understood my words. There are many people who think they are following Vedanta (philosophy), but in reality they are living even below the level of a average human being. The lady's response did not come from the present. She has confined herself within her predetermined thought and was operating from that point of view. How can such a behavior, which sprang up from such a predetermined view could be called - ‘living in the present’?

Living in the present is not a prerequisite, but the result of a realization. It is the highest state in Vedanta. Only whose samskaras (tendencies carried from previous births) are totally destroyed and one who becomes free and liberated can live in such a state. The reason being, the seeds of his tendencies are totally burnt and they lost the power to germinate. To achieve that state sincere sadhana (practice) is required. Without doing sadhana, mere reading about great masters and imitating their state will not bring about any results. Living a spiritual life by imitation is not possible. It is only possible by living in originality (authenticity) every moment.

In this world, in our day to day interactions, we come across several people, enquiries, and situations. In every context and every moment, one has to constantly introspect and look within where the responses are coming from; if they are coming from the past experience or future expectation or if they are truly coming from the present. Only such a person can one day reach the ultimate goal of being in the present.

Only he will know and experience what it is to live totally in the present. Otherwise, it will be an imitation as shown by the lady at Osho’s ashram. That’s probably why Upanishads have stated that practicing and applying Vedanta in daily life is like walking on a sword's edge. How many can walk on that?

All rights reserved. This article has been translated by Lakshmi T, which was originally posted in on July 20, 2009. The content or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher.

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