Zen and the Art of Forest Chickens

evenStevenSometimes we find our teachers in the most unlikely places. This spring I found mine living in the greenbelt separating my backyard from Louis Creek — or maybe he found me. As part of my naturalist training, most days I wake before sunrise and make a cup of tea before picking my way quietly through this little band of forest en route to my morning sit spot.

A week into this morning ritual a routine of sorts had already established itself. Each morning — despite my intention of mindful presence and total awareness — the ruffed grouse who beds down at night within this copse of trees knew I was coming long before I fell upon him. Every day he would burst from the underbrush in a furious drumbeat of wings which never failed to escalate my own heartbeat. In the first six weeks I only managed to get the drop on him once.

grouse 2On this single occasion I spied Goodman Grouse in profile, his crest rising above a little hillock, standing out in stark relief against a backdrop of yellow grass. I watched him strut around with a collected dignity that barnyard chickens attempt, but which, for some reason, only makes them seem all the more ridiculous. He seemed unalarmed, as if just out for a stroll, as he meandered around the bottom of a big fir. On cat’s paws I crept nearer the same tree and poked my head around only to find my quarry had already vanished. The next morning he exploded again from ground cover near the trail. As my heart thudded back to normal, I realized how much I’ve yet to learn.

In higher levels of martial arts or meditation there is an understanding that the master finds the student. I’ve even experienced this; my last martial arts master approached me while I was browsing kung-fu movies in a Vancouver video store and invited me to his dojo. But taking on any kind of new training or learning can be a humbling experience. In western culture we often struggle against an obsessive tendency to measure our progress. The role of any good teacher is to challenge the student past his or her sticking points, which brings to mind an old Zen story:

A young but earnest Zen student approached his master and asked, “If I work very hard, how long will it take for me to find enlightenment?”
The master replied, “Ten years.”
“What if I work very hard and apply myself to learn faster — then how long?”
The master answered, “Twenty years.”
“What if I really, really work hard at it?” pressed the student. “How long then?”
“Thirty years,” replied the master.
“I don’t understand,” said the disappointed student. “When I say I will work harder, you say it will take longer. Why?”
Replied the master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

When walking with only one eye on the path, my morning meditation — not to mention my heart rate — gets kick-started in a furious flurry of wings. But on days where I’m thoughtful and present, my morning begins by spending a few moments admiring the profile of my feathered teacher, thankful that by the grace of his benevolent presence, my awareness continues to grow.