The Bird Path – A Wild Goose Chase

 I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
-trad., performed by The Carter Family“Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.”
-Dorothy in the Wizard of OzA teacher asked a pilgrim, “Where have you come from?”
“From Dongshan’s,” replied the pilgrim.
“What does Dongshan teach?”
“He usually teaches in three ways.”
“What are they?”
“The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.”

Where Have You Come From?

We are on enforced pilgrimage, the world has changed and we have found ourselves a-roving, wandering the once familiar to find that it has all Covid-19 changed. The shed in the back of my house is a bit different now, the way I walk the fields of my farm has changed, the trips into town are now adventures into not knowing what I’ll find as people do or don’t distance, as I view the world anew, now unfamiliar and strange. “Where have I come from?” the koan asks. “Where am I? Where am I going?” The question is enough and all of a sudden I don’t know. Call me unsui (a cIouds and water wanderer). I drift like the clouds and flow like the mountain stream, not knowing what shape as I drift, the course of the next moment as life flows. And as I drift and flow there is clarity — this, just this, is for you.

In English, the word, “pilgrim,” finds its root in the Latin words for “moving beyond one’s field.” As pilgrims we move from place to place, wandering beyond our field, forsaking home. Leaving home is to leave the familiar, the table there, the chair here, a bed within which to sleep, a kitchen for food. Outside four walls, the constraints that home gives us, we move freely through life, like free-floating clouds or flowing water. So, the wandering monk, Santoka Taneda, makes another appearance in our Covid series. On pilgrimage, outside of the four walls of expectation,

Aimlessly, buoyantly,
Drifting here and there,
Tasting the pure water.

—the taste of what is here. Santoka once said,

“Westerners like to conquer mountains; Orientals like to contemplate them. As for me, I like to taste the mountains.”

And the valleys, beaches, trees, friends, herds of buffalo, the night sounds, the birds of day calling out under the full moon, silencing as owls claim the night. Not knowing, not expecting what is next, or regretting what has been, we taste it all, like cool water, the mountains or a bowl of rice and beans when we are hungry.

In leaving the home we have built for ourselves, the secure identity of self, our true home comes clear. Home is here and now, appearing and disappearing, moment by moment. On pilgrimage, our’s is the bird path — no trace, no road, a no-path sky path.

Wild Goose Chase

Shakespeare popularized the term in Romeo and Juliet and it has been with us ever since, a “wild goose chase.” In the 50’s Scottish minister George MacLeod picked it up, “wild goose,” to describe spirt in life — mysterious, unexpected, coming and going as it will.

Six years ago, I visited the Island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. Famed for its restored abbey church and its roots deep in Celtic Christianity, Iona is a place of pilgrimage. It wasn’t the church, though, nor was it the history that called to me. It was the landscape. During my visit, I spent my days tramping over the small island, from hill to hill, beach to beach. While on the rocky south shore of the island, climbing a rocky knoll, I stumbled upon a pair of nesting wild geese. Honking they flew over my head. I disturbed them, they disturbed me. You just don’t know. 

The wild goose chase is a mystery path, taken with a spirit of adventure, an absence of plot or plan, and a healthy dose of “I don’t know” as we tramp the landscape. The wild goose chase is, of course, “a bird path.”

Flying Birds

…The bird path….

Chickens are terrestrial, leaving track and trace. They dig dust holes in the ground, scratch for insects beneath their feet. You can follow a chicken or I guess a flightless bird like an ostrich or emu. RIP, the Dodo, tracked into oblivion. Ah! But a hawk riding the thermals; or the Purple Martin as she dips and dives, turning quickly just a foot above the ground in pursuit of flying insects. The air opens before, and closes behind. No contrails. No track nor trace.

I have a friend whose heart/mind opened one morning at dawn. She said that it was as if the birds were suspended in the air, in just this one moment.

The dark way, the naked trust of each moment to be just what it is — outside of plans, unconcerned for fixed outcome, devoid of plots or schemes for achievement — opens to blessing. We find ourselves on the bird path.

Willing for the moment, we unclench and let go of wanting to shape our reality into what we know and want. We no longer find fault or enter into a quarrel with the life that is here and now. What comes comes. And if we find fear or anger or sadness or despair or loneliness, if we don’t grab hold, or as we unclench, the joy and love that is there before fear, anger, etc…, the spaciousness, comes into plain view. Outside of our objections to reality, lies the bird path.