“Things are quiet here. Spring begins to overflow into the valley and crawls up the side of the mountain. The buzzards and hummingbirds have noticed, returning about an hour apart. The seasonal stream is trickling. Coyotes run the ridge with new cubs. And something greater than us all calls to us to make peace in the torn world, to learn to love even when we are in pain, even when we are frightened, to consider the wellbeing of others as we might that of our own children, and the prayer becomes May All Beings Be Free From Suffering, May All Beings Be At Peace.” – Animal Sutras: Animal Spirit Stories
Stephen Levine (1937-2016), colleague and close friend of Ram Dass, was an American poet, author, and spiritual teacher best known for his work, with his wife Ondrea, on death and dying. He is one of a generation of pioneering teachers who made Theravada Buddhism more widely available to students in the West. Like the writings of Ram Dass, Levine’s work is flavored by the devotional practices and teachings of the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba. Levine spent many years in the Southwest, including one tending a wildlife sanctuary in southern Arizona, and among the mountains of New Mexico, where Ondrea still lives. His many books include Who Dies?, A Year to Live, Unattended Sorrow, and Healing into Life and Death.
Introduction to Animal Sutras by Stephen Levine
Thirty-five years ago, I was so moved by the Jataka tales—hundreds of anecdotes and fables which depict earlier incarnations of the future Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama—that I considered setting up a publishing company to bring to a wider public a new version/translation of these wonderful, inspiring stories. Included were stories of animals teaching people, and people using animals to make a point—stories of earlier incarnations of the Buddha practicing compassion in the animal and human realm.
Instead, over the next few years, we began the Mindfulness Series for Unity Press. We published books reprinted from the Theravada publishing group in India as well as books by Jack Kornfield, Sujata, and Joseph Goldstein for some years, until I was invited to teach Buddhist meditation practice by some of those mentioned.
Animals have a natural mindfulness: They know what they are doing. Humans, who are full of confusion and seldom wholly in touch with their mind/body, need encouragement and technique to live in the present. As Rumi said, “Love is the bridge.”
Now, in my seventieth year, I have begun collecting a few of my animal spirit stories published over the last forty years, from the green snake of my youth that first taught me the meditative stillness, to the spiders that taught trust and patience, to my return after a great loss to my cabin in the woods, where I found my heart patiently waiting. I include these stories along with a number of precious teachings and transcendent moments that I shared with animals while I worked for the Nature Conservancy in the ’70s, while I was tending a wildlife sanctuary in southern Arizona.
Also coming onto these pages are the past twenty years of our living on the land surrounded by the Carson National Forest and the Picuris Pueblo in northern New Mexico, sharing the side of the mountain with elk and foxes and the lion that cries like a widow; and the dusty horned toad, its blood warming serene by the morning path; the coyote and jack rabbit, born to trace each other in the snow; the teaching raven and the moonlit skunk; the mouse of faith and the bear of compassion.
The primary teaching of the Jataka tales is generosity. The collection of stories calls to us to overcome the human tendency to separate and attempt to control. It teaches the sweetness of renunciation: the giving of oneself to another, for the benefit of all. It is the lineage of the unfolding of generosity, kindness, and insight through the auspices of the evolution of consciousness, just as in the story of an ancient king who, having had an epiphany and a blossoming of care for those who were most in need, gave away all his wealth to the poor. But then, standing and surveying the effects of his largess, he noticed the hunger of the mosquitoes buzzing about him and offered them his body and blood to feed on.
The Jataka tales are stories of commitment and self-sacrifice in the time when the cosmic egg cracks, and being loving becomes even more important than being loved. There is no martyrdom in these stories, just a sense of finishing one labor after another in the clearing of the field of awareness, on the path toward the healing we took birth for, as when the Buddha-in-training throws himself in a leap of compassion in front of a starving tigress, saving her life and providing milk for her cubs.
A sutra is a thread or rope that holds things together as in the connection between humankind and nature, between the conditioned mind and the boundless spirit. These animal sutras differ from the Jataka tales. While the Jataka tales are myths and fables, these stories are the living truths transmitted from the presence of nature in my life, the stories of a life—my own—becoming truer due to my interchanges with plants and animals, and my resulting experiences of mercy and awareness.
At the wisdom door we are told to pay particular attention to the process of placing oneself in the position of others in order to promote selflessness and compassion. “Whoever wishes for salvation should practice the supreme mystery—the exchanging of himself and the other.”
It is in approaching this sharing of consciousness that the joy of plants and animals, water and stone, arises—in the unity that we call, for lack of a better term, love. It is from that meeting in the outer orbits of loving kindness and concern for the wellbeing of others that we receive these teachings at the center, and these stories here are told.
Chamisal, New Mexico, 2007
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