The Gray Parrot & The Bodhisattva Vows

For today’s dharma talk I want to start with a story from a collection of stories from early Buddhism, called the Jataka tales. These tales consist of numerous anecdotes and fables that depict the Buddha in previous lives sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a human. The tales were written to give insight into the character and long efforts of the Buddha through all of his lifetimes to attain awakening.  The Jataka tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD.

So here is the story of the Gray Parrot

The Buddha was once a little gray parrot.

When lightning sets a tree ablaze and her forest begins to burn, the parrot cries out a warning to others: “Fire! Run to the river!” Then she flies toward the safety of the river and its other shore.

But as she flies, she sees below her animals and trees already trapped, surrounded by flames. And suddenly she sees a way to save them. She flies to the river. The animals already huddled safely there are sure nothing more can be done. Each offers a valid reason for staying safely put and not making further efforts. But the little parrot says she has spotted a way, so she must try.

She wets her feathers in the river, fills a leaf cup with water, and flies back over the burning forest. Back and forth she flies carrying drops of water. Her feathers become charred, her claws crack, her eyes burn red as coals.

A god looking down sees her. Other gods laugh at her foolishness, but this god changes into a great eagle, flies down, and tells her, as it’s hopeless, to turn back. She won’t listen but continues bringing drops of water. Seeing her selfless bravery, the god is overwhelmed and begins to weep. His tears put out the fire and heal all the animals, plants, and trees. Falling on the little parrot, the tears cause her charred feathers to grow back red as fire, blue as a river, green as a forest, yellow as sunlight.   She is now a beautiful bird The parrot flies happily over the healed forest she has saved.

Translation by Rafe Martin

Does this sound familiar? For those who have been attending our Sangha for a while, it will. This story is just like the story of Quechan people of Equador, titled the Hummingbird.  In that story, our brave tiny hummingbird takes a beak full of water at a time, and all by herself works at putting out a raging fire.  I love that two distinct and distant culture communicate this same value in within the same story – one of the highest human values, that of compassion in action.  Even though they are just birds, I believe the parrot and the hummingbird are aware of the impossibility of what they are trying to do, but it doesn’t make any difference for they can’t do otherwise, they have no choice. It is who they are. Personally, I like the Hummingbird story because you never know how it ends. Knowing how it ends isn’t necessary because it is the doing that matters.

That brings us to now, to the times we are living in. Right now, it is easy to feel rather helpless – like there’s so little, we can do. We see all the suffering in the world, all the broken-heartedness, all the destruction and we shut down, become numb, give up. We find ourselves cut off from our heart because we think, what can I do? It is too big I am too small.  I want to do something….but what is the use?

That’s what I love about these two stories, I love the impossibility of the effort of the parrot and the hummingbird and the face and that this impossibility doesn’t stop them. What can we accomplish when we are willing to try the impossible? I think we know the feeling that underlies these stories and here is the magic of these parables; they give our true hearts a voice. When all the doubt and pessimism and feelings of powerlessness are let go of, this I believe, is our natural response. It is the same heart that is at the center of the Bodhisattva Vows.  

Beings are numberless. I vow to free them all.

Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless. I vow to enter them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable. I vow to become it.

Both these stories and the Bodhisattva Vows have one thing in common, it is their impossibility. So why would we take vows that there is no way we can achieve? And what is it about the story of the parrot and the hummingbird that resonate?

Except for a few diehard utilitarians, the response to this story from kids to adults is an emotional one. I think at the heart they say something about us maybe it’s the whispering of our inner Buddha-nature?  Or the whispers from our ancient inner warrior poets that vow that no man, woman, deer or tree be left behind.

I love the Bodhisattva vows, it is what attracted me to Buddhism in the first place. There is something epic and at the same time so obvious to me in them. I love what Shunryu Suzuki said about the vows when someone asked why anyone would take such a vow, he said that  “We have to do it because our true nature wants us to. “

In one of the more traditional translations the first Bodhisattva vow is:

Beings are numberless. I vow to Save them all.

I personally like the word free better. Years of being a psychological martyr trying to literally save others and ultimately not for their benefit but for my own, the word SAVE can be problematic.

I bring this up to make an important point, something that I learned that helped me put down the Book of the Martyrs and just be an ordinary human being.  When someone acts as a martyr, as a rescuer, there is from the start an inequality, a superiority complex a power dynamic which puts the sufferer and the saver on different levels, which is ironic because so many of the rescuers I know have issues, with low self-esteem, shame, and victimization. I think this is important to remember. Pema Chodron teaches, Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.”

I love the idea of the wounded healer; can it be any other way?

For me the motivation that drives the first Bodhisattva vow is this – it is out of our own woundedness revealed that we want to be a healer for ourselves and for others. She goes on to teach,

Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Comfortable with Uncertainty – Page 74

One of the mistakes we make is that we try to heal ourselves by healing others. We are unaware that ultimately healing is directionless it is non-dualistic – It is hard to realize that we are already in the midst of healing, we are already whole. Not knowing this healing becomes quid pro quo, this for that, and it becomes an unconscious economic transaction.

Some of us believe that by saving an “other”, and only by saving and “other” , I will be loved, I will be acceptable, I will be OK – it rarely has anything to do about being healed. It has nothing to do with knowing our own darkness. In some ways the martyr, the rescuer thinks that if they save you, they will no longer have to know their own darkness, they can banish it, keep it at bay. Freeing you, saving you is all they need to do to dispel the darkness.

The problem with this thinking is it doesn’t work. I think that is one of the reasons why the vows were written the way they are .

Beings are numberless. I vow to free them all.

Built into the vows are their impossibility – and that impossibility is important-

The vows are not transactional, there is no choice in them –  it all or nothing. We do not just free nice people or just our family, and at the same time, there is no endpoint where we can say, there, done. If I can just save you, then everything will be OK, But the vows don’t allow for this…but wait there is another and another and another. I vow to free them all.  This is liberating in a way – because ultimately the paradox of freedom is when we chose not to have a choice that is when we are free.  

I love these lines from Robert Aitken.

“I have heard people say, ‘I cannot recite these vows because I cannot hope to fulfill them. Actually, Kanzeon, the incarnation of mercy and compassion, weeps because she cannot save all beings. Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our practice.”  

Taking the Path of Zen Page 62

The impossibility is the point.

As Mark Knickebaine has written,to commit to these impossibilities is to acknowledge that every being can be, and deserves to be, released from suffering (ourselves included).”  

That means yourself, your neighbor, your ex, your boss – all of them, When we vow to free all being we no longer have to decide who we are called to be compassionate toward, we are called to be compassionate to all of them, every being’s suffering matters. I really like this from Rick Ferris –

If I have vowed to save ALL beings, then if I come across a PARTICULAR being that I can save, I should save it. I don’t have to debate whether I should save this being — I’ve already made a vow.

Choosing to free all beings really means freeing myself, because what good would it be to be free and all alone, while others are suffering.  The vows are about attending to our own shit – our anger, our fear, our suffering and at the same time that I am attending to yours through deep listening and compassionate action.

 If my vow is to free numberless beings that means that I can’t be casting blame on others, I can’t be making up excuses or rationalizing or justifying what I want because I want it. I need to put all these on the altar as offering to all the Buddhas.

By attending to my own life, by waking the way of oneness with all other beings, I have set out into the bodhisattva vow. It means that I am doing what I can right now, one beak full, one feather soaked moment at a time. Right now, right here.

Our aspiration is for greater and greater awakening but If we decided to wait until we are awakened to free others, to help them in their suffering, what good would that be. Our vows are the vows of an ordinary human being sparked by love, we vow to become the wounded healer.  Our awakening is in the vow itself.

Beings are numberless. I vow to free them all.

Here are two quotes I want to share –  one from Shantideva the 8 century sage and writer of The Way of the Bodhisattva and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche – first by Santideva,

May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.

The Bodhicaryāvatāra Pages 19-21

And lastly Trungpa Rinpoche,

As the earth sustains the atmosphere and outer space accommodates the stars, galaxies, and all the rest, we are willing to carry the burdens of the world. We are inspired by the physical example of the universe. We offer ourselves as wind, fire, air, earth, and water—all the elements. –  

The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa: Volume 3: Cutting Through Spiritual

In our daily lives, the effort may seem near impossible, there is so much suffering. Our practice is universal our activity is local.   We change the world by changing ourselves and our relationship with it. We do this in West Valley working in our immigrant community. We do this working with the homeless, we do this with our neighbor or the brother you have never talked to, we do this in our homes with our lovers, our wives, our husbands, and children.  We do this not by saving the forests in the Amazon, but by fighting for the rivers and desert lands right here and now.

I want to close with one of my favorite stories and it encapsulates this entire dharma talk. It is called the Old Man and the Starfishes.


A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore.

Further along, he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and slinging each one into the ocean.

“Hey old man, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,”

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“Your crazy, there are miles of beach and starfish everywhere!  You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. It won’t make a difference. 

The old man listens calmly and bends down picks up another starfish and throws it into the sea. He stands starring at the waves and says to the young man, 

“It made a difference to that one

picks up another and throws it into the sea

And that one.”

Based on the story by Loren Eiseley


May we all have the heart of this old man and find the beauty in the impossibility of our aspiration.

May all beings be free.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Susan says:

    I relate deeply to the idea of how we must know our own darkness to be with others in their darkness. But I want to, need to leave my darkness behind me and create a new home for my soul. I am so deeply engulfed by darkness I cannot find oxygen for the next hour, the next sunrise, the next game of endless tag the moon plays with the sun.

    1. Hello Susan,

      I can imagine how hard it is right now for you – I love your words and honor your journey. It is so easy to drown in our own suffering and our darkness. Be kind to yourself and step out of it and breathe. The way I have learned to step out of it is to try and remember that suffering and darkness are not who we are but just one facet of our experience. For too long I WAS my suffering and live in exile in my darkness. I thought it made me special. I have learned that when I allow my self to feel my suffering without labeling it as good or bad, or something I need to fix or change but simply something to feel and honor, When I am sad, I feel sad. When I am anxious, I feel anxious. I don’t try to change it, figure out why I feel that, way. When I feel freaked out I feel freaked out. That’s it, that’s when I catch my breath. Maybe that’s something to think about. Feeling the depth of my sadness just as it was freed me, brought the bright dawn into my the room of my heart. If you want, you check out my other blog post, Let the Darkness be your Candle. you can reach me at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s