Clark Strand discovers bodhisattvas in his own backyard.
Outside the south window of my house is a small patch of weeds that never gets mowed because it lies between the fuel tank and the wall. Every year in early spring, three or four frogs take up residence there, singing at intervals throughout the day, often while I am chanting. A few years ago, when I placed the altar next to the window, I had not yet noticed their song. Now I would never consider moving it.
Even though the frogs sing only three or four weeks out of the year, I have the vague feeling that even when I can no longer hear them, they are there all the same. Sometimes when I am chanting late at night, I can sense their seedlike bodies under a foot or more of snow, patiently waiting to be reborn. I know that I am supposed to be chanting to the mandala on the altar, but having come to Buddhism through haiku poetry, the truth is, I am often singing to the frogs.
The Japanese priest Nichiren wrote, “Frogs feed on the sound of their mother’s voice, and if they cannot hear their mother’s voice, they will not grow. The insect called kalakula feeds on wind, and if the wind does not blow, it will not grow.” I don’t know whether the kalakula actually feeds on wind, as Nichiren says, but having developed an affinity for frogs, I find it entirely believable that they feed on their mother’s voice. In the early springtime, before the trees have begun to bud and my spirit has long since flagged under the forced weight of winter darkness, I have felt myself quicken at the sound of their voices, have felt eternity open up like a heavy gate on its hinges to reveal an endless tableau of beings, all living and dying without end for one another—and singing all the while. My teachers have all gone now, but I have been adopted by the frogs. I have no argument with the various meditation schools of Buddhism, with their comparatively “silent” programs for human happiness. But I have a bone to pick with master Dogen, who in his Shobogenzo wrote, “People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever.” We all say rash things from time to time, and sometimes even foolishly put them into print. But I am not one, even eight centuries after the fact, to endure the slander of frogs. Human programs for happiness are nearly always shallow at the root. With its reliance on competitive free enterprise, the capitalist vision overlooks the happiness not only of the poor but of the whole natural environment. Even the arhat, in his heroic quest for enlightenment in this lifetime, overlooks the plight of ordinary beings who lack the opportunity or inclination for such rigors. And Dogen overlooks the frogs.
Frogs aren’t storming the gates to nirvana and will let virtually anyone, save for a mosquito or two, pass before them into buddhahood for the price of a song. Even those without the courtesy to sing along are not denied entry. Frogs are natural bodhisattvas. They have died by the quadrillions since the introduction of pesticides. Even before that, they filled a kalpa’s worth of Ganges rivers with their bodies every year without begrudging their lives. And I believe they did so happily because of their song.
The Chinese master T’ien-t’ai wrote, “Voices do the Buddha’s work.” I understand what he meant. Whatever realization may come by way of silence, our happiness is never won that way. Happiness is not happiness unless it is shared. For happiness is the one thing in all the world that comes to us only at the moment we give it, and is likewise increased by being given away. Even the so-called “insentient” beings of the natural world—rocks, water, dust motes, sand—understand this truth and therefore never hold back anything of themselves. We may sit at the feet of the wisest lama or Zen master, and if he fails to understand this truth, we would do better to take our teaching from a stone.
Of course, T’ien-t’ai is referring to the voices of those who preach the Lotus Sutra. But there is some controversy as to what that really means. There are those who recite the entire sutra, or only one or two of its chapters, and feel satisfied that they have done the Buddha’s work. Others recite only the title, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which admittedly does sound a little like the croaking of frogs, and teach others to do the same. Nichiren insisted that we preach the Lotus Sutra by being willing to risk everything to protect and proclaim its teaching—that all beings throughout the ten worlds, without exception, have Buddha-nature and can therefore attain enlightenment in their present form. He called this “preaching the sutra even at the cost of one’s life.”
It is a strange paradox that true happiness can come only at the price of the lives of those who seek it, but that is the basic idea of the Mahayana. Underneath the panoply of Buddhist teachings on bodhisattvahood, compassion, and the like, lies one radically simple law: We must be willing to give all for all, to sacrifice everything for the sake of other beings, up to and including our lives.
In the eternal scheme of things, we all sacrifice our lives, whether we are awake to this fact or not. This vast interdependence, in which the disappearance of one thing paves the way for the appearance of another, is the essence of life itself. Like the rest of nature, frogs understand this truth and offer themselves up on the altar of eternity without hesitation or regret. Only in the human realm does it become necessary to have something like Mahayana Buddhism to instruct us in doing what should come as naturally as dusk to the day. Be that as it may, only as human beings do we have the opportunity to acknowledge this truth and knowingly participate it in, and in all the universe there can be no greater happiness than this.
On nights when the frogs don’t sing, I sometimes read from the letters of Nichiren instead, where I find the same level of nurturance and companionship, the same basic life force that the frogs spill out without thinking, syllable by syllable, in their spring song. There, I find one theme repeated over and over and over: “How could giving up a body that will decay uselessly for the sake of the Lotus Sutra not be exchanging rocks for gold?” Dogen’s comment notwithstanding, the frogs understand implicitly that life is only song and so sing sweetly—and happily—for the sake of all beings, until their bodies are gone.
Contributing editor Clark Strand is the author of the forthcoming book How to Believe in God Again.