Filed in Nichiren

The Wisdom Of Frogs

Clark Strand discovers bodhisattvas in his own backyard.

Clark Strand

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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.

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jackelope65's picture

Beautiful essay and great comments. Working a mind blowing crazy schedule as an MD, I would often begin to sit in a wildly delirious state, but following a Tibetan Kagyu tradition, we would begin with chants, that we then spoke in english. By the time the gong rang for silent meditation, all thoughts of the past day were calmed, and at times, the problems held steady long enough for analytical contemplation.. Before the chanting and meditation, I would be lucky to recall what book was being discussed that evening, too wired to even listen to others, but following the closing chants, I could see the book and words as if written upon a blackboard facing me, with a seemingly similar impact upon the other Sangha members who were open to the wisdom of others. There was no real magic involved. As a child, I was asked not to sing in the school choir. Although I was the frog learning to croak in Tibetan, which I found extremely challenging, I was inspired by the beautiful unison of other voices, including my wife's voice, and the greater wisdom revealed in the English words repeated. The calm knowing, during meditation, allowed me to shelf my work issues until I returned to work the next day much better prepared. Despite my work schedule, finding the time to attend 2-3 times per week seemed to improve both my clarity and efficiency, actually saving time. Although we, are now living in Costa Rica, when my wife and I chant, we remain inspired by our Sangha, whom we visit each time when returning to Portland Maine. I am aware that many Sanghas choose to only read the words of the chants in English, but the effect of the chants in the way they were written have far greater impact than just the mere translation.

wsking's picture

I love frogs too. This afternoon, I just bot two pots of yellow daisies at Walmart. Curled into the bright green leaf of one was the tiniest little baby frog, hardly bigger than a pencil eraser. It did not speak, just hopped into the darkness of the plant. Oh! The tender heart! The deliciousness of surprise! All sentient beings are From-the-beginning-Buddhas. Blink! Blink! What are you?!
Gassho
_/|\_

bluesharper's picture

i feel that this is a beautiful essay....full of presence! as far as Dogen's comment about chanting....i believe i've read that Achaan Chah said that chickens sit all the time too!

funkyr21's picture

The message for me is that happiness and joy need to be shared, to be realized, like the frogs singing.

brighton's picture

Thank you so much for your beautiful essay. But I ask that you please consider that what Dogen said about chanting sounding like frogs croaking is not at all inconsistent with your remarks. We should all be so lucky to chant like frogs croaking in the spring fields, and of course, like zazen it would be completely useless.

vrholbrook@gmail.com's picture

I don't understand. In what way do frogs sacrifice their lives?

wilnerj's picture

As all of life surrenders.
We are all mortal beings and are obliged as part of our natural destiny to offer our lives. In this one respect we are no different than frogs.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Certainly not conscious self-sacrifice for the sake of something greater than their lives. But humans desire the ephemeral: fame, material wealth, eternal youth, often at the cost of their health, their sanity, their lives. As the lilies of the field, consider how frogs grow. They toil not, neither do they spin.

wilnerj's picture

Beautifully crafted reminding me of Basho's epic haiku which in certain translations describes the frog as leaping into the sound of water. This blog also reminds me of Avalokiteshvara as presented in the Shurangama Sutra in which he came to his realization through sound.

mariahon's picture

beautiful ! i would love to know which is the best translation /collection of Nichiren to read? Thank you.

jensenrachela's picture

Oh, beautiful.

joliminor's picture

As within so without, As above so below. Is an extremely emportant expression. As we breathe in so we breathe out. Just like silence so voice is important part of cyclic existence of life. I am a poet and support writers, and am supporter of City of Assilum in Pittsburgh which sponsors and helps writers all over the world, especially in troubled countries. Those voices, like many others are extremely important, and so so many have risked their lifes to express the truth as it is. So yes, this artickle almost made me cry, because from I think missunderstood concept of silence/voice in Buddhism, voice may not be as appriciated by some. There is a balance. I also got a parakeet few months ago and for the first two weeks he wouldn't speak or sing a word and I was very worried. I thought he may be deaf, I was told I could bring him back to exchange him for another one who sings. I refused, and the same day he started to sing :) Voice and silence are both expressions and need to be used appropriately in conjunction to what resonates with the time. Thank you for speaking for voice in such a wanderfull way. And also in Tao, frogs are recongnized as one of the best meditators :)

safwan's picture

Thank you for this wonderful insight :"Whatever realization may come by way of silence, our happiness is never won that way. Happiness is not happiness unless it is shared."

Nichiren practiced meditation for 20 years, during his study of Buddhism at various temples and schools. Finally, he concluded that the desired effect - reviving one's Buddhanature - can be directly achieved through chanting.

For me, Dogen's comment about chanting seems to express a mechanistic view (such as someone judging a valuable banknote as being 'shapes put in ink on paper'). From the outside, chanting seems easy, but it involves also emotional and mental efforts: "when you chant myoho and recite renge, you must summon up deep faith that Myoho-renge-kyo is your life itself". Nichiren set "wholeheartedness" as a condition for revealing the Buddha mind through chanting.

I think that voice is the most natural action all people do when at birth they cry seeking refuge in the mother.

tina_mccoy's picture

Thank You, especially for this phrase: "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." Indeed, when all is said and done, the only thing that's left is our willingness to do what is necessary for the benefit of others.

pattygiffin's picture

A croak of thanks to you for enhancing the understanding of what comprises a "voice." While the voice of silence speaks most clearly to me, all other voices are my teachers as well in one way or another. My happiness increased as I read your article. May frogs continue to bless your life, as they do mine!