In the Buddhist religion, the Dharma concept of the Buddha is not confined to men, but
is taught to all kinds of beings, including ghosts and animals. According to a legend
Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, had taken among the birds the from of a
cuckoo-an animal which recommends itself to the Buddhist mind by its attitude to family
Probably, no more than three centuries ago, an unknown Lama wrote a charming
book describing how the birds of the Himalayas met under the leadership of the cuckoo on
a holy mountain and how they were instructed in the Buddhist way of living and thinking.
Though a popular book, simple and unsophisticated, it brings home the overtones of the
faith which has ruled Tibet for so many centuries.
The present book constitutes an English translation of the Tibetan original. In
his introduction, Dr. Conze not only sketches the background of the story, but gives
extracts from another Tibetan work, originating from the Kagyudpa school of Milarepa,
which describes the spiritual antecedents of the cuckoo.
The book in spite of its deep content makes a pleasant and easy reading. As a
work of popular interest, it should be welcomed by scholars as well as by general
readers interested in Buddhist literature.
The Western reader of this book, even if well versed in the literature of Buddhism, may
still find it somewhat difficult to overcome his preconceived ideas regarding the animal
world. In Europe a wide gulf separates man from even the most advanced species of
animals, and a poem about Buddhism among birds may well strike him as nothing more than
a literary fantasy. In Inddia, however, this gulf was never more than a very shallow
depression which could apparently be crossed with little effort. Even to-day, in India,
one can see animals, both domesticated and wild, living together with mankind in
conditions of familiarity which the Westerner finds unusual and at times even touching.
The Buddhist concept of universality is not confined to man alone. It is a total
universality which extends to all living creatures both above and below him, and it is
this totality which is of the very essence of the doctrine. Thus a Council of Birds
would neither offend nor seem strange to orthodox believers. The text here presented is
a pious work of the same kind as the variations on the themes of the Jatakas, in which
the literature of Tibet has found the majority of its edifying topics.
It is to a human being that merit is due for the conversion of the birds.
According to a famous Tibetan novel their spokesman was an unfortunate India prince, an
Avatar of Avalokita, and the son of a king of Benares, who by accident became a cuckoo.
His story is one of the most charming that has ever come out of the inexhaustible found
of India legends.
Appearances may well belie the difficulty of the translator's task. In rendering
the language which Tibetan Buddhists have put into the mouths of Himalayan birds whose
habits, temperaments and sometimes even names are unknown to our ornithologists, he has
faced greater problems than the arguments of more classical and more profound treatises
would have presented. In consequence, if one encounters here and there an obscurity, we
may perhaps attribute them in part to the mysteries inherent in the language of
In Tibet, where printing is still comparatively little used, popular works are
generally transmitted orally rather than by written record. Consequently they have
remained little known to Western scholars. The rarity of copies of the Precious Garland,
together with the originality of the subject, more than justify its publication. Here is
an ingenious but eloquent testimony of the way in which the birds of the air came to
share the disenchantment of mankind.
The Tibetan text of this charming book was first published in Calcutta in 1904, a slim
volume of 40 pages. Satis Chandra Vidyabhushana, the editor, does not tell us whether
his text was based on oral recitation, a manuscript or a blockprint. My translation,
although made directly from the Tibetan, owes a great deal to the French translation by
Henriette Meyer, brought out in 1953 by the ahiers du Sud, under the title Precieuse
guirlande de la loi des oiseaux. In the present state of Tibetan studies it is, however,
not surprising that my French colleague and I should differ on many points of detail.
The work is anonymous and undated. The particularities of the language seem to
point to the 17th or 18th century. The birds are content with a simple exposition of the
beliefs and attitudes common to all Buddhists, and they o not take sides in the disputes
of the sects. The theme of the book has, however, marked affinities to some of the
tenets of the Kahgyudpa, Bka'- brgyud-pa, sect, and the author may well have been some
Kahgyudpa lama who was content to remain anonymous. The Tibetan title, Bya chos rinchen'
phren-ba, means literally, "The Dharma among the Birds, a precious garland.
Both language and ideas mark this as a popular book, a piece of folk literature,
destined for peasants and nomadic herdsmen. More than many a learned treatise, it
conveys to us the emotional overtones of the religion which has ruled Tibet for so long,
and it gives us some idea of what it feels like to be a Buddhist. The style is simple,
straightforward and unsophisticated. Only the barest minimum of Buddhist technical terms
is used, and they should offer little difficulty to the reader.
The Dharma is here, without any scholastic complications, just the doctrine of
the Buddha. The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Order of monks, i.e.
the three basic objects of Buddhist faith and devotion. The samsaric world is a term for
this universe of transient phenomena is which we wander about so senselessly, and it is
the opposite to Nirvana, the true goal of our lives. State of Woe is a technical term
for rebirth as an animal, in hell, or as a ghost. The Sanskrit is durgati. Although they
are never far from a Buddhist's mind, the states of Woe are mentioned here with great
frequency for the simple reason that the persons of the play are in one of them. Muni
and Jina are two common epithets of the Buddha. The first means Sage, and the second
Victor, or Conqueror. Mara is the personification of the principle of evil, the Buddhist
devil or Satan. Jambudvipa in this context just means India. Sometimes I have retained
the more accurate rendering of wholesome for bde-ba (kusala), more often loosely
translated as good. An act is wholesome if it brings merit, i.e. if it leads to greater
happiness, either material or spiritual, in the future.
Although the translation aims at being faithful, I have tried, without adhering
pedantically to the letter, to reproduce the spirit of the original and to convey the
outlook on life of a people who have for centuries lived under the influence of Buddhist
teachings. It will be interesting to see how Europeans will react to its message.
In the preparation of this work I owe a great deal to others. First of all I
wish to express my gratitude to Professor J. Bacot, who has allowed us to reproduce here
the Preface he wrote for the French translation. Mr. Peter Swann, of the Museum of
Eastern Art in Oxford, has spared no pains to improve the diction of the translation.
His name ought really to have appeared on the title page, together with mine. This would
have been only just, - but justice is rarely done in this world. Further, I must thank
my friend, Dr. Erik Haarh, of the Royal Library of Copenhagen, for so readily sending me
photos from the work on pharmacy, which seems not to be found anywhere else in Europe.
In addition the Ven. Tri-Khong, Dr. Haarh, Dr. Eichhorn and Dr. Newesky de Woikowicz
have made valuable suggestions regarding both text and illustrations. The Librarian of
the London School of Oriental and African Studies has very kindly given us access to
their copy of the extremely rare Ming encyclopedia. Part of the translation has
previously appeared in the Middle Way, and I want to thank the editor for her permission
to reprint it here.
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