Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Flies are constantly present in human life. They investigate the baby’s diaper and have to be shooed away from the dying grandmother’s face. They cannot be ignored. Our tenderest and most passionate moments, our deepest intuitions of transcendental intelligence — all are likely to contain the familiar sound of little wings buzzing on glass.
Western culture makes the fly a symbol of evil. Beelzebub is Lord of the Flies. Visitations by demons are supposed to be presaged by hordes of flies, proliferating with unmanageable and terrifying fecundity. Both versions of the movie “The Fly” evoke horror by imagining that the boundaries between human and fly are broken down, and the two organisms merge.
In Buddhist teaching, flies are sentient beings; they have been our parents and grandparents. We should therefore treat them with tenderness and respect. If we could have unlimited compassion for flies, we might discover that they are forms taken by Maitreya, the Buddha of loving kindness.
Since I am a Western Buddhist, these attitudes coexist in my mind. They do an interesting dance there. I have probably thought as much about flies — and how to relate to my disgust for them — as any other subject. Through flies, I have sought to understand karma, ignorance, the ethics of killing, and the meaning of compassion.
A traditional Buddhist tale illustrates how such large questions might be posed by such a diminutive creature.
The great Buddhist master Asanga went into retreat for twelve years. He was somewhat disappointed. He wanted to develop pure compassion, and had spent all that time meditating on Maitreya without tangible result. After finishing the retreat, he met a dog whose lower body was infested by worms. The animal barked angrily at him. Realizing that the dog was suffering from ignorance and attachment to its body, Asanga wanted to remove the worms; but he realized also that they needed flesh in order to live. Asanga cut a slice from his own leg to feed them. His next problem was how to remove the worms from the dog without causing them any injury. The only part of his body soft enough to do the job properly was his tongue. So Asanga leaned forward, preparing to lick off the worms and feed them his own leg. Surprised when his head touched only the ground, he looked up and saw Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya said that he had been with Asanga from the very beginning of his retreat but could not be seen until that moment.
That is an example of how this incredible religion I have been hooked on teaches me to regard flies.
I used to enjoy swatting flies when I was a kid. My mother told me they spread germs; they crawl around on shit, dead bodies, and garbage, then land on your food and throw up. My swatter would smear their white guts on the windows and walls. They reminded me of chewed saltine crackers, and for thirty years, if I thought about them while I was eating crackers, I would almost throw up, too. The first time I saw maggots in a dead dog, I had nightmares. If I had turned around after that and seen the dog and the maggots change into Maitreya Buddha, I would have needed a straitjacket.
In school I learned that flies lay eggs by the million and have compound eyes. Books about war taught me that maggots clean the wounds of soldiers, and some armies still depend on them for that function. Under a microscope, fly feet and wings are a marvel to behold. If you put salt on a drowned fly, it will revive, clean itself, and buzz off. Despite what I learned, I continued to kill them, usually when they got into the house, to keep them away from the food and eating utensils.
Flies come in astonishing varieties: shiny green flies, striped black flies, flies with hairy, white-flecked bodies and long tongues that lick the sweat off your arms, and flies that turn purple in the sun. They swarm up from garbage bags, search the insides of cans, and drown themselves in puddles. They are always moving, always wanting something. They beat their heads on glass. They fight and fuck with total abandon, chasing and spinning, perching and mounting for a moment on a bedspring or a beer can. When they find a spot of dung, a pile of old fruit, or better yet, something dead, they twitch their wings, strut hither and thither, buzzing in sudden circle dances, rub their front legs together, and settle in, thoroughly engrossed. They are the pursuit of happiness, incarnated.
Most flies land on your skin simply to lick up the mites, flakes, bacteria, and other delectables that lie around on the surface like berries in a field. They tickle, but do not abuse the hospitality of their host. Blackflies and deerflies are another matter. These types want what is underneath. Any objections you might have just advertise the dinner, since they are drawn to movement.
Deerflies have yellow bodies and black markings on their wings, and buzz your head continuously until they find a moment when your guard is down. Their bite feels like the sting of a wasp. Slapping one of them and rolling the mashed body away never fails to give me a rush of gratified vengeance. “Bite me, will you — hah! Take that.” Note how they highlight my fixation on me — the clinging to the sacredness of self that is the root of all misery.
Blackflies crawl through your body hairs, under your shirt, inside your hatband, past your belt line, and under your pant legs. Then, having bitten, hunched over the flesh like eager little vampires, they inject a tranquilizer to numb the itch so they can feed undisturbed. This chemical also makes your blood flow faster. They are miniature winged technologies of nourishment.
Blackflies are virtually indifferent to death. You crush dozens of them on your arms, and dozens more take their place. There is no satisfaction in snarling, “Hah! Take that!” because they don’t scare; and while you are tiring yourself out killing some, the others go into a feeding frenzy. The bites produce fiercely itching red mounds that last for several days.
If you got stranded in the northern woods during June without insect repellent, blackflies could drive you completely insane. You might stumble wildly down rocky slopes and collapse from cardiac arrest while they crawled into your ears, nose, and eyes to pick your bones.
Yet the Buddhist teaching urged me to respect the blood-sucking demons! Not to whack them but to brush them off; better yet, to let them drink my blood. I thought this might be one of those misplaced, sentimental good intentions that could come only from monks who have nothing to do all day but turn prayer wheels.
On the other hand, I liked the outrageous demand of it, precisely because it went so completely against the grain of my habitual response. Whatever the logic of nonviolence toward vermin from a practical point of view, it made more sense to pacify my irritation than to heighten it by swatting a creature that reproduced in unlimited numbers and was drawn to the motion of my arms.
The day I went through the formal vows of becoming a Buddhist — which is called “taking refuge” — flies were part of the scene. A Buddhist is a refugee — one who has given up the struggle to hang on to personal territory. The Buddha is taken as an example of awakened mind; the dharma, or teachings, as the path; and the sangha, or company of fellow travelers, as the community of brothers and sisters to which one belongs. Quite simply, it is a commitment to be real, to get on with the process of waking up, and to cut through one’s self-deceptive games.
“Remember,” said the master with a smile, at the end of the ceremony, “this means that you don’t kill flies.”
If questions were flies, they would have been coming out my ears. His statement stirred up a cloud of them. Isn’t there a hierarchy of importance among life forms? Who cares whether I kill them or not? Do the flies care? If I kill them, will I be reborn as a spider? What about the struggle for existence? Did we get to be human by letting everything else eat us, or by killing with more intelligence and efficiency than any other animal? What about fleas, cockroaches, and bedbugs? Maybe I should have a big party and feed them all? Maybe I could train them for circuses? If he was really serious, did I dare to eat from the kitchen of a Buddhist center? Who knows what kind of vermin might be tolerated there? How would a Buddhist deal with an epidemic of cholera? Would he or she kill flies then? If you don’t kill, how can you live?
If a fly could talk, would it have a word for “death”? To a fly, “death” would mean the rich, ripe, irresistible odor of decaying flesh waiting for eggs; it would mean also “to feed without sequel,” “to transform,” “to provide sustenance,” and “to convert poison into food.” Speculation of this kind begins to undermine those boundaries that separate fly and man.
I was plunged into paradoxical conflict.
In sitting practice, thoughts are allowed to come into the mind and disappear by themselves. You neither feed them nor fight them. You just see. So I would not swat my questions, nor try to capture them with answers. I left them alone, watching and waiting for what would happen next. Questions come in astonishing varieties: shiny green questions, striped black questions, questions with hairy, white-flecked bodies and long tongues that lick the sweat off your mind. . . .
“Let us pray,” said the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, “that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal.”
“You might take pride in killing flies,” said my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “In such a situation you might be involved in some kind of ‘gotcha!’ mentality. That’s very savage behavior.” I laughed. It was so perfectly true.
At Karme-Choling, a Buddhist center in Vermont, I went on a month-long retreat, called a dathun, which requires a meditation schedule of ten hours a day. As part of the program, every morning, I repeated a traditional Mahayana precept not to kill. This precept is taken for twenty-four-hour periods.
The Buddhist approach to morality intrigued me. It is permeated with gentleness and space. There is no concept of a transcendental commandment handed down by a Supreme Being. Such a notion would be treated merely as a thought, and, like all other thoughts, neither accepted nor rejected, but allowed to come into the mind and disappear by itself.
The precept, therefore, does not carry guilt, since there is no punishment for breaking it — other than the lasting effects of reinforcing your own stupidity. (Ironically, these effects, called karma, turn out to be a worse punishment than anything dreamed up by theologians.) The intention of the precept is to sharpen awareness. Having repeated that you will not kill anything today, you are more apt to question yourself when your hand is poised over a mosquito. If you break the precept, the remedy is to tell someone about it, preferably a sangha member. Transgression is looked upon not as a sin to be punished and atoned for, but as an opportunity for further opening and further connection with others.
One takes the precept not to please God but simply to stop causing needless harm. Disgust at having done so, time and again, comes up spontaneously during all those hours of sitting. The world of getting and spending and laying waste is vividly and painfully displayed.
Sympathy for every being who is trapped in that world, including ourselves, comes up, too. It is not my sympathy; it will appear in anyone, under the right circumstances. It is not given to me by somebody else. It is not an insurance policy that guarantees me a place in Heaven. It comes from that universal capability, found even among insects, of caring for others. It is egoless, for it has nothing to do with self, although ego can pervert the expression of this sympathy by regarding it as some kind of personal asset. It is called bodhicitta in the Mahayana teachings, but the name is merely a helping device; the quality has no fundamental nature or location. This is what motivates a Buddhist to question the killing of flies.
After a while, sitting practice makes the act of killing terribly deliberate. There are no hidden corners left where you can casually kill and pretend you are only scratching an itch. Killing is exactly what it is.
When I worked in the old kitchen of Karme-Choling, nobody was killing the flies, because Trungpa had taught us they were our grandmothers. The fly that annoys me today may have given me the breast in 1752. They certainly fooled me; if I hadn’t known that, I might have been tempted to put up flypaper to keep them out of the food.
Instead of killing them, twice a day the kitchen staff would form a line, flapping towels and gradually moving the flies toward the open door. It was during this maneuver that I discovered flies were like buffalo. If you could get them all moving in a mass, the herd swept along in a single direction, like a stampede. Five hours later they were back inside.
The old kitchen had cockroaches in the sinks and mice in the cereal, and I wondered what these devout Buddhists would do about the problem. I got my answer one day when the exterminator came. We put a jarful of dead cockroaches on the shrine and said prayers to release them from suffering and help them toward a favorable rebirth.
I thought the ornately decorated shrine hall, the gong, the formal ceremony, and the solemn entry of a staff member with a jar of dead cockroaches made for a richly comic scene; knowing about Trungpa’s indefatigable sense of humor, I wondered if he had contrived the whole thing as an elaborate joke. But the doctrine that flies and cockroaches have been our mothers is no joke; I found it frequently in books by other Buddhist teachers, and heard it from various Tibetan lamas. It is an important part of our liturgical recitations.
The cockroach caper gave me a solution for the pest problems in my own home. I would pray for the buggers first and waste them afterward. I poisoned the mice and sprayed the ants. Nor did I confine my murders to the lower end of the evolutionary scale. A family of raccoons invaded my yard and killed my pet gander, and I sat up late at night, waiting for them to come back for the goose. When they showed up again, I shot all four of them. I enjoyed it. Sorry, Mom.
I did not neglect the prayers. They went something like this: “May you be reborn as a human in a land where the dharma is taught. May you receive the eight favorable circumstances for practicing the dharma, meet a great teacher in that lifetime, and attain Buddhahood. May any suffering and confusion you experience come to me. Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha (Gone beyond, beyond, completely beyond, crossed over, awake, so be it).” After the mantra came the kill.
The prayer had the function of slowing everything down — my mind, the action, and, curiously, the movements of the prey. It was remarkable how often the fly would hold still until the prayer was completed. By unraveling my own impulsive irritation in this way, I was removing the warning signals that a quarry normally depends upon — agitated air and sudden disturbance. The kill became smooth and efficient. But something else happened, too, for which I have no explanation.
An important practice of the Mahayana, called tonglen, is to visualize the suffering and confusion of other beings as a dark cloud, which is taken in through your own pores with each breath. In exchange, you visualize your equanimity and peace as a cloud of white light, which is given out with each breath. I did this practice during the mantra. The fly seemed hypnotized by it. I tested the efficacy of the practice dozens of times and nearly always got the same result: the insect would obligingly come to rest and allow itself to be gently and quickly squashed, with no struggle and a minimum of mess. Tonglen seemed like a wonderful hunting technique, but I had the uneasy feeling that I was perverting the dharma.
Of course I could, and often did, put a glass over the intruder and take it outdoors. In the winter, that action almost certainly results in death from cold. If I let the flies alone indoors, after a few days they would get wild and punchy, ramming into lampshades and furniture, crawling on my face, before finally dropping somewhere on the stove or the kitchen counters — like as not in a coffee cup or a frying pan — and lie on their backs, buzzing their last. If I killed them, on the other hand, they had a quick and peaceful end. Who knows? Maybe we all got what I asked for: maybe they were reborn as human and would become Buddhas in one lifetime, their suffering and confusion being absorbed by me.
To remodel my upstairs rooms, I cut holes in the roof and built a pair of dormers, glassed in all the way around, with skylights. I transformed one of the rooms into a meditation space, with a shrine in the corner, plants in the windows, icons on the walls, and cushions for sitting practice on the floor. Tibetan Buddhist tradition has preserved dozens of practices in addition to sitting, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing them all in this room: visualization, prostration, mantra, mandala offerings, guru yoga, sadhanas. In this room — where the sun streamed through the windows, where the mountains and clouds reflecting in the mirrors surrounded me on all sides, where the moon shining through the skylight at night illuminated my bed, and the rays of twilight lit up the faces of my teachers over the shrine — I wanted to practice until my mind, the mind of the guru, and the entire universe were experienced as a seamless, luminous whole. I had tasted the honey of the dharma. I was hopelessly, irretrievably drawn to it, like a young man in love.
There was a slight obstacle to my great plan: flies. I had neglected to seal all the cracks, and when the cold weather came, the flies found them. Innumerable hordes clustered in the walls. The first sunny fall day brought them into the room by the hundreds, buzzing and puking on the window glass. I took to sucking them up with a vacuum cleaner — a solution that gave me the option of emptying them, live, outdoors, where they would no doubt find their way back in, or letting them die quietly entombed in the bag. One prayer did for them all.
No matter how many I disposed of, or by what method, there were more. Hardly a day passed between October and April when my meditations were not shared with flies. It was tedious, and absurd. I felt as if I were always chasing the same fly — not an individual insect, but Fly, the mythic, morphogenetic lover of light and decay. Fly was deathless. Fly did not resent injuries, but danced with my aggression like a clown. It took strength from being dismembered, suffocated, and squashed. Killing individual flies was simply grooming Fly and making space for it to grow. Fly was a weather barometer: fast and frantic in the heat, slow and torpid in the cold. Fly could always be counted on to go toward what looked like open space, and consequently kept searching the glass for a way through. Fly had faith in glass, believing that whatever could admit light surely must have a passage in it someplace. Such faith made it an easy target. Fly was all journey and no goal. Fly walked, flew, and bumped over the bright windows all day, resting upside down, with the sun directly in its face. Puking might have been the deepest gut-level response that it could make to the mystery of the sun. At night it left the windows and went for the light bulbs, crawling inside the shades and trying to rest on the bulbs until the heat drove it into a frantic whirl.
For three winters, I have shared my practice room with Fly. When I started talking to it, I wondered sometimes if all those Buddhist practices were addling my wits. It seemed enormously funny that I should have gone to so much trouble to devise the perfect practice room — crisp, clean, beautiful, and full of light; that I had done this, among other reasons, to learn compassion for all beings; and that now my room was intruded upon by those very beings, who were there for the same reasons I was — they loved light and wanted to stay warm. Every day I began my practice by stalking them with a vacuum cleaner.
A Tibetan lama stayed in my house for a day. He slept in the practice room. He had lived in the United States only three months and could not speak English very well. When he taught the dharma to our local Buddhist group, a Nepalese interpreter translated for him. The subject was compassion. I heard, again, from his lips, the Buddhist doctrine I had heard so many times elsewhere, that all beings have been our mothers, and that this realization dispels the bondage of ego and awakens kindness. He illustrated the teaching with a story that the Buddha, in one of his previous lives, looked in the doorway of a house and saw a man who was eating a lamb chop kick a stray dog out of his kitchen. The Buddha, being clairvoyant, could see that the lamb had been the man’s mother and the dog had been his sister. So he was eating his mother and kicking his sister without knowing it.
Screwing up my courage, I told the lama that I exterminated pests in my home, always praying that they would be reborn as humans in a place where the dharma was taught and that they would attain Buddhahood. “Am I benefiting them or harming them?”
It took a few minutes for the interpreter to render this question into Tibetan. I could tell when he reached the part about exterminating pests: the old lama shook his head gravely and waved his index finger from side to side. I waited for the translation of the answer. “You are benefiting them and harming them at the same time,” he said. “You must not kill them. You must find another way.”
Served me right for having to ask. It was a simple answer, and altogether uncompromising. I pondered it for several weeks. Meanwhile the cold weather came again. I had a few more conversations with Fly, the room still vibrant with the lama’s blessing and the sounds of little wings. My conflict had become almost unendurable. What was I doing, anyway? I had spent the last seven years unscrewing my world and giving away the screws. Now I was lying on the rug talking to flies.
“I don’t give a damn what he says,” I muttered. “You flies are not taking over, you hear me? Clear the hell out.”
Night came, and I went downstairs to the kitchen. Flies were buzzing around the fluorescent tube above the sink. I walked over to tell them exactly what I thought of their nasty habits and perpetual noise. I stared up into the space behind the molding that held the light fixture. The flies were walking up and down on that long shiny tube in quick little starts, with contemplative pauses, like midget astronauts who had just landed on a strange planet and had found the most amazing thing in the whole galaxy: a giant glass penis of light. They were so amazed they could not contain themselves; an eruption of wild buzzing would sweep over them, during which they bounced back and forth between the bulb and the wood like gleeful paddle balls. Coming to rest, they walked round and round the tube, as if trying to figure out where it ended and began.
I staggered into the living room holding my sides. It was too much. I collapsed onto the rug and laughed my ass off. The tears poured down my cheeks.
It was for this that I had sat for more than two thousand hours, done one hundred thousand prostrations, cleansed my neurotic mental habits by reciting one hundred thousand lengthy mantras, designed rice mandalas on a brass plate to represent the whole of existence and given it away one hundred thousand times — meanwhile blessing and terminating at least one hundred thousand flies. All so I could watch them go nuts over a glowing dildo.
Who are you, Fly? Are you my mother? Ah, that is only one of your many disguises. I know who you really are, with your twin bulging eye collections that look like tiny mandalas, with your front feet rubbing together, with your everlasting music of wings, and your clown-dance, and your ceaseless longing for light. Only the guru, here from the very beginning, could play such a trick. You are the guru.
It was then that I noticed how Fly accomplished death on a windowpane without my assistance. When the jig was done, it stiffened its legs like a dancer assuming a pose, and sprayed a white cloud around itself in a circle. The exhalation reminded me of tonglen.
Its feet stuck on the cloud, as if glued by its own spotlight to the stage. I brushed away the corpse. Where it had been was clear glass. The vapor it had sprayed framed a near-perfect silhouette of its form. The tiny feet-marks were preserved in the spot like the footprints of a movie star.
I looked out the window through the silhouette. At first there was nothing unusual — just hills and trees in the sun. Then I saw the face of Maitreya. He was the luminous world, outlined by the empty shape of a fly.
Stephen T. Butterfield