One of the seventy-two precepts that I have taken over the years is; I vow to abstain from acts, such as clear burning, that may injure or kill living creatures.
The explanation from the Brahmajala Sutra additionally states; a disciple of the Buddha shall not, out of evil intentions, start wildfires to clear forests and burn vegetation on mountains and plains, during the fourth to the ninth months of the lunar year. Such fires are particularly injurious to animals during that period and may spread to people’s homes, towns and villages, temples and monasteries, fields and groves, as well as the unseen dwellings and possessions of deities and ghosts. They must not intentionally set fire to any place where there is life. If deliberately doing so, they are committing a secondary offense.
I was recently reintroduced to a story that has traveled through time in many formats and has taken on various incarnations over the centuries. The story has brought me back to a realization that we must get involved, otherwise we are as responsible as the person who sets the fire, if there is some action or some help that we can offer. I relation to recent disasters such as Katrina and the now looming BP Gulf Oil spill, what is it that we can do to lend assistance to this problem. The story itself engages action over speech, and our tendency is to talk and to not act. So, what can we do? This is always the question we are facing in our lives. Enjoy the story and make your own conclusions.
A Hummingbird and a Forest Fire:
A long time ago, a reckless and thoughtless real estate developer decided to set an old growth forest on fire. He decided; “By clearing the forest I could then build a luxurious mansion, and around the mansion a large village with many houses and buildings surrounded by wide boulevards and highways. I can have my friends join me and enjoy the results of my handiwork. We can master this forest forever,” he declared triumphantly. This developer did not consider the animals that made their home in the forest.
Eventually he started the forest fire. At first, the fire began burning small shrubs and bushes and only a few of the animals paid attention to the flames. However, the fire began to spread quickly, and soon it escalated and was out of control. Flames spread through the treetops, and the entire forest was soon being consumed in the raging inferno.
As the blazing fire spread, the forest animals began running to safety frightened by the sight of the rapidly moving flames, the choking smoke, and the loud crackling noise of exploding embers.
The younger and stronger animals quickly fled the rapidly moving fire, and soon arrived safely at the edge of the forest. The birds quickly flew into the air and escaped. The burrowing animals descended to their underground holes. However, the very young, along with the frail and aged animals could not outrun the fire and were left behind. They were destined to a terrible fate.
The animals that managed to outrun the firestorm stood on the edge of the forest stunned and horrified by the destruction of their forest home. They gazed silently at the intense fire, and stood helplessly and downcast with the certain knowledge that the fire was devouring their friends and neighbors who could not make it out of the forest. They were paralyzed from taking any action.
In an act of bravery, many of the elephants came forward and stated that they could douse the fire if they wanted to. One of the wise elephants said; “All we have to do is siphon enough water from the river with our trunks and spray it on the fire, and it will put out this terrible fire.” However, none of the elephants took any action; they just stood there mesmerized by the advancing fire.
“Certainly, we can do better than that, and we don’t even have to fetch any water,” stated the king of the lions, not to be outdone. “All we need to do is make a mighty roar, and the fire will become fearful and quickly leave the forest.” Even though the pride of lions issued loud and mighty roars, the fire continued burning.
The leader of the zebras followed. “We could distract the fire with our colors. We can start running back and forth, and while the fire is trying to understand if we are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, it will be confused and stop burning. That’s how we will save our forest.” The zebras pranced and danced with great fervor the relentless fire continued to devour their ancient forest home.
Then the head of the laughing hyena pack came forward, except none of the hyenas were laughing, they appeared to be very disturbed. “Our forest home is being destroyed. Somebody do something! We are only hyenas and are known for cowardice, not for our valor. You other stronger animals, the lions, the elephants, the tigers, one of you must do something!” Nevertheless, they did not remain with the others for long; and left for their underground dens to meet and discuss the situation. Once they were sequestered by themselves the scavengers shared their great delight at the sight of the burning forest. “Imagine all of the delicious morsels of carrion we can feast upon once this fire has burned out. Just think of all of the dead and dying animals that are just waiting for us to snack on,” they cheered each other grinning ear-to-ear, their mouths dripping with saliva. “This is a great day, a great day indeed for hyenas,” they congratulated each other.
The snakes that lived under rocks were not particularly concerned. “Well, this fire will soon be over, and we will crawl back under our rocks. We do not really care what happens to the forest. Everyone knows that fire does not burn rocks, and our homes will be safe after the fire is over,” they assured themselves in a tone of moral indifference to the plight of the other animals.
The weasels could actually see an opportunity to improve their situation after the fire. “What is the big deal about this fire? Once the forest is burned down, we will trick the new master to let us live in his village. We will never bother him and will never complain. We will pretend that we obey all of his rules, but we will look for our opportunities. Furthermore, if we stay out of his way, he will let us live and prosper,” they comforted each other.
It was finally the tigers’ turn who all looked acquiescent and dismal. The tiger emperor stepped forward and somberly advised the others, “Our forest is gone, and our homes are no more. There is nothing that can be done and there is no hope. We will never be able to go back. It is time to travel somewhere else and build a new life for ourselves.”
The developer saw the inferno, and was very pleased. He said to himself, “This is the culmination of all I have ever wanted to achieve. I have destroyed the forest and everything in it, I truly have now succeeded!” Of course, the developer did not think much about if the forest animals died or lived, to him it was inconsequential. He only thought about personal gain and profit. “I have eradicated the forest and now, I own the charred remains. It is mine! It is mine! It’s all mine! Forever!”
While all of this intense conversation was going on amongst the animals, a tiny humming bird was flying furiously back and forth to the river carrying droplets of water in her beak. After a while, the chattering animals noticed the hummingbird’s strange behavior.
“Hummingbird, what in the world are you doing?” they asked. “Oh, I am just carrying water from the river to put out the fire,” replied the humming bird casually, as she continued to fly back and forth to the river scooping up droplets of water. The whole animal colony burst out in laughter.
“Hummingbird, do you know how foolish you look trying to put out this great fire with the tiny droplets of water you carry in your beak,” the animals inquired. The hummingbird continued to shuttle droplets of water from the river, unfazed by the laughter and ridicule.
“You may think I am foolish, but I am doing all that I can do,” replied the humming bird. “But humming bird, surely you must know that your droplets of water will do nothing to put out this fire. Why are you wasting your time?” replied the puzzled animals. “I am doing all that I can do. And may be if we all did what we could do, instead of standing around and talking about what should, could or needs to be done, then perhaps, we may be able to put out the forest fire!” advised the tiny humming bird as she flew back and forth to carry more droplets of water from the river.
The big animals were not persuaded. “You can gather a thousand humming birds like yourself, and even all of you wouldn’t be able to put out this fire,” the animals derided the gutsy hummingbird. The hummingbird briefly hovered to explain herself to the large animals: “You see this forest is my home. This is where I was born. This is where grandpa and great grandma hummingbird were born. This forest has been good to all of the animals who made their homes in it. Our ancestors did a lot to make this forest a good home for all us; and many of died fighting to save this forest from many previous developers.”
The hummingbird continued, “Surely, you know none of the previous developers succeed in destroying our forest home because our ancestors were strong firefighters. They fought the fire with everything they had. And I am fighting this fire with everything I have, even though you may think I am foolish for trying to carry droplets of water in my beak,” concluded the hummingbird as she flew back once more to the river.