But the hunter was also the hunted;
For many of my arrows left my bow only to seek my own breast.
And the flier was also the creeper;
For when my wings were spread in the sun their shadow upon the earth was a turtle.
And I the believer was also the doubter;
For often have I put my finger in my own wound that I might have the greater belief in you and the greater knowledge of you.
~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet~
so where was i?
right. i’m in a car with a family i just met, traveling via tesseract, to Maine for a couple days to release lobsters. well, that’s what i thought anyway.
contrary to what i thought i heard, i would not be going to Maine straightaway. i’m in the front passenger seat of the Waxman family’s car and i’m talking to Joey so that he doesn’t fall asleep to the amorphous sounds of:
“Once one is one. Once twice is two. Once three is three.”
“Mary had a little lamb!” Charles Wallace shouted. “Its fleece was white as snow!”
while entertaining, “A Wrinkle in Time” might not be the most choice audio to stop one from lulling to sleep behind the wheel of a car.
Joey and i discussed a lot of things during that ride, notably:
- we would first be going to Pema Ösel Do Ngak Choling, a dharma center in Vermont, and stay there a whole day before releasing lobsters in Maine.
- i told Joey about my current point of inquiry regarding Buddhism, and life, in fact.
upon return from Japan, i researched moving into a monastery and becoming a nun. on the heels of completing the Shikoku Pilgrimage, having read “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki, and returning to a life that was so fundamentally changed, i was seriously considering it as an option. ten months later and prior to the weekend at Omega, i thought: some guidance should have presented itself by now. but seeing as it hasn’t and my financial situation seems to be getting worse, perhaps i really should find a way to move into a monastery and commit myself to study. i could be very happy doing that. the only other alternative is to find some version of a “real job” so that i can survive, feed my cats, and find a way to incorporate the teachings into my life as it is.
i was leaning towards the first idea because it seemed more clean and simple. i also had a hunch that’s precisely why the second messier and bumpy road was probably the one i would have to take.
in the car on the way to Vermont, i told Joey about the question that i would have asked Ani Pema at the retreat, but didn’t. turns out, Ani Pema was born in New York City, taught as an elementary school teacher, had two children, and in her mid-thirties, encountered her first teacher of Buddhism, Lama Chime Rinpoche, while traveling to the French Alps. so my question would have been along the lines of, “How did you know? How does one know whether to devote one’s existence solely to the study of Buddhism or to find ways to study while pursuing a life consistent with the one a person is already living?”
in the main hall at Omega, i was positioned next to the microphone in such a way that i could have popped up and asked my question. however, it is common behavior at Ani Pema’s retreats that people rush the mic and wait in a long line for the chance to seek advice and guidance. people often ask questions about their own struggles rather than clarifying the teachings that were just transmitted. it didn’t feel right to add my self to that. in contemplating one of the teachings from the weekend about “taking the last cookie,” i also felt like: yes, my question is a struggle that is very present in my life, but i feel like the people running up to the microphone need that cookie more than i do.
i let them have it, trusting that if i could continue being mindful in the midst of this confusion, somehow the path would reveal itself.
Joey says, “It’s really funny that you said that because there is a retreat this weekend at Pema Ösel and it’s called the Modern Day Bodhisattva Seminar.”
from their website: “Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche conceived the Modern Day Bodhisattva teachings as a means to present the essence of the Buddhist Mahayana tradition in language and practices that are accessible to modern people, and easy to practice in the midst of our day.”
the weekend retreat would be geared toward exactly answering the latter part of my question. it was becoming clear that this journey was going to take more than a couple days.
spending a day at Pema Ösel turned out to be the perfect transition before going to Maine. the weekend at Omega had been hot and sunny. as we drove out of NY, the skies opened up and big rains poured down on us like the tears that sometimes fall so willingly from my own eyes when sitting in meditation or releasing tension through bodymind practice. the rain painting the backdrop of Vermont’s lush green landscapes felt like the epitome of life, release, and growth.
it continued to rain throughout the next day. although i would have loved to frolic among the nearby gardens and hills, being rained in provided a much-needed opportunity for rest, meditation, organizing my affairs back in NJ (which i did not really do in the rush to embrace this new adventure), communing with a magical cat, and studying books lent to me by Joey to answer such inquiries as “What Makes You Not a Buddhist?”
after a hilariously weird dinner where Lila (age 9.5) elucidated on the wonders of the teasel (also teazel or teazle) and how General Cornwallis stepped on one, it smelled, and thus ended the Revolutionary War (citation unavailable), it was time for bed and an early rise to release lobsters in Portland, Maine.
Lobster Release #1 consisted of Joey, myself, and Rowen (who also works at Pema Ösel). one of the highlights of my life was coming out of the bathroom at the rest stop on the way to Maine. i would have never imagined myself ending a sentence with those words. however, it was wondrous to find Rowen shrouded in the dense forest surrounding the rest stop, doing Tai Chi as if there were no highway and industrial life just steps away. Joey and i giggled with joy at the sight and the energy being harnessed in this most unlikely of places. from that point on, the day seemed brighter. we were all awake and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.
when i had called Dan from Omega and told him about releasing lobsters in Maine, he said to me, “Do you know what you are doing??? You are going to Maine. This is the heart of lobster country. It is legal for people to be shot for stealing from someone’s lobster trap. Shot! And the law says that’s okay! It’s like you are going into Iraq and opening up oil valves and letting it drain all over the place.”
i assured him i was going to be okay. here’s why: throughout the year, people make donations and prayer requests to Mangala Shri Bhuti in order to support the Tsetar (life release) Fund. the philosophy behind the practice of life release is that sentient beings value nothing more than their own lives. therefore, saving any sentient beings who would otherwise be destined for slaughter, helps relieve the suffering of the world.
now, we can all likely imagine that a lobsterbird such as myself might be biased towards calling a lobster a “sentient being.” for the skeptics out there, please know that, historically, i am not the only one with strong feelings for the “tranquil, serious beings who know the secrets of the sea.” Gérard de Nerval is a Parisian famously known for liberating Thibault the lobster and taking him for guided walks in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. as Scott Horton’s article in Harpers Magazine so eloquently puts it,
“All things feel,” says Nerval’s Pythagoras. There is a ribbon, though it may not be blue, that ties all the forms of life on our planet; their interrelationship is very profound. And humankind is too quick to assume its own mastery and to turn all other things and creatures to its use…When Nerval proudly took his lobster for a promenade, he was making the same point he made in this poem: humans make themselves the masters of their environment and the beasts around them, and in so doing have they not lost a sense of the universe and the natural order among beings? Do they not recognize obligations that go with that mastery? It was not, perhaps, quite so comic an act as it may have seemed.
there was also the famous foodie essay by David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster. originally sent to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine, David Foster Wallace launched on a whole new exploration that the magazine didn’t necessarily commission. his experience raised some really important questions about the morality of celebrating the mass death and physical suffering of other beings that do appear to be aware of their own lives (or at the very least the pain of being boiled alive). it harkens back to Nerval’s question of humans’ responsibility when we attempt to control and maintain mastery over the natural world. David Foster Wallace didn’t start out a lobster aficionado like Nerval, but his research and observations lead to some really excellent questions about who exactly lobsters are:
…at the Festival, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they’re unhappy, or frightened, even if it’s some rudimentary version of these feelings …and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.
Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why?
finally, if you skeptics out there are still not convinced, here’s some hard science for ya. Eve Marder’s career-defining research is on the lobster’s stomatagastric-ganglion (STG) system, which has implications for other biological beings, including humans:
This circuit of 30 neurons controls the muscles that grind and move food through the digestive tract of lobsters, crabs, and other crustaceans. It is an example of a central-pattern generator, the same type of rhythmic neural circuitry that controls breathing and other automatic functions in humans.
Marder began making some remarkable and groundbreaking discoveries. At the time, scientists believed that the connections in neural circuits were hard-wired to produce a single and predictable pattern of output, or behavior. Marder discovered, however, that far from being fixed, the STG was remarkably plastic. It could alter both its parameters and its function in direct response to various neurotransmitters (endogenous chemicals that transmit messages between neurons), and it did this while still maintaining its basic integrity. Her discoveries of these “neuromodulators” marked a paradigm shift in how scientists viewed the architecture and function of all neural circuits, including those in humans.
~from the Gruber Foundation website at Yale~
neural plasticity is a huge topic concerning psychology and meditation. implications are: if we can literally change the structure of the connections within our brain, we can change the way we think and behave. if we can change ourselves from the inside-out, who’s to say that we can’t then change the world around us?
no one. thank you, lobsters. with gratitude, i release you.
the steps to lobster release are incredibly simple and profound:
Step 1: pick lobster from crate and (since the lobstermen give us female lobsters) mark the second-to-the-right tail flipper with a V-shaped nick. this acts as a sign to the lobster hunters that it is an egg-bearing female and needs to be released back into the water. this rule reciprocally helps the lobster hunters because it ensures that they release lobsters that will, in turn, birth more lobsters, bringing them future prosperity.
Step 2: cut rubber bands off lobsters’ claws.
Step 3: express appreciation for the lobster. you can tell her jokes, secrets, or wish her well, if you like. i do all three. ongoing throughout the entire process, we chant a mantra of compassion, “om mani peme hung hrih.”
Step 4: get her as close to the water as possible, and tail-end first, set her free. sometimes the lobsters do this amazing thing where they spread their “arms” really wide as if they are freefalling into a place of ecstatic freedom. the one below was a little shy and did a kind of cannonball maneuver.
i also gave Reiki to the lobsters. one phenomenon is that they sometimes violently flap their tails during the release. with their claws bound, it seems they are using every part of themselves to fend off danger and survive this completely foreign experience. figuring it would be nice to return them home with as little trauma as possible, i gave them Reiki until they seemed calm. then i sent them on their way. it generally seemed to work. i like to picture a bunch of partially-healed lobsters feeling groovy as they return home to report on their own big adventure.
after the release of approximately 225 lobsters, we stood on the docks and we recited prayers requests and dedications of merit. as the docks moved under our feet, my center felt connected to something very deep in the sea itself. perhaps it was the blue (or red?) threads connected to all the freed lobsters, grounding me as they made their way back to the ocean floor. simultaneously, waves of emotion flooded my heart and poured out through my eyes. i was no longer this person who felt in need of saving, but rather, a part of something much larger. it was through the act of liberating others that i found a new sense of freedom.
the following quote is from Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s impromptu talk during “The Rain of Blessings,” transcribed from Natasha Carter’s 5/24/2015 LINK talk (podcast teachings on the Buddhadharma) titled Our Living Breathing Lineage:
So what, to me, is very significant about life release is really responding to that call of another being in danger and being able to do something. Not that always we can do something but when we can, to release them from that danger is really the starting point of all religion and starting point of all practices of humanity.
Then he shared a quote from Chandrakirti:
“This is the beginning of awakening of the human spirit, to become less ignorant and more awakened. In this way, whatever troubles or little resources we are able to spare on behalf of the life release, I really think it is a tremendous amount of great benefit that we can actually bring to the lives of others, directly and immediately, and really there is not any other practice of generosity. Immediately you can also feel the sense of joy and satisfaction without having to wait for the result or think about the future.”
i went to Maine for the sole purpose of freeing lobsters. immediately, i received an invitation to begin understanding the answer to my own personal struggle and inquiry. not long after that, i was tapped into an entire ocean of being.
i didn’t free the lobsters to get anything in return but it does seem to pass that by giving to others, we do receive the benefits of merit. during this journey, i found myself surrounded and supported by a new group of beings that taught me so much about how to take care of one another. some new sense of love and life was being generated by subtle ways of paying attention and responding in kind action. i wondered: if we could collectively open our minds to who others are, would we truly find that god does exist in all things? (even lobsters…or rocks!) and maybe, just maybe, if we pay close enough respect and attention, we will find out that we really aren’t so separate after all.
may all beings experience deep and abiding peace; may all beings be free.
All things feel.
So you alone are blessed, you free-thinking man,
In a world where life sprouts in everything?
You seize the liberty to dispose of the forces you hold,
But in all your plans a sense of the universe is lacking.
Honor in each creature the spirit which moves it:
Each flower is a soul moved by Nature’s face;
In each metal resides some of love’s mystery;
“All things feel!” And all you are is powerful.
Beware, even the blind walls may spy on you:
Even matter is vested with the power of voice…
Do not make it serve an impious purpose.
Often in the most obscure beings resides yet the hidden God;
And like the infant’s eye covered by its lid,
The pure spirit forces its kernel though the husk of stones.
~Gérard de Nerval, Vers dorés (1845) in Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 739 (J. Guillaume & C. Pichois eds. 1989)(S.H. transl.) from Harpers Magazine~
And it is with this belief and knowledge that I say,
You are not enclosed within your bodies, not confined to houses or fields.
That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind.
It is not a thing that crawls into the sun for warmth or digs holes into darkness for safety,
But a thing free, a spirit that envelops the earth and moves in the ether.
If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them.
Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things, but not their end,
And I fain would have you remember me as a beginning.
Life, and all that lives, is conceived in the mist and not in the crystal.
And who knows but a crystal is mist in decay?
~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet~
Story 3 of the Lobsterbird Pilgrimage: Where the Heart Is (Part 3)