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Our Shared Life: The Lesson of the Two-Headed Bird

As we come to the close of the 2020 election cycle, we find a nation bitterly divided and it

seems as if we are living in vastly different worlds. This clash of perspectives has led to the dehumanization of those with differing views. The pain and hurt we continue to inflict on each other will ultimately result in collective harm. In our attachment to winning and being “right,” we have lost sight of our shared humanity. Despite our differences, we share one community, one nation, and one world. We are one human family and our collective destiny is inextricably bound together.

The great patron of Buddhism in Japan Shōtoku Taishi offers guidance for dealing with conflict. He said,

Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all beings have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionable sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. We are both simply ordinary beings.

Prince Shōtoku reminds us of the fundamental truth of how our very existence lies within our relationship to others. When we deeply reflect on who and what we are, we come to realize our profound connection and mutual dependence on all things. This is Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching of interdependence and what he viewed as the proper relationship between self and others. The Buddhist practice of metta or loving-kindness begins with the self and extends to all beings including those we have difficulty with. What is harmful to one person will probably be harmful to others. What is good for one person will probably be good for others. This is how we should cultivate much-needed empathy and manifest compassion to help heal our troubled world.

Buddhist scripture is filled with stories that share lessons for living wisely and compassionately. In the Amida Sutra, there is a beautiful two-headed bird named Gumyocho which lives in the Pure Land. Meaning “Shared Life,” the Gumyocho is said to have a beautiful voice that sings the holy scriptures leading those who listen to their songs to enlightenment.

According to legend, the bird’s two heads had vastly different personalities and desires. When one head was sleepy, the other one wanted to play. When one head was hungry, the other one wanted to rest. Eventually, the two heads began to resent and hate each other.

One day while one of the heads was sleeping, the other feasted on delicious fruits and flowers until he was stuffed. When the sleeping head awoke, he wanted to eat too, but he was already full because they shared one stomach. He was angry that he could not enjoy any of the food. He took revenge by secretly poisoning the other head resulting in its death. However, he also suffered and died because they shared the same body.

As he was dying, the head realized how foolish he had been. While he resented his other head, he failed to recognize that his own life depended on it. Just the same, by harming his other head, he was also harming himself. In the Pure Land, the Gumyocho sings the following, “The way which destroys others also destroys oneself. The way which keeps others alive also keeps oneself alive.” Through this story, the Buddha is teaching us that we are all living a shared life of mutual dependence.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, we should reflect on our shared life as one nation and one human family. We must do all that we can to heal our divisions and to mend our brokenness. Whether we like it or not, our lives are profoundly connected. We can either grow and thrive together or we can wither and die together. Our collective future depends on each of us. What will we choose to do?

Namo Amida Butsu.

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