Half Moon Day: The Owl and the Two Silly Birds

March 14, 2008

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On Tuesday I was supposed to go to a school to talk to some children. They had sent me an information sheet a while ago based on the theme they wanted me to address, but staying faithful to habits diligently honed at school I looked at it the night before my visit. The theme was the role of silence in Buddhism. And so, having a cold, I lay in bed and starting making up this story out loud. When I got half way through I thought I should write it down and so I ejected myself from the horizontal and into a chair. Unfortunately I was too ill to go the following day, but I will be going to back to that school, and I’ll no doubt tell it to other children, and definitely to adults!

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Oswold the Owl and the Two Silly Birds


Once upon a time there lived three friends in an old oak wood upon a small hill. They were Pablo the Parrot, Molly the Magpie, and Oswold the Owl.

Now, every day, when the sun arose, Molly the Magpie and Pablo the Parrot would sit on a big old mossy rock in the middle of a clearing and start to talk. And what did they talk about? Well, Pablo the Parrot was a terrible talker, and Molly the Magpie was a tremendous thinker, and what happens when talkers and thinkers meet? – they talk and talk until the sun goes down. And they talk about philosophy and religion and science. And they ask themselves:

“How old is the world? Where did it come from? What happens when I die? Who am I?”

And so every day and every year Pablo the Parrot, the terrible talker, and Molly the Magpie, the tremendous thinker, would talk and talk from dawn to dusk.

But what did Oswold the Owl think of these two silly birds? Well, he didn’t think, because Oswold the Owl was a magnificent meditator. And Oswold knew that these two birds were no wiser than when they first hatched out of their eggs. Because these two silly birds would always end up lying on the rock, at the end of each day, with a headache! As they thought and they talked way too much! And Oswold the Owl, who was very wise, secretly named the hill they lived on – Headache Hill.

You see, Oswold was different. He would just sit, a little way away from the two bickering birds, and he would meditate. Perched on a branch in his tree, he would slowly close his big brown eyes, still his mind, and concentrate on his breathing. Doing this made Oswold happy – very happy. But not only that, it also made Oswold very wise. And he secretly named his tree ‘The Tree of Truth’. Because he knew what the others didn’t: and that is that truth can only be found by making the mind very, very still.

Then, one day, the owl, seeing that the two birds were just getting more and more confused, and suffering from more and more headaches, felt very sorry for them and decided to go and teach them.

So, Oswold calmly opened his eyes, and, seeing Pablo the Parrot, the terrible talker, and Molly the Magpie, the tremendous thinker, sitting on their rock in the midday sun, flew from his branch and landed between them. The two birds were in the middle of a very complicated conversation, when they stopped, and looked at Oswold, and asked him his opinion. But Oswold shook his head and said:

“You silly, silly birds! You do not know how silly you are! You talk all day and yet you know no more! You are no wiser than when you first hatched out of your eggs! For every day, and every year, you talk and talk, and end up lying on this rock, on this hill, with a headache! And you should know, that for a long time, I have secretly named this hill – Headache Hill. It is time I taught you how to be happy, but most importantly, how to be wise. For it isn’t by thinking and talking that we become wise. It is by making our minds very, very still.”

Then, Oswold the Owl, the magnificent meditator, held in front of them a jar of water with little bits of soil and dirt sitting at the bottom. Then he said:

”Birds! You see this jar of water, with little bits of soil and dirt at the bottom. Well, this is like our minds. Our thoughts are like the mud and dirt, and when we think too much it is as though we shake this jar of water and our minds become very, very murky, and we cannot see the truth.”

Then Oswold shook the jar and the water became murky. And the two silly birds looked at it, and then they looked at each other. Then Oswold stopped shaking the jar, and he held it very still, and the water gradually became clear. Then the two silly birds looked at it, and then they looked at each other.

See, silly birds!” said the owl. “When we hold the jar still the water becomes clear. If we close our eyes, still our minds, and concentrate on our breathing, then our minds will become clear too, and the answers will come naturally to the questions that we have.”

“But how does it work? Why does it work? Why is it like this? Why? Why? Why?!!!” sqwarked the terrible talker and the tremendous thinker.

STOP!” said the owl. “Can’t you see?! You’re shaking the jar so vigorously, which means that you cannot see! Keep your minds still and all will become clear. Then we can name this hill – Happiness Hill.”

And from that day on, when the sun arose, the three friends would sit together in The Tree of Truth, slowly close their eyes, still their minds, and concentrate on their breathing. And, after a time, their wisdom grew, and there was never again a headache on the hill.

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Credit to Bhante H. Gunaratana for the jar of muddy water analogy (Mindfulness in Plain English).

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The next teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Friday, 21st March

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