Zen Diary: A Bird List Grows in Brooklyn

Looking for the dharma in Crown Heights

Zen Diary: A Bird List Grows in Brooklyn

Note to subscribers: If you’re reading this, you’ve turned on the “Zen Journal” option on your Watch List account page. This section contains more personal writing specific to my three-decades-and-counting exploration and practice of Zen Buddhism. If you no longer wish to receive these entries, you can go to your account settings, toggle off the “Zen Journal” option, and you’ll be automatically unsubscribed. (You’ll still receive all other Watch List posts.)

Over the past year, I’ve ramped up my meditation practice – zazen – by joining a Zen Zoom group (say it three times fast) for an hour every weekday morning from 7:00 to 8:00. I usually do this in an upstairs room that doubles as my wife’s yoga studio and out-of-season clothes storage. I face the room’s one window, looking out past a small statue of Buddha and two Totoro stuffed toys on the sill to the second floor of a neighbor’s house. Sometimes a cat pushes through the window curtains across the way to watch the birds and rabbits below, sometimes not. Often when I think the cat’s not there, I’ll catch a glimpse of movement in the shadows just beyond the curtains, so I’ve come to think of it as a second cousin to Schrodinger’s cat – Siddhartha’s cat – in that it’s Always Maybe There. That phrase makes me hear a bell going off somewhere, but I haven’t figured out where it is yet.

This block of zazen, sixty morning minutes, is never not changing. As summer turns to fall turns to winter turns to spring, I watch the line of sunlight shift day by day on the eaves and roof pipes of the house next door – an incremental solar tide ebbing and flowing. The window stays open, even in the cold months. This is important (for me, anyway), because I want to take in the noise of the world, to be in the world, rather than sealed up in a room. I hear the river-rush of commuter traffic passing by on the main road out front; I hear the clickety-clack of the D line trolley in back. And the birds, of course. A cacophony of birds, even in winter and blossoming into happy discord when spring comes.

All well and good, but as I write this I am visiting Kid #2 at their apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – a first floor apartment in a gritty, gentrifying urban neighborhood that, on the surface, is the exact opposite of nature. Arrived last night, had a lovely dinner and chat, rose early and went out back with my laptop for the morning sit in a small, dusty New York backyard. A few raised beds and a mulberry tree; chain link fence; a cinderblock wall leading to a narrow alley on one side and, on the other, similar yards stretching into the near distance along the back of the block. Chimney pots and laundry lines. Strong wifi and a good connection even outdoors: The Zoom window opens and 20 or so other folks, “Buddhas in boxes,” blink into being.

Just as I’m settling into position in a metal folding chair, my laptop facing me on a wobbly, unpainted wooden table, I hear the loud squawl of a bird in the sky overhead and, unsure of what it might be, pull out my phone and start the Merlin app. Do you know about Merlin? It’s a bird identification tool whose secret weapon is a sound recording device that thumbnails every tweet and caw, pulling back the veil on what you think are a few birds within earshot to reveal the full orchestra. I leave the app running and settle into the group sit: 25 minutes of seated meditation, five minutes of walking meditation – kinhin – followed by another 25 minutes of zazen.

Trying to be present in the middle of a great city is very different from sitting in suburbia, and I find myself sinking into the noise of waking Brooklyn with a kind of amazement. So much life! Trucks revving and grinding, horns impatiently bleating, the clatter of kids going to school heard over the wall of the alley. Every time a car cruises by with a sound system blasting music, I feel the bass along my spine all the way into my toes, and then the sound disappears down the block like a fade-out.

And the birds. Holy hell, the birds. During the first zazen, as I’m absorbing the sounds of the city, I gradually become aware that I’m sitting at the center of a small galaxy of species. Not just the bird above me in the tree – right, it’s a laughing gull, not so common in my home biome but all over Greater New York – and not even the ubiquitous house sparrows yammering at each other, but the liquid chatter of chimney swifts in the sky, and a crow and a blue jay talking past each other, and a northern cardinal down the block that just won’t shut UP, the avian equivalent of a guy with a boombox on a hot day. Robins and starlings and house finches and – wait, is that an ovenbird? In Brooklyn? Unmistakable, that teacher-teacher-TEACHER. You hear them in the woods and maybe see them on on the ground or on a low branch near where they build the kiln-like nests for which they’re named. But there’s an ovenbird in Brooklyn. Of course there is.

As I rise for kinhin, I sneak a peek at Merlin, which is still ticking off the species it hears. Cedar waxwing. Brown-headed cowbird. Broad-winged hawk – really? Merlin may be a magician of an app, but it’s not infallible, and grains of salt are advised. Maybe the scree of nearby bus brakes confused the algorithm. Or maybe there was a broad-winged hawk.

All told, nearly 20 species are picked up by Merlin by the time my sit is ending. If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have said there were maybe three, four kinds of birds holding court in this Crown Heights patch of weeds. I am quietly astounded and enlarged. In yesterday’s teisho, the teacher spoke of waking at dawn and, on hearing the birds outside his window, resisting the urge to identify and categorize – hoping to experience their presence without thought, without the me that does the identifying. That’s important – the crux of the biscuit, even – but so is acknowledging the vastness of the kinds of existences in which we are constantly immersed and of which we are very much part and parcel. Merlin hears me, too – hears it all. It just names the birds.

A coda: As the second session of zazen is coming to close, and I am feeling so exquisitely and pompously at one with nature, I catch a hint of movement in the weeds by the chain-link fence. A fat, glossy rat moseys out of the foliage, sniffs its way along the yard’s edge, then disappears through the fence into the adjoining alley. I feel a frisson of disgust mingling with not a little awe – it’s a good-looking rat! And despite what Mayor Adams and the majority of humanity would prefer, it’s part of the biscuit, too.

Thanks for reading. I usually write about movies and popular culture but occasionally about other things that move me, as is the case here. Feel free to share it if you’d like.

If you’d like to read more of my writing, you can subscribe to my newsletter here:

If you’re already a subscriber and would like to read more of my occasional posts on this topic, you can opt in to them by going to your account page and toggling on the “Zen Journal” option. Thank you.