This winter dawn lifts from the firth a huge red ball;
I’m small
So how come the old myth equates me with the sun,
The old one
That must be hunted down and killed and raised aloft,
My soft
Feathers shared as trophies? And how can I with this short wing
Span be King
Of All Birds, as the song says? In contests of power, size
Matters, wise
People say, but the last is often, said somebody wiser,
A quick riser.
Of course you know that, if you’ve watched me hunting-
The one thing
I have is speed; flitting from branch to trunk to root
Puts my foot
On an unsuspecting spider or tasty woodlouse.
“Like a mouse”
Some books describe me, but it’s inexcusably lazy
To place me
Alongside such an earthbound creature. More like an eagle
When I take my stand on a top twig and let my song bubble
With double
Volume over wood or garden to the shy potential mates
I’ll impregnate
To lay our eggs in the several nests I have already fashioned.
Nothing’s rationed
In my domain. Big head, you think? Big heart, I
Would reply,
As I take on feeding responsibilities for the lot,
Asking if any of my wives has cheated. I’m still royal
If they’re not loyal
And treat the chicks with equal lavish, mine or no.

Eurasian Wren- Salamanca, Castilla y León, Spain

But here’s the sto-
-ry Aesop knew about me, attested by Aristotle
Over Breeding” is its theme. Once upon a set
Time the birds met
To choose a king, agreeing unanimously
The bird that flew the highest would be their Chosen
One, a notion
Pleasing to the eagle, who soared beyond the lark and swallow
To wallow
In the blue beyond the hawk and vulture, and floated
While they voted
“Eagle is our rightful….” When from its coverts where I was hiding
I came sliding
And fluttered yards above the eagle who could get no
Higher. “Oho,”
I shouted, “Birdies, small is beautiful,
I’ll be dutiful
As your king, ready to tell in every dangerous hour
The truth to power.”
“Yes rule” they said, “Troglodytes, from your quiet den
Rule us, King Wren!”




The Starling


ARKive image ARK023113 - European starling


Hardly anyone has ever said,  Oh look, darling

at that stunningly beautful starling!” –

not because you aren’t beautful, especially when your irridescent feathers catch

the sun, but rather because anyone who has seen you snatch

nuts from the beaks of smaller birds at a feeding station

buffeting them with your wings as you fly off with screeches of elation;

or tried in vain to think clearly while you and your gang insult each other

from neighbouring roofs, finds that your hooligan character  smothers

your bodily charm; so not many say of you “My word!

Would you eyeball that elegant bird!”


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, supposed

you were intelligent, because a theme that he’d composed

three weeks before, you whistled back to him in perfect pitch.

He kept you as a pet and often listened to see if you would snitch

more of his best tunes. He was grieved when you died

and gave you an elaborate funeral. I’ve occasionally tried

to whistle to you, but you prefer to imitate the ring

of the neighbour’s mobile. Maybe I should sing?

Like Amadeus I consider you smart

in body and mind, in life and art.


9E105BA8-2AE3-4D35-A6E4-B1A20E8BE318But once, when I was a boy, I inched

up to your treehole nest to find what could be pinched

while you and your partner scolded from a branch

alternately leaving it to launch

yourselves at my face, as I pulled aside the screening

leaves to look into your woven nest, leaning

over the five eggs of palest blue you’d laid upon it.

Blue amidst the brown grass where you’d spun it

as if they’d blown here through some gap in spacetime

from some perfect world, some gracetime.


Yet these alien bits of beauty were filled with earthly beings

born featherless and blind whose shrill demanding squeakings

kept you on the wing for weeks, so that each might eat and drink

and grow into smart hooligans like you. Or me: a sly wink

from beyond that says we’re always close to causing bother

but not so far from something other.



A monk arrived at the monastery.

Zhaozhou asked if he had been there before, and the monk said he had.

Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”

Another monk arrived and Zhaozhou asked the same question but this monk said he had not been before.

Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”

The monastery director asked Zhaozhou, “Never mind the monk who has been here before, why did you tell the second monk to have a cup of tea?”

Zhaozhou said, “Director!”

”Yes, master?” the director anwered.

Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”B98A09CD-5E10-488C-8FD2-3AE2726F444C

This Zen story of the great master Zhaozhou is what practioners call a Koan, that is, a public case, through which disciples can learn the meaning of Buddhism. They are often brief and a bit mysterious, like this one.

The story is set in the context of Buddhist monasticism, in which disciples might be greeted with monastic rules and books of doctrine designed to help them  move from the world into the sacred sphere of the monastery.

The greeting offered by Zhaozhou dramatises his conviction that true enlightenment is an experience rather than words. No amount of doctrine however profound is a substitute for the life-changing experience of enlightenment. So these new disciples are immediately plunged into the shared life of the monks.

But there is more to it than that. Buddhism emphasises that the separate people and things that make up our world are wonderful but ultimately without independent existence, and only arise in partnership with each other. When these things and people are experienced as “empty and marvellous” there are no longer any holy things or people, nor any worldly things or people, so drinking tea can be as holy as any religious ceremony. The director who wants a doctrinal explanation is reminded of the experience of shared life with Zhaozhou ( he hears his call and answers it, without thinking) and with a cup of tea shared with his brothers. 32B67D5E-7EA0-48FD-9E1C-54940C459559

The great contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh of Plum Village Community in France calls this “interbeing”: enlightened people cease to regard themselves as individual existences, and find fullfilment in a communal life which includes the natural world and its creatures as well as other human beings. He has suggested links between this enlightement and the teaching of Jesus. Certainly the teaching contained in chapters 14 and 15 of John’s gospel, which emphasises the mutual indwelling of Father, Son, Spirit and believers, sets out a Christian version of interbeing, which can only be real when it is experience rather than words.

But Zhaozhou’s command to have tea reminds me also of Jesus’ prayer for daily bread and his practice of eating not only with his disciples, but also with wrongdoers and outcasts. The interbeing advocated by Jesus does not rest on the illusory nature of independent existence, but rather on the transformative nature of life shared with God and one’s neighbour, the interbeing that is characterised by Jesus’ blessings of the poor, the gentle, the grieved, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for the cause of justice. Broken bread and poured out wine are made by Jesus to stand as a repeated acted parable of the truth of his interbeing with his followers. 7F5E0B19-CF90-4C8D-BD76-830AD7418C1D

Zhaozhou would have expected his disciples to find that when their illusory separate selves were broken down in the experience of shared identity with everyone and everything in the  universe, they would experience the “great compassion” which flows from knowing that others are parts of us, and we of them. He was tireless in finding ever new ways of cutting through the religious cackle of Buddhism to insist on the experience of enlightenment, just as Jesus cut through the careful requirements of Pharisaism, to insist on the immediate presence of God’s kingdom. The difficult riddling nature of Zen stories and practice prompts me to recognise similar elements in the life and teaching of Jesus.

But of course this blog is all words, perhaps too many. I can already hear old Zhaozhou saying, “Michael!”

”Yes master,” I reply.

”Have a cup of tea,” he says.






Wikipedia says you are to be found

in many famous locations round

the world- Times Square, Dam Square,

Piazza San Marco, and that you are not rare

in George Square, Glasgow. Flying rat

is one of the nicer names they give you. Fat

bold and scabby, smart as any crow is

you are a “proven carrier of psittacosis”.

– they never crticise humans of whom not a few

are proven carriers of human flu –

but because you live in the streets and beg

you are seen like other street dwelllers as dregs

of evolution, candidates for killing.

It’s true I’ve seen you swilling

ketchup from a discarded fish supper

and that you are known to be a slurper

of superannuated curried

rice so vile that even your furry

friend the rat gives it the body swerve.

B5C7930E-A176-4125-A8F4-3C6B3B97B0F2In spite of human enmity you have the nerve

to greet us cheerfully in public places

awaiting without much patience the traces

of our carelessness with food; or you delight

with sudden arabesques of flight

then perching on them to be fed

kids and other dafties bringing bread.

I can’t see what your critics’ moan is.

From your history, I like your cojones

refusing captivity by pigeon fanciers

you chose rebellion as great escape chancers

restoring the dignity of being free

enjoyed by your rock dove ancestors. Fe-

-ral they call you, like any creature

that successfully refuses to meet their

command to serve, beggars, immigrants

schemies, gypos, plus anyone whose stance

is pro- justice and anti-capitalist.

Leave that beer can, you’ll get pissed,

but come back with your petrol- coloured feathers

and beady eyes. In all weathers

your cussedness is a good deed;

I guess it’s you brought me a seed.

One grey pigeon isolated on white