The birds of appetite and the bird of paradise

The study and practice of Eastern meditation gave both Laing and Merton the potential for the direct experience of being in the here-and-now, and in a place of self-emptying and no-thought. Merton took Zen into his Christian spiritual tradition. He felt that Zen could help the Westerner attain a higher level of religious consciousness within the Christian context. It led Merton to discover that words are but a ‘finger pointing at the moon. To focus on the finger instead of what it points to is to miss the whole reason for seeing’. The birds of appetite that he writes of in his author’s note at the beginning of Zen and the Birds of Appetite represent our desires – for knowledge; for information that we can take and own, and add to our life; for gain; for something. Instead we are being introduced to an alternative:

‘Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the “nothing”, the “no-body” that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey.’

Laing’s capacity to be open to another’s distress was augmented by his yoga and meditation practice. He was able to connect, to let down the barriers that most of us swiftly erect to defend ourselves from someone else – especially when they are different to us and appear to be mad. He too understood that words are what we turn to when we are beginning to lose ‘that Alpha and Omega’. He writes of his awareness of saving a bird from a cat. It reads as a moment of Zen consciousness – the awareness of desire (the birds of appetite) providing an awakening (the bird of paradise):

‘Stop. Cat is a cat is a bird is a non-bird of ineffably frail space suddenly spreading in parabolic grace of authority. How foolish to worry, to try to save her, or grasp her. Perhaps the cat was trying to save her. Let be. Cat and bird. Begriff. The truth I am trying to grasp is the grasp that is trying to grasp it.

I have seen the Bird of Paradise, she has spread herself before me, and I shall never be the same again.

There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.


The Life I am trying to grasp is the me that is trying to grasp it.

So what is the bird of paradise? Merton writes of the paradise of ‘the lost innocence, the emptiness and purity of heart… which had been shattered by the “knowledge of good and evil”’. Given by divine mercy the bird of paradise is then a state of mind where unity is recovered, where the two becomes one and where we experience our ‘lost likeness to God in pure, undivided simplicity’.