I stood there in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, but my mind flew back to Canterbury University in the Christchurch of my youth.
Where is the graduate who does not regret some of the things that he did during his university years? I attended Canterbury University between 1983 and 1985. I left with a degree in Classics though along the way I studied various things. The chief regret that I also left with had nothing to do with drugs, alcohol or fast cars or fast women, but rather with an event in the Stage One Biology paper that I took.
My brother - Dr McBryde – thought studying Biology as part of an arts degree ‘obscure’, but I thought it demonstrated a laudable catholicity and breadth in my approach to the world.
Practical work was part of a biology course. One day in ‘lab’ each class member was presented with an egg. Why the tutor thought this a beneficial exercise I have no idea. Step by step he led us through the stipulated process. Blindly and trustingly I followed the instructions. We chipped open our egg, dug down through albumen to the yolk whereon could be seen a little blob. Somehow we each got this under our microscope and peered down at it. There, one could see a steady rhythmic pulsation. It was the beating of a minute, barely formed heart within a minute, barely formed being. If its movement slowed, we dripped warm water on it from an eyedropper, and it sped up again. This was meant to pass for education.
The end of the period drew near and I naively waited for instructions on how to put everything back together again. They never came. As in the famous nursery rhyme, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had no chance of putting this egg back together again. We had just each killed an unborn chicken.
I have long been a lover of hens. I was shocked that gratuitously killing a hen was meant to be part of my education.
Years later I bought a book called Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It was written by Matthew Scully, a man who had worked as speech writer for an American president – the historic line ‘recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa’ was written by Matthew Scully - but who in this book argued with passion and eloquence for humans to treat their fellow inhabitants of the planet with compassion.
Sri Chinmoy painted once a work called Be Kind to Animals. It is sound advice.
Matthew Scully’s chief thesis was not that there were practical or philosophical reasons to avoid the cruelty that so often humans visit upon animals. He based his principles on simple compassion, simple mercy. There was once a far greater proponent of compassion, and he too exhorted kindness to animals. The prince Siddhartha of the Shakyas once famously saved a bird from the hunter who would kill it. This compassion to our fellow creatures continues among his followers, the Buddhists.
We had been more or less abducted by the Bangkok tuktuk driver. He wanted to take us to his cousin’s suit-making shop and his brother-in-law’s jewelery shop. He did permit us to visit a temple where we saw what we, rather disrespectfully, referred to thereafter, along the lines of those other Buddhas of Bangkok – the emerald Buddha, the reclining Buddha, the standing Buddha – as . . . the ugly Buddha.
As we walked through to the courtyard where the image stood, two hawkers were selling small birds in cages. It was a distinctly Buddhist practice which I had read of. One could buy the birds in order to release them from their little confining cage in front of the statue of the Buddha.
90 Bhat was, in New Zealand currency, a little over three dollars – not much in order to offer one's compassion to all sentient beings, or at least to four small and bewildered, imprisoned birds.
As William Blake once wrote –
or as my friend Nick Owens once wrote -
I took my little captives to in front of the Buddha and I slid up the door of their small prison. A moment’s hesitation, and out they flew - the four of them together describing a vast arc up and away into the blue sky.
Perhaps I had made recompense for that little hen I had killed 24 years before.