Tuesday, July 7, 2009

KTD 10-Day Teachings/Song of the Turkey Buzzard

Turkey Vulture, photo by Elizabeth Barakah Hodges

Back in the 1980s, when I was working as a program assistant for the University Extension division of the University of California at Berkeley, I made the mistake of reading Lew Welch’s poem Song of the Turkey Buzzard on my lunch hour.

I say “mistake” because the poem—in which Welch predicts his own suicide and sky burial—had a profound emotional effect on me, and I went into what I can only describe as some kind of altered state for about four hours. In short—I was useless at my job that afternoon.

In Tibet, where the ground is often too frozen to allow for burial and where firewood for cremations can be scarce, one way that the dead are “buried” is through what is called sky burial—ritual dismemberment of the corpse, the parts of which are then consumed by vultures.

So I was stunned to hear the following story, tacked onto one of the morning teachings by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche as a seemingly impromptu embellishment. (Note from AWW: This is not a verbatim transcript.)

In Tibet, the people who prepare bodies for sky burial are chod practitioners who do practice for the people who have died.

The birds that eat the bodies are considered dakas and dakinis, and are remarkable in their behavior.

After people who have earned merit through compassionate actions are dismembered, vultures will encircle the body but not touch it. Another vulture comes from the sky, gives a call, and lands on the center of the body. This vulture does a little dance, and then begins to eat—at which point the other vultures begin to eat, too.

The feast is considered a ganachakra (sacred feast), and the central vulture is the ganachakra master.

Now, many people will think this is a gruesome story, but I think it’s beautiful—and it connected me, immediately, to that experience long ago when I read Song of the Turkey Buzzard for the first time.

So I wonder if Lew Welch provided the food for a ganachakra, never seen by human eyes, out there in the California wilderness so long ago.

For Rock Scully
who heard it
the first
Praises, Tamalpais,
Perfect in Wisdom and Beauty,
She of the Wheeling Birds
The rider riddle is easy to ask,
but the answer might surprise you.
How desperately I wanted Cougar
(I, Leo, etc.)
brilliant proofs: terrain,
color, food, all
nonsense. All made up.
They were always there, the
laziest high-flyers, bronze-winged,
the silent ones
"A cunning man always laughs and smiles,
even if he's desperately hungry,
while a good bird always flies like a vulture,
even if it is starving."
(Milarepa sang)
Over and over again, that sign:
I hit one once, with a .22
heard the "flak" and a feather flew off, he
flapped his wings just once and
went on sailing. Bronze
(when seen from above)
as I have seen them, all day sitting
on a cliff so steep they
circled below me, in the up-draft
passed so close I could see his
Praises, Tamalpais,
Perfect in Wisdom and Beauty,
She of the Wheeling Birds
Another time the vision was so clear another saw it, too.
Wet, a hatching bird, the shell of the egg streaked with dry scum,
exhausted, wet, too weak to move the shriveled wings, fierce
sun-heat, sand. Twitching, as with elbows (we all have the same
parts). Beak open, neck stretched, gasping for air. O how we
want to live!
"Poor little bird," she said, "he'll never make it."
Praises, Tamalpais,
Perfect in Wisdom and Beauty,
She of the Wheeling Birds
Even so, I didn't get it for a long long while. It finally came
in a trance, a coma, half in sleep and half in fever-mind. A Turkey
Buzzard, wounded, found by a rock on the mountain. He wanted
to die alone. I had never seen one, wild, so close. When I reached
out, he sidled away, head drooping, as dizzy as I was. I put my
hands on his wing-shoulders and lifted him. He tried, feebly, to
tear at my hands with his beak. He tore my flesh too slightly to
make any difference. Then he tried to heave his great wings. Weak
as he was, I could barely hold him.
A drunken veterinarian found a festering bullet in his side,
a .22 that slid between the great bronze scales his feathers were.
We removed it and cleansed the wound.
Finally he ate the rotten gophers I trapped and prepared
for him. Even at first, he drank a lot of water. My dog seemed
frightened of him.
They smell sweet
meat is dry on their talons
The very opposite of
bird of re-birth
meat is rotten meat made
sweet again and
lean, unkillable, wing-locked
soarer till he's but a
speck in the highest sky
eye finds Feast! on
baked concrete
squashed rabbit ripened:
our good cheese
(to keep the highways clean, and bother no Being )
Praises Gentle Tamalpais
Perfect in Wisdom and Beauty of the
sweetest water
and the soaring birds
great seas at the feet of thy cliffs
Hear my last Will & Testament:
Among my friends there shall always be
one with proper instructions
for my continuance.
Let no one grieve.
I shall have used it all up
used up every bit of it.
What an extravagance!
What a relief!
On a marked rock, following his orders,
place my meat.
All care must be taken not to
frighten the natives of this
barbarous land, who
will not let us die, even,
as we wish.
With proper ceremony disembowel what I
no longer need, that it might more quickly
rot and tempt
my new form
(From "Ring of Bone" by Lew Welch, Grey Fox Press, Bolinas, California)


  1. I love this. Thank you so much. I have gone back and read your commentaries and they really bring the teaching alive for me! The photo of the turkey buzzard is great - but now that I read the poem in all its splendor, it is greater.

  2. Hello,
    you use this picture without any mandatory copyright. Please contact me to fix that...
    Thank you !

    1. Samuel, I clicked on your name and got to your profile, but I could find no way to contact you listed there. When I used the photo, I saw no indication of a copyright. I've now removed the photo. I do respect copyright and I apologize for my infringement.

  3. Please contact me to fix the copyright on this picture otherwise I ask Blogspot to delete it and they are very efficient for that !
    Thank you !

    1. Please see my reply to your later post, above. Thank you.