The Great Golden-Winged Garuda Bird

The great golden-winged garuda bird’s heart emits a radiant light. Its onderful functioning and spiritual penetrations are inconceivable.

When the golden garuda dies, its flesh and bones scatter and rot.
Only its heart remains intact, round, lustrous, and dazzling bright.
When the dragon king takes it for his pearl it can obliterate a thousand years of darkness.
When the wheel-turning king obtains it as a wish-fulfilling pearl, it can rescue all those in difficulty.
How is it that we humans use it daily and yet cannot see it?

This is one of the six songs written by the Great Master Han Shan. It praises the human heart. We know that when the golden-winged garuda bird extends its wings, they span 360 yojanas. (A small yojana is 13 miles, a medium yojanais 20 wings, the ocean waters all dry up. It can move all of that water to another place.) That’s how powerful it is. However, there will also be a time when it must die. Then, its flesh and bones will decompose and only the heart will remain intact.

What does the golden-winged garuda bird take for food? It feeds exclusively on dragons. Dragons possess spiritual penetrations. They are able to shrink and grow in size, and can appear or disappear at will. Although they have these spiritual penetrations, they lose them and become immobilized upon seeing the gold-winged garuda bird. They can only wait helplessly for the golden-winged garuda bird to come and devour them.

After the gold-winged garuda bird had eaten a great many dragons, the dragon king was forced to seek aid from the Buddha. Ruefully he told the Buddha, “If the golden-winged garuda bird keeps eating up our race, pretty soon the dragon species will be extinct.” He implored the Buddha to find some way to save them from being eaten by the golden-winged garuda bird.

The Buddha then spoke Dharma for the golden-winged garuda bird, telling it not to eat any more dragons. The golden-winged garuda bird protested, “If I don’t eat dragons, I’ll have nothing to eat. What am I supposed to do?”

“I’ll tell my disciples to make offering of food to you each day when they take their vegetarian meal,” said the Buddha. When those who have left the home-life take their lunch, they make an offering of food to the golden-winged garuda bird, and recite the verse,

To the great golden-winged garuda bird,
To the multitude of ghosts and spirits in the desolate wilds, and
To the rakshasha – ghost mother and all her children:
May you all be filled with sweet dew.

The offerings are sent out not only to the golden-winged garuda bird, but also to the multitudes of ghosts and spirits in the desolate wilds, and to the rakshasha-ghost mother and her children. “Desolate wilds” refer to very isolated areas, such as some great forests where ghosts and spirits dwell.

When the rakshasha – ghost mother came into the world, she had devoured a great many children. She fed solely on newborn infants and refused to eat anything else. She considered their flesh to be tender, savory, sweet, nutritious, and much more nourishing than vitamin supplements. The ghost mother had given birth to a thousand sons of her own, but unfortunately, she had a fondness for the flesh of human children. Consequently, the human race was close to extinction.

At that point, the Buddha could no longer ignore the situation so he captured the ghost mother’s youngest son and put him inside his alms bowl. When the ghost mother returned from her bout of devouring children and found her young son gone, she went searching for him all over the world. Since she was endowed with spiritual penetrations, she became aware that the Buddha had taken her son. She then mobilized her forces and went to accuse the Buddha. “Why did you so arbitrarily take away my little son?” she asked.

“Now you know how it feels to miss your child!” said the ghost mother. “Now you’ve kidnapped my child, but what do you want with him, since you aren’t going to eat him?”

The Buddha told her, “Just as you want your own child back, others also wish to have their children back. When you eat the children of others, their hearts are filled with grief and pain. From now on, you must never eat any more children.”

The ghost mother said, “ If I don’t eat children, I’ll have nothing to eat. Won’t I starve to death?”

The Buddha said, “Don’t worry, you won’t starve. I shall tell my disciples to offer you a portion of their food when they take their meal. Don’t eat children ever again.” From that point onward, the ghost mother mended her evil ways and became good. She brought forth the resolve for Bodhi and no longer fed on the children of the world.

“May you all be filled with sweet dew.” To great golden-winged garuda bird, the ghosts and spirits in the desolate wilds, and the ghost mother and her children, I offer the Dharma-food of sweet dew, so that you will be well-fed and warm. These are the reasons for the custom that left-home people follow of reciting mantras and offering food at noon each day.

Although the golden-winged garuda bird is very powerful when alive, after death its flesh and bones disintegrate and return to the four elements. Its heart alone does not decay; even if burned by fire or drowned in water, it remains whole and intact. The heart is spherical and emits a radiant light. If a dragon king obtains this heart, it becomes the dragon’s pearl. Placed inside the dragon’s palace, it begins to shine, and the entire dragon palace radiates brilliant light. If a wheel-turning king obtains this heart, it becomes his wish-fulfilling pearl, with which he can rescue all those who are trapped in disasters and difficulties. With the wonderful functioning of such a wish-fulfilling pearl, the spiritual penetrations of the wheel-turning king are truly inconceivable.

What about us? Don’t we have any share of this pearl? We do! Everyone possesses this invaluable pearl within his own nature, but we’re so shrouded by ignorance that our wish-fulfilling pearl is smothered and cannot shine. No matter how hard we look for it, we cannot find it. We don’t know how to use it, either – what a pity.

People of this world renounce the root to chase after the branch tips. They turn their backs on enlightenment and merge with dust. They neither wish to return to the source, nor want to escape the dust and merge with enlightenment. For this reason, sages and saints of every religion have taken great pains to teach people to make use of this transitory existence to discover the eternal truth. Their only wish is for us to leave confusion and go toward enlightenment. They hope we will return to the source and recognize our original nature, that is, our inherent treasure – the wish-fulfilling pearl we all possess. Most of us, however, prefer to seek externally, not realizing that we really ought to seek within and reflect upon ourselves. In life after life, we’ve drifted aimlessly in the sea of suffering, wanting to cultivate, yet unwilling to renounce our dirty habits and sloppy ways. We don’t seriously want to purify ourselves and cast off the dust of this world. What a pity!

A talk given on June 6, 1982
at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas