English dictionaries give credit when words and phrases are adopted from other languages, such as ‘avant-garde’ and ‘bon voyage’ from French. However, the source of many sayings remains almost completely unknown outside of a very small group specializing in comparative philology.
Take for instance the conundrums “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Have you ever wondered how chickens came to occupy such a central place in these profound existential questions?
I’m afraid that the context of rebirth must be invoked if these questions are to be honestly explored. When a chicken is reborn in human form, its transition is drastically accelerated from the traditional 49 days in the bardo, said to occur between the end of one human life and rebirth into another. While most traditions only consider a succession of human lives, we have ample evidence of other streams of reincarnation. Where else do such dinner table observations as “George, you’re eating like a pig” or “Mary, you’ve only pecked at your dinner” come from? Indeed, these species crossovers have had a considerable impact on human language.
If a chicken was crossing a road to escape an axe-wielding farmer, is it so amazing that their final thought would be about crossing a road? There is no cheating on what accompanies us into subsequent lifetimes. Yama, the guardian of life and death, who holds the wheel of life in his claws, remembers each act of kindness and all our dedications to the selfishness of fear: the former opening doors into new realms, the latter indicating that we will need to retake the same curriculum over again. To leapfrog (I’ll let you guess where that expression originates) from chicken to human being in a single moment uses up a significant fraction of the merit likely to have been accumulated in the short life of a chicken.
A little-known tradition has preserved how—with little precedent to prepare him–Roger the Rooster, after sacrificing himself for a starving mother fox, could not have been more surprised when he found himself sitting in deep meditation under a tree. And then he was visited by the realization that suffering is unnecessary; since suffering does not come from loss or even impermanence, but because we so fiercely cling to the way things have been.
Just to clear up a misunderstanding, Roger in human form did not feel reluctant to share this path of freedom from suffering. He would have been delighted to share his deep insight immediately and in fact he tried to do so. But when he opened his mouth, what came out was crowing in appreciation of the new day; and only the barnyard animals could understand him.
The traditions that have come to roost in human understanding, and in accustomed ways of expressing them, run very deep. An example of how the accustomed lays in wait to devour any fledgling perspective is the French saying, “reculer pour mieux sauter” (in English, “stepping back all the better to leap forward’), which in its present form provides an excuse for impulsive and over-excited temperaments to launch themselves where angels fear to tread. This saying originally entered the human lexicon when a frog made the transition to human form and shared a sensible reminder to “always look before you leap”. But, because there are many more reincarnated chickens in this world than there are frogs, the issue of “stepping back” was arbitrarily tacked on. Incidentally, the related saying “Look both ways before crossing the street”, gained general currency when a chicken was reborn as a crossing guard.
These linguistic inquiries are subtle, but it is important to explore them if we are ever to understand that “all things are connected”, which is a phrase that comes from an enlightened being who, after embodying many forms, discovered that nothing is separate from anything else.
I’m afraid that we must go deeper still. The phrase already mentioned–“step back in order to better leap forward” was for a time simply “step back to get a better look”. But people wondered why anyone would step back if they were trying to get a better view of things, since for humans, who lack the capacity to take flight, climbing (such as climbing on a grown-up’s shoulders at a Macy’s Christmas parade) is a far more familiar experience than contemplating open vistas in the great sweep of time and space.
In fact, the advice to step back for a better look originated with a flightless bird, possibly a chicken, and has also found its way into a Sufi tale, “The Bird Who Would Fly”; where a fledgling, who has been born with a capacity to fly, was deposited into the nest of birds who cannot. Now he is waiting for his adoptive parents, who have taught him everything else, to teach him to do what they cannot do themselves. This tale seems to be telling us that we need to step back from our immediate surroundings if we are ever to recognize our deepest nature.
It is not difficult to understand that this story about learning to fly is much more likely to have entered the human lexicon from a chicken than from a pigeon, whose kind have given us the little-known phrase “fly up onto the closest branch at the first sign of danger”. This phrase has fallen out of common usage, but was briefly celebrated in the song: “Climb every mountain, ford every stream”.
Much of this investigation must now be left for another day, as must any exploration of what human understanding may be retained when the next stop is rebirth in the chicken realm.
For that, we will have to await a time when enough humans–reborn as chickens and then once again returning as humans–can report on their crossings of these drastic frontiers of perspective. At present, we lack the necessary data to take these investigations much further. But there may be hope. In recent times, many human beings are developing, day-by-day, their next destinations in the chicken realm, and are even making advance payments on their reservations.