The Home of Little Birds

(“Kotori no ie” by Akamatsu Gessen, illustrated by Tateno Yasunosuke, in Bukkyo Dōwa Zenshū, Vol. 8, p. 139-147, Translation by Henry Adams)

Long ago in the Latter Han Dynasty, there was a family named Yang who lived in the Chinese capital.  They had one son named Bao.  This story takes place when Bao was nine years old.

            Bao’s father worked for a government official of low rank, but he was a dedicated and hard-working man.  Bao’s mother was a quiet and deeply caring woman.  While she did not make a particularly strong impression at first, even a passing conversation with her would give a genuine sense of her true kindness.

            Bao’s mother was kind to little birds.  She did not keep them as pets, but they would be naturally drawn to her, because she always set scraps of food outside the kitchen for them to eat. 

            Rather than throwing out wilted cabbage leaves and other scraps from her cooking, she would cut them into small pieces and set them out for the birds.  Likewise, she would keep the leftovers from the family’s meals, and rather than rinsing away the bits of rice and vegetables stuck on the bottom of pots and pans, she would gather them all together to make a delicious feast for the little birds.

            Even though Bao’s family only consisted of three people—Bao, his mother, and his father—because the trees in the garden were always filled with little birds, they never felt lonesome.  Out of curiosity, one visitor asked Bao’s mother, “You don’t have many family members, yet how do you have such a lively household?”

            “You are mistaken, our family has a great many members.  Aren’t there many little birds chirping here.  Listen to their voices.” she replied.

            One day a neighbor visited the house seeking advice about a worrisome problem.  As soon as they arrived, Bao’s mother asked the visitor, “There’s something worrying you, isn’t there?”

            “How did you know?” replied the visitor.

            Bao’s mother simply smiled warmly.  A few days later, the worrisome problem was smoothly resolved, and the visitor returned to thank Bao’s mother.

            The moment they arrived, Bao’s mother said, “Congratulations, I’m happy for you that it all worked out.”

            The visitor was startled because Bao’s mother congratulated them before they had a chance to share the news, so they asked, “But I didn’t even tell you what happened yet.  How did you know?”

            Bao’s mother replied, “When a worried person comes to visit, the little birds sense that they are worried and stop chirping.  Likewise, when a happy person comes, the little birds feel their happiness and become happy themselves, so their chirping becomes even more exuberant.  Listening to the little birds told me how you were feeling.”

            Like his mother, Bao too loved the little birds.  He had a profoundly kind heart and cared for the little birds.

            One day, he joined a few friends on an outing to play at a nearby mountain.  However, he quickly returned home in a rush and out of breath.

            “Mother, look what I found!” Bao called out as he showed his mother what he was carefully carrying in his hands.

            “Oh my, it’s an injured sparrow, isn’t it? Poor thing!” she said.

            Bao’s mother closely examined the injured sparrow and saw that it was bleeding badly from its left wing.

            Bao asked his mother, “Mother, this sparrow must have been pecked by that nasty old owl.  It’s injured and can’t fly, so it had fallen from the tree and was frantically flapping its wings down on the ground.  Ants were swarming all around and it was writhing in pain.  It was unbearably pitiful, so I quit playing and ran back home.  Please put some medicine on its wound right away.”

            Bao watched closely as his mother treated the sparrow, asking repeatedly, “Mother, will it be okay?  The sparrow won’t die, will it?”

            Bao’s mother reassured him, “Yes, yes, it will be fine.  It’s not going to die from this wound.  It will get better soon.”

            They made a soft nest for it in a cage and left it alone to rest and heal.

            After lying motionless for a few days, the sparrow began to recover its health day by day, and the feathers that had fallen out began to grow back in.  Where at first it could only flap its wings, it began to practice flying again one or two small jumps at a time, and soon enough it was freely flying around again.  The door the cage was always left open, so the sparrow would go out flying, eat from the palm of Bao’s hand, and perch on the tip of his finger, chirping away.  The sparrow would perch on the edge of Bao’s desk and listen while Bao practiced reciting the from books that his father had taught him to read.

            Bao also learned to play the zither (koto) from his mother, as it is customary in China for both boys and girls to learn music in order to enrich their hearts and minds and learn to comport themselves with elegance.  While Bao was practicing the zither, the sparrow would perch on his shoulder and sing along with the music.

            After nearly 100 days had passed, Bao and his mother sat facing each other on the veranda while the bright sun shined down on the trees in the garden.  In the trees hundreds of little birds of different types—more than one could count—had gathered and were singing together.

            Seeing the large gathering of little birds singing together in the trees, Bao began to feel sorry for the sparrow that sang alone in the cage.

            Bao said to his mother, “Mother, don’t you think this sparrow must be lonely all by itself?”

            To which, his mother replied, “I do.  The birds in the trees have many friends, but this sparrow is all by itself, isn’t it?  Wouldn’t you feel lonely if I went somewhere far away?”

            Hearing these words from his mother, Bao realized how lonely the little bird must be separated from its family.  With tears in his eyes, he spoke to the little bird in the cage, saying,

            “You should return home to your mother.  Your mother must be missing you and crying as she longs to see you.  You are welcome to stay here with me as long as you like, but your mother must be so lonely without you there.”

            The next morning, when Bao went to the room where the birdcage sat, he saw that the cage was empty, and the sparrow was not out in the garden either.  Bao was disappointed, but when he thought about how the bird had returned home and was back together with its mother, happiness beyond words filled his heart.

            One night Bao had a dream that the sparrow’s mother come to thank him, saying,

            “Thank you very much for all you did to help my child.  A person as compassionate as you are will surely rise to greatness one day.  Your compassionate heart will be passed down through the generations, so that your children and grandchildren will also be great and admirable leaders.  I leave you these gifts as evidence of this truth.”

            Having said these words, the mother sparrow placed four silver rings at Bao’s side and Bao awoke from the dream.  Silver rings are the symbol a great minister of government.

            Bao grew up to become an important minister in the government.  Bao’s son Zhen, Zhen’s son Bing, Bing’s son Ci, and Ci’s son Biao continued to be great ministers of government for the next four generations.

            In Bao’s family no matter how many generations passed, no matter how great and respected they became, they never forgot to set out a plate of food for the little birds.