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The Fable of the Birds

by Manly P. Hall

In ancient times there lived in China a great and powerful emperor who richly patronized the arts and crafts. He surrounded himself with painters and sculptors, and many ingenious artisans who competed with each other to provide the emperor with extraordinary examples of their talents and skill. One of these craftsmen designed a golden cage so intricate in its design and so perfect in its workmanship that the equal of it could not be found among all the treasures of the earth. The cage was fashioned in the likeness of a temple, its many roofs encrusted with jewels and its interior divided into numerous rooms with mechanical doors and gates.

So delighted was the Son of Heaven at receiving this remarkable treasure that he immediately bestowed upon its designer the jade button and made him a prince of the empire. The emperor then called together his hunters and fowlers and bade them go forth with their nets to capture for him the strangest and most beautiful birds in the world.

After many adventures which rivaled the strange tales in the Arabian Nights, the fowlers returned and presented themselves before the emperor. Each in turn recounted his exploits and presented the rare birds he had captured. At last the chief of those who had gone forth brought as his offering the phoenix bird itself which he had captured on the mountain of the moon.

The emperor set up his golden cage in the palace garden and in each of its rooms he placed one of the rare birds. He then ordered the throne to be brought out and seating himself he spent many hours contemplating the beautiful spectacle. While he was seated thus, surrounded by his mandarins and princes, a Taoist monk knocked at the palace gates. There was a mystery about this monk. He did not walk down the road; he came from the sky in a cloud. He was a spirit. Entering into the presence of the emperor, the monk seated himself with dignity and inquired about the golden cage. The emperor explained what had occurred.

The old man sadly shook his head and discoursed in this manner: "O Great Majesty, set not this example for your people. Release the birds and destroy the cage."

The emperor was displeased and astonished. He ordered the sage to explain himself.

The monk then continued: "You, O Son of Heaven, are the symbol of righteousness to all that live within your domain. You are the model man. Your actions are the laws of your empire. Your conduct in itself is right and wrong. Great is your responsibility because all must look to you as to the source of common good.

"This cage built in the form of a temple is a threefold mystery. First of all, it is the world with its many rooms within which all life is imprisoned. In the second place, this cage is China, the middle kingdom of the world. And you, O Emperor, and all your glittering court are the imprisoned bird. Their bright plumes are your robes of state. And the phoenix is your very self. Your palaces are prisons; your temples are cages; your powers are nets which catch yourself. In the third place, this golden cage is your mortal nature. And these little feathered things are the dreams and hopes which are imprisoned within the very bondage of yourself. All that you have learned of poetry and music and art, all the beauties which you have come to understand and appreciate and comprehend, are held prisoners within the cage of your mortal consciousness.

"O Emperor, release them all, and in releasing them, release yourself. Hold nothing captive. If you keep these birds in their gilded cage, they will cease to sing. Each, in turn, will pine away and die. It was not the purpose of life that it should be imprisoned or bound, and the one who keeps these birds in the cage will destroy them, and in the end destroy himself.

"You have found joy in capturing the birds. Now find the greater joy, the truly imperial privilege, of releasing them again."

As he finished speaking, the old monk drew his robes about himself and disappeared in the very presence of the emperor. The emperor, himself a scholar, realized that the being who had appeared in the robes of the monk was no ordinary mortal, but a celestial creature, the heavenly guardian of the birds. And as heaven had dictated, so the Son of Heaven obeyed. He ordered all of the doors of the cage to be opened so that the imprisoned birds might fly back to the sky. Then he took the cage itself to the mountains and left it with all of the doors open, setting aside the place as a sanctuary for the birds.

As the years passed, many of the birds returned to the cage and built their nests in it. And when the emperor was tired with problems of state, he would go out and climb the mountains to stand for hours watching the birds that flew in and out through the open doors of the cage. At the end of his life he wrote a poem describing the understanding that had come to him from the contemplation of this mystery.

Manly P. Hall, Excerpt from Monthly Letters to Students - March, 1941, pages 5-6 of 8.

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