Turtle Island Prayer

Yesterday I saw a tortoise crossing the highway. Some cars dodged it, a few slowed, others either didn’t see it or didn’t care. When a car would approach, the tortoise would pull arms and legs in, briefly, as the car straddled it and drove on. Then the creature would start its lumbering passage once again. It had a very long trek ahead of it, with a concrete island separating northbound lanes from southbound.

I spontaneously prayed for its safety, importuning the spirits to protect it, or to guide someone to gently move it before it became roadkill.

Imediately I wondered at my mindset. Why do I have so much compassion for a tortoise when the human world is in such pain? Great disasters happen daily; inhumanity is rife, children are abused constantly, people starve, life sometimes seems unlivable. And yet I summon the powers of heaven to protect a turtle.

I don’t regret my prayer. He seemed so vulnerable, so exposed, despite his shell: one misplaced tire and he’d be sent back to the Undifferentiated Tao. But I find it remarkable, and not a little strange, that I have more compassion for a tortoise than I usually do for my fellow human beings.

Thoughts? Comments?

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Categories: Animals, Earth-based Religions | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Turtle Island Prayer

  1. Jennie

    Most of us show compassion toward our fellow human beings as well as other creature when we are faced with an individual who has an immediate, clearly soluble problem that we believe we have the power to remedy, or at least influence in a positive direction. Such was the case with your tortoise. He was there, you could clearly see the problem, and you knew what the outcome needed to be.

    It is also easy to feel magnanimous in part because we are driving the cars, and know that we have the power to stop and help, or that someone like us does. We may be part of the situation the tortoises are involved in, but we are on a different level with respect to our power over it.

    Who among us hasn’t felt that our lives were like tortoises crossing a busy highway a times? Our goals may be clear to us, but there are all these problems, potentially lethal situations, which may have nothing whatsoever to do with us except that they intersect our lives in time and space, whizzing along preventing us from moving forward, or at least temporarily driving us back into our shells, seeking a little illusory safety. It is easy to feel sympathy and compassion for any creature in such circumstances, because we see ourselves in the tortoise.

    If there was another tortoise crossing the same road a little further on, he might not feel such compassion. He might feel that the first tortise was on his own, because the second tortise had all he could deal with trying to keep these cars from hitting him. He might resent the fact that the first tortoise had a head start, or a thicker shell, or came from a different pond anyway, and might be competition for a mate. The second toroise might feel that the problems of the first are not really relevant to him, since there is an intersection between them, and they are travelling in different lanes, so the same cars are not threatening them. He may even blame the first tortoise, reasoning that the first tortoise brought his problems on himself by choosing to cross at an unfortunate point, or at a particularly bad time. Or he may simply have no idea how to help, and the sense of helplessness may be so distressing tha he ignores or blames the other tortoise.

  2. Could it have something to do with the way most of the suffering that humans go through is caused directly by humans? And that much to most of the suffering that the non humans go through is caused by humans? Turtles make few suffer.

    Maybe was there a twinge of guilt because you were at that moment driving one of those critter crushing pavement hungry toxin spewing monstrosities called cars?

  3. Chris, it may have been guilt, not for driving one of those monstrosities, but for not taking the time to stop and move the tortoise myself.

    Jennie, you’re right about identifying with the tortoise. It was something about seeing him pull his arms and legs into his shell that reminded me of my tendency shut down suddenly when confronted with a fearful situation.

  4. The last comment reminded me of an eesay of my own. A child fallen from his bike at the side of the road. Did I help? Ashamedly, no.

    http://adamusatlarge.blogspot.com/2006/10/gravity-and-how-world-sinks.html

    And, still, I have stopped my car in traffic to move a turtle. One turtle. What good can that be to the world? Little, assuredly and yet, that one turtle, perhaps, becomes symbolic for the ability to take action if even in only small ways. It is a symbol of compassion.

    I often feel like that turtle. I can see the goal, the destination, but getting there seems so frought with peril and obstacles. I can see myself in it.

    I have a friend returning from Kentucky. Today, I think. She is a turtle, for sure, pulling everything in when it gets dangerous even though she might be close to her goal.

    But, then how do we know it is safe again? Sometimes we are afraid to check. I think she is afraid to pop her head back out and look. I know I often am. Once danger has come and my head is pulled in it is as if the danger is permanant and I can see it, know it is there, through the shell.

    An episode of Futurama has Bender [a robot] showing compassion (and he never shows compassion) for a turtle. Why? If knocked onto their backs, neither one can get up again.

  5. naturalhigh

    We are watchers. Whatever comes into our field of attention deserves the compassion it elicits. Because our prayers for others create an opening within our own heart.

  6. Well said, NaturalHigh.

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