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October 8, 2008 “Zen Hen”

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

There is a Zen master living in our chicken house, and her name is Buffy. She is big and butter-colored, and as close to spherical in shape as a chicken ever gets. If Zen masters held competitions I would enter Buffy, for she is a champion sitter—or, in poultry parlance, “setter.” When she feels the call to sit (or set), she makes a beeline for the nearest nest, fluffs out her skirts, and turns to stone.

There don\’t even have to be any eggs in the nest for Buffy to sit, and if there are, they don\’t have to be fertile. Before the rooster Charlemagne joined our ten hens, Buffy would regularly “go broody” (a term of art meaning “the urge to incubate”) and sit on her celibate sisters\’ eggs. The fact that for three years not a single egg hatched did not dissuade her. Buffy is into process, and does not attach to outcomes.

Then Charlemagne arrived, and for a while the temptations of the flesh distracted Buffy from her practice. But one night when I went to collect eggs I found Buffy sitting on a nest like a golden Buddha, broody again.

She was sitting on twelve eggs. I calculated that, with any luck, that should yield six cockerels and six pullets. The pullets would reach puberty in the middle of winter—right when the older hens would be taking a break from laying. The cockerels (this is the part I didn\’t like to think about) would be slaughtered at ten weeks, and we would have tender, home-grown chicken to eat (this is the part I liked to think about).

Quietly I transferred Buffy and the eggs to a nest in an isolated corner of the coop. She was in such a deep trance she hardly noticed the move. I gave her her own little dishes of food and water and left her alone.

But she, and the chicks growing under her, were constantly on my mind, and I went often to check on her. She was always the same–fluffed out, immobile, her eyes open but wearing a fiercely inward, focused look. I never once saw her get up to eat or drink or take a break.

About halfway through Buffy\’s retreat, I started smelling something awful coming from her corner. I picked her up and saw that there were six broken eggs in the nest. The stench was unspeakable. I ran to the house and coated my upper lip with Vick\’s (as I\’d seen detectives do on TV when they had to deal with a decomposing corpse), put on plastic gloves, and tried my best to clean up the mess without upsetting Buffy or letting the intact eggs get chilled.

Six eggs, I thought, is not too bad. With any luck three of them will be pullets…But days later there was the smell again, and I repeated the Vick\’s and gloves operation, thinking that surely this time Buffy would give up and walk away. But she persevered, even though there was just one egg left.

Still, I said to myself, an only-child chick will be adorable, and with any luck it will be a girl…

Day 21, hatching day, came and went. On Day 22 Buffy still sat, focusing on her breath. I picked her up and there on the straw was the broken, chick-less egg. I hustled Buffy off the nest, cleaned up the final mess, and went into the house to nurse my disappointment.

That evening, Buffy was back in the corner where her old nest had been, sitting as if nothing had happened.

It occurred to me that I, who had planned and connived and counted chickens before they hatched, was suffering from disappointment, frustration and self-pity, whereas Buffy was utterly contented and at peace. Why? Because, unlike me, she did not attach to outcomes. Was this chicken is trying to teach me something?

One of these mornings, at my usual meditation time, I\’m going to take my mat into the chicken house and sit with Buffy, and be enlightened.

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