Deborah J. Haynes


Occasional Writing

Hawks, Garudas, and Snakes

For many years I have felt a strong affinity with large powerful birds -- eagles, ravens, and especially hawks. In 1980, ten years before seatbelts were mandatory in Oregon, I was driving from Ontario to Eugene on a frigid winter day, and a hawk saved my life. The roads were snowpacked and icy, and I had headed west across the state without putting on my seatbelt. Suddenly a large hawk flew up from a ditch and grazed the right side of my front window. I was stunned, stopped immediately, and put on the seatbelt. A few minutes later I was on slick black ice and lost control of the truck, which rolled and landed with a smashed roof. As I was crawling out a window, a man stopped to help me. He gave me a cup of his wife's hot chicken soup, drove me to Bend to report the accident, and on to my friends' place in Eugene. Later I learned that the truck had been stripped of all my gear, but it was repaired and I was able to drive it back to Ontario, where I was teaching ceramics and drawing at a community college. But the important part of this narrative was that hawk. Whenever I see one, I bow in gratitude.

Decades later, while driving my dear friend Peter to oncology appointments over the 2.5 years that I was his medical power-of-attorney, I always pointed out the hawks circling above or in trees, and I told him about my hawk experience. When Peter died, he beqeathed to me his collection of garudas, including sculptures and paintings that I had admired. The mythological garuda, which features in Hindu and Buddhist iconography across Asia, appears in many forms depending upon the tradition and lineage. In Tibetan iconography, for example, the garuda is usually shown with human arms and torso, the legs, head and beak of a bird, and large wings extending from its back. Most commonly the vehicle of Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha of the north, it is often multicolored, as in my self-portrait. The garuda holds a snake in its beak and two extended arms.

From childhood, snakes also fascinated me. As I young girl I loved to catch small garter snakes and run around shaking them at my girlfriends in the backyard. In the early 1990s in my Jamestown garden, I saw a snake wiggle out of its skin, and for several years I kept that skin on my altar until it began to disintegrate. During a study tour to India with university faculty, I was captivated during our visit to a snake farm. Of course, I have always known that they also can kill. In recent years of studying Buddhist iconography, I have found it curious that garudas and snakes are adversaries. Known as nagas, snakes are spirits that live in the underworld, especially in rivers, lakes, and oceans, and they are not always malicious or dangerous. Nagas guard undersea treasures and teachings. One of the most important Buddhist texts, the Prajranparamita Sutra or Heart Sutra, was said to have been brought to the Indian sage Nagajuna from the palace of a naga king. (Brilliant descriptions of garudas and nagas can be found in Robert Beer's comprehensive Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs).

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