Freedom in the United States  

Garuda: The American Eagle

The Fourth of July, New Dimensions of Freedom
by Tarthang Tulku

In my tradition, the American Bald Eagle corresponds to the Garuda, one of four mythological animals that manifest the mission of Buddha-activity in the cardinal directions: Dragon in the North, Lion in the South, Tiger in the East, and Garuda in the West. Feathered emissary of Great Bodhisattvas, the Garuda fears no other being, not even the great nagas that dwell in the cavernous depths of earth and sea. Spreading its wings across the mountaintops, it soars throughout the three realms, exercising the all-seeing vision and penetrating power that guides it straight to its mark.

Buddhism holds that millions of years ago, the natural realm of our planet developed from fundamental elements that merged to form water. The earliest roots of all beings have their origin within this rich matrix, which nurtured the rise of all other beings. This realm, where life began and proliferated, has long been known as the territory of the nagas, what we today call nature. Beings that developed in accord with its rhythms lived a long time because it was a healthy environment.

Birds were among the earliest beings to come forth. Modern humans arose about 200,000 years ago. Restless in spirit, eager to go beyond what nature provided, they began to bend the natural world to suit their needs and desires. Poisons released into air, sea, and earth affected the nagas ever more strongly; in time, nature became unbalanced. Seeing their realms violated, their habitat ravaged, and their families rendered sterile by human activity, the nagas became angry. Plagues and natural disasters followed, arousing hostility between man and nature.

Responding to his duty to protect his family, Garuda manifested as the eagle, crowned with the white light of the sun that vitalizes all of nature. Just as Congress’ governing vision is empowered by distinctive perspectives of fifty states, the eagle’s feathers exhibit qualities that support the whole body and enable the eagle to achieve its goals. In his sharp claws he holds arrows that stand for the essential unity of the original 13 colonies. Guided by clarity of purpose, they go straight to the mark.

While the eagle symbolizes a unique wisdom, its greatest importance for America is unspoken. American democracy nourishes an environment that provides an array of opportunities and empowers each individual with choice: as to how to manifest, contribute, and take pride in his or her own way of being. While the Constitution may not express this directly, it allows space for new ideas to arise, and our system of government protects them until their benefits can be tested, accepted, and carried on by others.

The Constitution is proof that what is left unspoken leaves space for creative participation that allows for change and growth. Its inspiring genius is the recognition that the inherent openness of democracy is more powerful than what is stated directly. I believe that this demonstrates that all the potential for human goodness can be planted and grown in this rich soil. This must be why America attracts people from cultures throughout the world.

These thoughts come out of my reflections on the meaning of the eagle as the iconic American symbol. It suggests that America can apply its genius for science and technology in ways that work for universal goodness and ensure prosperity, health, and happiness for all beings. The Garuda and the beauty, grace, and power that it symbolizes may help guide us in that direction, for the world tends to follow where the United States leads.