Chapter 2: Reflection 3 – Be Like a Swan

“This revelation was shewed to a simple creature unlettered, living in deadly flesh …” 1 The adjective “deadly” carries a number of meanings and resonances in modern English and in Middle English. These certainly include “subject to death” and “mortal,” but also “perishable, fleeting, transitory.” 2 The evanescent quality of embodied human life, and indeed, of the entire physical creation, was a truth which medieval English writers never tired of teaching: “The world is so impermanent [ME: unstable], / All that human beings see therein in changeable.” 3 And meditation specifically on the brevity of human life was a foundational practice in medieval Christian spirituality. The 14th century hermit and mystic, Richard Rolle, writes of the “things” that practitioners should have in mind until they “be in perfect love”:

One is the length of your life here, which is so short that it is hardly anything at all. For we live but in an instant, a point, which is the smallest thing that can be. And truly, our life is less than a point, if we compare it to the life that lasts forever. Another is the uncertainly of our ending; for we never know when we will die, nor where we will die, nor how we will die, nor where we will go when we are dead … 4

The brevity of human life is an aspect of the ephemeral nature of all created things, which medieval English spiritual writers frequently reflected upon in meditations on “the world.” To elucidate the transitory and ever-changing nature of “the life of this world,” the author of The Prick of Conscience cites as examples the varied and alternating states of time, of weather, and of the seasons. The life of this world, the author asserts, changes and turns, often here and then there, staying in one state scarcely the time it takes to walk a mile. 5

In a commentary on an early 15th century Tibetan text, Geshe Lhundup Sopa teaches:   

The world and all that is in it appears and will certainly disappear like a passing cloud. Observing the constant change in life is like watching a grand dance … On and on it goes … [E]verthing is changing all the time in a lifetime that goes by very fast. A human life, especially, is very short. With each moment it is speeding toward its end. A human lifetime is really just a brief moment, life a lightning flash in the sky. Life passes quickly and inevitably; like water flowing down a steep slope it cannot be stopped. 6

So important is this truth, that Geshe Sopa asserts that “[o]ur spiritual practice always begins with remembering the shortness of life” and that daily meditation practice start “with remembrance of the impermanence of human life.” 7

While one might be tempted to wonder if such teachings could lead to a negativity toward “this world” and to an apathetic devaluing of human life, their intended purpose is exactly the opposite, as Geshe-la teaches: “When you seriously reflect in this way, you become aware that everything is uncertain and thus every moment is precious.” 8 The task then is to develop the vision to clearly discern what is passing and what is of real value, “precious,” and thus create a real and clarifying sense of focus for all one’s activities. In this way, Geshe Sopa quotes a stanza from the writings of Atisa, a stanza which draws on an Indian legend that a swan had the capacity to “extract” milk from water: “Human life is short, / Objects of knowledge are many. / Be like a swan, / which can separate milk from water.” 9


  1. Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, lines 1-2, page 125. (Emphasis mine.)
  2. “dedli,” “Middle English Dictionary” at Middle English Compendium:
  3. For the various meanings of the intriguing Middle English word “unstable,” see the “Middle English Dictionary’s” entry for the word at: The Middle English version of the quotation: “[Þ]e worlde is swa unstable, / Alle þat men sese þar-in es chaungeable …” The Pricke of Conscience (Stimulus Conscientiae): A Northumbrian Poem. By Richard Rolle of Hampole. An Introduction, Notes, and Glossarial Index by Richard Morris. Berlin: A. Asher & Co., 1863, lines 1420-1421, page 40. Internet Archive: While the title of Mr. Morris’ edition identifies Richard Rolle (1300–1349) as its author, that attribution is no longer understood to be accurate. Scholars Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins describe this text as a “highly influential mid-fourteenth-century poetic treatise on sin, death, the day of Judgement, the other world, and role of fear in fashioning Christian behavior.” (Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, page 465.) Suggesting the text’s popularity with medieval audiences, Professor Gina Brandolino writes: “The Prik of Conscience, whose author remains unknown to us, survives in whole or part in over one hundred manuscripts. That is far more than any other Middle English poem, including the Canterbury Tales, which is runner-up with 64 surviving manuscripts; certainly more than the ultra-canonical Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which survives in a single, much-celebrated manuscript … and even more than Piers Plowman … which is extant in just over 50 manuscripts.” Gina Brandolino, Review of Prik of Conscience, Edited by James H. Morey. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012. The Medieval Review. Website address: In the epilog of The Prick of Conscience, the author writes these words about those for whom it was written: “Namly til lewed [uneducated; unlettered, unable to read Latin] men of England, / Þat can noght bot Inglise undirstand …” The Pricke of Conscience (Stimulus Conscientiae): A Northumbrian Poem. By Richard Rolle of Hampole, lines 9547-9548, page 257.
  4. “Ane es: þe mesur of þi lyf here, þat sa schort es þat vnnethis es it oght. / For we lyue bot in a poynt—þat es þe leste thyng þat may be. / And, sothely, oure lyfe es les þan a poynt, if we liken it to þe lyfe þat lastes ay. // Another es: vncertente of owre endyng. For we wate neuer when we sal dye, ne whare we sal dye, ne how we sal dye, ne whider we sal ga when we er dede …” Richard Rolle, “The Form of Living.” English Prose Works of Richard Rolle: A Selection. Edited by Carl Horstmann, (page 19). Retrieved from Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse:;view=fulltext In my attempt at translation, I have benefitted from the modern English translation of Rosamund Allen in Richard Rolle: The English Writings. Translated, edited, and introduced by Rosamund S. Allen. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. While Professor Allen translates “point” as “pinprick,” I have used both “instant,” as a very short moment of time, and I have kept “point” as well, because of the importance of that latter word in Julian’s writings.
  5. “Þe life of þis world es ful unstable, / And ful variand and chaungeable / Als es sene in contrarius manere, / By the tymes and vedirs and sesons here. / For þe world and worldis life to-gider, / Chaunges and turnes ofte híder and þider, / And in a state duelles ful short while, / Unnethes, þe space of a myle.” The Pricke of Conscience (Stimulus Conscientiae): A Northumbrian Poem. An Introduction, Notes, and Glossarial Index by Richard Morris. Berlin: A. Asher & Co., 1863, lines 1412-1419, pages 39-40. The text continues its reflection: “How unstable þis world es here. / … Ofte chaunges þe tymes … Als thus, now es arly, now es late, / Now es day, now es nyght, / Now es myrk, now es light, / And þe wedirs chaunges and þe sesons, / Þus aftir þe worldes condiciouns; / For now es cald, now es hete, / Now es dry, and now es wete. / For now es snaw, hail or rayn, / And now es fair wedir agayn; / Now þe wedir bright and shynand, / And now waxes it alle douiland [cloudy, murky]; / Now se we þe lyfte [sky] clere and faire. / Now gadirs mystes and cloudes in þe ayre.” (Ibid. lines, 1429, 1432-1445, page 40.)
  6. At this point in his teaching, Geshe Sopa is explicating a 3rd century Indian Buddhist sutra he has just cited: “The three worlds are as impermanent as an autumn cloud. / The birth and death of sentient beings is like a dance. / The lifetime of beings passes like lightning in the sky. / It goes as quickly as water rushing down a steep mountain.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 1, The Foundation Practices. Senior Editor: David Patt. Editor: Beth Newman. Boston, Wisdom Publication, pages 308.). These reflections are complemented and affirmed by a work entitled, “Tree of Faith: A Self-Exhortation,” attributed to Atisa’s primary student, Dromtönpa (1005-1064): “Life is transient, like a flash of lighting in the sky; / The moment we are born, our lives are marked for disintegration … / Life is transient, like water cascading down a waterfall; / It travels fast and none can seize it … / Life is transient, like a dewdrop on a blade of grass; / Unable to withstand even the tiniest adversity, it swiftly dries up … / Life is transient, like a bee at season’s end; / Though hovering now, a slight shift in weather and it dies … / Life is transient, like the rays of the setting sun; / Though brilliant now, they soon will be no more …. / Life is transient, like clouds in the sky; / They appear suddenly yet disappear just as quickly … / Life is transient, like a cool gust of wind; / It rises in the ten directions and disappears in the ten directions as well … / Life is transient, like a dead bush on a high mountain pass; / Assailed by birth and aging, it has lost its secure ground … / Life is transient, like people gathered in a marketplace; / Though assembled now, soon they will scatter in the ten directions …” (Dromtönpa, “Tree of Faith: A Self-Exhortation,” in The Book of Kadam: The Core Texts. Attributed to Atisa and Dromtönpa. Translated by Thupten Jinpa. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008, pages 42-43.) All things are thus the result of a certain constellation of causes and conditions, and when those causes and conditions change – as they inevitably do – things change. Dromtӧnpa addresses himself: “All phenomena share the reality of impermanence. Therefore, these metaphors of transience are instructions to myself. Listen again, Master Drom, son of the excellent teacher. / This teaching from the most sublime mentor of time’s impermanence / I see that it serves as an exhortation to my heart … Golden flowers about when crops are ripe, / But due to impermanence’s push, they change come wintertime. / Even the water becomes crystalline, like glass, / Making the fowl that depend on it lose heart. / Dejected, they fly away to another place. / This also is transient, for the wind starts to blow. / Gradually the ground warms and new shoots push forth; / Having shed their old leaves, the trees wear new foliage. / Time is a profound and vast treasury of teachings on impermanence. / It resembles the self-enlightened ones who teach Dharma in silence. (Ibid., page 44.)
  7. Geshe Lhundub Sopa, with Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, Peacock in the Poison Grove: Two Buddhist Texts on Training the Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001, page 36.)
  8. Geshe Lhundub Sopa, with Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, Peacock in the Poison Grove: Two Buddhist Texts on Training the Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001, page 36.) The preciousness of human existence is expressed by the 8th century Indian philosopher, Santideva: “Therefore, the Blessed One stated that human existence is extremely difficult to obtain, like a turtle’s head emerging into the ring of a yoke on a vast ocean.” (Santideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. Translated from the Sanskrit and Tibetan by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997, verse 20, page 41.) A 13th century lama explicates the Santideva passage in this way: “A yoke floats upon the surface of a great ocean. Once a century, a turtle rises to break the surface with its head. It’s extremely unlikely the turtle’s head will come up through the yoke. It’s even more difficult than that to attain a human existence.” Shönu Lha, “The Unrivaled Instructions of Shang Rinpoche.” The Mind of Mahāmudrā: Advice from the Kagyü Masters. Translated and introduced by Peter Alan Roberts. Series Editor: Thupten Jinpa. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2014, pages 13-38.   
  9. Geshe Lhundup Sopa, “Method, Wisdom and Three Paths,” Teachings from Tibet: Guidance from Great Lamas. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. Weston, MA: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2005, page 119. Internet Archive: Geshe Sopa: “Our lives will not last long and there are many directions in which we can channel them. Just as swans extract the essence from milk and spit out the water, so should we extract the essence from our lives by practicing discriminating wisdom and engaging in activities that benefit both ourselves and others …” (Ibid., page 119).

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