Riding on the Back of Freedom: The Meaning of Garuda

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Image reproduced with kind permission of the author*

What do you imagine when you think of a bird? Perhaps his ability to fly, to be carried above the ground, to cross oceans without touching water, and to soar in the sky. The bird is a symbol of pure freedom, carried by nothing but its feathers and the air in its bones. The bird touches the ground only when necessary, to feed on worms when it is unable to catch a cricket in the air. It only uses its fine and attentive vision, spotting its prey from a great distance before melting away. Thus, birds can make us think of freedom, limitlessness, speed and alertness.

Now imagine a bird hatching from its adult egg, shining like the sun, and when it flaps its wings, tornadoes are created! It is certain that this being has an immense vital force. And using this power, he can cut through the air with his sharp wings; he sees the whole world and is aware of every movement of every being. He understands the nature of men and beasts as some parts of his body resemble those of a human and other parts of a bird. This being is called the Garuda. It is a mythical bird-like entity that embodies pristine consciousness. The Garuda exists within us and is felt through the qualities of freedom, bravery, justice, speed and awareness.

Of course, we don't know which came first: the Garuda or the egg. It is a riddle that the intellect will never solve. But when we create the Garuda in art, we create an image that represents and evokes all that exists naturally within us. We are fundamentally free: we don't need to obtain anything to be free. Quite the contrary, we must let go of anger, attachments and ignorance, and make our being as light as a feather, shining like a phoenix fearlessly crossing the sky – unstoppable, fearless, graceful and aware of the whole world of below and above.

The beautiful image of the Garuda is found in various spiritual and cultural traditions, represented in various styles in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and probably in many other contexts with different connotations. We cannot date the age of this image, but since the beginning of the universe, Vishnu, who maintains order, rides a Garuda. The Garuda's body can grow to cover the entire sky or shrink to the size of a canary. Mostly, the Garuda appears with the body of a bird with a human torso, yellow hair erect like fire, strong claws, and eating poisonous snakes, it is an enemy of nagasdespite sharing the same father.

There is an interpretation that I appreciate that says the Garuda devours serpents and swallows the poisons of delusion, jealousy and hatred, then is able to transform them into renewed strength, illuminating its body and stretching even more its wings to soar in space. Therefore, the Garuda is believed to provide protection against snakebites and many other diseases, especially those caused by poison or magic, because nagas They are often said to cast spells on other beings.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Garuda is considered a protective image decorating doors and talismans. We can also see the Garuda as one of the four dignities – the four creatures representing the qualities of lungta, the horse of the wind, one for each cardinal direction: Garuda to the north; Snow Lion to the east; Tiger to the south; and Dragon to the west (in some areas directions may change). They are usually depicted on lungta prayer flags, which flutter in the wind in the heights so that the prayers written on them can be broadcast around the world. The Garuda is also a yidam, especially in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, which prescribes extensive specifications on its color and tools so that the practitioner can fully visualize the Garuda. To practice the visualization of the Black Garuda or the Red Garuda, one must seek the appropriate attunement from a qualified teacher.

Image reproduced with kind permission of the author*

But what interests me the most, and what I find so fascinating, is how certain traditions know how to use symbolism and imagery as a bridge to the invisible. The stories and characteristics of a creature like the Garuda also remind us of our own Buddha nature, the cultivation of bodhicitta, and how fantastically we can see ourselves in pursuit of nirvana. For example, the power of the Garuda to be able to resize itself to match the sky or a grain of sand connects me to the notion of the nature of interbeing: all things are in me and I am in all things. If I want to know the world, I have to look within and if I want to understand myself, I have to look into the world. The beautiful poem by Thich Nhat Hanh describes it wonderfully:


The sun entered me.
The sun entered me with the cloud and the river.
I myself entered the river,
and I walked into the sun
with the cloud and the river.
There hasn't been a moment
when we do not interpenetrate.
But before the sun enters me,
the sun was in me—
also the cloud and the river.
Before entering the river,
I was already in it.
There hasn't been a moment
when we haven't inter-summered.
So you know
that as long as you keep breathing,
I continue to be in you.

Understanding that all is in me and that I am in all things is the ability to live without the feeling of separation, which makes us live the “small” versions of ourselves. To be the Garuda is the unlimited ability to move in the skies and for the skies to move in me. This is the meaning of unlimited. And yet the Garuda still needs two wings to fly, so even being inseparable from everything, we have to evolve in this world of duality. In absolute reality there is no separation, but in relative reality where the minds of human beings dwell in duality, we can navigate using a wing of compassion and a wing of wisdom, which together can lead to nirvana.

When we move through the world with this clarity, fearlessness arises. There is no desire that binds you as you fly through the sky, which is your own mind. But when one desires freedom, one separates it from oneself, one puts it away, and then one needs "things" to attain it. For example, we think we need someone, or more money, or status, or a car to be free. And though you may have things and have the outer experience of flying around the world, the habit of clinging to those things because you "need" to be free turns into its own prison - the desire will always chain and he is a tyrannical master. It's so easy to live two separate lives: one inside and one outside. In fact, that's the most common life: two lives. In one life, you can be the richest person in the world, owning all the gold, but the inside is very poor and dissatisfied, and the opposite can also happen. This is one of the strongest aspects of duality and so difficult to dissolve.

The following excerpt from a famous poem by Khalil Gibran describes how we confuse freedom with desire.

"On Freedom"

Truly what you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links gleam in the sun and dazzle your eyes. . . .

For how can a tyrant reign over the free and the proud, except for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?

And if it's a worry you're getting rid of, that care was chosen by you rather than imposed on you.

And if it is a fear that you would like to dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.

We have to look within to see if our desire to be free is not imprisoning us.

There is a Zen story about a master and his disciple walking peacefully along a small path in a forest. The disciple began to complain about how the world distracted him, and how all his responsibilities required him to serve samsara, and how much he yearned to be free – if only these duties did not exist, he would be free.

The master said nothing and they continued walking in silence.

Suddenly, the master ran madly and wrapped his arms around a tree, shouting, "Let me be free!" Let me be free! The disciple, immensely confused, said, "Master, just open your arms, no one is holding you back!" Immediately the master opened his arms, smiled and continued his peaceful walk.

The disciple then attained realization.

Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

We are the prison and we are the sky; the immensity of being is so infinite that it accommodates freedom and imprisonment. It really depends on how we look at life. It is the same as a boy carrying a huge bag of food to his family living in the hills. A man approaches the boy and exclaims, “What a burden to carry such a heavy weight! The boy replies, "It's not a burden, it's food." So when you see the wings of a Garuda, remember the limitlessness of your being. When you see the bulging eyes of a Garuda, remember their clear, panoramic vision in pure awareness of being.

The bird is an incredible symbol in traditional Buddhist teaching of the fundamental importance of compassion combined with wisdom. This is repeated in many other images, such as the yab-yum (the union of two deities), and in the vajra et Dorje combined. But the Garuda is always accompanied by serpents, a being of singular shape, moving without legs or wings, just a body; perhaps a reminder of union and non-duality. When the kundalini is awake, it is represented by an upright snake, as if it were a single flowing channel of energy. A non-dual representation of the raised energy on top of the head has been depicted not only in Buddhism and Hinduism – even Cleopatra of Egypt wore a crown with a cobra head in the center.

When the Garuda crosses the sky, flapping its two wings and carrying a snake in its beak, it reminds me that even while going through life attending to my duties, I carry within me the power of non-duality and, as contradictory as it may seem, I know that I can experience attachment and freedom, I can experience anger while in my heart a calm sea is reflected. I can be a bird in the sky and a serpent lying flat with its whole body on the ground. I can be both. And I shouldn't think that I need to be free from attachment when I'm attached, but to be able to see with the eyes of a hawk the sky of attachment from where it was born and where it is going. dissolve.

Just as the Garuda and the Naga share the same father, have the same blood, have the same origin, they are born from the same place and in the same space they dissolve. Attachment and freedom, anger and peace, ignorance and wisdom may well have the same source, just different aspects of the same thing.

Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

A light heart is required to enter heaven, and in Egyptian mythology a feather is used to weigh the heart before admission to heaven. Again, the bird represents lightness and free access to heaven, or paradise. What does it mean to you to have a heart as light as a feather? Can you ride on the back of freedom? Can you be a Garuda and a Naga? Sky and earth ? Anger and peace at the same time? The same space that welcomes the sun is also open to storms. The Garuda is a symbol of totality, of authentic expression, of a being who is born adult. . . beyond time and space. When you see the Garuda, remember your wholeness and inseparability from all things, and smile, nothing constrains you.

* Drawings from the online course "Drawing the myth of the Garuda", which I taught by Yangchenma Arts & Music.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments