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The Masai Mara Migration – Beyond the bush and the paradox of Zen

Dr Sibis Mouton

I was surrounded by more animals than I have ever seen before. Just fifty minutes by plane from Nairobi and we (4 South Africans, 2 Americans and a British family of 4 – all members of the African Geographic expedition) found ourselves in an animal paradise, a place of endless space and beauty, a place where one can leave behind all worldly cares and submerge oneself in the unfolding of daily life in the African bush. On our very first morning in the Masai Mara Reserve I had a complete Zen moment of awareness; the air was fresh, there was dew on the ground and as far as the eye could see, we were totally surrounded by thousands of wildebeest. On the second morning it was a tableau of zebras - at least a thousand of them - on both sides of the jeep track, spread out in the bush, well camouflaged in the tall yellow grass despite their white and black pyjama stripes.

The tall Masai people, to whom the Reserve belongs, don’t eat wild animals - they only eat their own cattle and fowl. Consequently the animals are relaxed and totally at ease. In our mobile camp next to a river, we were lucky to have a superb team of eight Masai to look after our group. They made us delicious meals, brought us hot water for showering and generally looked after all of our needs. The kitchen was one tent with two fires in the front of it and a flat pan-like zinc plate was used as an “oven”. Despite the primitive conveniences, the Masai conjured up deliciously juicy steaks, stuffed turkey, pizzas, cottage pie, fresh vegetables, French fries and delicious fresh white bread - all baked on the fire oven. In the evening we would sit around a big fire, eating nuts or chips or dried fruits accompanied by cold Kenyan beer or French wine – we felt totally spoilt. Every night we dined under the African starlit sky in an open-ended tent sitting around a fully laid table, covered with white linen and serviettes – in the style of Ernest Hemingway and other famous African explorers.

Every year four million white-bearded wildebeest and one and a half million zebras migrate in a huge circle from the south of Tanzania into the Masai Mara Reserve in the north. The crossing of the Mara River by masses of wildebeest and zebra has become a focal point for tourists to Kenya. Customarily most tourists take the side of the hunted and not that of the predators and our group (we were in two Land Rovers, five of us per vehicle with the guides driving) was no exception – we certainly sided with the hunted when two huge crocodiles descended on five zebras who were swimming across the river. The crocodiles went for the middle zebra; we saw how the targeted zebra jumped into the air, managed to free itself from the advancing crocodiles and swam frantically to the shore where it stumbled up the rocky bank out of the reach of the open jaws of the two predators – amidst loud cheers from the surrounding vehicles. Others are not so lucky; during a big crossing some of the wildebeest get trampled, break their legs and then drown in the river. One sees these unlucky animals drifting down the river, stuck in a watery grave. One sees how a beautiful, fully grown impala is hunted by two cheetahs; they approach low in the grass, sprint and then jump on the unsuspecting antelope, killing it instantly and they then devour it hungrily. One learns to accept the moment, as one has no control over the natural rhythms and cycles in the wild. In our own lives, however, it is a much harder battle to accept the moment. The Taoists talk about Wu Wei – the best translation for this term is not non-action but rather non calculated action – in other words, the moment, as it arises, is met spontaneously. In the bush this seems easy; we are the onlookers and have no attachment, except sympathy, for the hunted. In civilization, where our egos come into play, we are often attached to successful outcomes, and struggle to live in the Wu Wei mode. The real Zen test is to be able to meet the demands of each moment as it arises, without inner resistance, with total acceptance.

Watching and waiting for a possible crossing, was also a lesson in real patience. The gnus (as our two guides called the white-bearded wildebeest) seem to have no plan; the whole affair is pretty much Wu Wei. One can sit at the river for the whole day with no real action, with hundreds of wildebeest milling around, some suddenly running away from the river, then slowly returning again. The decisive action of the two cheetahs that killed the impala within an eye blink was in sharp contrast to the confusion and random milling about of the big herds of wildebeest before a crossing. Life-skill manuals teach that successful people make their decisions promptly and hardly ever change them – if at all. Can it be that the wildebeest, a very successful species which numbers in the millions, have a different secret?

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and were lucky to see our first crossing on the Monday. A possible crossing is signalled by a huge build up of wildebeest close to the banks of the Mara River. This situation presented itself at about eleven on the Monday morning. Eight vehicles, all loaded with cameras, were all neatly lined up on a slight hill. The passengers were hardly visible behind their big lenses and other fancy state-of-the-art equipment. We were about 350 metres from the river; watching from aloft the open roofs of the Land Rovers. Here we sat for more than an hour, waiting on the periphery so as not to disturb the milling wildebeest. Just as I decided to chill and enjoy the stillness and grand vista and took a first sip of the deliciously cold Kenyan beer and a bite of the waffle that the Masai cooking team has packed in our picnic basket; there was a sudden commotion. One wildebeest, by instinct, has taken the first plunge into the river. All eight vehicles raced down the hill to the river at full speed to find a good viewing point. We were a bit far from this first crossing due to the trees on the bank of the river, so could not really get good photos. However, that afternoon more to the west, we spotted another build up of about a thousand wildebeest. We were the only two vehicles around and, as we were parked right next to the rather steep river bank; we could not see the wildebeest entering but we had a perfectly clear view of the opposite bank where they had to exit. Luck was on our side: one wildebeest took the proverbial plunge into the river and then the rest followed, a black mass of wildebeest swimming across the river suddenly appeared in full view of our clicking cameras. What a privilege to see this in real life – some fell and slipped on the steep bank while exiting the waters on the other side, others managed to climb out immediately. The sheer numbers, the jostling and shuffling of the wildebeest fighting to exit the slippery bank successfully, was riveting and spectacular.

The harmony and peace that emanated from the plains was contagious, with the natural cycle of life and death as it had to be. While the wildebeest and zebras cross the river to look for greener pastures to graze on, Zen teachers talk about the crossing of Samsara to Nirvana; to be ferried over from ignorance into bliss. The masters say there must be no concepts in our thinking, we should relinquish all likes and dislikes, all duality. The Buddhist way is that of no mind, the mind must settle down and be like stone – no pondering on all the “juice” we get emotionally out of our thoughts (a term coined by Dr David Hawkins, well known spiritual guru who teaches the way to Enlightenment in the West). The Buddhist way is also non theistic – just the concept of a Creator already creates dualism – the difference between creator and the created. I felt no urge to do my normal meditation practice in the African bush. The simple existence of the myriads of animals, the total magnificence of Creation and the endless plains filled my heart with complete contentment – all I wanted to do was to worship and sing praise to the maker of such beauty. I took a small copy of the Bhagavad–Gita with me on this trip (2003 edition). I found great consolation in the words of this eternal song. It gives the assurance that through love and total devotion we can also be ferried over. “Continuous and exclusive devotional love is the only means by which the super excellence of the supreme Person may be realized” or “Those who worship me with devotion arrive at the natural condition of supreme peace and blissfulness in my Sacred Spiritual Realm.” Transformation can come about when we unite with God by taking part in the Divine Being through worship and devotion to the maker of such majesty. We don’t have to de-condition our brainwashed minds, but through devotion and love we might also have the chance to experience Nirvana.

The disturbing sight of three hyena’s devouring a young wildebeest in the hour before sunrise (they often don’t even kill their prey before they start eating) combined with the happy frolicking of a young Thomson gazelle racing around in big circles and jumping for joy (and tiring out his mother) was all part of the great cycle of life in the Bush. We were even lucky to see two lions that were mating. The African Bush showed me that everything there was in harmony and that nature has been providing us with life, breath and food for millions of years. In the bush there is nothing to get, nothing to attain, only to be! We are normally so brainwashed that all our running about and efforts go into getting something. Zen says there is nothing to attain – we must only comprehend the truth that there is nothing to get, then we will experience nirvana. Surely most of us will be a whole lot happier if we were not running after all the things we have to get or have to own.

The wildebeest showed me the way of Wu Wei: greeting each moment as it arises with spontaneity, without any calculated pre-planned action mode. In actual fact, the wildebeest taught me what the ancient people use to practice long ago, the dependence on the unknown. I think that is the secret we have forgotten – our modern society has totally lost that dependence because of the invasion of materialism. The Divine Being might “clothe the lilies” but He is not going to buy me the latest fashion! How much more exciting will life become if we trust in the unknown and let our lives unfold magically. I have a suspicion that when we trust the unknown our lives will progress perfectly; as if our very faith in a field of benevolent Intelligence will open us up to receive the good. I could fly back to my own life in Cape Town, South Africa with the steed of Faith strong in my soul, with a new resolution to trust the unknown and to enjoy each moment that I am granted the breath of life to the full.


  1. Po, Huang. 1958. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po – translated by John Blofeld
  2. Kahn, Hazrat Inayat. 1989. In an Eastern Rose Garden.
  3. Acarya, Vijaya. 2003. Bhagavad- Gita – a translation for the new millennium.
  4. African Geographic expeditions. 2007, 8 – 14 September.

This article was published in Kindred Spirit May/June 2008 page 40-42 and in Odyssey in the October/November 2008 issue, page 36-39. The same article was published in and was the PLW pick of the month in the March 2009 issue.