Yesterday J and F bought Winston for a visit. He has been scratching himself a lot recently, due to fleas, and J has been applying anti-histamine cream out of great concern for his discomfort. Apparently, I was informed, he no longer has fleas. But sitting at the dining table, stroking Winston, F looked up suddenly: “Oh, here’s a flea.” Then he added, perhaps somewhat in defense of his beloved pooch, “You must have fleas in the carpet!”
Now, not wanting to quibble, but I did feel the need to point out that I have thus far never had any fleas in my carpet, and Winston is the one who has been scratching like crazy, so I was coming to an entirely different conclusion… my carpet (and cat) were now at risk from Winston, not the other way around!
And I caught myself developing a split second of aversion toward this usually adorable fellow, “Oh, Winston, as if it’s not enough that you chase my cat, I wish you hadn’t bought fleas into my house”, as if the fleas were all his fault, and somehow part of him. But of course it was not his fault. He is a poor little dog plagued by flea bites, not an annoying flea-dog at one with his fleas.
This got me thinking some more. If I had the constant, unconditional love for Winston that J and F have, I would not assume for a moment that the fleas are somehow his fault, nor ever identify him with his fleas. I would distinguish between Winston and his fleas, seeing the faults of being bitten by fleas without seeing a single fault in Winston.*
You know how, if we encounter a co-worker with a huge head cold and then develop symptoms ourselves, we can easily think: “Oh it is their fault I feel so ill, they are the one who gave me this” (as if the head cold was part and parcel of them as opposed to something victimizing them.) Think about the panic, aversion and vilification that used to surround people with cancer, for example, or more recently AIDS, as people conflated the victims with the very enemy who was drawing the life out of them. They were not distinguishing between the person and their illness, and this caused hard-heartedness and even cruelty.
Yet when a mother sees her child with a head cold, she is not thinking about herself but about him, so she never identifies the child with the illness or develops aversion out of selfish concern for her own welfare. Instead she distinguishes between her child and his illness and tries her best to free him from this enemy, to make him feel better.
The common denominator here strikes me as being love. When we have love for someone, we seem to naturally focus on their pure nature and potential and don’t mistake them for their temporary faults, even if we see that they have them. We don’t think “Oh, all you are is a flea-carrying cur, get out of my house!” or “You are just one big head cold, get away from me!” We think “Oh, you poor thing, let me help you overcome your problems and feel better.”
This reminds me of that quote I mentioned here:
It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish. ~ Transform Your Life, p 131
It strikes me that this goes both ways, in a virtuous cycle. If we don’t identify people with their delusions, we can keep loving them; and if we love them, we are far less likely to identify them with their delusions.
*By the way, I have nothing against fleas per se. They are sentient beings and as such are not enemies at all. But I won’t get into all that right now.
What do you think?
Postscript: I wrote this some time ago too. Winston has since moved to New York and I am about to move to a place with another carpet.
But what about rats? I am a long way away from being able to love them and they can spread quite serious diseases. Of course one can try to get rid of them them using natural methods but they are a big problem.
Do rats still spread disease? I’m curious. We had a lot at Madhyamaka Centre and no one ever got ill from them, as far as I know. Is the fear of their spreading disease part of the mythology that rats are bad? I don’t know, i’m just asking. I had a pet rat once for a few weeks (borrowed) and I became very fond of him, not expectedly.
Yes, I think a bite from a rat can kill you. How did you get rid of the rats at Madhyamaka Centre?
In general, a bite from a rat won’t kill you. Rats are normally very clean, fastidious creatures. It’s true that under certain conditions they can carry diseases, as can humans. Apparently, some diseases which are thought to be spread by rats (such as bubonic plague) are actually carried by fleas, but then the fleas live on the rats.
Ooh that’s so challenging! Seeing the fleas as separate from the dog, and having compassion for both parties isn’t really so difficult. Especially with Winston’s big brown eyes ❤
But not identifying folk with their delusions; especially when those delusions cause that person to hurt us ~ way more difficult! It’s hard enough to separate ourselves from our own delusions, let alone others from theirs. One to practice, isn’t it.