Being Buddha Tara

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Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?

stargazerMost of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.

And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.

Dumbo octopusThe “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.

“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”

Buddha Tara, you are needed

Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:

We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.

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Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.

During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because  she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.

Please give me that!

To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.Tara picture

Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.

And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.

Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.

Happy Tara Day!

Enemy or victim?

Winston 5

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!”

Winston 5 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.

mother childThe 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.

Buddha and the Hidden Universe

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BuddhaToday, September 22, is Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, one of my favorite anniversaries of the Buddhist calendar. This is why I like it:

“On this day we celebrate Buddha’s return from the desire god realm called Land of the Thirty-three Heavens, where he had been to visit his mother who had been reborn there.

Traditionally this day also marks the end of the summer retreat. Every year, during the summer months, Buddha did a three-month retreat with his disciples. His reason for doing this was to avoid harming insects and other animals.

If we go out a lot during the summer months we will naturally kill more insects and other animals than at other times of the year. The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.” ~ From a talk by Geshe Kelsang in 1991

It is so easy to get caught up in an insular world of just a few people, often human, perhaps a couple of cats… Buddha returning to heaven to avoid stepping on insects reminds me of how important it is to remove our blinkers as often as possible and expand our mind. In this way, interest grows, some understanding or empathy can emerge, and we can develop universal compassion that takes in everyone, not just a few.

Buddhism talks about six realms of samsara, each with an infinite variety of forms and experiences. We can find it hard to believe in the existence of hidden realms, such as the hell realms, yet we are surrounded by a hidden universe of insects and animals, most of whom experience unbelievably intense suffering. Every now and then we may become aware of the existence of this realm, due to some nifty camera work, and our eyes open.

microcosmosI chanced to see Microcosmos yesterday evening with my friend M, who watches it regularly to remind her of the existence of other beings. It is a great movie, I really recommend it. The beetle we named Sisyphus tried valiantly to move the ball of dung up the hill despite it rolling down on top of him and getting stuck on thorns – the camera panned out to show a hill that we wouldn’t even notice as a groove if we were walking along that path. The exotic, colorful, ugly, bizarre, bug eyed, narrow eyed, legless, multi-legged etc. collection of little people (little from our perspective, perfectly big from theirs) grooming themselves, getting to work (insects all business all the time), having sex (man, those snails really liked each other!), reproducing, fighting their corners for no apparent reason that we could see … And all the while looking entirely sentient, as they are. Their tiny, personal worlds consuming them as our own personal world can consume us with its seeming importance, even when we are all just busy moving things around. I think it is Woody Allen’s character in the movie Antz, a soil relocation engineer called Z, who says:

I’ve got to believe there’s something out there better than this. Otherwise I’ll just curl up into a larval position and weep.

I watched this movie with Daka also, one of my foster kittens, who is M’s cat now, along with soft Kini, and who has developed into a very funny character full of affection and curiosity. If I had the same tenderness for all cats, stag beetles, stick insects, and ants as I have for Daka and Kini, I would probably be enlightened by now. Starting with our karmic circle and spreading that love outward is the way to get there. Alternatively, we can bring others into our circle of love, which will then expand naturally because love is like digital data, infinitely replicable. But to love others we have to remember first that they even exist.Daka

Right now I can hear the cicadas—it’s a bit like tuning into a radio frequency from another realm. Thousands upon thousands of mother living beings in the tall fir trees surrounding my forest hut, all trying to be happy and free from suffering. I have been trying to remember them in my meditations here, for, despite the noise they make, it is too easy to ignore their actual being.

When people get to know an animal closely, and perhaps for the first time, their views on that type of animal often change. Dog owners seem to have a respect and affection for the other dogs they meet, they often smile genuinely at the dog and at each other in recognition. If someone raises a chicken from a chick, and gets to know that chicken as a pet, it is far harder, if not impossible, for them to kill and eat it, because they have “met” it and know it is not just a piece of meat. I read a story in the wonderful book Random Acts of Kindness by Animals about a trapper who came from England to America a few centuries ago, and at his Iroquois wife’s urging adopted two beaver babies whose mother he had killed. This changed his view of animals and he decided never to hunt again, writing these evocative words:

“Their almost childlike intimacies and murmurings of affection, their rollicking good fellowship not only with each other but ourselves, their keen awareness, their air of knowing what it was all about. They seemed like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not quite understand. To kill such creatures seemed monstrous. I would do no more of it.”

cockroachAnimals are folk, they are people. And so in fact are insects. During one retreat some years ago, I saw a cockroach being eaten alive by ants. I blew the ants off and put the cockroach on my shrine in a box with grass and water, and said prayers and mantras. I meditated with him every day for a week, but he didn’t die — he lay there and sometimes he wandered around a bit. And during that week I came to know him and love him.

The day came for me to leave and I thought I might leave him there in his box in front of a picture of Buddha, as surely he was not far from death now and he would be peaceful and unmolested. I got in the car and drove a mile. Then I turned back, picked him up, and took him home.

My view of cockroaches completely changed after that encounter. They are no longer creepy looking beetles (well, they still look a bit creepy sometimes, but so can I). They are sentient beings who need love, like us. Issa’s words evoke this for me:

“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”

There are a lot of insects to love so we better get started. As Z says in Antz:

Z: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother *never* had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention. I mean, how is that possible?

Geshe Kelsang says in the same talk mentioned above:

In fact, we should have stronger compassion for animals than for human beings because animals suffer more. Human beings have better conditions and are more fortunate than animals. Because animals have so much suffering and no freedom, out of compassion Buddhists should try not to kill or disturb them. So, for three months during the summer, Buddha advised his disciples to retreat, staying always inside and living carefully and conscientiously.

bugEverything about Buddhism speaks to animals and for animals. Most obviously, as many people with even a passing understanding of Buddhism are aware, Buddhists are aiming at enlightenment, part and parcel of which is universal compassion — the mind that wishes to protect each and every living being from suffering and its causes. This really does mean not just our friends and family, not just human beings, not even just our pets, but each and every living being. We sit on our meditation seats and meditate on this every day. We meditate on the sufferings of all six realms of samsara to develop compassion for all living beings.

But in fact already in the initial scope teachings we are wisened up to the status of animals and insects, and in particular we see how we ourselves are not inherently human beings but can be reborn in other forms. From the get-go we understand that we have a precious human life, which means amongst other things that we have not had to take an animal (or insect) rebirth this time, but this situation is rare. In other words, we COULD have taken an animal rebirth and we can still take one again in the future. If we understand the teachings on karma and delusions, we will understand how easy it is for someone in samsara to take an animal rebirth –in fact it is far easier to be born as an animal than as a human being. That alone might give us pause. If you know you might end up in a dark and frightening world, you presumably would not want to alienate its inhabitants before you get there. But every time we willfully harm animals, we are creating the causes to be willfully harmed ourselves in the future.

In the intermediate scope teachings, we are taught to meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop the wish to be free from samsara altogether, once and for all. For as long as we remain trapped by delusions and contaminated karma, we are never free from the threat of lower rebirth – which means that at any time we could be reborn as a lobster and someone could be picking us out to be boiled alive for dinner.

bug 2In the great scope teachings we meditate on the six realms of suffering to develop compassion wishing to free everyone from samsara altogether, once and for all. The only way to do this is to become fully enlightened. Animals and insects are very kind to act as the sources of our growing concern, love, and compassion. I am glad that Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day is here again to remind me of this, of them, and hope this mindfulness remains with me. But I may do what M did and buy Microcosmos just in case …

More on Buddhism and animals can be found here.

Losing Andromeda

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Here is a timely story from Eileen, aged 91, which illustrates the last article on Kadampa Life…                

Buddha said that our current uncontrolled lives, which he called “samsara”, are in the nature of suffering. He described seven types of suffering: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to put up with things we don’t like, failing to find satisfaction, and losing or being separated from the things we love.

This is the story of a child who experienced this last kind of suffering, losing the thing she loved the most.

Leeds Market is a very famous place, for did not Mr. Marks and Mr. Spencer, two good local boys, start their first commercial venture on a market stall in Leeds?

But, more than that, it was a magical world of sights, sounds and smells, relished by an eight-year-old girl who used to go every Saturday morning with her parents into town on the bus. Happily, the Bus Station in Leeds was just below the Market, and one could savour its delights on the walk up to the City Center. The vast piles of fruit and vegetables, so fresh and colourful, and the smelly fish, straight from Grimsby that morning. Rows of poor pink hams hanging on fearsome looking hooks, and always a red faced man selling pots and pans, “Everything a bargain!”, as he clashed two frying pans together.

Eileen Stead as a young girlBut I, the child, had just one desire — to go to the Pet Shop. This was a magnet to me, and I cunningly guided my Parents in that direction. At last — baskets of the cutest puppies, rabbits with long ears and twitching noses, and, best of all, the mice. Black mice, white mice with pink eyes, golden brown mice with dark beady eyes and long whiskers. They lived in a “Mouse House” with little wheels to play on, and wooden staircases, having a grand old time.

On this visit, one of the golden brown mice, more adventurous than the rest, climbed up the wire cage and poked her little pink nose through a hole. I held out my finger, and she sniffed at it in an inquisitive way. It was love at first sight.

“Oh please can we buy her, she’s only sixpence, and I’ve saved my pocket money. Can I buy her?” “Well” said my mother, “You’ll have to look after it yourself” “Oh I will, I will, and can we make her a house like this one?” “Alfred”, said my Mother, turning to my Father, who, deep in revery, was thinking about some organ piece he was going to play in church the next day, “You’ll make it a house, won’t you?” “Yes, of course” he replied abstractedly. He always said “Yes, of course” to my Mother.

So, sixpence and a handshake later, and the deal was done – we returned home on the bus, me in 7th heaven and Andromeda in her paper bag. (I was into Greek Mythology at the time.) My Father, true to his promise, made her a wonderful house, with a wheel and a staircase, and even an upstairs room for her to sleep in. She was a very happy mouse, and often we would romp on the bed together and play hide and seek under the pillows. She was my very best friend.

The trouble was, I missed her dreadfully during the day when I had to go to school — so I persuaded my father to make a little box, with some air holes, just small enough to fit in my tunic pocket. I think she became quite a scholar, in her own Mousey way. I know she loved the singing lesson on Friday afternoons, I could feel her positively vibrating in her box.

It was quite a long walk to school, and one Friday, after the singing lesson, a girl in my class who lived near to me asked if we could walk together. She said “You’ve got a mouse, haven’t you?”  “Yes” I replied, “I have her in my pocket. Her name’s Andromeda.” “Can I see her?” “Well alright”, I said, “But I don’t want her to escape”. I took her out, and held her gently in my hand. She looked at me and twitched her whiskers in the trusting way that she had. “Can I hold her?” “Well, be very careful, be very gentle.”

I placed Andromeda into her hands, but something happened and my mouse tried to escape. Julia Shepherd (I remember her name to this day) clutched her tightly in her big strong hands. “Don’t squeeze her, don’t squeeze her” I cried, but my little mouse gave up the struggle, and, when Julia Shepherd opened her fingers, there lay my beautiful golden playmate, lifeless–dead!!

I was overwhelmed with rage and grief, and ran home in floods of tears, carrying the small, sad body. It was my first experience of death, of losing someone I loved, and even though easily 80 years have passed I can still recall the anguish of that moment. The end of a child’s relationship with a beloved pet. The seventh suffering of samsara. Another very good reason to attain liberation.

Man’s best friend

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Frodo Buddha dog

You may have got the impression that I am a cat person, but that is because you never saw me with Frodo, and he was a mini-Schnauzer. Actually, he was a Buddha emanating as a human in a mini-Schnauzer body, but whatever… the point is, he was not a cat.

Frodo appeared exactly when I needed him. In 2009, I had lost my job, my house, my income, my community, and was staying at the mercy of Frodo’s mom S in the Hamptons (why not! What better place to hang out when you’re penniless?!) for a few months, doing retreat. I was at first a little discombobulated, wondering how to make my life meaningful with only my own mind for company, adapting to a new reality. And along came Frodo, giving me his unadulterated, unconditional adoration. It was some strong karma ripening as he wanted to follow me around everywhere, and I happily let him. His mom was very good about it; she said it was not his fault as I had bewitched him.Frodo on walk

Frodo was always happy to go for walks with me. He was always happy to sit next to me, beside me, on top of me, as I read my Buddhist books in between sessions. He was a little too happy to sit right next to me staring at me whenever I ate — really he did love his (anyone’s) food! And, marvelously enough, he was always happy to join me for any number of 2-hour meditation sessions, his paws reaching under the door if I shut it, scrabbling to be let in. He would sit very quietly on the bed behind me for about an hour and three quarters (and sometimes I could feel him staring at me) … then I would hear a small whimpery noise, and I’d tell him to shoosh. He would shoosh for about ten minutes, and then that little attempt at communication again, this time a little louder and more determined. If I looked behind me at that point, his face would generally be right next to my left shoulder. That is if he wasn’t upside down on the bed entirely blissing out, which is how he spent most of the sessions. We enjoyed our Heruka retreat very much, Frodo and I.

Buddhism and dogsI wrote a few things down about Frodo at the time, so here are a few random snippet memories of getting to know a dog, and a sometimes challenging but beautiful retreat.

A meeting

“Frodo jumped unexpectedly onto my lap today, and stayed there for hours, mainly staring at me. He is very sentient. S was not looking for a dog, but when she popped into the pet store to visit her favorite puppy, he was gone. With a shock, she realized he was her dog, but it was too late, he had been crated away for euthanization (at 5 months deemed too old to be cute.) Luckily, she managed to get him back in the nick of time. I am doing no justice to this story, let her tell it to you.”

Cure for boredom and loneliness

“I’ve never felt bored before, really. However, I felt a little bored and out of sorts after lunch, so I took Frodo for a walk and cheered right up. I was out of sorts about the lack of job or clear future, no community, tinged with loneliness, thinking, “What am I doing?” I examined that I, the one that needs distraction and the suffering of change, and dissolved it away. Everyone has it – the sufferings of boredom and loneliness and the sufferings of change are horrible. There is even a TV series called “Bored to Death” — I saw the billboard when I was in New York. I developed compassion from exchanging myself with those who experience boredom, and it was “real” as it was based on my own experience of suffering. I developed real concern for the suffering of Frodo, and everyone else.Buddhism and boredom

At this stage I dissolved my Spiritual Guide into my heart. If he feels this much love and compassion, he must be desperate to dissolve our suffering away, so I went with that and spent time feeling the bliss. There is no need for the grasped-at-I, including the I that is more concerned about its own boredom than the suffering of those born as animals, in a tsunami, etc. I did a meditation fusing exchanging self with others and emptiness, deciding to become an emanation of Guru Buddha and forget all about my limited sense of self, a self that doesn’t even exist. Then I can spread my sense of self over everyone, starting with Frodo, and dissolve them into my mind of bliss and emptiness. I generate others as Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, which means that I am never separate from anyone (and therefore never lonely.) This, I find, is the perfect cure for feeling lonely and isolated.”

I want you. I need you.

“Frodo came along at a good time. In a few self-pitying moments I would think that no one seemed to want me or need me any more, but Frodo told me with his eyes: ‘I want you to attain enlightenment for my sake. I need you to attain enlightenment for my sake.’ Frodo is my new BFF and how wonderful it is if he can be representative of all living beings, as my object of love. This is such an uncomplicated relationship! I can’t bear to see him hurt, even though it is usually momentary e.g. when I threw the yellow tennis ball for him and it landed on his back and he yelped. I have to get him and everyone else out of the lower realms and out of samsara.”

A dog’s life

“Frodo is powerless – all he can do is whine or bark, he cannot open a door himself, or get himself his favorite treats, and he’s always at ground level having to look up. He cannot read or otherwise really entertain himself. Who owns Frodo’s body? It’d be good to love all living beings as much as I love Frodo. He is an emanation dog for my retreat. He is whimpering ‘Please hurry up and get enlightened!’

“Frodo is not worried about human problems like losing a job. My teacher Geshe-la makes the point that animals are temporarily free from human problems, just as we humans are (only) temporarily free from animal problems. If you pay close attention to people’s lives, naturally empathy and compassion will arise as they are all experiencing problems every day.”

dog is man's best friend

Wake up!

“This morning, Frodo was whimpering in his sleep. I wanted to wake him up. It occurred to me that if you’re going to free someone from a nightmare, you can’t buy into that nightmare yourself. Buddhas see that we are suffering but they also see that it is dream-like suffering, so they try to wake us up.”

Best gift

“It is Frodo’s birthday today! I gave him all sorts of goodies, but my main gift to him, and indeed his back to me, was to exchange myself with him and all other animals all day long. On the beach where S and I took him for his birthday run, we saw a poor fish flapping on the sand, the fisherman oblivious.”

Upside down dog

“Tsog day was lovely with self-initiation and Offering to the Spiritual Guide and an upside-down dog on the bed behind me.”

Mala

“I was with Frodo earlier today when a white labrador bounded up to me on the beach, seemingly with no owner. She followed me for about a mile, until I came across a woman sitting on the beach with her dog, a black labrador. For some reason, she called out “Mala!” and both her black lab and my new white lab bounded up to her. We didn’t think too much of it, but when we looked at the white lab’s collar, her name, too, was “Mala.” And I’m doing a counting retreat.”

Stay here now

“I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.” (Postscript: I often think of this walk when I need a reminder to experience the vibrancy and fullness of the present moment, not dwelling futilely in the non-existent past or distracted by the non-existent future.)

If I ever wanted to tune into love, I could think of Frodo, it worked instantly every time. He was there during my Heruka retreat, and Heruka is the nature of love. At the time I used to reckon that if I loved everyone as much as I loved that dog, I would be enlightened by now. I think that may be true.bodhichitta or bears

Why am I telling you all this? Because Frodo died today.

Please pray for Frodo. May Buddha Tara, whom he loved, take him straight into her heart. Please pray for Dharma, my friend’s brave cat, who also died a few days ago after a long illness. Please pray for Bear, who died recently. Please pray for all our precious animals, who teach us so much, who open our hearts. May they all be happy. May they all be safe. May they all be free.

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Tom Tom and Zia's new home

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home

See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

Who will buy this wonderful morning?

don't wish our life away

Are we only as lucky as we feel?

I think one thing is for sure, we won’t make the most of any good luck we have if we don’t realize we have it, and especially if we are focused instead on what we don’t have.

Feeling lucky is one of the best feelings in the world, as well as one of the most useful.

are you feeling luckyBuddhism is eminently optimistic because it recognizes that at heart everyone is pure and everyone is good. In fact, there’s no difference between any of us in that we all have equally flawless potential, our Buddha nature. Whether we fulfill that potential or not depends on whether or not we use our human life to help both ourselves and others.

In The New Meditation Handbook, my teacher says we need to encourage ourselves to put the Buddhist teachings into practice for the compelling reason that we can then:

“permanently cure the inner sickness of our delusions and all suffering, and achieve everlasting happiness.”

What friend is encouraging us to do that? They are probably few and far between, and in any case who has time to be giving us thought aid all day long? So Buddha likened the first meditation of the so-called stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim in Tibetan), the one on our precious human life, to our “best friend” because it gives us all the good advice and encouragement we need, whenever we need it.

foster kitten BuddhismI have just been landed with three more foster kittens. They are scrawny, sickly, hissy, and currently clueless as to what is going on.* I will try and give them the best possible start to life, and they each have just the same potential as me. However, it is not going to be possible for them to travel the spiritual path while still in their animal body. I find that the animals in my life help me as much if not more than I help them. Taking care of them reminds me daily of how lucky I am by comparison, and so how important it is to make spiritual progress myself so that one day I can help them do the same. It is not fair otherwise.

Even if I compare myself to other humans, it is clear that I have ridiculous resources compared to most people in the world. I have had a roof over my head every day and night, I can read, I can write, I’m drinking coffee, I’m eating a delicious sandwich, I have options. Other people look at us, or watch us on TV, and think that we’re like gods, the luckiest people on the planet, at least materially.

This relative well-being comes about not because we are better or more special than others, but because we are really very, very lucky. That luck comes from many causes and conditions, the substantial cause being good karma, because we have created the causes for well-being in the past. We were able to create these causes entirely thanks to others, who gave us the opportunities to be kind, generous, patient, and so on. The main contributory cause of our good fortune is also other people’s goodness to us – bringing us up, giving us jobs, building our roads and other infrastructure, supporting us on every level since we got here. This much is clear from the meditation on the kindness of others. (Look at this blog article for more on this point).  I'm feeling lucky Buddhism

Buddha said there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish with a precious human life, spiritually speaking. In this first meditation of the Lamrim, he spelled out our options like a tour guide: “Now that you’re here, you can collect all the inner treasure you need to help you in all your future lives, you can attain complete mental freedom and overcome suffering, and/or you can attain the state of omniscient bliss and wisdom and help everyone …”

Harrods is a large department store in London, so luxurious that people from all over the world travel there to shop. It has the best and most desirable of everything. Imagine for a moment that we won a prize of ten minutes in Harrods when everything we can put into a shopping cart is ours. We might well rub our hands in glee, “This is my chance!” But imagine that instead of rushing straight to the jewelry section, we bump into someone rather attractive in the lobby and we linger a while, “Interesting person, maybe we’ll get together later.” Then we think, “Hmm, I’m feeling a little peckish,” and we head over to the cafe for a nice free croissant and latte. There we find a queue full of annoying people who are in our way, and we get distracted by that thought for a while.

Suddenly we realize we have just a minute left and we’re three floors away from anything we actually want or need. If we made a plan, we have not stuck to it. Too late. That’s how we are, we get distracted. We need that motivating knowledge of our opportunity front and foremost in our mind if we are to not to waste whatever time we have left.

The hugely influential Indian meditator Nagarjuna, when he woke up each morning, said:

“How fortunate that my breath has sustained me through the night!”

We could be like this, jumping out of bed happy each morning. As a kid, I was touched by the movie Oliver  Twist, about the orphan who was suddenly plucked from poverty due to his birthright and given all the opportunity he could desire. That scene on the balcony when he sings:

Who will buy this wonderful morning? 
Such a sky you never did see!
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me?   

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I'm so high I swear I could fly.
Me, oh my!  I don't want to lose it
So what am I to do
To keep the sky so blue?

We could feel this ecstatic every day if we wanted to.

don't wish our life away

Are we wishing our life away…?!

We can’t afford to take this opportunity for granted, given how fragile and short-lived it actually is. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as they say. We only have this shot at getting it right. It is very hard for animals and even most humans to avoid suffering and control their minds. We always have the potential, the Buddha nature — it is our birthright. Right now we also have the conditions — we have the freedom to become free! Joyful Path of Good Fortune has a checklist of good fortune — the freedoms and endowments. If we discover we have these, I think we discover we have everything.

Over to you: What is more valuable to you, one minute of life or one thousand dollars?

(*Day 4: The foster kittens are coming along in leaps and bounds. I like to think of their new purring as tuning into the Dharmakaya, receiving blessings. May it one day be as easy for us to give ALL living beings food, medicine, shelter, safety, entertainment, and love.) tuning into Buddha's enlightened mind, blessings

A sliver of life, finger food for thought

food for thought and meditation


Rousseau, Buddhism
I just went out to buy a collar for Rousseau* at a local supermarket, as he managed to lose his during his nocturnal ramblings. I got him a pink one this time – embarrassing for a Real He Man Cat but, I figured, more visible.

The 30-something Salvation Army guy outside had appointed himself as guardian of my bike. He praised me for taking the exercize and volunteered that he had just put on 30 pounds in two months. The way he spoke about it, it was like as if something had happened TO him, without him even noticing. “I used to exercise but for the last two months I was just laid about on the couch after work.” “Did you have an injury?” “Oh no, I just felt like laying around. And I ate a lot. In fact, I noticed that I had drunk a crate of sodas in the last two weeks. Weighed myself on that scale in there today, 30 pounds! Bit of a shock! Yeah, when I come to think of it, my clothes don’t fit so good neither.” If he lost that 30 pounds, he’d be a very decent weight, so how did he not notice that the pounds had been creeping on? He just didn’t. He sort of answered a question I have about people who put on a lot of weight without seeming to notice; the way he was talking, it was as if it was an unfortunate accident. Perhaps it was. (Perhaps it is time for me to weigh myself again, something I usually studiously avoid, weighing yourselfpreferring to rely on the scientific method of how tight my trousers feel.)

He was a nice guy, and I was thinking that although this was curious and a little disappointing for him, far worse is our inability to notice when our mind is becoming incrementally more heavy or sad, without our taking early or preventative steps to exercise it with positive thinking or feed it with the healthy food of meditation. In any event, we agreed that if he didn’t buy any more sodas he’d not be inclined to drink them, and that if he took up exercise again he’d be 30 pounds lighter when I next saw him. I hope so. (Though I think dieting can be harder work than training our mind…? Or, to put it more encouragingly, training the mind can be easier than dieting… What do you reckon?)

A few minutes later I found myself caught up in a small military parade of infantry men who had definitely kept themselves together physically. They were marching right where I normally bike home, for some unknown reason, and I ended up having to follow them. They were crisply dressed in their deep blue uniforms with yellow piping, their pressed trousers ending just above their shiny black shoes, in exactly the same point on the ankle. They were holding sleek but intimidating rifles with bayonets and they walked in step beautifully, effortlessly throwing the bayonet from one hand to the other. I found myself thinking: “I hope they have as much control over their minds as they do over their bodies.”

On the home stretch, my bike chain came unstuck and I got my hands all oily fixing it.

Rousseau the cat and Buddhism Then, remember that pink collar I just bought?! Well, when I got home, I noticed something blue and shiny dangling from my postbox. Much to Rousseau’s relief, some kind stranger had returned his manly collar.

This errand took all of half an hour from beginning to end. Just a normal slice of life, taking its unexpected small (in this case) twists and turns. But it was another reminder that the appearances of life, whether good or bad, are always changeable and unpredictable.

Although we like to feel we have tabs on the general narrative of our lives, we have really no idea who or what we are going to meet from one minute to the next, let alone from one year to the next, and forget about from one lifetime to the food for thought and meditationnext!

The only thing we can learn to control is our mind; and seen in that context every one of our encounters is food for thought, with a potential to nourish our compassion and/or wisdom.

*(I wrote this article six months ago. Nowadays, I’ve given up on collars for Rousseau, manly or otherwise.)

Your turn: which encounters have fed you the most food for thought recently?

 

What do animals think?

do animals feel

For many years now, when things go wrong in my life — e.g., losing a home, losing good friends, losing a job, being criticized, etc., that kind of thing — my first port of call is usually to cherish whoever happens to be right around me. I don’t want to fall into self-pity or depression given my great good fortune to have this precious human life. I don’t trust any unhappy minds because I know they are reflecting a distorted reality. And I know that all this dream-like appearance comes from the ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing, every bit of it. So, in meditation I tend to meditate on emptiness to dissolve away self-grasping’s deceptions, and in the field I apply the immediate antidote to self-cherishing, which is to cherish someone near me more than I cherish myself.

This has always worked. Even if I feel a bit discombobulated first thing in the morning when I wake up to my new reality, it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t last, because, if I’m focusing on someone else, my own dark cloud moods are not so important and they quickly lift.

do animals think according to Buddhism

Rihanna and Oscar

This Survive and Advance Strategy may be why, after one of life’s hiccups, I now seem to be fostering three kittens aged 5 weeks, weight approx. 1lb.* On Saturday, I went on the spur of the moment to volunteer with adoptions in PetSmart, as it felt like the right thing to do at the time. It was a quiet day, so after chief volunteer Jack had showed me the ropes, I swung back home by the Suncoast Animal League HQ just to have a look, and ended up coming home with Rihanna, Oscar, and Sidney.

do animals think according to Buddha

Sidney

As I write this, they are wrestling each other and me on the sofa in an absurdly photogenic way, adding extra spaces to this document by jumping on the keyboard, and attempting to electrocute themselves by chewing through the wire. After three days, they think I am their mom. (Pretty brave and trusting, seeing as I’m a giant and don’t look much like a cat.) Their actual furry mom was hit by a car when she was pregnant. Happily she survived, had surgery on her jaw, and is now adopted.

(Now, by the end of this short paragraph, they have fallen over asleep – it is as if they have an on/off switch.)

do cats have delusions such as jealousy

Unimpressed Rousseau

One interesting thing about fostering so far (apart from the number of people trying to make me nervous with their “Oh, I adopted Hannah/Daisy/my four dogs and six cats X number of years ago, I’m a foster failure” stories), is that my own cat Rousseau is very jealous. He hisses, growls, and swats at them, and although the kittens themselves are unfazed (do they not realize he is 13 times their size?!), I am not, so I now keep them in a separate room while Rousseau is in the house, and the Russian tenants are (more than) happy to have them at night. Rousseau arrived here insecure and bitey, and it’s taken months for him to really feel at home and in charge, so this is not nice for him. I won’t feel mothering guilt though, there is infinite love to go around, something that a jealous cat doesn’t understand but, according to the online experts, there are ways to help him see that. I’m trying them all.

So, why is this interesting? Because Rousseau’s jealousy is no different to mine, or yours, or anyone else’s. It comes from the same place – insecurity; feeling unloved or deprived as a child perhaps; wanting to be in control of an uncontrollable environment, including the amount of love coming his way; attachment to his human; dislike of his perceived rivals … In other words, Rousseau is having a delusion. Who has delusions? A person has delusions. Ergo, Rousseau is, like you and me, also a person, a being, a self, an I (all synonyms according to Buddhism). “I, Rousseau, am very cross with these others, these intruders, and am going to take it out on you by sulking, hissing, swatting, and glaring at you with huge scary dilated-pupil eyes in the middle of the night, that is if I deign to look at you at all.” “I am a sentient being, I feel these things deeply, and am scared of these new people (I don’t let their miniature size deceive me!)” “I, myself, am feeling all lonely and insecure over here because it looks like she prefers other people now (and I don’t let her extra attention deceive me either!)”

Rousseau is clearly thinking something… to develop a delusion he has to have inappropriate attention, exaggerating something, and that is a process of thought. Animals think. Animals feel. Animals have thoughts and emotions. It is hard to insist that they don’t, though plenty of people try.

do animals feel

Rupini

It matters not a jot that his delusion may be less sophisticated than a human being’s delusion – but as I write this, I find I am hard put to think of which ways in which it is less sophisticated. His growling and swatting at me is no different to a friend, lover, or child being upset and yelling at me if I spend time with someone else. His dislike of and rivalry with the kittens is the same motivating force behind an astonishing amount of dubious human behavior. His love of giving and receiving love, and his craving for attention and validation, is an emotional drive for most of us. And so on. Really, what is the difference? If you can think of any differences, please share them in the comments. I’m serious. I’m not sure if delusions are ever very sophisticated, even though they can certainly be elaborate. After all, they are all based on a gut ignorance.

kittens in Buddhism

Daka and Kini, off to their home in NY

So, if Rousseau is a person etc., so is every other animal by logical extension. And people deserve our love, protection, and respect. Here is what my favorite Christian saint has to say on the subject:

“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission—to be of service to them wherever they require it.” ~ Saint Francis of Assissi

animals are sentient beings

Alex still needs a home

The other learning reinforcement I’ve had so far from these kittens is no surprise to me–that unconditional, in the moment love is the best antidote to pretty much anything unpleasant arising in the mind. They are distracting me in a positive way from thinking sad, futile, or fast-forwarding thoughts, indeed from thinking many thoughts at all 🙂 Except for good ones, like how much I want to make sure that I help them get a good forever home by loving them to bits and socializing them so they turn out secure and friendly (giving them a better start in life than Rousseau had, for example). And except especially for Dharma thoughts because my main wish–as it is for any pets I have, and any human beings I have too in fact–is that they are protected from all suffering not just in this life but always. When they look at me for love and protection, I find it unacceptable for them to remain in the deluded prison of samsara forever, endlessly experiencing wretched animal and other sufferings, and I am further motivated to do something about that by getting myself and them out of here. And they are also so kind to me, serving as immediate, visceral examples of all other animal beings, human beings, and other samsaric beings requiring swift release.

* I wrote this a few months ago and, since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridge, kitten-

do cats think

Do you want Danny?

wise and Dharma-wise. Two more joined the first three, all five got loving homes, and a friend in New York just this morning adopted two of my latest batch of five – they are flying out this weekend, Hurricane Isaac permitting.

(This article, of course, has just been one long glorified excuse to post some of my kitten pictures…)

Over to you: Do animals think? How do you know for sure?

Postscript: Someone just sent me this encouraging new article Prominent scientists sign declaration that animals have conscious awareness, just like us. An extract:

An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

And, several years later, March 2016, this has happened in New Zealand!!!

NEW ZEALAND HAS OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED ALL ANIMALS AS SENTIENT BEINGS

Disney’s movie Chimpanzee ~ “There is meaning in those eyes.”

Oscar and Isha

I watched the movie Chimpanzee last night with my friends Anya and her two great kids, Zia (12) and Tom Tom (10). We wanted to see it before May 3rd as Disneynature are donating some of the profits this week to the Jane Goodall Institute.

(Spoiler alert: I knew the plot before I watched the movie and it made no difference, but you could always go see the movie first and then read this.)

Oscar and Isha in the movie ChimpanzeeOscar is Isha’s child, and the early part of the movie shows his first years growing up under her doting care, learning how to smash nuts with the right tools and goofing around with his friends while she tries vainly to sleep. (Anya related to all these early scenes.) He looks so human, they all do. (Or we look like chimps.) His chest and rib cage looks like a little hairy boy’s chest and rib cage. His hands are like our hands. And his face is expressive, by turns curious, amused, playful, soulful.

When the film-makers started the movie, they didn’t know that his mother would be killed. But she is injured by the patriarch Scar and his army of chimpanzee rivals from over the Ridge in the rainforests of the Ivory Coast, in a raid on their nut grove. Isha becomes separated from her family, and is picked off by a leopard (this being Disney, the gruesome scenes are only hinted at.)

Oscar on his own in the movie Chimpanzee

Tiny Oscar looks for her everywhere. As the days go by, he becomes thinner and thinner, and covered with ticks because no one is grooming him. He tries to stick his little arm into a bees’ hive, but it isn’t long enough to reach the honey, and he just gets stung. He tugs at all the other mothers, asking for help, but they have infants of their own and growl him away. Even his friends are not playing with him like they used to. Oscar is alone.

At this point, I had read beforehand, the film-makers thought their movie was over. But then something extraordinary happens. The only person Oscar has not approached, and with good reason, is Freddy, the enormous gruff alpha male. When Oscar does finally pluck up the courage to approach, Freddy surprisingly lets him sit near him, and Oscar starts to watch and learn.

Oscar follows Freddy everywhere, and from his side Freddy develops more and more interest in Oscar, until he is giving him the choice portions of the food he finds and prepares. And then one day Freddy lets him ride on his back, something that a male chimp never does, and certainly not the Big Boss who has a reputation to maintain.

Oscar and Freddy in the movie Chimpanzee

The movie shows that over the coming days and weeks Freddy becomes devoted to Oscar. He grooms him, something usually reserved for those higher in the hierarchy, not the weakest member of the group who has nothing to offer in return; and he even lets Oscar sleep in his arms. He adopts Oscar, and Oscar is saved. The movie has a happy ending, thanks to love.

Life in that world is not easy, and there are no final happy endings in samsara. The rival gang of hungry chimps, seen off once thanks to Freddy’s teamwork, will be back. The chimps still have to hunt other monkeys for food — monkeys intelligent enough to realize they’ve been ambushed and that there is no escape from being ripped limb from limb (also hinted at, not shown.) The photography and scenery in the movie is spectacular, including scenes set in slow and fast motion, but beneath that seemingly enchanting cloud-wrapped canopy of trees lies a very traumatic world, none of whose inhabitants ever feels truly safe.

Spending over an hour in the company of chimps in this movie helps us see how similar to us they are in many ways – in terms of their wishes and fears, their maternal love, their cleverness at using tools to prepare food, the importance of teamwork to survival, their cultivated social relationships, their rivalry and violence, and their bodies. And Freddy’s unexpected reaction to Oscar, in particular, shows a remarkable, selfless love. No one could argue that this love is merely instinctive, because it does Freddy’s standing in the group no good when, preoccupied with Oscar, he is unable to cultivate his allies or patrol his borders. It works out okay for him as it happens, but he didn’t know this when he fell for the small bundle of love.

This movie is a good testimony to how animals can share with us the same emotions, feelings, ability to learn, sociability, and even self-awareness. They are in a lower realm, and they don’t have the opportunity to develop spiritually in this lifetime, but they have minds, they think and feel, and their Buddha nature is no different to ours. They are not mere bodies with instincts, devoid of sentience or thought, as many people claim in justification for treating them badly or as less than people.

“There is meaning in those eyes”

Oscar's eyes in the movie ChimpanzeeI saw an interview with some of the film-makers, who spent up to three years in the jungle with the chimps, and here are some of their remarks:

People watching this movie “can understand that the chimps’ potential and relationships are as watchable as a human drama.”

“Why did Freddy adopt Oscar? It was pure altruism. It was selfless looking after the young orphan where he hasn’t got an agenda.”

“When those eyes look out at you from a massive screen, there is meaning in those eyes, and we as human beings connect to them.”

“The chimps are very endangered, the rain forest is being cut down, they are part of the bush meat trade, living in fragmented patches of forest, threatened with extinction.”

“[The audience are] going to see that we are not the only beings with personalities and minds capable of thought.” ~ Jane Goodall.

By the way, for the parents amongst you, I can report that Tom Tom turned to us in the middle and whispered loudly, “I LOVE this movie!” Both kids pretended to be chimps after the auditorium emptied, running and jumping through the aisles, and even their own mother said she could not see that much difference between them and Oscar… ; – )

In Buddhism, person, being, self, and I are synonyms. Human beings are just one type of person. That has always made sense to me.

And my question to anyone who watches this and sees Oscar’s eyes is:

Who can believe that he is not a person? 

Here are some interesting links to other chimpanzee and primate stories:

chimps taste freedom for the first time in 30 yearsIf only they could all be freed. Chimpanzees see sunlight for the first time in 30 years.

Are animals smarter than people?

Do monkeys wonder? BBC do monkeys wonder


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