Living fearlessly

You know the thing I like most about Buddha Tara? That she is fearless. That she never gives up. That she never backs down. That she will never give up on anyone until the very last living being is rescued from the prison of samsara.

Someone wrote this earlier today on Facebook, and I reckon some of you can relate to it:toddler-in-aleppo

I’m mourning for the people of Aleppo, as well as ALL victims of war and genocide. I feel paralyzed, unable to help. Even in the midst of financial uncertainty, my life is so very comfortable and blessed in comparison with theirs, and I wish I could give them some of my good circumstances. I’d happily do with less to allow them to have safety and shelter and food. But I don’t know how to help when I have no financial resources to share.

Yes, I offer prayers and dedications, and I try to spread awareness; but I want to be able to do something more concrete and immediate. I do use their suffering as a motivation to become enlightened in order to save them and all other living beings from suffering, but some days that seems like such a distant and ethereal goal.

I want to be able to swoop in like a superhero right now and save the people from their hell on earth, but I cannot. It breaks my heart.

Fearlessness

Buddha Tara is a superhero.tara

She does not get discouraged or overwhelmed. And this is a quality we need if we are to be able to grow our compassion until it reaches all living beings. Because there are a lot of people experiencing a lot of suffering, and this can be terrifying and hard to cope with when we open our eyes to look at it. Without fearlessness, we will shut our eyes again; I think this is only a matter of time.

Earthlings

Human suffering is bad enough. But I have now watched Earthlings, having put it off for a long time, which shows the monstrous (I don’t have the words) suffering inflicted by humans — us — on millions and millions of bewildered fellow beings every single day. Within a few miles of where you are sitting — wherever that is — no doubt there are animals who, although they want to be loved just as much as our dog or cat, or at least left alone, are being stabbed and tortured and murdered instead.

Earthlings was almost impossible to watch; I knew it would be. But it also got a lot of things into perspective and brought out a compassionate, if somewhat desperate, wish to do whatever I could to bring an end to the suffering. However, I need a powerful ally. There is no way I can do this on my own, of course; I don’t even know where to begin, hence the desperation. So I was thinking a lot about Guru Tara — how she would never flinch in going to the aid of all the animals and human beings involved. And how I want and need that kind of ally and that kind of courage. Or I am never going to follow through, I am just going to switch channels.

earthlingsReader discretion is advised

I don’t know if you ever intend to watch Earthlings, but I hope you don’t mind if I mention here some of the reactions I had to it. As the movie says at the outset, “viewer discretion is advised.” Which, before the first harrowing images even appeared, made me realize the privilege, the luxury, of being a mere spectator, able to turn off this unpleasantness whenever I felt like it – unlike those who were actually experiencing it.

I think we need context for watching something like Earthlings or it will just make us angry and depressed, or cause us to stick our head even further into the sand. Same with Aleppo. Same with all the intense tragedies and catastrophes all around the world all the time.

Might doesn’t mean right

The film makers are making the case for us not harming animals with our own actions directly or indirectly – in all five categories where animals are misused, namely (unwanted) pets, food, clothes, entertainment, experimentation.

Just because our species happens to be more powerful is no excuse for exploiting people in other species. Any mark of humanity is surely that the powerful are supposed to look after the vulnerable, not take advantage of them. We kind of get that for human beings, but not for some sad reason for animals. And this despite the overwhelming and increasing evidence that animals and fish are just as feeling of suffering as we are, they have nervous systems, pain receptors, and so on.stop-it-thats-horrible

I think it is not correct to turn the other way when animals are suffering within our own realm, within our own neighborhoods, hidden within plain sight. As Edmund Burke was quoted in the movie:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Very few people visit slaughterhouses. Many people hope and assume that the meat they eat has come from humanely killed animals. Generally, this is a pipe dream. We need to know what and who we are eating or wearing. Ignorance is not bliss, especially not for the animals. As it says in the movie:

They all die from pain.

What will be enough?

Not misusing others for our own purposes, as the film makers want viewers to conclude, is a very good start – probably an essential one if we are to claim any conscience at all — but it is not ever going to be enough. It is not ever going to be nearly enough.

This movie shows pretty conclusively in my opinion that, despite its occasional pleasant moments, samsara is not a pleasure garden and we are idiotic to be skipping around fecklessly as if it is, as if it cannot suddenly twist into something very very nasty.Geshe-la turtle.jpg

And it shows too that nothing less than waking these living beings up forever from the nightmarish hallucinations of the sleep of ignorance will ever be enough.

Snapshots of hell

An “earthling” is someone who inhabits the Earth – any sentient being sharing our planet.

Some searing moments among too many: a stray dog was thrown into the back of a garbage truck, and he stared out at the humans incomprehendingly before he was crushed along with all the other “trash”. Each week thousands of unwanted dogs and cats, just as lovable as yours or mine, are tossed into gas chambers like useless sacks, their bodies later pulled out and piled up, because the shelters cannot afford the cost of putting them down humanely with an injection.

Have you ever communed with a cow in a field? They are so curious, they’ll always come gather around you if you sit there long enough. I have sat meditating with cows in the English Lake District on more than one occasion, and I remember a particularly friendly cow once licked me all the way up the front of my dress. And these are the same kind of gentle big-brown-eyed beings with long eyelashes who are are branded on their faces and have their horns ripped out without anaesthetic; all this long before they get to the killing cows-on-hillroom. Where they can have their throats slit while still conscious because the steel bolt into the brain has been administered so carelessly, and where they can still be thrashing around on the assembly line. So much blood. It’s like watching a horror movie, only these are not special effects.

Intelligent sows are confined their entire lives in cages barely bigger than themselves – imagine someone chucking your dog in a closet filled with excrement and not letting her out her whole life. Piglets meanwhile squeal with agony as their baby ears are clipped, tails docked, teeth cut, and genitals removed. Ruptured flesh and abscesses make the rest of their lives wretched, not helped by being stomped on and yelled at, in insult upon injury, “Go you mother fucker, go, go!!! Come on, you bitch!” I had just been thinking, “Why don’t any of these workers ever want to try and let the pigs escape?”, when I saw a worker filmed laughing as he clubbed a pig to death.

I wonder how any human being can work at a slaughterhouse without becoming at least partly a hell being. The karma is hideous. The desensitization too common but necessary to do the job. The additional cruelty and harshness legion. There are hundreds of thousands of poor human beings being paid to maim and kill. Yeah, you can say it is a job like any other, you have to put food on the table, but still …. And reports like this one do show that even in this life it impairs people greatly …. Hard to watch this and deny the existence of hell realms, including the karmic experiences similar to the cause.

I don’t think you can stay hating the protagonists if you know Dharma; compassion for them is almost greater. For they are part of that same hell, and you know full well that if they remain oblivious of the reality they are creating for themselves, and don’t purify their harmful actions, it will soon be their turn on the killing room floor.cow-in-factory-farm

Earthlings is scary. Yet Earthlings shows just snapshots of the lower realms in terms of the amount of sentient beings in agony and the length of time they must suffer. Buddha taught that there are countless world systems in samsara, and countless living beings in pain. He also taught that we living beings have been suffering in samsara since beginningless time due to our delusions and bad karma.

I kept wishing for the animals I was watching to be able to die as quickly as possible and for the humans to stop, please stop, just clock off and go home – but the fact is that death may close that particular chapter, but the endless tale of suffering will continue in the next. This book of samsara is millions and millions of chapters long. Longer.

The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra says:

The flesh and bones of all the bodies I have previously taken if gathered together would be equal to Mount Meru,
And if the blood and bodily fluids were gathered they would be equal to the deepest ocean.
Although I have taken countless bodies as Brahma, Indra, chakravatin kings, gods and ordinary humans,
There has been no meaning from any of these, for still I continue to suffer.

If having been born in the hells drinking molten copper, as insects whose bodies turned into mud,
And as dogs, pigs and so forth who ate enough filth to cover the whole earth,
And if, as it is said, the tears I have shed from all this suffering are vaster than an ocean,
I still do not feel any sorrow or fear, do I have a mind made of iron?

Hang on Buddha, we may be thinking, it can’t be that bad. Watching Earthlings, it is not hard to see that it can. The whole of samsara is rotten to the core.

Time to wake upsuperheroes

Hence the need for Buddha Tara and her countless emanations, including us. “Buddha” means Awakened One. We can become an Awakened One ourselves. This need not be a “distant and ethereal goal”, not now when we have access to the wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of reality and the Awakened Ones’ help.

Once we have woken up from the sleep of samsara, and are abiding in the reality of bliss and emptiness — universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — we will be a position to wake everyone else up. What’s the alternative? What lies in store for us if we do not wake up?

I wanted to tell Tara’s story to show what I mean about her fearlessness and cheer you up a bit, but we are out of space. Coming up soon — here in fact! Meanwhile, comments as always are welcome.

Related articles

Caring for others and helping ourselves

Compassion: the quick path to enlightenment

Being Buddha Tara

 

 

Man’s best friend

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.

What do animals think?

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