Today, 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.
I 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.
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.”
Animals 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.
Everything 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.
In 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.