THE ZEN OF DOGS
Mother, Father, God; maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless all our pets. By the power of your love, enable them to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all the beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.
Unfortunately not this year, but in the past, we have held an annual Animal Blessing. This is such a fun event, and we get to meet the animals of Castro Valley. Some wonderful dogs show up with their owners in tow. And one year we even had a bunny and a turtle. So I thought I would talk today about the Zen of Dogs.
In a piece called "Dharma" by Billy Collins, he writes:
The way the dog trots out the front door
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.
Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance -
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?
Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.a
In the book Wherever You Go, There You Are, the writer Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that one of the beautiful things about having small children is that they often are our own private Zen masters. They "parachute" right into the midst of our lives and teach us Zen lessons as if it's "at least an eighteen-year retreat, with virtually no time off for good behavior."b It strikes me that the same thing could be said about dogs. For as long as we are blessed with their presence in our lives, they are our own private Zen master. This is certainly the truth lifted up in the wonderful poem by Billy Collins.
Dogs embody several important principles of Zen Buddhism. First, they consistently and effortlessly focus on the here and now. They don't worry about what's happened in the past or what might happen in the future. This is a state of mind that the Zen practitioner strives for-the state that with great effort, she or he hopefully gets an occasional glimpse of every now and then.
But our dogs don't have to work at this: they are always effortlessly in the moment. And pretty much every moment represents a clean slate, a fresh start. Forgot to feed your dog yesterday? Didn't have time yesterday to give your dog much attention? Been gone for a week and left your dog in the care of another person? Well, today is a brand-new day. All is forgotten and forgiven. This is possible, the poet Ioanna Carlsen observes, because nothing inside a dog's head lasts long enough for the dog "to hold onto."c How much easier living a Zen-like life would be if we humans didn't have this cursed capacity to hold onto what happened a minute ago or a day ago or fifty years ago! I think we'd wag our tails a lot more!
Without the baggage of the past or the future, the dog is able to take each moment as it comes. The dog doesn't longingly wish that something different would be happening at this moment. Whatever is happening at the moment is what is happening at the moment. This trait helps dogs "keep it simple." Dogs are able to live in this state without having to sit on the cushion and meditate day after day.
The canine Zen master also lives without the countless attachments and encumbrances that so weigh down most humans. Sure, the dog is (hopefully) attached to the humans she or he lives with. Most dogs also have a strong attachment to food. But they are not generally attached to particular ends. They don't cling to desired outcomes.
They don't expect or need life today or tomorrow to go a certain way (besides that food thing and maybe a scratch behind the ears). They also don't generally cling to things. Sure, they might have a favorite ball or a favorite bed, but they seem to move on more gracefully than we humans when beloved objects are lost or discarded.
Another Zen-like quality of dogs is their non-judgmental nature. They don't spend their days constantly evaluating themselves and others. This is the secret behind their unconditional love. If our minds weren't constantly evaluating ourselves and others, we'd have a much easier time loving ourselves and others.
Dogs-especially the more mellow ones-also exhibit a great degree of Zen-like patience. Imagine what it would be like to stay home all day long, waiting for the people you love to come home from work or school. Most dogs handle this long, daily waiting with great aplomb: they sleep, they look around, they sleep, they bark every now and then when they hear something, they sleep, they stretch out, they sleep. Next time I'm feeling impatient, I think I'm going to copy my resident Zen master and just stretch out and take a little snooze!
And finally, unless dogs have been tragically let down by humans, they generally have a Zen-like trust about them-trust in the present moment, trust in life, trust in others. This, like all of the Zen qualities I've mentioned, is an effortless state of being for dogs. They don't try to be like this; they just are.
Rev. Roger Bertschausen, a Unitarian minister relates this story of his dogs. He says, "I have been blessed with two canine Zen masters in my life: Sadie and Louie. Sadie was a black lab mix who died at an old age several years ago. Louie is a middle-aged Chihuahua. Though they have vastly different temperaments and sensibilities, they both embodied many of these Zen qualities I have described. Sadie especially had an aura of calm about her-at least after she grew out of her puppy exuberance-befitting the Buddha. Okay, in fairness this probably couldn't be said about Louie who, like many of his breed, is not exactly laid back.
But classic Zen moments come to mind as I think about each dog. For Sadie, for example, there was the time when she was puppy, and we couldn't find her anywhere. Now she had a life-long tendency to run away when she was given the opportunity. Mostly she seemed to be in search of people when she ran-she loved to be with people.
So this time, we figured maybe she had run. But our back gate was closed tight; it seemed unlikely that she closed the gate behind her when she left. We couldn't find her anywhere. Mysteriously, though, we could swear we could faintly hear her collar rattling. We called and called for her. No answer. No Sadie. We looked everywhere inside and outside our house. No sign of her, except that faint sound of her collar. After a while we decided we were imagining the sound. Finally, we found Sadie behind our air-conditioning unit in our backyard. She was just standing there, apparently stuck but not ruffled in the least by her situation. She was just patiently waiting for us to help her out of her predicament.
A Zen moment for Louie was when he bit the mail carrier. Okay, that wasn't really the Zen moment, though certainly at that particular moment when the mail carrier's hand went down for his pepper spray it seemed like a good idea. The Zen moment really came after the incident: I noticed that Louie didn't lose any sleep over what he did. He wasn't racked with guilt. He didn't replay the incident over and over in his mind. He didn't need to go to church or a Twelve Step meeting or a psychotherapist in search of forgiveness.
He didn't even seem to mind the frequent trips to the vet over the next week (required by the police to make sure he didn't have rabies). He loves going to the vet! It was a bonus! I can imagine how I would feel if I bit the mail carrier. I certainly would not be able to go on merrily with my life as if nothing happened.
So Sadie gave me plenty of Zen lessons, and Louie continues to. Like any good Zen master, they generally don't lecture about Zen; they simply live it. They teach by example. All I need to do is pay a little attention!"d
This was such a good story - and I'm sure that if you thought about it - you would have a story about your dog being your Zen master.
Probably my favorite story about dogs, though, is this one:
A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.
He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.
After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.
When he was standing before it, he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as He got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.
When he was close enough, he called out, "Excuse me, where are we?"
"This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.
Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.
"Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up."
The man gestured, and the gate began to open.
"Can my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in, too?" the traveler asked.
"I'm sorry; sir, but we don't accept pets."
The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.
After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.
As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.
"Excuse me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any water?"
"Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in."
"How about my friend here?" the traveler gestured to the dog.
"There should be a bowl by the pump."
They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.
The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then he gave some to the dog.
When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.
"What do you call this place?" the traveler asked.
"This is Heaven," he answered.
"Well, that's confusing," the traveler said. "The man down the road said that was Heaven, too."
"Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That's hell."
"Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?"
"No, we're just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind."
I would like to close with the poem by Ioanna Carlsen that I referred to earlier - it's called Over and Over Tune:
You could grow into it,
that sense of living like a dog,
loyal to being on your own in the fur of your skin,
able to exist only for the sake of existing.
Nothing inside your head lasting long enough for you to hold onto,
you watch your own thoughts leap across your own synapses and disappear --
small boats in a wind,
fliers in all that blue,
the swish of an arm backed with feathers,
a dress talking in a corner,
and then poof,
your mind clean as a dog's,
your body big as the world,
important with accident --
blood or a limp, fur and paws.
You swell into survival,
you take up the whole day,
you're all there is,
everything else is
not you, is every passing glint, is
shadows brought to you by wind,
passing into a bird's cheep, replaced by a
rabbit skittering across a yard,
a void you yourself fall into.
You could make this beautiful,
but you don't need to,
living is this fleshy side of the bone,
going on is this medicinal smell of the sun --
no dog ever tires of seeing his life
keep showing up at the back door
even as a rotting bone with a bad smell;
feet tottering, he dreams of it,
wakes and licks no matter what.e
Mother, Father, God; in Your infinite wisdom, when You created the universe you blessed us with all living creatures. We especially thank you for giving us our pets who are our friends and who bring us so much joy in life. Their presence very often helps us get through trying times. Kindly bless all pets. May they continue giving us joy and remind us of Your power. May we realize that as our pets trust us to take care of them, so we should trust You to take care of us, and in taking care of them we share in Your love for all creatures. Amen.
a"Dharma" William James Collins, American poet, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.
bWherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn (born June 5, 1944) American professor emeritus of medicine.
cIoanna Carlsen has an MA in Linguistics from the University of Illinois
dRev. Roger Bertschausen, Executive Director of the UU Partner Church Council
eIoanna Carlsen Over and Over Tune