For those of us seeking to deepen our practice and understanding of Buddhism, dharma teachers appear in a wide variety of forms – in our sangha (community of fellow practitioners), in books and articles, in our workplaces, and in our daily lives among family, friends, and acquaintances. Actually, some of the best dharma teachers who walk among us aren’t even human; it is they who inspired this piece.
In contrast to humans, who often must make a concerted effort not to dwell in the past or the future, animals live primarily in the moment. Particularly in the case of domestic animals, their default state seems to be contentment if their physical and emotional needs are being met. Even companion animals who have experienced severe trauma from horrific abuse or neglect can make a remarkable recovery, learn to trust people again, and lead joyful lives after receiving intensive medical treatment, behavioral rehabilitation, and love from their rescuers – in my line of work, I hear these stories all the time, and am continually amazed and inspired by them.
I recently had occasion to see sukha in action when my cat Missy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past fall. Given the aggressive nature of the disease and its suite of troubling symptoms, it seemed almost certain that she was in significant discomfort during the weeks leading up to her passing despite our best efforts to minimize her pain.
And yet, in observing her behavior, one would never guess that this was a cat whose life was slipping away from her. As she always had, she continued to purr easily and frequently, she greeted us with a chorus of meows and chirps when we entered the room, she asked for tummy rubs often (see photo), and she repeatedly gathered what remaining strength she had to follow us upstairs to the bedroom.
We have a lot to learn from beings like Missy and from survivors of animal cruelty: so many of us who are in good health and have never suffered a major trauma miss the opportunity to experience joy in the present moment by fixating on preoccupations of one variety or another. We let relatively minor setbacks or slights ruin our day, sour our mood, and strain our relationships with loved ones. We defer the experience of true happiness until we have attained a certain goal, and then another, then another – a constantly moving target. What are we really waiting for? Life is short; we never know what may lie around the corner.
Animals also serve as an important reminder of the interdependency of all life and the necessity of exhibiting compassion toward all living beings. If we adopt the Buddhist view of all of life on earth as an interconnected system – a concept that modern science has amply demonstrated – it becomes immediately obvious that the compassionate expression of metta or karuna toward our fellow humans must also extend to animals. We ignore animal cruelty at our peril: there is abundant evidence that a strong correlation exists between animal abuse and family violence. For this reason among so many others, animal cruelty must be taken very seriously and prevented whenever possible.
The Bodhi Tree Foundation, named for the tree under which Prince Siddartha was sitting when he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha, recently launched its S.A.F.E. initiative with the goal of uniting and mobilizing the travel industry and individual travelers to address the ivory poaching crisis that has rapidly driven Africa’s elephant population towards extinction. In addition to fueling the brutal massacre of these highly intelligent and social creatures, ivory poaching has close links to terrorist groups and to the trafficking of sex slaves, weapons, and drugs. Again, we see the clear connection between animal and human suffering that demands a call to action.
In working to better the lives of animals, we better human lives as well. Building a more humane world is something we owe our fellow creatures and, ultimately, ourselves.
In forming a deeper connection to our spirituality, we are always learning – and often, some of the most valuable lessons may literally be staring us right in the face.
Contributed by Claire Sterling
Claire Sterling works as Senior Grants Manager for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The opinions expressed in this piece are purely her own and are not representative of or endorsed by any specific organization(s).