We are kin to, and must be kind to, all creation.
Overcoming speciesism - the illusion of human superiority -
will be the next step in our moral and spiritual evolution.
The Souls of Animals
For over twenty years I was a self absorbed artist living in three rooms with a musician named Michael, a man as dedicated to making music as I was to making art. We lived with the bare essentials, kept our commitment to music and art and never asked for anything more. Certainly not animals. We didn’t want responsibilities or distractions.
One day while I was washing dishes, Michael crept up behind me with a tiny animal in athe palm of his hand. Freshly separated from his mom, the creature looked as horrified as me. I didn’t know what to do, so I put food in a bowl and watched him eat. I scrutinized him thoroughly, sliding my eyes across his drab, black, skintight coat and dangly toothpick tail. He had no hair above his eyes. And his ears, towering above his head, were bigger than his face. I pretended he was cute while silently cursing Michael for bringing home the ugliest kitten in the world.
We called him Hey You! (and later Yudi), trailing after him like fools as he sailed through the rooms. Soon the holy communion with my artwork dissolved. That cosmic, conscious connection. That silent space from where creation sprang was filled with nagging mews. Hey You! sat on my charcoal drawings, attacked the pencil as I drew and batted paint brushes across the floor. I tripped over him, fed him and picked up his poop. What was the point? He wasn’t even handsome, but he was my first.
Animals in my childhood were not housemates. I thought it odd that Terry Lyn’s parents had ramps placed throughout their home for their disabled dog. Our dog lived on a small corner of dirt in our backyard, chained to his doghouse. He was black with a white-tipped tail. Somehow he survived the below freezing New England winter.
I came home from elementary school one day and found Tippy foaming at the mouth. By morning he was gone. To this day, I still don’t know what happened to him. And no one else seems to remember much about him at all. My Uncle Tiny probably shot him. It was easy. He shot raccoons in his backyard. He was clever, trapping them in a barrel baited with apples. They didn’t have a chance. And he hunted deer. Much worse, he said, to buy dead animals from grocery stores. He knew how they suffered. How factory-farmed chickens collapsed under the weight of their artificially fattened bodies. Uncle Tiny often craned his neck across the family table of New York canoles, aligning his eyes to Sant’s, his older brother. “Chickens are chickens . . . but that is cruel.”
Uncle Santo agreed. Wearing a beret sloped across his bald head, Uncle Santo was still handsome at eighty-two. He knew about geese, force fed every hour with metal tubes shoved down their throats to plump their livers ten times their size, often bursting before slaughter, for foie gras (liver pâté). My mother’s brothers grimaced at the thought. Italian uncles did have big hearts beating under their burley tattoos.
When I was forty, my brother, Paul, asked if I remembered Stinky. I cowered at the memory of my grandfather’s tan shaggy dog. My Sicilian grandfather, my mother’s father, lived upstairs from us, brewed grappa in the basement of our two-family house on Wall Street and never spoke English. As an old man, he would reach into his baggy pockets and hand out chewing gum to all the children. The town called him the gum man.
But the gum man was strict and kept Stinky confined on a short rope near the red grapevine. Like Tippy, Stinky never got walked. No one talked to him. Paul and I ran along the white picket fence, shrieking past the chicken coop, careful not to touch the dirty mop—just as we were told. Stinky smelled so bad.
Oreo joined me in my twenties. The big black and white tuxedo cat with six toes on each foot. I took Oreo to Goshen, Connecticut to live in a white farmhouse I shared with two high-school friends, Terry Lyn and Ved. Oreo walked with me to the country store, sat by me as I drew in the backyard woods, and led me back to the house just in time for dinner. At night, his clubbed feet thumped down the upstairs hallway as he yowled his way to my bed.
Two years later, I moved home and could not take Oreo with me. I made some phone calls and took him for his last ride. As usual, he jumped into the passenger seat of my car, eager to go for a spin. He noticed when we pulled up to a strange house. I had second thoughts when I spotted thirteen rugged, free-roaming barn cats, but Oreo had already flown out of the passenger window and vanished into the woods. He knew I was giving him away.
“Don’t worry.” The woman of the property showed little concern, adding with cat-wisdom confidence, “He’ll come around when he’s hungry.” Would she see that Oreo wasn’t like the others? He was fluffy and clean and used to a warm bed. And yet, I ignored the initial pangs of intuition, buried those few fleeting remorseful thoughts and drove off, leaving Oreo to fend for himself. I never saw him again.
The first and only real family member was Pinky, the parakeet. She was white with a pink nose and feet, allowed in the house and not confined to a cage. I remember how she chased pencil tips across my paper, took a shoulder seat and nibbled my earlobes. I must have been in elementary school because I remember I wore bangs and had a long ponytail whizzing around my head that tipped Pinky in the face.
She’d grab the side of the cage with her foot and slide her head underneath her leg again and again to make us laugh. She screamed my name, accenting both syllables, “Di . . . aaane,” the same way my mother did when I drove her crazy, which was most of the time. I loved Pinky, the taste of her feathers and my lips on her sweet oiled chest.
My Father said I squeezed her to death. I never told anyone what really happened. I would slap my knees, beckoning Pinky to come. She bobbed her head at the edge of the cage door and landed like a breeze on my shoulder. Sometimes I fooled her, running into the bathroom and shutting the door. Pinky couldn’t halt in mid flight. She died of internal bleeding. Please don’t tell my Father. I never meant to hurt her. It was just a game.
I don’t think Grampa ever meant to hurt Stinky. And even Uncle Tiny, a truly goodhearted man, shared his freshly shot venison with the stray cats. If only those raccoons had left his apple trees alone.
Somewhere in our lives we were taught that other species do not have the same feelings and concerns as we do. And because of our boundaries, we do not hear their voices—or rather, have not listened—and assume they have nothing to say. It takes a quiet mind to hear their silent language and understand their purpose here. Are humans more spiritually evolved?
Putting our own concerns and comforts before others is said to be “self-cherishing” in Tibetan Buddhism and the root of all our problems. It’s hard work to retrain our minds to see the welfare of others, in and outside the human realm, as important if not more than our own. We forget we are all here together for eternity. And that all of us, human and non human, want the same thing: to be happy and free from suffering. Bodhisattva ShantiDeva says, “All the happiness there is in the world arises from wishing others to be happy. All the suffering there is in the world arises from wishing oneself to be happy.”
How do we begin to retrain our minds to cherish others? Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk and living bodhisattva, retells a short story by Tolstoy about an emperor and three questions. The emperor believed that the answers would enable him to always take the right action and live a smooth life.
He asks an old hermit on the mountain, “Who is most important to be with? What is the most important thing to do at all times? And what is the best time to do each thing?”
Like a Zen master, the hermit gives no answers but continues to dig his garden. Lending a hand, the emperor digs alongside him for hours. Suddenly, a man runs out of the woods with a deep gash in his side and falls to the ground. The emperor helps the wounded man and stays by his side through the night. When the man regains consciousness, he asks for forgiveness, confessing his plans to kill the emperor, for the emperor had taken his land and killed his brother. He admits having waited in revenge for the emperor to descend the mountain when he was attacked by the emperor’s assistants. Now this man is eternally grateful to the emperor for saving his life.
Before the emperor leaves the mountain, he turns to the hermit one last time for the answers to his questions.
“But your questions have already been answered,” replies the hermit. “Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. The most important time was the time you were digging in the beds; the most important person was myself; and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, the most important person was the wounded man; and the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wounds; for if you had not cared for him he would have died, and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him.
“Remember, there is only one important time, and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”
How do we live in the present moment? Thich Nhat Hanh says we must practice mindfulness, so our mind is always awake and fully aware in the world around us. This is hard work.
I kept it simple. Spending time with Yudi. And watching him eat. He ate like it was the most important thing in life. Played until he dropped, slept when he was tired, and perked up from a soundless sleep when I left the room. He knew what to do at all times. There wasn’t anything he would rather be doing. He made everyone happy, was highly intuitive, held nothing back and spoke from the heart.
It wasn’t until I started my Zen practice in 1994 that I realized my cats—I had four by this time—already had the simple, practical approach to living and the spontaneous, loving mind I wanted to cultivate. Not that we should wish to achieve anything in meditation. We just sit. Shikan-taza. “Just sitting.” Ta means to hit, my Zen teacher said. Za, to sit. He said this meant to throw yourself into sitting with all you’ve got. In attention, allowing and facing whatever comes up. Sitting with anger and boredom. Watching thoughts. Returning to the presence of the breath. But like all young practitioners, I struggled with expectations. My cats had none. They had nothing to achieve. They didn’t try to cultivate anything. Nor did they need to be conscious of their inhale and exhale to calm their minds. They melted into their postures with no resistance, and they sat for hours, undistracted, silent and observing. Totally here in the now.
Who are these little bodhisattvas—awakened beings—who come into our lives, loving and guiding us, asking nothing in return?
No one even knows where they originated. Some say that cats have chosen to live with us and come to teach us unconditional love. To show us how to keep an open loving heart through tough times. And that they could be our greatest teachers.
Perhaps cats came with the eternal beings who built the pyramids and placed the Sphinx on Earth and on the face of Mars. I took a close look. This book is the result of that looking, of four years meditating at the Zen Temple and ten years living with cats. Not much difference. Both have made me look at myself. Both have opened my heart, reminding me to stay present and alert. And to transform adversities. This story is about those things. And about Kuku, the wacky little wisdom teacher who woke me up.