On Compassion of the Dog

Today is Valentine’s Day (or the Feast of Saint Valentine, Bishop and Martyr, if you’re the traditional type) and the thoughts of many people turn toward those they love. While I don’t have a romantic partner, I do have a constant companion who brings me much joy and who daily gives me unexpected lessons in love: my dog Dante, whose birthday just happens to be tomorrow.

Not long ago I came across a story about a medieval Christian holy man, Saint Roch (whose name you might find spelled as Rocco, Rock, or Rollox). While we are rightly skeptical about the details found in medieval hagiography, the stories themselves often present useful ideas that have value quite apart from any connection to historical events. According to this particular tale, Roch was renowned for serving and aiding plague victims and, not surprisingly, he himself eventually contracted plague. Finding that no one would feed him or give him shelter, Roch retired to the forest where a nobleman’s dog would bring him food and lick his wounds clean.

Religions present us with many different attitudes toward animals generally and dogs in particular. Some of those attitudes have changed and developed over the centuries. In modern times there’s a fair bit of inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Some prominent Christian thinkers, like Thomas Merton and Teilhard de Chardin, have accentuated Buddhist principles in their own Christian teaching and spiritual practice. Some well-known Buddhists, like Thich Nhat Hahn, have shown deep knowledge of and sympathy toward Christianity. While there was some interaction of Christians and Buddhists in the ancient world – we have only to think on the Indian merchant travelers to the Roman-Mediterranean world or the establishment of monasteries by Nestorian Christians traveling along the Silk Road as far east as China – it’s difficult to prove there was any kind of meaningful theological or philosophical cross-pollination. Yet monasticism has been key to the development of both religions and, for some reason, monasteries tend to be friendly places for dogs, who often receive abusive and even sadistic treatment from humans.

In the US, the monks of the New Skete community, an ecumenically minded Orthodox Christian monastery, live among dogs and raise them to be service and companion animals. They even have their own training program so that people outside the monastery can benefit from the monks’ years of canine experience. In Tibet and Thailand, monastic hospitality toward dogs is near-legendary. It’s not uncommon to see dogs lounging or milling about in the midst of the monks.

Now, I don’t know if dogs can be “saved” in a Christian sense or “enlightened” in a Buddhist sense. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter to me – let theological pedants and idle monks argue over that. I know that I’m a better human being because of the presence and companionship of my dog, Dante. Our relationship might not be friendship as defined by someone like Aristotle (peace be to Aristotle!) but it’s friendship to me, maybe one of my most beautiful friendships, in fact. There are days, too many of them, when life doesn’t have much meaning or purpose to me, days when I can dwell in the midst of people who love me yet remain unable to feel love at all. Then an absurd, slobbering, furry bundle of cosmic energies inconveniently interrupts everything, like a prophet or a thunderstorm, and something in me awakens. Animal behaviorists might admonish me for anthropomorphizing a dog, for imposing on him human-based psychological attributes, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that Dante understands me. That he shares in my joy and sorrow. That he wishes me well in his own particular dog way that might be different from our human way but nonetheless is every bit as real and valuable. Perhaps it’s just about the food and affection – most human interactions are about food or affection — though I can’t help but think there’s something more going on inside the mind and heart of my dog.

Some Buddhist traditions speak of bodhisattvas, beings who put off their own release from the cycle of suffering in order to dedicate themselves to the enlightenment and liberation of other beings. In fact, some of these bodhisattvas are symbolized by a dog or even take the earthly form of a dog. There’s no doubt to me that Dante would willingly and without complaint forgo his own release from suffering and endure endless aeons for the sake of my well-being. In a sense, he is probably much further along on his spiritual path than I am on mine. (If I practiced mindfulness meditation with even the tiniest fraction of the concentration he shows toward food, I would probably become spiritually enlightened instantly.)

In those dark times
When the Friend wounded my heart
Even as he wounded himself
I did the best I could
Looking away to hide
My own tears
Warming his cold body with
The warmth of my own
Licking away that blood
Shed in sadness
I did not abandon him
For my kind will
Never abandon
The ones we love
Never leave behind
The ones we love
Never forget
The ones we love
And we will love them
Even to the end of the world

Naturally, we could mention also the forest-dwelling Dog Buddhists in Thailand who believe that dogs are closest to humans in the cycle of rebirth; or the central role of the dog in the ancient Mithraic mystery religion; or the teaching of the modern Japanese Zen master, Joshu, regarding the spiritual enlightenment of dogs; or the recent compassionate fatwas of certain Muslim imams regarding dogs.

There is a traditional Tibetan saying that goes something like this: “Do not harm the monastery dogs for it will break the heart of the Living Buddha.” I’m not quite certain who or what the Living Buddha is, but I know that any heart moved by suffering and inspired to alleviate suffering is a noble, sacred heart. Whether it’s your heart or mine – or the heart of a dog that knows things you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
February 14, 2016

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