Monday, January 18, 2010


Prompted by an article shared by a friend, I thought I would spend this week on the history of our domestication of common pets and how it has historically affected our treatment of animals.


In my spiritual studies back in college, I came across a Zen Buddhist koan that has stuck with me since. A koan is a question or parable whose answer cannot be reached through rational thinking, logic, or arguing. The answer is more of a meditation that one has to interpret intuitively.

A monk asked his Chinese Zen master: `Master, does a dog have Buddha-nature?'

The master answered: `Mu.' (or Wu-- the Japanese symbol for null or nothing)

I thought about this koan for days, walking to and from class. This one word, Mu, meaning "nothing" or "null set" in a literal translation, but in the meaning of the Buddhist koan, meaning the question itself is moot. There is no discontinuation of nothingness, there is no end to existence. In that one word, "mu" conveys that subjectivity and objectivity become one. The moment you ask the question, you lose your own Buddha-nature, your own innate ability to access the entirety of your mind and body and awakeness. It matters and it matters not.

I was instantly reminded of this koan when a friend brought a recent article by Marc Bekoff from Psychology Today to my attention. Bekoff is a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and in his article, he asks the question, "Are nonhuman animals more moral than human animals?"

For those of us who share our lives with animals, it isn't that surprising that Bekoff comes up with a the (almost) answer of yes. He goes on to explain that predatory behavior is not immoral, merely survival and the circle of life. He discusses the rarity of predators killing more than what is needed for the meal of an individual or pack. He explains how disputes over territory pales in comparison to human war and conquest. And while there are a few cases of violent 'scapegoating' or 'picking on' a weak member of the group, there is also evidence of empathy and compassion within and between species.

I related this article and my personal experiences to the Buddhist koan. I struggle constantly with the idea that we share the same space, resources, and energy with all animals (even mosquitoes) and all animals are equal life and all life has equal value. This koan makes our observations and clinical assessment or argument of the value of those observations like those in the article are moot. Thinking too much gets in our way of being present to experience the wonder that is sharing a life with an animal.


And before the Wise Ones appeared,

Forty million years of ducks in the mud.
Blowing out a candle
ten thousand miles away

Cutting up a duck for dinner.
A dog barks at nothing,
a thousand ducks twitch--

winds of winter.
Has a duck the Buddha-Nature?

Stop quacking like a duck."
- Michael P. Garofalo

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