Some of you know I’ve been doing an at-home, part-time #Buddhist #meditation #retreat in the #Vajrayana #Nyingma #dzogchen tradition of #Tibetan #Buddhism for about two months and plan to finish on Tibetan New Year (#Losar) on March 2, 2014. This retreat consists of the preliminary practices, or #Rushan, for #T’högal. Some of what I’m learning and doing are only to be discussed with dzogchen teachers or similarly or advanced practitioners, but some I can talk about. I share what I am able and wish to in these blog posts.
This portion’s contemplation and prayers are on beings of the Animal Realm. Of all the 6 #Realms, as Tibetan Buddhists conceive of our shared illusory reality, the Animal Realm is the closest akin to ours, so close that Humans can co-exist consciously with Animals. This means we can readily see, smell, hear, feel, and taste Animals in our everyday existence. For most Humans, our senses are not so easily stimulated by beings of the other Realms.
The first time I heard teachings on the 6 Realms, as I mentioned in a previous post, I thought the teacher was being metaphoric or joking. I was so stuck in my senses’ ordinary experiences that I could not believe the other Realms actually co-exist with ours.
There are some Buddhists who do treat the 6 Realms as a metaphor. These meditators prefer to use these concepts to recognize the ways that humans experience all of the Realms’ conditions while being human rather than believing that there are actual beings living in each of the Realms. I leave it up to you as to how you conceive of the Realms and the beings’ experiences.
For me, it’s more important to contemplate those experiences and generate empathy and compassion for them, regardless of how they occur. The main characteristics that Tibetan Buddhists assign to Animals as distinct from Humans are explained in this way by Barbara O’Brien in her article on the Buddhist Wheel of Life (samsara, in Sanskrit):
“Animal Beings (Tiryakas) are solid, regular and predictable. They cling to what is familiar and are disinterested, even fearful, of anything unfamiliar. The Animal Realm is marked by ignorance and complacency. Animal Beings are stolidly un-curious and are repelled by anything unfamiliar. They go through life seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort. They have no sense of humor. Animal Beings may find contentment, but they easily become fearful when placed in a new situation. Naturally, they are bigoted and likely to remain so. At the same time, they are subject to oppression by other beings — animals do devour each other, you know.”
I don’t happen to agree with this conceptualization of animals; I never have. I do not see all animals as “ignorant,” and some definitely have a sense of humor! They are certainly a lot less bigoted than most humans I know and know of. As for the being “subject to oppression” part, even devouring each other, we’d have to include humans in that activity, wouldn’t we?
Animals are also most certainly NOT “un-curious,” and many employ what Temple Grandin calls “seeking” behavior in their everyday lives. (Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals , Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). In fact, Grandin’s research proves that animals need more than their basic physical and psychological requirements to be met. Yes, animals need (or certainly would prefer) to be free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress. However, Grandin proves resoundingly that animals respond positively when allowed to use “seeking behaviors” and “play.” Some animals, particularly pigs and primates, can malinger, become self- or other-injurious, kill or even die without these outlets.
I spent a few weeks listening to this amazing book on CD this past summer, not yet knowing I’d be doing this retreat or contemplations this fall. Generally, I have not had a close relationship to animals or pets (except for others’ pets I happen to live with or encounter over the years). However, forging new relationships with animals via interspecies communication devices and aliens-humans encounters and relationships are central to my sci-fi novels in The Spanners Series, so I listened to Grandin’s book and watched the biopic about her early life (“Temple Grandin,” starring Clare Danes as Grandin; great movie) as research for my series.
Now that I’m in this section of my retreat, I find myself remembering many parts of both the film and the book, considering animals from Grandin’s perspective rather than Tibetan Buddhists’ concepts. Her philosophies, attitudes and understandings are closer to my own. I go further than she does, though: I am more in harmony with Douglas Adams, the late, sorely missed and amazing author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a five-book “trilogy.” One of these volumes is entitled: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. In this, Adams posits the superiority and other-worldly origins of dolphins, which I have no trouble believing.
I also believe in the superiority or at least equality with humans regarding intelligence, compassion and creativity, of all forms of cetaceans, elephants, wolves and many primates, cephalopods and others in the Animal Realm. To me, it’s impossible to ignore or deny the ways elephants grieve and remember, wolves communicate with their packs, whales gather intentionally for fun and protection, and many other examples of animals’ social, altruistic, creative and communicative behaviors not at all inferior to humans’ activities. I also can’t ignore or deny how disappointed I am in the selfish, unintelligent and socially perverse ways of humans.
This week, as many vegans rail against humans eating turkeys as well as pigs, fish, chickens, cattle and whatever other animals humans eat, I have to remind myself and others of the inherent suffering in all existence, the nature of samsara, according to my Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Humans can’t survive without killing, even when it’s unintentional. We kill billions of beings every day in service to providing us with shelter, food (even vegan food), clothing, work, transportation, education, tools and entertainment. We can’t plow fields or harvest their bounty without killing. We can’t breathe or walk without killing. Every day and every night, all twenty-four hours of every day of our existence, we are murderers.
Contemplating this and Grandin’s book and life make me want to mitigate the suffering of animals, for sure. However, I do not pretend I or any human can eliminate it. We can’t eliminate our own suffering, either. What we can do is change the ways it occurs, lessen or alleviate it, and feel compassionate about it enough to respond appropriately and less selfishly.
So, if you are NOT a vegan, here is my advice: do not waste your animal food. Only purchase, cook/prepare what you and your loved ones will consume. Honor the spirits of the animals who gave their lives to feed you with prayers, thoughts, songs, smoke, herbs: something sacred. Be conscious as you spend your time this week and every week hereafter of the gifts animals give us and the ways we exploit these gifts. Be humble. Be grateful. Be caring.
I will try. I hope you do, also.