Thursday, September 10, 2009

Creatures are our Teachers

On the first day, God created the dog and said: “Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of twenty years.”

The dog said: “That’s a long time to be barking. How about only ten years and I’ll give you back the other ten?” So God agreed.

On the second day, God created the monkey and said: “Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I’ll give you a twenty-year life span.”

The monkey said: “Monkey tricks for twenty years? That’s a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back ten like the dog did?” And God agreed.

On the third day, God created the cow and said:”You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer’s family. For this, I will give you a life span of sixty Years.”

The cow said: “That’s kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years. How about twenty and I’ll give back the other forty?” And God agreed again.

On the fourth day, God created man and said: “Eat, sleep, play, and enjoy your life. For this, I’ll give you twenty years.”

But man said: “Only twenty years? Could you possibly give me my twenty, the forty the cow gave back, the ten the monkey gave back, and the ten the dog gave back; that makes eighty, okay?”

“Okay,” said God, “You asked for it.”

So that is why for our first twenty years we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves. For the next forty years we slave in the sun to support our family. For the next ten years we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren. And for the last ten years we sit on the front porch and bark at everyone who passes.

Life has now been explained to you. And it all began with a dog.

Animals turn up as companions in the earliest records of most cultures. 20,000-year-old Cro-Magnon cave wall paintings portray the close relationship between people and animals. Many ancient creation myths even include dogs. One of the Chinese creation stories (the Pan Gu story) depicts the ancestor of all humanity with a man’s body and a dog’s head. Then there are the controversial creation myths around the hot dog, not originating at a New York Yankees Baseball game in 1901, but more likely to Frankfurter in Germany in the 15th century. I’m sure you know the story about the Zen master who walks up to the hot dog vendor and says: “Make me one with everything.” He then pays with a $20 bill and receives no change. “Where’s my change?” asks the Zen master. And the hot dog vendor responds: “Change is an illusion. The only true change comes from within.”

Animals have always been closely related to spirituality. For primordial people, there was a close relationship between gods and their animal companions. Animals have often been linked to supernatural forces, shamans, totems, and even worshipped as agents of gods and goddesses. Animals, such as the cow in India, have been seen as a sign that God provides, and are revered accordingly. In the Bible, Balaam’s donkey spoke words from God, inspiring Mr. Ed many centuries later. Do animals teach us something about life and universal values?

Laws of Nature

The sacred Jewish text Talmud says we can learn a lot from animals. In fact it goes so far as to say that if there had been no Torah, animals would teach us everything we need to know to live the law of God. It says, “If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, avoidance of theft from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and good manners in marital relations from the rooster who appeases his mate before having relations with her.”

The Jewish ethical text Pirkei Avot says, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:23)

Animals model many wonderful traits that humans could follow for a content and harmonious life.

Maybe the most inspiring, and challenging, Bible text about animals is from Isaiah 11:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

The wolf and the lamb dwelling together is a vision of what the world could experience; people coming together, and celebrating differences; a world where it’s more important to treat people right than to be right. Of course it’s a metaphor used to describe such an immense vision. As Woody Allen said, “The wolf may lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep.” Then there is the definition of democracy, “three wolves and a lamb meeting to decide what’s for lunch.”

A man was visiting the zoo, walking from cage to cage, when he came to one with a painted sign: “Witness a Messianic Prophecy! The wolf and the lamb lie together!” The man looked into the cage and was awestruck. Indeed, a wolf and a lamb were dozing there, next to each other. Excitedly, and with tears in his eyes, the man ran up to the zookeeper and said, “This is wonderful! It is truly a miracle! Please tell me, how did this happen?” The zookeeper shrugged, and said, “All I know is the boss’s orders: ‘Three times a day, put a new lamb in the cage.’”

So if the wolf and the lamb is metaphor, what is the metaphor pointing to? In order for the vision of global peace to become a reality, we must take the advice of the hot dog vendor and realize that change comes from within. Allow the wolf and the lamb to dwell peacefully within you. Allow the seemingly contradictory parts of yourself to dwell side by side; the urge to reach out and the tendency to protect, the optimism and the pessimism, the activism and the receptiveness, the independence and the drive to relationship.

The lamb is soft and gentle. It likes to follow a leader, and wander without any particular purpose. The lamb listens, reserves its energy and has no guile or vengeance. The dark side of the lamb is its passiveness, or being sheepish and ashamed. When balanced with the guile and activism of the wolf, the lamb is complete.

The wolf is relational, and inquisitive. It is deeply intuitive, intensely protective of its young, its mate and its pack. The dark side of the wolf is its savage aggression. When balanced with the idealism and receptiveness of the lamb, the wolf is complete. Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote the book Women Who Run With the Wolves. She tells the story of La Loba, the wolf woman. Her work was collecting bones of wolves and singing life into them. The story is about the adventure of integrating the wild parts of yourself that you have disowned, especially women who have had their voice silenced, their soul-voice.

This lesson from animals goes beyond words. Conservationist Lois Crisler described one of her Alaskan experiences communicating with animals. There were no words involved. One morning she heard the howl of a wolf from her tent. She stepped outside her tent and impulsively howled back. She was then answered by a choir of wolves, yodeling in harmonies. She said this:

“The wild deep medley of chords, the absence of treble, made a strange, savage, heart-stirring uproar.” Have you heard the roar of nature? It doesn’t just happen in Alaska. It happens as you stroke a dog, or listen to the lake. It connects you to the wild nature within you? Animals remind you of the immense possibilities within you to be powerful and gentle at the same time.”

The great vision of Isaiah is one of inner harmony that becomes peace outside in the world.

Animals and Presence

Animals remind you to experience life fully, directly and immediately. Pause and wonder at the miracles that surround you. Don’t you long to express yourself with the abandon of a young kitten, or the playfulness of a monkey, or the loyalty of a dog? Animals teach you about love; the love of life, and how an experience of the moment can recharge you and reset your spiritual direction.

Animals teach you something about presence. Once a man visited a famous holy elder. When the visitor arrived he found the man in prayer. He sat so still that not even a hair on his head moved. When the holy man had finished his prayer his visitor asked where he had learned to sit so still for so long: “From my cat.” he replied.

During the week, I read about and saw pictures of a Buddhist monk in Japan who meditates with his Chihuahua dog. The dog sits on its hind legs and puts its front paws together. They sit in meditation together each morning.

I don’t know if the dog is actually meditating, but who am I to question a Chihuahua. You can learn from even the most irreverent dog about the practice of presence.

Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride. Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them. When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience. Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory. Take naps and stretch before rising. Run, romp and play daily. Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. Be loyal.

Never pretend to be something you’re not. If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it. When someone is having a bad day; be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently. Thrive on attention and let people touch you. Avoid biting when a simple growl will do. On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree. When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body. No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout . . . run right back and make friends. Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.

Animals and the Afterlife

I don’t imagine that animals trouble themselves with thoughts about the future, let alone the afterlife. But it is a human preoccupation to ponder animals and heaven. So here is my perspective. Some of you will have seen an e-mail that has been doing the rounds. It is apparently a true story about two churches across the street from each other, a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church. They each have a sign board out front of the church and often use some friendly rivalry to make their point. This is part of their recent sign warfare:

Catholic sign: “All dogs go to heaven.”
Presbyterian sign: “Only humans go to heaven. Read the Bible.”
Catholic sign: “God loves all his creation; dogs included.”
Presbyterian sign: “Dogs don’t have souls. End of conversation.”
Catholic sign: “Catholic dogs go to heaven. Presbyterian dogs should talk to their pastor.”
Presbyterian sign: “Converting to Catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul.”
Catholic sign: “Free dog souls with conversion.”
Presbyterian sign: “Dogs are animals. There aren’t rocks in heaven either.”
Catholic sign: “All rocks go to heaven.”

All of this goes to show that Catholics have a much better sense of humor than Presbyterians.

The Bible seems to suggest that animals do go to heaven, if you read the Bible in a literal way.

The writer of Ecclesiastes said:

I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21)

I guess the point is that humans are animals, so whatever happens to animals after this life happens to both humans and non-human animals.

No one can say for sure what happens in the afterlife. Being fully present in this life is what you know for sure. If heaven is an experience of pure presence in the moment, then you could definitely say that animals are in heaven.

Living with love and compassion in this life is what counts; and that includes love and compassion for animals. Animals challenge us to stretch beyond our own species to include those who are not like us. Animals have their own value beyond any human use or need. They deserve our care and respect.

I end with this poem by Joseph Bruchac called Grampa-

The old man must have stopped our car

two dozen times to climb out

and gather into his hands the small toads blinded

by our lights and leaping, live drops of rain.

The rain was falling, a mist about his white hair

and I kept saying you can’t save them all,

accept it, get back in we’ve got places to go.

But leathery hands full of wet brown life,

knee deep in the summer roadside grass,

he just smiled and said

they have places to go to too.

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