PZI Teacher Archives

A Dog’s Life


John tells a story about dogs and Buddha nature upon the death of a beloved dog: Animals have their own large awareness in which we can share. Meditation is one way to do this. It resets the mind to zero and we stop waving our arms about so much, and we enter a communion with the universe. 

From a dharma talk given by John Tarrant Santa Rosa, November 16, 2007

Where do you go after you die? 


I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth. 

—Walt Whitman


One of my closest friends also happens to be a dog—Joan Sutherland’s blue heeler, Gracie—and she died last night. Joan said that she was with her, lying down holding her in her arms, feeling her struggling and sinking, talking her through it, and Gracie’s body just wore out. When someone dies it’s common to have a sense of their consciousness after death, a feeling for how they are doing, whether they seem to be still around with their friends and family, or whether they are already heading off into the indistinct paths where we can’t follow. There’s a warmth to such intuitions. With Gracie too I had a strong sense of her being, of which night she would die, how close in she still was, and when her consciousness started to leave. I thought I’d like to explore what it means to feel strongly about an animal and so I wrote these notes. 

Gracie was fourteen, about the average lifespan for a blue heeler. I called her Snarfly, which was more or less the sound she made when disassembling a tennis ball; her full nickname was Snarfly Snog the Wonder Dog. Blue heelers are cattle dogs: restless, hyper-focused, famously durable and gung-ho; the Australian saying is that you can’t kill them with a blow torch. 

As a teenager, I remember a morning in which I had only cattle dogs available when I needed to round up some sheep. The dogs did everything I asked but with such intensity that the experience was traumatic for the sheep; one of them panicked and jumped off a cliff, further lowering the opinion that cattle dogs had of their species. The first time I threw a ball for Snarfly it went farther than I had intended and bounced over a minor cliff. Without hesitation she launched herself after it, and following a significant pause, staggered back up into view, triumphant and panting hard, ball in mouth. That full commitment to whatever she was engaged in seemed to be evidence that she was a participating member of the meditation world. She paid attention and had a fairly extensive vocabulary; if she were looking for something lost, most likely a ball, and you knew where it was and said “to the right,” she would go to the right. 

Like some other work dogs, Snarfly had a surprising gift for intimacy, for reading your mind. She trained me to take her for walks and to throw balls by responding enthusiastically if I made any approach to a tennis ball or to a closet where my coat was hung. With a more subtle strategy, she trained me to enjoy the companionability of the now—the slow warmth and lights that appear in the body, when, without ulterior motive or manipulation, you share a space with another being. 

When Joan traveled to teach, Snarfly was at my house. Like many animals, she liked meditation and would come and sit by your cushion. She enjoyed koan seminars when they were held at my house. She would participate in her own way. During one seminar, when we were all meditating, she found a bright red ball, and while she remained hidden in another room, she threw it into the dojo. Its arrival out of nowhere—bounce, bounce, bounce—had a wonderful mixture of thusness and Dada that often appears in meditation. 

In the koan world, the unexpected is the thing you can rely on. I think of a Soen Nakagawa story about a time when students came to interviews with him, and instead of finding a small Japanese Zen master, were confronted with the sight of a pumpkin that had been placed on his seat. That sort of theater piece is not just amusing and deflating of expectations, it is also about the completeness of the moment and of whatever is occupying the moment. 

Snarfly’s red ball was the perfect object that answered every question. And play seemed to be the perfect explanation of what we came to this planet to do. Play is interesting because it is useless, something done for its own sake, and therefore free, the way the mind is free in meditation; I don’t think of either meditation or play as intended to add to my possessions. 

A famous koan goes, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”

And the teacher who was asked this question gave different answers at different times, something I find satisfying. Such questions are most useful not for the answers to them, but for the appreciations they bring to us, a feeling for the dogness of a dog, the humanness of a you. 

While we can get annoyingly sentimental about pets, there is a sentiment that feels both lively and genuine. I am interested in the idea of interspecies communication—dolphins swimming with humans, sled dogs playing with polar bears. The only family therapy Gregory Bateson ever claimed to have done was with a couple of depressed otters. He used a piece of string to get them playing again. Bateson seems to have thought that the reason we need to understand consciousness is that it has led to activities that have become a problem for the planet, and that the animals are not a problem in the same way. It’s not that animals don’t have consciousness, the issue is that they don’t stand aside from life. Animals have their own large awareness, an awareness which we can share with them. I think meditation is one way to do this, it resets the mind to zero, and we stop waving our arms about so much, and enter a communion with the universe. 

It seems that while we have clearly had an effect on the development of dogs—they have accompanied us in all our migrations—it is likely that they have also had an effect on our evolution as a species. We have learned to connect with other species the way dogs have learned to link with us. And dogs are relentlessly social; waves of Japanese school girls with their cell phones and constant communication are behaving the way dogs think proper. Some of the things we most value in ourselves, that make our consciousness seem such an important resource, are to do with feeling and love, the subjects of the English novel. Dogs are talented at inspiring love, which always makes us feel foolish and vulnerable and which on those grounds is something good. As far as we can tell, dogs seem also to feel love deeply, to pick up the significant moments when someone is afraid or dying, and to do their best to show up for the occasion. 

The essential beauty of being is shared by dogs and people and other life forms. We don’t seem to be different from animals in certain fundamental ways. I notice that the theory of mind I have—the awareness of the reality of the consciousness of another—doesn’t appear to distinguish between humans and dogs. And the awareness I have of another being and the pleasure I take in his or her company is linked to the kind of knowing that the body has: the lights and warmth that move around in the deep interior of my own awareness. 

In the body’s world, theory is deferred for the more compelling vividness of touch, sight, sound, scent and the inexplicable melody line that links them. Dogs are good at this dimension of things. The pleasure I take in knowing an animal is also the pleasure I take in having a body, in showing up here on this planet where you need a body to exist. In this way, animals help us to welcome desire. There is something endearing about a dog looking hopefully at your jacket in case you fancy taking a walk. Desire is such an inevitable and complicating factor in all endeavors, and a dog doesn’t see it as complicating at all. From the dog’s point of view, desire is fine, and even if you don’t go for a walk, wanting to go for a walk is still interesting. 

The warmth I feel that doesn’t diminish when someone dies, I feel for Snarfly too. It’s nice to have that sense of communion with other beings, the feeling that their existence, and ours, is something that counts and is irreplaceable, something that offers and inspires intemperate love. I bless her in the mysterious roads, wherever her paws may take her. 

John Tarrant
November 16, 2007