Buddhism is well-known as a tradition of inner transformation. But great practitioners down the ages have also emphasised that freeing ourselves from suffering depends on others. Progress in our inner development goes hand and hand with our outward behaviour. It is no coincidence that of the six perfections taught by Buddha, we practise the first three – generosity, ethics and patience – mainly in relation to others, and the latter three – joyous perseverance, concentration and wisdom – mainly in relation to ourselves.
Ensuring coherence between outer and inner behaviour is an important, challenging and ongoing part of our journey of transformation. To illustrate with an extreme example, it is unlikely that a bad-tempered, tight-fisted, love-cheat would enjoy a state of boundless radiance and benevolence when sitting to meditate! It is also true that a meditator familiar with such a state would be less likely to risk sabotaging it by behaving in a way inconsistent with what he has discovered to be his own true nature.
The avoidance of harmful behaviour is one part of ensuring coherence. But so too is doing good. In Buddhism, virtue is presented as having an energetic quality. It is a means by which we propel inner growth, including the gradual development of meditative concentration. If we wish to experience the most profound states of well-being ourselves, it helps to first give happiness to others.
Which others? Lamas often emphasise the importance of starting with those closest to us. The beings for whom we already feel some genuine affection. For many of us, this includes our pets.
Just because a being is a dog, cat or parrot makes him or her no less valid a recipient of our love and compassion than a human. This is how pets can be more than our cherished companions – we may see them as partners on a journey of transformation, because they provide us with countless opportunities on a daily basis to practice generosity, ethics and patience.
It is useful to recognise these opportunities for what they are. Instead of automatically opening the can of dog food, it is helpful to think: ‘By this act of generosity, may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.’ Stroking our cat’s tummy, we may reflect: ‘By this act of love, may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.’ Such practices feel contrived to begin with, but they utilise skilful psychology: the more familiar we become with this motivation, the more it becomes a natural and spontaneous part of our thinking, beginning to transform more and more of our everyday behaviour into transcendental action. There’s no need to make a song and a dance about it. We should aim to be “undercover Buddhists” working on inner growth all the while appearing to be engaged in ordinary activities.
The Buddhist view of causation, or karma, suggests that the fact that a pet is part of your life is no coincidence. Causes created in this or a previous lifetime have drawn you back together. How wonderful that, as a human, you now have the power to help the being who is currently your pet – and not only by taking care of their worldly needs. By exposing the mind of your pet to images of Buddhas, by enabling them to witness the regular practice of meditation, and by repeating mantras, which resonate with a profound and timeless power, you can help create the causes for very positive future effects in their mind-stream. There are a number of case studies from Tibet of animals becoming reborn as people who went onto achieve great realisations as a result of hearing mantras recited in their presence. My own Vajra Acharya, Geshe Thubten Loden often recited mantras outside, so that the birds could hear them.
Pets not only provide us with a wealth of opportunity to fuel our inner growth through the practices of generosity, ethics and patience. We can also help them. In this way, they can be our close and special partners on our spiritual journey.
I explore more on this in my book, Buddhism for Pet Lovers.
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