I first published the following blog below some years ago. It immediately became the best read blog I had ever written. I realised there is a hunger for information and practical advice about the death process as it applies to pets, from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. In a very direct way, this blog led me to write Buddhism for Pet Lovers.
Buddhism for Pet Lovers is about a lot more than only the death process for pets – although I do cover this in detail, including vital issues like euthanasia, the bardo period and rebirth.
Buddhism for Pet Lovers is very much focused on our life with pets – being mindfully present for them. Listening to them instead of only ever talking. Suggesting ways in which we can help them cultivate their own inner lives. I share not only Buddhist insights and some fascinating and recent scientific studies. I also include some pretty amazing stories shared by blog readers from around the world about their own experiences with pets.
So … here is where it all started. This is not an excerpt from the book, but it does provide an overview of the death process. It is my heartfelt wish that you may find it useful.
(Below: Photo-bombing my own little fur-babies, Kahlua and Narla, on the arrival of my first copy of Buddhist for Pet Lovers from the publisher. Sadly Narla, the ginger and white on the right, passed away in 2018. Kahlua is still very much with us and is a keen meditator!)
As animal lovers, the loss of our pet is something we dread. Tibetan Buddhist insights and practices can do a lot, however, to transform the way we experience this event – and, far more importantly, how our pet experiences it.
A major shift occurs when we view what is happening from the perspective of our pet’s spiritual journey, rather than from our own understandable wish to cling to our beloved friend forever. As animal lovers it is a joy, as well as our responsibility, to help our pets onto a happy mental trajectory in life. And, given the importance of death as a time of transition, one of the greatest blessings we can give them is a peaceful and positive death.
When our pets are in good health, the best thing we can do for them is to help them avoid creating negative karma. It is difficult to give generic advice about how, for example, to curb a cat’s instinctive predatory behaviour except by making sure the cat is well fed, content and, if necessary, entertained. It is up to us to get to know our animal companions as well as we’re able and help however we can.
If you have a leaning towards Buddhism, it’s also very useful to create a positive association in your pet’s mind between Buddhist images/statues/mantras and a state of well-being. Murmuring mantras to your purring cat as you stroke her is an example of this – Om mani padme hum is one such mantra. Or if you are inclined to Tara practice – Om tare tuttare ture soha.
If you meditate regularly, there’s a good chance that your pet will want to join you. Let them. There’s plenty of research showing that animals’ perceptive abilities are, in certain respects, far more sensitive than humans’. If they are able to associate the practice of meditation with a positive state of being, so much the better.
From a Buddhist perspective, whether we are human or animal, we are constantly creating the causes for future effects, positive or negative. The more we are able to help our pet create imprints for a disposition towards enlightened actions, the better.
THE DEATH PROCESS
When we are losing someone we love, whether human or animal, it is important to ‘get over ourselves’ and focus on the wellbeing of the one who is dying. If we really love them, we should be trying to put aside our own feelings of grief and loss and do all we can to help them have a painless, peaceful and even positive death experience.
Pain management – This is a priority. Whatever palliative care we’re able to provide via the vet or otherwise, we should try to keep our pet out of as much physical discomfort as possible.
No wailing – We may be heartbroken about losing our close companions, but it’s important not to upset them. Animals also know what is happening to them. Dogs break away from the pack. Cats go off to hide under the house. There is nothing positive from their perspective if the people on whom they are completely dependent start behaving unpredictably. It’s much better to focus on what’s best for our pet, not on our own feelings of attachment.
I have heard animal communicators say that it’s important to communicate from your heart that, sad as you are, your friend is free to move on and you will be alright. This is not a Buddhist teaching, but it certainly supports the view that the needs of our dying companion should be uppermost at this difficult time.
Peaceful and positive – If we are able to provide those last few cuddles, whisper those last few mantras, sit for those last meditations, this is what we can do to help give our pet a peaceful death. Provide positive imprints. Help prepare them in the best possible way for the inevitable.
Euthanasia – In a short blog it’s not possible to debate all the considerations of euthanasia. I doubt that readers of this blog are among the group of people who would choose to euthanize a pet that can still enjoy a good quality of life. We don’t want our pet to suffer, but nor should we be in a hurry to short-cut the process. Dying is natural. It has its time and place. We need to give our pet time to come to terms with what is happening to him/her. Some Buddhists take the view that euthanasia may only postpone the suffering which a being has the karma to experience. My personal opinion is that we should only look to euthanasia when all other options have been exhausted, when there is only one outcome to which our friend is heading, when all our goodbyes have been said and when, if we were to change places, we would seek this for ourselves.
The Buddhist view is that subtle consciousness can remain in a bardo or intermediary state, between death and rebirth, for a period lasting from moments until up to seven weeks.
After the death of loved one, we are encouraged to continue focusing on the well-being of that loved one in the bardo state, rather than on our own sense of loss. You don’t need to be a therapist to see how attending to the well-being of others supports much greater equanimity than by focusing on our own bereavement. There are also a few very practical things we can do.
Make offerings – While it is not possible for karma or virtue to be removed or donated by a third party, it is possible to influence those with whom we have a strong karmic connection. Like our beloved pet. By making an offering of any kind, such as feeding birds, giving to charity, or donating blood, and self-consciously offering the merit of such actions to the benefit of our recently-deceased pet, our actions can have a positive impact on their experience of the bardo realms.
For example, we may repeat the affirmation in our mind:
By this act of generosity/love/compassion/kindness
May NAME OF PET enjoy positive conditions,
High rebirth, happiness and peace,
May he/she meet the perfect teacher,
And quickly attain perfect enlightenment
For the benefit of all living beings without exception.
We can continue to make offerings throughout the seven week period, in particular on every weekly anniversary of their death, when the greatest shifts in the bardo state occur.
Dharma practice – For Buddhists, the greatest of offerings are not material, but Dharma practice. We can also dedicate our meditation, sadhanas or whatever spiritual practice we engage in, as a direct cause for our pet to enjoy positive conditions and ultimate enlightenment.
Not forgetting – In the bardo realms, free of physical constraint, it is said that our subtle consciousness/energy is capable of moving anywhere very rapidly and perceiving anything – a form of clairvoyance. This includes the ability to return to where we lived. For this reason, for seven weeks after the death of a loved one, it is considered helpful to show that they are not forgotten. In the case of our cat, Mambo, we have left out his dry biscuits and water bowl, his favourite brush, and his litter tray. It is no inconvenience to us, and on the off-chance he should make a visit, he will see everything the way he was used to.
After seven weeks, all bardo beings have moved onto their next experience of reality. From a practical point of view, this means we can clear away our pet’s things. From an emotional point of view, it brings to an end a natural period of mourning. Our pet has moved on, and so must we.
Tibetan Buddhism gives us practical tools to help us manage the death of a loved one, whether human or animal. Much of the unhappiness surrounding death arises from our quite natural sense of loss. But we do have a choice. By focusing on our loved one’s consciousness as it moves from one realm of experience to the next, we are able to cope with the death of our pet with greater compassion and equanimity.
You’ll find a much more extensive explanation of this vital subject in Buddhism for Pet Lovers.
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