Mark Twain famously said, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”
While the tone of his comment carries with it his iconoclastic combination of sarcasm, wit and dark humor, the man makes a good point.
Sometimes people can be really crappy.
And although the Egyptians worshipped cats, Hindus consider the cow sacred, and my generation boasts a pretty large dolphin and unicorn fan club—mythical creatures notwithstanding—by and large our culture seems to have clearly defined the difference between man and beast.
Mankind has declared ourselves masters of the universe—or at the very least, asserted our mastery over all of the beasts in the field. We have made the edict relatively clear:
“Us man. You beast. Sit. Stay. Roll over. Play dead.”
But time and time again, scientists (and anyone with access to YouTube) seem astounded when animals display qualities that humans have historically attributed only to humanity. The qualities that spiritual aspirants so desperately work to cultivate seem to be second nature (pun intended) to animals of all types.
For example, let’s consider compassion. The biggie.
If you want to be of any good in the world at all, and follow in the footsteps of the enlightened ones, the emotions that you must ultimately and undeniably become familiar are empathy and compassion.
While empathy refers to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion. Also known as compassion in action.
If you are on a spiritual or religious path, most teachings emphasize that you must not only cultivate compassion, but that you cultivate it so well that you exude it at all times, even when confronted with horrific or challenging situations.
Tibetan Buddhist monk, Palden Gyastso, spent 33 years imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese, and all the while, he tried not to be angry towards those who inflicted unthinkable harm upon him. Buddhists often use him as an example when we look at the capacity to cultivate compassion.
We could imagine that our enlightened selves would so exude compassion that it might seep out of our pores and shoot through our finger tips like Jesus beams.
With enough compassion, we will at all times seek to alleviate the sorrows of all sentient beings just like our great Bodhisattva of Compassion Avalokitesvara. So enmeshed is the idea of being able to emanate compassion in our religious traditions, that if we were able to do it fully, we would be able to walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead or leap tall buildings in a single bound (okay maybe not that last part but you get my drift).
Both Christianity and Buddhism would have it that we become so at one with compassion that if we succeed and become saint like or enlightened, our time on earth would be posthumously depicted in images of us crowned with an effervescent halo of white light—possibly with some gold thrown in for good measure and a little bling.
Like St. Francis of Assisi, once we have mastered the art of compassion, the birds of the air will rest on our shoulders, flocks of sheep will gather round, butterflies will alight on our ear lobes, and in our presence, the lion will lie down with the lamb.
Who knows, maybe we’ll get to ride away into the sunset bareback on a Unicorn once we have saved all sentient beings from the realms of Samsara.
Either way, in religious iconography, the animal kingdom taking a liking to us seems to be a good sign. It is said that St. Francis of Assisi used to preach to the birds and the sheep and all the animals of the field. But maybe, just maybe, they told him a thing or two, too.
For the Buddhists reading this article, of course you’ll think of the famous Koan—“Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
So much has been made of that one Koan that an entire book could be written about it. Some say the original answer was, no (or Mu) and that only humans could be so lucky as to have Buddha nature, while others argue that yes, due to the nature of interdependent co-arising, a dog does in fact have Buddha nature.
Of course, most argue that the dog would need to be reborn in human form so that it could first realize the noble truth of suffering and the origins of suffering and then through this realization desire to achieve Nirvana. Hence the dog, reborn in human form, would embark upon the long arduous journey of the ascetic. As a human, the lucky (former) dog could fast for 40 days and 40 nights, engage in hours of meditation and prayer, gain access to sacred scriptures and so forth.
This is typically the story that we are told about the hoops that we must jump through to cultivate superhuman, god-like compassion and fully harness the power of the Buddha nature and attain enlightenment.
And alas, monks and nuns and holy men and lay seekers embark upon this journey to become something other than crappy humans, all the while assuming that the animal kingdom has less value. We go to the zoo flaunting our smart phones and our opposable thumbs and the lions sleep, the tigers roar, the giraffes crane their necks, the snakes slither or sunbathe. And then, when we get to the chimpanzees—the animal with DNA most similar to our own—they fling their feces at us. There they are behind a cage, being gawked at by silly humans, and when they fling shit on us, we, the silly humans, are disgusted rather than delighted in their innate intelligence to call bullshit when they see it. (Or in this case, monkey shit.)
If I were being kept in a cage for the amusement of humans, I too would fling feces at the crappy, silly humans who came to gawk at me. And I would do it, just for shits and giggles (literally).
Then, the silly humans, having been so inspired by the animal kingdom in captivity, go out afterwards to feast on big juicy cheeseburgers. After dinner, the humans come home to their dogs who are happier than they could ever be to see us and we pat them on the head, speak to them in tongues not unlike the babble we reserve for newborns, pour them a bowl of kibble and let them take up half of our beds while we sleep.
I cannot say for certain that my dog has realized the nature of unborn awareness, though he does have a lot of time to contemplate such things. He certainly can’t recite the diamond sutra or the lord’s prayer. But what my dog does do is pretty darned holy if you ask me.
My dog greets all humans with the expectation that only good things are about to happen. Tail wagging, all goofy smiles, he wants you to pet him and he’s pretty darn sure that once you do, you’re going to love it as much as he does. He’ll kiss you until you’ve really had too many kisses but you can’t stop laughing so he keeps doing it. Oddly, if you are elderly or a child, he approaches you gently, as if he understands a different and more gentle behavior is required—but always, his tail (and with it his entire body) is wiggling with joy.
Some might say he’s empathic and feeding off of the emotions he is met with. But I’ve seen him meet some not so receptive people and his reaction to them is just the same. Pure joy. And when I’m not feeling well, my dog seems to understand, and he’ll put his paw on me as if to comfort me. And yes, he even gives me kisses when I’m crying.
Scientists seem to have proven that elephants display empathy—a phenomena that they describe as an “emotional contagion.”
Koko the gorilla learned how to communicate through sign language. Upon meeting Robin Williams in 2012, she asked him to tickle her and then she picked his pocket. (Perhaps she intuited that he needed a good laugh for a change.)
And then there is the story about the seemingly compassionate, altruistic dog who travels each night to feed other, less fortunate dogs:
Or the compassionate, altruistic and heroic dog who saved another dog after it was hit by a car, dragging it to safety:
These are selfless acts that indicate a level of empathy and intelligence that we seem to all too often discard as miraculous anomalies caught on tape. But if an animal falls in the woods and another animal is there to nurse its wounds, but no one catches it on video, does it still happen?
While researching videos for this article I found this:
What if the random acts of kindness or “morality” that occur in the animal kingdom are not the exception, but the norm?
We assume that because these animals do not have an advanced vocabulary with which they can pontificate the meaning of life, the universe and everything, that they are second class citizens in our human world. And while we have domesticated some and studied many, the majority of us could stand to look to the animal kingdom for where humankind can improve. (For example isn’t it amazing that both monkeys and dogs seem to have grasped the concept of equal pay for equal work—a concept that most human employers still struggle with?)
I once read about a study that shows that something as simple as tapping your fingers to the same rhythm as a stranger increases compassionate behavior, which reminds me of the scientist who studied the yawn contagion in the video and also of the elephant’s “emotional contagion.”
These acts of animal kindness and heroic altruism are performed independent of indoctrinated religious rhetoric. They are acts of kindness that are simply just done. I believe that even as crappy, silly humans, we can continue to perform acts of kindness too. After all, if a monkey can do it…
At a time when I am saddened by the death of Robin Williams, and worried about the state of the world from Missouri to Gaza, displays of animal compassion in action have somewhat ironically restored my faith in mankind.
So, my fellow travelers on the path who seek to exemplify and embody all that is good and right with the world, it would seem that empathy and compassion are innate qualities in mammals as much as they are innate qualities in humans. And the animals don’t seem to have to try so hard. It’s just a reminder—or maybe for some a realization—that I hope enlightens your practice and helps to lift your hearts.
It’s nice to know that while we might have the urge to fling our proverbial feces at someone when they cut us off driving, we are only one “emotional contagion” away from becoming aware that they need to change lanes, and offering them the space in the first place.
It’s nice to know that if a dog is capable of risking its life for another dog or a human, that we certainly must be.
Here is Paul Ekman. Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California, San Francisco on humans and heroic compassion:
The Bodhisattva of Compassion incarnate, HH Dalai Lama has said that because we are born so reliant on another human being for our survival (namely our mothers who are their to nurse us), the seeds of compassion are inherently within us.
He has spoken at length about the importance of watering the seeds of compassion in our children, but also to nurture the seeds of compassion in our own hearts and minds, and that if we do so, we will live and die happy and bonus: the world will be less a few million crappy, silly humans. It might even be heaven on earth.
A place where the lion lays down with the lamb, peace reigns supreme, a man is never so lonely in his suffering that he takes his own life and the monkeys get paid equal pay for equal work.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own