Friday, March 11, 2011

Kero has Buddha Nature




I share my home with a fully autonomous being with whom I cannot fully communicate. Her name is Kero. She's an 8 1/2-year-old copper and white Siberian husky. I've been her guardian since she was about 1 1/2 years old. I don’t say I “own” her. No one owns Kero.

I find it fascinating watching her move around the house. She absolutely, positively, has intelligence and self-awareness. She makes choices. But I rarely understand her choices. She will be lying in the middle of the living room in what appears to be perfectly comfortable position, then, for no discernible reason she will get up and walk over to another part of the living room and lay back down, often in what looks to me to be a much less comfortable spot. It is not uncommon to find her sleeping on top of a bone or a toy or with her head on a jagged rock. But she is a sensitive lass – she will often leave the room if I am making too much noise, or should I, god forbid, fart. Sometimes she will sit in the living room staring intently through the dining room and out through the front windows of the house. When I look out I see nothing noteworthy. Also, if I want to look out those windows, I go to the dining room to look out; Kero seems to prefer the view from further back. Maybe she is far sighted?

There are a variety of decisions that she appears to make with great care. When I take her for a walk, the places that she pees, and the spot where she ultimately poops, are clearly terribly important. There is no whimsy, no snap judgment or impulse action – there is a particular spot where her pee must land to achieve its purpose. Apparently pig’s ears are just no good when they're fresh; they must be appropriately cured. When I give Kero a pig’s ear she takes it and runs out through her dog door to her side yard. I look out the window to watch her. She will walk around the yard with the ear in her mouth, sniffing and tentatively poking the ground until she finds the right spot for the aging of the treat. She will drop it, dig a hole, shove the ear in, then cover it over, returning to the house with her face and paws covered with soil. I never see her dig them back up again, but some days later I will find the soft, spittle covered remains of a well-aged pig’s ear in her yard.

Over the years I have lived with a variety of people; parents, siblings, roommates, girlfriends, guests – but these people were all… um… human. I usually have had at least some idea of their motivations, and when I didn't I could at least ask them what they were doing. If I am sitting on the couch with a friend, and she gets up, goes to the kitchen, and gets a glass of water from the sink, I understand that she is thirsty. If a roommate runs into the house frantic, I can ask them what's wrong. I'm not always going to fully understand another human’s motivations, and I might not agree with their reasoning, but at least there's a general sense of understanding between us.

It is not unusual for Kero to come racing into the house, flying through her dog door at breakneck speed, screaming up the stairs into the living room, and throwing herself onto her bed panting wildly. "What's up? What's going on Kero?" No answer. Nothing. This happens at least once a week. Often I'll look out the window, or even go outside to see what might be going on. Nothing. No neighborhood dogs barking, no cat running through the yard, no thieves, no wild animals, nothing of any note whatsoever. Yet there she is, clearly beside herself.

When this happens I usually assume that she was asleep outside and had a nightmare. I love watching her dream. Her feet will start twitching in the rhythm of running, then she’ll begin moaning and whining, sometimes quite loudly, even reaching a low howl. I can watch her nostrils flaring as she desperately tries to pick up some dream scent. Her dreams are brief, rarely lasting more than one or two minutes, but there is no doubt that they are vivid.

Of course it's wrong for me to say that we don't communicate. We communicate quite a lot. She licks my face; I rub her belly; she looks at me expectantly, I give her a treat; when I go away then return home she runs back and forth, spins in circles, and sings a little song. She knows quite a few words, though she doesn't always choose to obey them. "Sit", "down", "stay", "shake", "high-five", "no", "good", "bad", "out", "off", "heel", "bed time", "dinner", "this way", "up", etc., and of course there is also "good sit", "good down", "good stay", "good heel", "good out", "good up", and on and on.

She tries very hard to communicate with me. The communications that are most clear usually have to do with wanting a treat. She almost never barks – she really only barks at other dogs and sometimes at cats or other animals. She never barks at people. But she will sing quite a song when she sees an old (human) friend. Unlike most other dogs I have known, she never says anything if she is stuck outside and wants to come in, or vice versa. If we are somewhere that she doesn't have a dog door and she wants to go out, she will simply look quietly pitiful until I notice. Since she has had access to dog doors everywhere she’s lived since infancy, she’s never needed to learn to ask – plus, she has always been very polite.

She has one particular message that I've been trying to decipher for years. Sometimes when I walk by her she will snap her mouth in the air two or three times. It's definitely not a threat – her mouth is nowhere near me when she's doing this, and she has never threatened me in any way. I can literally take food out of her mouth while she is chewing and she will just look sad, confused, and hurt. No growling, no snarling, no biting. So this snapping at the air is definitely not aggression. But it means something to her. She's trying very hard to communicate something specific. I think it has to do with impatience or frustration – some desire that she's desperate to fulfill, of which I am oblivious. "Hey! Dad! I want ______.” “What Kero? What do you want?” Beats me.

A disciple once asked Zhaoshou, a Chinese Zen master, if a dog has Buddha nature. Zhaoshou famously replied, "mu." “Mu,” such an enigmatic word. It is said to mean something like "not," or "without," or perhaps "no thing." It has been suggested that "mu" is the "non-answer." That in some sense the question "does a dog have Buddha nature" is a meaningless question. It is said that if you meditate on this Koan, and on the word "mu,” you will find the light of your Dharma. This “Mu Koan” doesn't work for me. I believe - I am convinced - that dogs absolutely, positively have Buddha nature. For me the answer to the question is "Uh, duh! Of course a dog has Buddha nature. Don't be ridiculous." No need to make up silly answers that mean "no," yet somehow also don't mean "no."



Dogs are aware. They make choices. They want this, they don't want that. They're happy, they're upset, they're glad to see you, they want to eat, they desperately need to pee on that spot right over there and nowhere else. Watching this being move through my world is an endless joy for me. However, there are clearly times when Kero wants something and I just have no idea what it is. "English!” I say to her, “I don’t understand. Speak English." Oh well.

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