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How a Dog Taught me the Dharma

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One of my best spiritual teachers is a dog. I met her on a silent meditation retreat a few years ago. On that retreat, as, alas, on many others, I had been struggling with one of the petty irritations that meditators work with all the time: restless yogis making noise. This one shifted on her cushion, that one adjusted his blankets -- it was like Grand Central Station in there. Who could meditate under such conditions?

Of course, one of the ironies of meditation retreats is that on the one hand, we're all meant to be learning to accept what is, be in the moment, and so on, and yet on the other, meditation makes people so sensitive to every minute motion that completely trivial things can send us flying off the handle. Oh well -- we're human.

This particular retreat was in the summertime, so after working with my annoyance and irritation for a while, I decided to give myself a break and spend one session sitting outside instead of in the meditation hall. I sat far away from the main buildings of the center, on a bench overlooking a beautiful valley. Inspired by the wind and the quiet, and relieved to be away from people shifting in their seats, I quickly fell into a groove of watching my breath, and noting sensations, just as instructed. Now that's more like it!

Not ten minutes after I sat down, however, a dog appeared and, panting heavily in the heat, invited me to play with her by dropping a stick in my lap. I tried to ignore her, but she was persistent. Okay, I thought: this is what is happening... I surrender. So I threw the stick, and the dog retrieved it. I threw it again, and she brought it back again. After a few minutes, the game had worn thin (for me) and I decided to return to my meditation practice. And this time, I decided to sit still, no matter what.

The dog was having none of it. She wanted to keep playing, and was not interested in my being a good meditator. She picked the stick up with her mouth and dropped it on my lap -- over and over again. Maybe I didn't understand how to play; maybe I needed a hint.

In an instant, the frustration I had been experiencing back inside the meditation hall subsided, because the fact of life which Buddhists and others call "non-self" was suddenly, utterly clear. Of course, I wasn't angry at the dog -- she was doing what her conditioning (genetic, environmental, training, whatever) caused her to do. So why was I angry at my fellow yogis for what their conditioning caused them to do? And, perhaps even more importantly, why be angry at myself for being frustrated? My conditioning, the world in which I had been living -- all these causes and conditions were giving rise to their inevitable result, just like the dog and the yogis.

Sure, the dog had a personality -- but, I saw clearly that day, "personality" is just a label atop an amalgamation of behaviors and preferences, each of which is wholly caused by other things. The learned behavior of playing, the desire for companionship, the physical act of chasing the stick -- the dog was doing just what it had to do. There was really no dog there -- just all those conditions.

And me too, and the other yogis, and the teachers, and everyone else I knew, too. The conditions caused the dog to play, other conditions caused me to be variously charmed, impatient, insistent, and indulgent. We were all just acting out our infinitude of conditions. For humans, there are more conditions, and far more complicated motives and factors in play -- but the principle is the same. There is simply, as Sartre said, a great emptiness where we expect to find agency.

A simple story -- but a real opening with real consequences for me. I don't like rules, morals, and oughts. I never have. I can't will myself to be compassionate or patient. But when I saw that all that was happening, in the meditation hall and on the bench outside, was the vast matrix of causes and conditions, compassion arose naturally -- for the dog, the restless yogis, and me.

This clear seeing is what the Kabbalists call bittul ha-yesh, annihilation of the self, and it is how, in their cosmology, it's possible to apprehend the truth of God: not by imagining some great father figure in the sky, but by subtracting illusions and seeing what remains. Put simply, "God" in this understanding is what's left over when the illusion of self is taken away.

"Annihilation of the self" can sound excessively humble, modest, and small. It can resonate with negative stories we've been told about ourselves for decades, especially if we're women or sexual minorities or ethnic minorities, but also if we've just been told we're unworthy for some reason. But this is, obviously, not what is meant. True bittul ha-yesh is seeing right through all the facets of the self, seeing them as luminous, beautiful, and not mine. Conditions are present, things move, anger arises, breezes blow -- and there's no one minding the store.

Imagining myself to be a real, separate self, and seeing others the same way, I get upset when these others don't act as I think they should. But there's no one to get angry with, because no one's minding the store -- we are all just the effects of causes. Anger, selfishness, generosity, forgiveness -- these are phenomena caused by other conditions. Thus there is no difference, really, between an empty boat and a boat with someone in it; in either case, effects are following their causes, and there's no one there to blame.

The great Western spiritual teacher Ram Dass was once asked for advice about relationships. He told the following story in reply. Imagine, he said, that you're on a rowboat out on a lake on a foggy summer's evening. You're enjoying the sound of the crickets, the sensations of floating. And then you see, in the fog, another boat, and notice it's coming toward you. So you shout out "Hey! There's another boat here -- be careful!" Still it gets closer. Now you're getting upset, shouting and cursing. But just as the boat is about to hit, you see that it's empty.

That's what the dog taught me that summer's day several years ago, and in my good moments, I don't ever forget it.