What is Buddha? The cat is climbing up the post. ~ Zen Master Pa-Chaio Hui-Ch’ing
Who would have known that the ordinary house cat may be one of the greatest Buddhist teachers you will ever meet? I’ve lived with cats my entire life, and each one has taught me a new way to practice Buddhism in their own feline way. So it seemed fitting to take a (humorous) journey into the secret world of “Buddhist Cats”, and share with you the unique insight they have on Buddhism that you won’t get anywhere else.
But, a word of extreme caution: never say where you found these secret feline Buddhist tips, or you may find yourself facing rebirth as a puppy and spending your life sniffing other dogs…um…well, never mind.
Feline Meditative Practices
My first experience with Buddhism and Cats happened when one of my former cats, Tara (appropriately named), was discovered on my zafu (meditation cushion). Was she about to meditate, or just taking a nap?
I discovered that cats actually practice all three major types of meditation and chanting practices:
- Catnap (Feline Version of Samatha Meditation): Cats know to sleep when tired. Not only does this give them energy for when they need it, but it also provides mental relaxation and a still mind. Just like humans, having the mind become still is an important part of meditation.
- Feline Focus (Feline Version of Vipassana Meditation): Never, I repeat NEVER, get into a staring contest with a cat. They will win. Cats perform a very unique version of meditation where they can focus on an object for extended periods of times. Everything about that object is taken into consideration, interpreted, and absorbed. Their mind and body transforms with this insight meditation. For humans, after we calm our mind, insight meditation (analytical) is important to understand the world we live in (and ourselves).
- Purr (Feline Version of Chanting): Just like meditation, chanting is a form of practice. Cats actually purr all the time, but you can only hear it during certain times. Purring is still a mystery to humans, and nobody can truly explain why they do it. What is known is that purring can offer a calming effect on cats during stress, or when they are showing Metta (loving-kindness). By chanting…I mean purring…cats calm themselves and thus calm their mind and body which help them obtain peace.
Here’s what is really interesting: it is said that when someone achieves enlightenment, they eat when they are hungry, and sleep when they are tried. Sound like a cat to you? It sure did to me.
Cats (unlike most dogs) will only eat when they are hungry, and take a nap when they are tired. They are not out to please you, worry about their own ego, or dwell on things, but they do what needs to be done just like an enlightened person.
According to Ven. Master Hsing Yun:
Before one is enlightened, one is unwilling to eat when it’s time to eat and ponders a hundred thoughts, and one is unwilling to sleep when it’s time to sleep and considers a thousand plans. After one is enlightened, one eats when hungry and sleeps when tired. Those who are enlightened still eat and sleep, but now they have the freedom to do as they please and go wherever they wish. Before attaining enlightenment, each moment is hard to bear, and each step is a difficult burden; but after attaining enlightenment, each day is a good day, and everywhere is a smooth and open road.
Mu! or Meow!?
In Zen circles, Master Ekai is famous due to him meditating for six years on a single koan. This koan was simply “Mu!”, which means “Not!”. He meditated on this until one day he heard the drum at the monastery and was spontaneously enlightened. From that point forward, he often responded to his students questions with “Mu!”, but this was a way to tell them that the answer lay beyond “logic”, and must be instead experienced.
This had me thinking of cats because, as we all know, they go “Meow!” to everything. This can be a very loud “Meow!” while you are sleeping, or to greet you, or to ask for food. Perhaps they are saying “Mu!” (Not!”) instead of what we perceive to be a “Meow!”. In that way, maybe there are telling us to abandon logic, and directly experience.
Who knew cats were actually secret Zen masters?!
When “Mu!” bears fruit, quite spontaneously inside and out will become one. You will end up like a dumb man who has awoken from dreaming. You will know yourself-but only for yourself. “Mu!” will suddenly explode, shaking the earth and opening the heavens. ~ Zen Master Ekai
Follow the Path As Best You Can
Cats are very skilled and walking on anything without falling, but not always. Even the most skilled cat may slip. What do they do? Nothing, they just move on without a care, or jump right back up and get to where they were going. No ego is involved with a cat, just the destination.
There are even many stories of cats that have traveled hundreds of miles and found their way back home after being lost, or even found their original owners when they moved hundreds of miles away. The cat never lost faith in the path, nor did they worry about how long it will take.
Buddhism is a religion that must be practiced, as the only one who can help you is…you. If you fail to practice, you will make no progress. In-fact, you may be just a few feet from your final destination, but if you give up you’ll never know how close you were.
Just like a cat, we shouldn’t put too much concern in that we were distracted when we were meditating, or that we got upset that somebody took our parking spot at work, or that we forgot to be mindful. Life is practice, and we should use these experiences to center ourselves and be mindful, and with that we can get right back into walking the path.
When it comes to following the Noble Eightfold Path, our end goal should of course be to follow all eight parts. However, everyone must start somewhere! If you can only follow one, or two, or however many number you can per day (or moment), that’s wonderful! The same goes with precepts, as we should of course follow all of them, but as lay practitioners we are all starting where we are right now.
Take your inspiration from a cat: they know the destination they want to get to, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes them to get there. Don’t worry about “falling” while practicing Buddhism, because if you realize it and learn from it…you have not only gained insight, but can also apply yourself better in the future.
Find Out Who Controls the Laser Pointer
Take a laser pointer, a cats most favorite toy in the world. The cat is enlightened enough to know that it’s not really a bug that’s zipping around the floor…they see the device in your hand. But as soon as they know this, they still enjoy chasing that bright light on the ground. But why?
Enlightenment is finding something that was hidden. In this case, finding that the laser actually comes from that device in your hand. The cat still plays because, just like an enlightened person, you get back to practicing! Just because you are enlightened doesn’t mean you stop practicing. The cat know this.
All too often I know this with my cat Bella. She absolutely knows that little device ‘produces’ the light on the ground, and that she can never ‘hold’ it…but that’s not the point at all, is it? She still needs to practice even though she is enlightened.
Once enlightened, you see the world in a new light. You can never go back, but that’s ok! As the Buddha said:
Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.
Cats don’t have deluded thoughts, and easily drop their attachments. After all, how can you become attached to something like a laser that you can’t even hold with your paws?
Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains what happens after enlightenment:
What happens after enlightenment? You get back to your practice! Even if you attain enlightenment, if you do not practice, you will never become a Buddha. While some practice first and become enlightened later, others become enlightened first and practice later. Whichever comes first, enlightenment or spiritual practice, upon enlightenment one must continue to cultivate according to the path and practice according to the teachings.
The Kitten Eightfold Path
Finally, here is a special (catnip) treat: the eightfold path for cats! Although the little known “kitten eightfold path” applies to felines, many have applied it to their practice as well (don’t mind the hairballs):
- Right View: Use Your Cat Eyes
Kittens don’t believe in any doctrine, and always have an uncanny ability to perceive the world around them. From an early age, they realize that life is suffering (their toy goes missing, or dinner is not on time) and to end suffering is the true path. A perfect example is with a cats favorite toy, the laser. They know perfectly well that it’s not there (after all, you can’t “catch” or “touch” the laser), and use it as practice for eliminating attachment. At the end of a vigorous training session, cats will often go and meditate to complete the lesson.
- Right Thinking: The World is Your Ball of Yarn
A cat will take in their “right view” of the world around them when they are practicing “right thinking”. A cat unifies their mind and body into one (ties in with Right Action). Otherwise, they will be impulsive like a puppy and not practice ‘Right Action’. Mindful breathing is very important when a cat practices right thinking, as they are not concentrating on the past nor the future but the present moment.
- Right Speech: Only Meow When it Improves Upon Silence
Unlike puppies, kittens know to only meow when necessary. They don’t lie (and will tell you your haircut is ridiculous) and won’t partake in idle meowing. When a cat speaks, she has something to say and says it with simple clarity.
- Right Action: Be a Good Kitty
While some kittens may sneak a treat, good kittens only take what is given to them. They also realize that hunting for pleasure is not the path to take, and instead will meditate on how to be good. In the end, kittens doing this realize a more tranquil way of life known as catnip nirvana.
- Right Livelihood: Be a House Cat
While not all cats can take this route, being a house cat is the best life a cat can live. Not only do they live longer, but they don’t have to engage in sexual misconduct, killing, or engaging in territorial warfare.
- Right Effort: Always Show (Feline-Style) Love: Cats know that this is an important part of the eightfold path, because if they keep practicing or ignore the ones they love, they are not understanding the true nature of the path. When they are done with walking meditation, or practicing the ancient art of laser pointer pouncing, they will show feline loving-kindness with a body or head rub, or purr, with their loved ones.
- Right Mindfulness: Be Aware of EVERYTHING
A cat takes this element very seriously, especially the mental qualities. They are always aware and mindful of what’s going on around them, and within them. They are focused on their body, and can easily put aside greed and distress. If something will affect their body or mind, they are aware of it with crystal clear clarity.
- Right Concentration: Birds! Sorry, What Were You Saying?
Just like human practice of right concentration, cats also aim for a mind that is ‘one-pointed’. They will practice this at all times, which may seem to you as being indifferent, but they are actually “maintaining evenness” that would make a Zen master gasp.
Now go purr on what you have learned here, and be sure to give any cat you meet a treat for they may be the best Buddhism teacher you’ll ever meet. Remember, sometimes enlightenment is purring right in your lap:
You may find the following books enjoyable (or at least your kitty will):