Friday, 31 May 2013

The Spiritual Lessons of Having a Killer Cat

What's New Pussy Cat

     Please don't worry as I'm not about to start posting endlessly about the cat who lives with me. It just happens that today's thoughts follow on logically from yesterday's account of how Pusia nearly died on me. I have a friend who believes that if a cat gets into this state they have it coming. He honestly thinks that cats are evil.

     I, on the other hand, am a 'cat person'. That means that I adore the odd little fellas I come across wherever I happen to be and I understand that cats such as Pusia will kill from time to time. Don't be fooled by her cute appearance. She's just plotting her next hit.

License to Kill

     If it's true, what my friend says, that cats are sadistic and evil monsters that kill for pleasure, how can I justify her actions? I try to live according to Buddhist ideals of Dharma and yet on a regular basis I'm presented with my cat's latest hunting trophy. Sometimes it's a bit gruesome but on the whole she's a pretty smart cat. The animals she hunts are destined to be eaten. She catches and kills mice and some of the slower birds because she was taught to do this by her mother. It's her instinct to do so and it's in her nature.

     So when I'm confronted by her latest victim sprawled ceremoniously on the floor at my feet, I wonder what I should do to address the situation. My neighbour has a bird table. It was positioned right next to the garden wall and that resulted in a fair number of the local coal tit and finch population being taken out in a most undignified manner. It also resulted in early morning scenes like this.

     This would be a good point to mention that Pusia is not alone in the neighbourhood. She lives here on the farm in the company of several feral cats. It wasn't easy for her to establish her territory at first but, vastly outnumbered, she stood her ground and saw off the competition. The whole gang now exist comfortably side by side in what appears to be an uneasy cross between an Israeli versus Palestinian ceasefire and a feline hippy commune. Whilst it's pretty convenient for the local cat population it's disastrous for the local wildlife.

     We tried removing the bird table to a new location. Cats are not stupid. Although it's a bit more inconvenient it didn't take long for the feline community to zero in on the newly positioned bird table. Now they just have to jump a bit further.

Thou Shalt Not Kill Except When it's Necessary

     There is a mistaken belief that being Buddhist means you show no aggression or violence towards anyone. I have even met people who think that acceptance means you should never argue with someone's point of view. On the contrary, it doesn't mean submitting to everyone without having your own opinions about things. You are allowed to stand up for what you believe in. It's just important not to be attached too much to the identity with that belief. Killing is, in fact, permitted in Buddhism under extreme circumstances. If one person is responsible for or intends to inflict immense suffering on a large number of people under his or her influence then it is a course of action that could be considered. Most commentators would not condemn the unfortunate people who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Their actions would be seen as those of sane and rational people with nothing but good intent.

     Killing as a cat does, however, individually and with very conscious thought, is a totally different matter. How can I resolve trying to live a Buddhist ideology whilst sharing my life with what appears to be totally sadistic behaviour? Well in Pusia's case it is slightly easier to resolve. At least she kills to eat something when she's hungry. But what about other cats that have lost this hunger instinct and kill purely for the sake of it?

Horses for Courses of Course

     When we talk about the instinct then that's the key. It's any cat's instinct to hunt and kill their prey. Whether they want to eat it or not it's in their nature. Why is killing acceptable within this context? Because in Buddhist terms we have countless rebirths at different levels of existence. I'm fortunate that in this rebirth I have been given the opportunity to exist as a human. In this existence I am able to self-reflect and consider my Dharma. It is my responsibility to develop a spiritual practice that will help others and develop my chances of a higher rebirth in the future. If I choose not to follow this path then I increase my chances of a lower rebirth, maybe as a cat! A cat is a lower rebirth because it has fewer opportunities for self-reflection and spiritual growth. Its instinct is to kill and there are fewer options to increase Dharma practice.

     So you may ask how can a cat ensure higher rebirth in the future? Everything is in a cyclical nature. We have reciprocal flows of energy travelling backwards and forwards between us which either increase or decrease our level of suffering. Here is the scenario which demonstrates it in cat terms.

     Pusia has no conscious intention of making me, her human, feel good. But she does so simply by sitting on my lap purring and allowing me to stroke her. With her lack of awareness that this act increases her Dharmic value she enhances her chance of higher rebirth. This is because a virtuous act should be carried out without any attachment to its chances of securing higher rebirth or alleviating suffering.

     When she brings me a mouse she has killed I have two options. I can berate her and become annoyed with her for an act over which she instinctively has no control. Or I can celebrate with her. The former is an act of an emotionally reactive state. It causes nothing but grief for both the cat and me. The latter is an act in which we can share a sense of joy. She experiences immense peace because of the positive reinforcement and any suffering she may be experiencing through insecurity is immediately reduced and replaced with the positive experience. By making her feel good I am also improving my Dharmic practice and increasing my chances of a higher rebirth.

Careful What You Wish For

     There are several things we need in life: food, shelter, connection, significance, love and growth are just some of those. That's the same whether we're human or animal. I think it's fair to say that Pusia gets the majority of these.

     If you explode in rage at your cat for bringing you a dead mouse or bird then you are punishing it for an act over which it has no control. The cat won't understand why you're unhappy with its offering. It will only be encouraged to go out and hunt bigger and better prizes in the hope that one day it will get it right and bring home something that will make you happy.

     In this situation there are no winners. There is an ever increasing cycle of anger and emotional violence where everybody suffers.

     If you celebrate with your cat and give it reassurance that it's done well and you're happy with the offering then it will most likely curl up in a secure little ball and sleep easily without the compulsion to go out hunting again in the hope of doing better next time. Peace and tranquility will be restored. Even the poor mouse has played its part in the Dharmic cycle by contributing to this chain of events.

     In this situation there are no sinners. There is an ever increasing cycle of love and trust where everybody benefits, even the mouse which has ensured a greater chance of rebirth in a higher realm!

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World

     It can be hard to resolve these situations in this way. If we spent too much time examining the course of Dharma and Karma and the intricacies of Bodhicitta then we would seriously go mad unless some resolution can be found in the Buddhist teachings. At least with this reasoning there is some sense to the whole chain of events. With the main goal being to alleviate the suffering of all involved it seems to me that this is probably a sensible, sensitive and intelligent way of approaching life and death in the animal world.