3 Dharma Lessons My Sister’s Dog Taught Me.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a dog person. It’s not that I dislike dogs, it’s quite the opposite.
I grew up with them, and I think the world would be a better place if people as a whole were more dog-like. But dogs require a lot of time and patience.
They need to be walked, and played with, and they take up more than their fair share of the bed at night. Dogs are wonderful. But they’re also a very big commitment.
That being said, I am literally surrounded by canines. All of my siblings have dogs, and the same goes for my parents. Even my roommate has a dog. As a result, I spend a lot of time dog-sitting for the people in my life. I feed their fur-babies when they go out of town, I walk their pets when they have to work late, and I share my home with four-legged friends whenever the situation requires.
Currently, I’m watching my sister’s dog. He’ll be with me for at least a month while she gets settled in graduate school. Having him here has been a huge change in my daily routine. Every morning my alarm goes off at 6 am, and every morning he wants to be walked immediately when the alarm goes off. No amount of pleading or swearing on my part will change his mind, and hitting the Snooze button is futile.
He needs to be walked every morning at 6 am. Period.
At first, this caused a lot of frustration on my part. However, having him here has taught me many important lessons about the dharma. The three biggest ones are:
1. Surrender to the Form
When I walk into my Zen center, there are countless forms that I have to follow. There are correct and incorrect ways to bow to the Buddha, etiquette that must be followed when addressing the monks, and rituals that must be observed when getting up from the cushion. All of these forms can be overwhelming.
However, I’ve learned that if I surrender to them, and simply do what needs to be done in the moment, a feeling of contentment arises in my mind. Furthermore, I’ve learned that life in general is also full of forms.
There are forms for going to work in terms of dress code and what time I need to be there. There are forms for gardening, and bike maintenance. And there are countless forms that go with caring for a dog. Life is full of forms, and when I surrender to them in the same way that I surrender to the forms inside my Zen center, life becomes much easier.
When I stand before the Buddha, I bow. When I stand before a hungry dog, I bow, and then I feed them.
2. Compassion Comes from Humility
Some pets I care for treat the whole world as their toilet. And I deal with some others who are more particular about where they do their business. In both cases, however, I’m responsible for the aftermath.
Thankfully, scooping up dog poop from the sidewalk and scrubbing pee out of a carpet both make for excellent Buddhist practice. I’m humbled each time I walk down the street with a leash in one hand, and a bag of manure in the other. And I learn a lesson in karma when a dog leaves presents on the carpet because I waited too long before taking them out.
All of this has showed me how humility and compassion intersect. The dogs in my care are sentient beings, and I want to take good care of them. But I can’t do that unless I humble myself and become their servant.
They can’t eat unless I throw 40 pounds of dog food on my bike, and ride home from the store. They can’t exercise unless I take them for walks. And they can’t stay clean unless I bathe them.
If I want to be compassionate towards dogs, I must be humble, and put their needs before my own. This is also true when dealing with humans.
3. Desire Is a Source of Suffering
It’s a little frustrating for me to write this part. After thousands of hours on the cushion, one would think that I’d understand this point in my bones. But I still need to be reminded of it every day, and dogs are excellent at doing that. As I stated earlier, my sister’s dog absolutely has to be walked at 6 am every day. He has a small meltdown if it doesn’t happen.
This was a point of intense suffering for me the first week that he was here, but then I realized something. It’s 100% normal and natural for him to want to pee in the morning. I do it, so why shouldn’t he? Furthermore, it’s not his fault that he lives in a house, and not in the wilderness like nature intended. So what right do I have to be mad at the dog for something that’s both completely natural and not his fault?
I don’t have that right. And the suffering that I experienced had nothing to do with him. It was caused by my desire to lounge in bed. Instead of surrendering to the form and walking the dog, I was surrendering to my ego, and I suffered as a result. These days, I simply go to bed a bit earlier in preparation for our morning stroll. That works much better than complaining.
When dealing with dogs, focus on what you need to do, not what you want to do.
Despite my misgivings, dogs have been some of my greatest teachers over the years. In the process of caring for them, I’ve managed to learn a great deal about Buddhist practice and life in general. But the greatest lesson that I’ve learned is this: the Buddha doesn’t just reside on my altar, sometimes he walks around on four legs.
Alex Chong Do Thompson is former Marine who’s been practicing the Way since 2013. He’s training to become a Lay Minister in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. And he spends his free time reading, cycling, and playing with his cat, Ensō. You can read more of Alex’s work by visiting his blog, The Same Old Zen, or following him on Twitter.