I am the chosen life-companion of a part wolf. As her years were growing long, I became concerned about the quality of her life. Then I heard that a Tibetan lama, the venerable Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche, would be coming to offer Longevity Empowerments in the town where Grendel and I lived.
Now, the various Buddhisms are reputed to be for all sentient beings. Part of the Bodhisattva Vow is not to accept nirvana until “all sentient beings” have become enlightened. So I expected that Grendel would also be welcome at this event. My whole point of going was to take her, the old lady. I was simply going along as her companion.
When the day came, I packed Grendel into our truck. Then, putting her on the leash, we walked to the entrance of the hall.
Here we encountered our first humans, and here I made a tactical mistake. In my twelve years with Grendel and a lifetime with other animals before her, one thing I learned is: When traveling with an animal, the name of the game is to make it easier for the rule-makers to accede to your wishes. It’s far better to state your wish as though it’s a done deal. Instead of “Is it all right for my dog to come in?” you say, “It is all right if she comes in, isn’t it?” To which it is easier to answer “Yes.” One little change in words, and the meaning shifts unutterably.
Of course, when you want to get around rules, it is also better not to draw attention to yourself at all. Here I opened my big fat mouth and jokingly asked whether I would need to buy a $15 ticket for the dog as well. The ticket-seller looked at me, and time stopped. She withdrew her hand: “Oh, I don’t know whether dogs are allowed.”
Holding down my rising panic, I asked why not. To my surprise, she replied that she didn’t know. “Probably safety reasons.” So I asked if there were a security officer around with whom I might discuss this. Relieved to be out of it herself, she went off to fetch one.
A discussion with the security officer ensued about whether it was all right if my dog came in. The gist of it had to do with the potential terrors/distractions such a dog might create in a hall full of spiritual people – peeing on the carpets, biting someone (I assumed in a Pentecostal frenzy), barking during the liturgy, shedding large clumps of hair, and spontaneous levitation. (Okay, I admit it: I made that last one up. But the guard made up all the others.) I told the guard that Grendel was an old lady, not likely to raise hell in their church, that she was completely house-trained, had not heretofore expressed any need to howl along with music, nor acquired a taste for human flesh. More seriously, I promised that if Grendel started making noise, I’d take her out immediately.
I said all this with a calculatedly reasonable tone to my voice, all the while trying to look very straight and respectable. Not easy when you are accompanied by a large, wolf-like, overly fluffy dog and your clothes are vintage Goodwill and your hair looks like tumbleweed on acid. Meanwhile, you are trying to persuade this guard that the reason you are not willing to leave the dog tied outside is because, in fact, it’s the dog, not you, who most needs to go in, that you, the human, are only functioning as her aide. The security guard hesitated. I waited. (Waiting is another important thing I’ve learned: Quite often, the other person will decide in your favor just to end the discomfort of the situation.) The guard pondered: “Will you sit in the back?” “Yes!” I replied earnestly, surprised by the easiness of this bargain.
Like the starting of a horse race, the baton was waved in the general direction of the doors, and Grendel and I approached. But the new gatekeeper refused my ticket, saying that it wasn’t the security guard’s place to allow Grendel entrance.
After awhile, she went to get some other official to be consulted about having a nonhuman among them. When she left, I noticed that no one had been paying attention to this and that nobody was guarding the door anymore. Declining the tantalizing offer of more conflict, Grendel and I just walked on in.
We hid in the crowd near the merchant stands, and blessedly, nobody else got officious with us. The inner courtyard, where we were being detained, became quite packed. Inside, the lama was performing purification rituals. I noticed a slender man in raggedy, homeless-looking clothes who was holding a cat. So Grendel was not to be the only four-legger in there! I wondered how much trouble he had had getting that cat in there—or himself, as he looked so different from the largely rich crowd. I stayed in a far corner, shielding Grendel from all the legs pressing in.
At last the room was ready, and the doors swung open. Grendel and I waited until most of the people had entered, and then, as promised, I took a seat near the back. Grendel lay down quietly at my feet. The man with the cat was in the center section, a bit closer to Rinpoche.
As Rinpoche spoke in his native Tibetan, an interpreter stationed by his side would simultaneously translate. Both were seated on a large, colorful dais erected on the stage at the front of the hall. There was a long table in front of them, holding ritual offerings, and half a dozen robed monks flanked each side. More monks lined the first two rows in the audience. The sensual qualities were astounding. There was a riot of saturated color: the monks’ vermilion robes, multicolored tassels hanging off Rinpoche’s baton, jewel-colored table coverings, dazzling fruits, handmade books. Then there was the huge cavern of the hall itself: the incense, intermittent sounds of chanting, and perhaps best of all, the intangible quality of the air which, had just been cleansed. Simply being in those presences seemed enough. And then the ceremonies began.
The interpreter explained that Rinpoche would do some blessings, and that while he chanted, we were to meditate on what he said and allow the energies to enter our beings. The transmission was extraordinarily vivid, and I felt my subtle bodies expand and deepen like the opening lotus he invoked. I hoped that Grendel was having a similar experience, because most of the meaning came directly into me through the chanting. It must have been similarly accessible to Grendel, since the original language was foreign to us both.
Next, Rinpoche blessed a pot of water, and the monks took bowlfuls to the audience. Coming to each person, they offered a bit of the charged water in a spoon no bigger than my thumbnail. When a monk poured a spoonful into my palm, I licked up half of it and offered the rest to Grendel. She licked it off slowly, then took a couple of eager licks until my palm was clean. Strangely, after I licked that water, I felt we’d been charged, changed, like some sort of transformation or cleansing was taking place. Grendel stretched and looked up at me, smiling. I invited her to my side, where she could lie next to my chair in the broad aisle. More comfortable, she lay her head back down on her paws and slept or rested and meditated: Who knows?
It was announced that anybody could come forward to receive a personal longevity initiation from Rinpoche. This was what we had come for! People started to talk and get up, and Grendel, thinking the event was over, got up, too. I motioned her back down, and we waited. It appeared that Rinpoche was saying some sort of blessing and then tapping each person with what looked like a car’s fish-eye mirror on a stick with loads of colored rags and ribbons for tassels. After about half an hour, when most of the crowd were back in their seats, I aroused Grendel and we went up the aisle to stand in line.
Most people were respectful and silent, so the standing-in-line felt like a standing and walking meditation. Slowly we wound our way up toward the dais and waiting monks. I was smiling with joyful, calm expectancy as Grendel and I began to mount the four or five wooden stairs leading up to the stage. Suddenly, a woman began to shout from the front seats. I looked over and saw a well-dressed, middle-aged woman sporting meditation beads and a dharma scarf like the one I had just bought outside. I saw that she was looking right at us. “Beg pardon?” I asked her. “Are you speaking to us?” “It’s not usually done, you know,” she spat.
“What isn’t?” I asked from my place on the first stair. “Bringing dogs to a ceremony,” she said, as though pronouncing something obscene. “This is a Tantric initiation! Don’t you know what this means? This is very select, and it is only for people! Not for animals!” Her eyes blazed fire at Grendel and me as she howled indignantly, “What’s wrong with you?!”
Her verbal attack hit like a tempered steel blade. I replied weakly, “Let’s just see what the lama thinks, okay?”
“Sit down! Get that dog out of here!” she was ranting, but under her breath, like a hiss or a hackle-raised growl.
Confused, I turned away, then back to her accusing eyes. I began to wonder, “Just who do I think I am, coming into their ceremony with my ideas? Maybe this is insulting.”
Then I looked ahead at the back of the man in front of me and ahead of him at the robe of a young monk and the promised initiation. In a flash, I remembered the reason I’d come here. Grendel was getting old, and this longevity initiation might benefit her. We were now close to contact with a respected lama who came from a tradition that purported to be for her as well. I felt my reason and resolve bolster. Turning away from that woman, we advanced to the second step.
I was shaking from the encounter and the continuing glare of the woman’s cold eyes. Grendel undoubtedly felt this, too. As we took two more steps to the top platform, she began, uncharacteristically, to act up. She turned round and round, tangling up the leash and banging into the legs of the man in front of us. He moved on to meet Rinpoche as Grendel and I approached the first monk. He watched while I untangled the leash and asked her to sit. When she complied, the monk commented with a surprised, approving smile, “She’s well behaved.” “Yes,” I snapped, still upset from the earlier attack and Grendel’s incomprehensible actions. “Just like most of the humans here.”
The monk gazed at me with a complex smile. Then he laughed! And he said something in Tibetan to Rinpoche, who was now also watching the scenario. The monk looked toward Grendel, then to Rinpoche, and added in English, smiling, “You know, this is a rare opportunity.” And Rinpoche agreed, nodding and saying also in English, “Yes.”
Hope came alive again. Rinpoche beckoned us forward, and I pushed Grendel to the center first. Rinpoche reached under the table to a blessed rice mixture, and with a gleeful laugh flung it upon her. The people before us had simply received the baton. My heart bloomed with gratitude for the spacious wisdom of this monk and this teacher. I knew that I was in the presence of a master who could see the spiritual potential—even divinity—in a body other than his own.
My eyes misted, and with clasped hands, I bowed spontaneously. Behind me, there was a great roar of laughter and applause—I hadn’t realized it, but of course everyone had been watching. They, too, had undoubtedly wondered what Rinpoche would make of this.
Rinpoche now beckoned to me: It was my turn. I went up to his platform and offered him my new dharma scarf. He took it, blessed it, gave it back to me, and touched me on the shoulders with the tasseled baton. Moving on, Grendel and I came to three monks who were proffering blessed goodies of several varieties. And every monk handed me two, one for me and one for Grendel.
I was in a state of stunned silence all the way down the stairs and through the auditorium to the seat we had vacated, it seemed, a lifetime ago. And then the astonished grin came. I just sat there, reeling from the import of what had occurred. How the exact same thing had been spoken twice, and yet worlds apart. A snarled “It’s not usually done” means the same thing cognitively as an awed “This is a rare opportunity”—the same thing, yet a universe of difference. One little change in words, and the meaning shifts unutterably.
Rinpoche left, and people began crowding out of the hall. Still bathed in the radiance, Grendel and I sat still and waited until the place was nearly cleared, then we slowly walked toward the doors.
As we inched our way around the crowded foyer, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see a man dressed in the robes and shaved head of a Buddhist monk but with the features of a Euro-American. Smiling, he said that it was really good to have brought my dog here. This was music to my ears. Smiling back, I asked why. He said that Grendel’s having gone through this initiation would make it much more likely that she would be able to procure a human body for her next life. To which I laughed and joked that she’s already been there, done that, and gone on now to this much higher form.
He looked quite shocked and disapproving. Oh no, he informed me. The human is the highest and best, that which all beings aspire to, the prized end of this merry-go-round. So I pointed out to him that only humans are writing that script. And therefore, it might wind up being a tad ego-based, with us predictably on top. He didn’t get it: This hierarchy, to him, was a Truth.
Our conversation reminded me of a number of simple but troublesome questions with which we grapple around the category of “all sentient beings.” Who is included? Why or why not? The Chinese Madhyamika master Chi-tsang long ago used the phrase “Buddhahood attained by plants and trees.” Dogen composed a “Mountains and Rivers Sutra.” And contemporary Zen priest Judith Kinst quotes an old koan at Tassajara Monastery, “The stones preach the Dharma.” In light of these teachings, is the positing of a linear hierarchy of beings even appropriate? To me, it seems clear that in an interconnected and dependently co-arising web, the idea of one species holding a “higher” position is illusion; the rain is not “better” or “more highly evolved” than the snow.
Grendel and I walked out through the glass doors and down the hill to our truck. I had taken her off the leash when we left the building; there was no need for either of us to be restrained now. We walked together side-by-side, simply and joyfully, two beings consciously choosing to be together.
Many wise people throughout the ages, including the Buddha himself, have warned that “with our thoughts we create the world.” What do we, as a culture and as individuals, create with our thoughts and actions concerning beings in other-than-human bodies? “One little change in words, and the meaning shifts unutterably.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.