The cat died.
That she was 17 and riddled with cancer didn’t make her passing any easier for the rest of us. We cried hard when we put her down. The vet tech was sweet. “It’s the price of an open heart,” she said. It helped, but not that much. Monkey is gone, and we’re the ones left missing her. Even our dog, Bodhi, keeps walking around the house, looking for her in all her secret hiding places.
I am on my tenth day of chanting for Monkey. One of the things many Buddhists believe is that we can continue to give help to a sentient being for as many as 49 days after it has passed. We can pray, chant, talk to it, comfort it. Wish it well. All these things help the one who’s gone—and us. Doing these things also gives us the gift of some quiet time away from all of the other aspects of our lives calling for attention.
Another teaching that helps is at the core of Buddhism. Sometimes called “emptiness,” it is a teaching about how none of us is really born or really dies. Instead, when conditions are ripe for us to appear, we appear. When they are ripe for us to disappear, we disappear. The monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in No Death, No Fear, tells a sweet story about a flower bush that usually blossomed in the spring. One winter, it was warmer than usual; the bush’s response was to bud early. But then there was frost, and the buds died. A few weeks later, the warm weather returned, bringing with it new buds. When he saw this, he asked the flowers, “Are you the same as the flowers that died in the frost, or are you different flowers?” The flowers responded that they aren’t the same but they aren’t really different either. When there was enough warmth and sun, they sprouted. When there wasn’t they went into hiding. It’s as simple as that.
A more mundane way to think about this appearing and nonappearing is to think about the television. If the set is off, the screen is blank. There appear to be no television programs in the room. But the room is actually chock-full of all kinds of signals, coming in through cables and even over the airwaves, which means that it takes only one more condition—pushing the “on” button—for, say, The Big Bang Theory to appear.
When we really let ourselves sink into this teaching a couple of things happen. First, it makes sense. Second, it can be deeply comforting. We start to understand how birth and death are really just an inadequate way to describe the moments we think of as bookending our lives. It’s the thinking that they are true that makes us so frightened of death. Instead, we start to understand, without strain, how we are our own parents and grandparents, and all of our ancestors—and our grandchildren and their grandchildren, through the long march of time. Pretty awesome.
So: conditions allowed for a sweet-faced kitten named Monkey to be born and then to grow old in a little hermitage where she was much loved. For her next manifestation maybe she’ll get to be someone’s puppy. Or, given her penchant for chatting, maybe she’ll make an appearance as a help-line support person sometime soon. Whatever happens, I know in my heart that she remains a part of everyone who was lucky enough to know and love her.
And while the conditions align for her next round on this world, whatever that may be, I’ll keep chanting, and Jeffrey, my partner, will keep watering her little memorial garden, and Bodhi the dog will keep curling up next to her favorite blanket until we’re also ready to move on to the next thing.
Maybe a puppy?
In 1999, Geri larkin founded Still Point Zen Budhist Temple, in Detroit, Michigan. Her latest book is Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.