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3 Buddhist Lessons From a Zen Cat

The more I walk this spiritual path, the more I realize that literally everyone is a Zen teacher. That is to say, every interaction we have with another living being is a chance to learn something more about Buddhist practice. 

Lately, I've been learning a great deal from a Zen master named Enso, who recently came into my life.  Enso is a cat, but that doesn't stop his teachings from coming across loud and clear. In fact, in the month that he's been with me I've learned the following:

Act Boldly

Enso was a stray when he came into my life. It was 40 degrees outside, and my room mate had just finished walking his dog. As they were coming inside, Enso decided to introduce himself. He and Roxie, the dog, played for a bit, and when Roxie came inside the house... Enso came with her!  He's been making himself at home ever since.

I don't know what he was thinking when Enso walked into both my house and my heart.  But I'm guessing it was fairly straight-forward.  He was lonely, so he made friends with a dog that happened to be nearby.  He was cold, so he walked into a warm house.  He didn't waste time worrying about "what ifs" or pondering worst-case scenarios. In typical Zen master-fashion, Enso saw a problem, and he cut directly to the solution.

In life, we are faced with decisions every day that require quick, decisive action. And we're rarely given the opportunity to sit quietly for a moment and weigh the pros and cons. Rather, like a cat who's stuck outside on a cold night, we must act intuitively, and trust ourselves to work with whatever life throws our way.  There is no time for fear.  When opportunity presents itself we must act boldly!

Live Fully

One of the things that stuck me early on about Enso is how he eats. He doesn't simply eat his food, so much as he attacks it.  The entire world drops away, and his entire focus is on consuming his meal as quickly and efficiently as possible. Afterwards, he returns to the bowl several times to check for any stray morsels that may have been missed previously.

However, Enso's single-pointed concentration doesn't end there. I've noticed that he gives the same attention to detail when he uses the litter box. First he inspects the container to make sure nothing is out of place.  He sniffs around and visually checks both the inside and the outside of the box. 

Then he makes an artful leap inside, and begins pawing at the litter to ensure his deposit is made at just the right spot. Finally, Enso turns his face to the wall like a good Zen practitioner and does what he came to do.  It's all very ceremonial, in a cat-like sort of way. His kitty mother must be proud

What strikes me about Enso's behavior, however, isn't the fact that he eats and empties his bowels.  Rather it's how he does these things. Every meal is treated like it's the last one he'll have on this earth, and every trip to the litter box is done with the decorum of a royal wedding.

This reminds me of a quote that's attributed to Layman Pang, a lay Buddhist who lived in 8th century China.  He described his way of the Buddha by stating:

"How miraculous and wondrous, hauling water and carrying firewood!"

In other worlds, Pang saw ordinary, everyday activities as a wondrous, and he treated them as such.  When he hauled water, he just hauled water. When he chopped wood, he only chopped wood to the exclusion of all other things. He devoted himself 100% to everything that he did, because he knew that everything he did was special.

I'm convinced that Enso thinks in much the same way.

Be Content

As much as I love my cat, I honestly haven't given him much. He gets two square meals a day, a clean litter-box, and lots cuddles when he's in the mood. But that's it. He doesn't play with the expensive toys that I bought him, and he isn't all that crazy about catnip. Instead, Enso is perfectly happy with spending his days staring out the windows and attacking my shoelaces.

If we're being honest, I'm a little envious of him.  How much simpler would life be if people were content with the little things in life. How much calmer would my life become if my desires were limited to food, water, shelter, and the occasional bit of affection?

To that point, the Zen masters of old used to caution their students against the use of a luxurious bed. It was believed that two much comfort would distract from practice, and lead to increasingly extravagant desires (e.g. a nice bed, requires nice sheets, which have to match curtains, etc.)

Enso sleeps in my bed most nights, but he definitely got the memo about keeping it simple. I marvel at the level of contentment and quite joy he garners from ordinary life. And I strive to emulate it each day in my practice

There is an old saying which states, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." Truer words were never spoken.  As I continue to practice, I learn that life is constantly presenting me with unexpected teachers to help me along the path; such is the case with Enso.

In the past, students honored their Zen teacher with gifts of food or money in exchange for the Dharma. But Enso doesn't have a begging bowl, so he'll have to settle for lots of belly rubs instead.

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Buddhist Lessons From a Zen Cat


  1. Cats are wonderful creatures. It's said that dogs do things on your terms... cats do things on theirs. :) If you can see clear to do so, maybe take Enso for a little checkup at the vet's office. He's probably never had that luxury either. Enjoy the new "teacher" in your household. Blessings~ Andrea

  2. I love this post. So funny! We just adopted a ginger Tom who looks identical and his name....Ensō! He’s 7 months old now and a joy to watch. Blessings. — Marianne


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