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Taking Refuge in Cat Lady Bodhisattva

My next door neighbor is a self-described cat lady.  Depending on the time of year, she feeds anywhere from five to fifteen cats in our community.

The older, well-behaved felines sleep in her home at night before being let back out in the morning. 

For the rest, she leaves her garage door half open, so they can shelter from the heat and rain.

Her work is never-ending because there are many farm cats in my neighborhood.  They live in barns where the farm owner gives them just enough food and water to keep them from leaving.  

The cats make up the difference by eating mice, rats, squirrels, and anything else on four legs that might hurt the farmer's crops.

It's a symbiotic relationship that protects the farm's resources from vermin and gives the cats a safe place to sleep at night.  But it's not perfect.  Farm cats aren't considered pets.  So, farm owners don't bother to have them spayed or neutered.

So, dozens of kittens are born every few months when their parents go into heat.  The ones who survive go feral; leaving the barns and horse stalls of their youth to make a life of their own.  They're the castoffs, the runaways, the forgotten children of nowhere in particular.

Most of them don't survive.  They're shot for going after a farmer's chickens.  They're hit by cars.  Or they pick a fight with the wrong tom cat, and succumb to their injuries.  Such is life.

They ones that live, however, owe their survival to my kind, cat lady neighbor.  The small comforts that she provides keeps them going through the hot summers and cold winters until the time comes for them to pass into Nirvana.

I often think about my neighbor's work, and how it relates to the bodhisattva path.  In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who's realized full enlightenment, and chosen to remain in the cycle of suffering.  

The can leave whenever they want, but bodhisattvas choose to stay in this defiled world; helping those beings who'd be left behind.

They care for the castoffs, the runaways, and the forgotten children of no where in particular.

One example of a bodhisattva would be Jizo, a Buddhist monk who vowed to not achieve Buddhahood until all of the hells are emptied.  Thus, he's often referred to as the bodhisattva of hell-beings, and the protector of dead children.  

He carries a staff, which he uses to force open the gates of hell, and a wish-fulfilling jewel that lights the path in front of him.  Through his work, Jizo helps the denizens of hell gain merit, so they can be reborn in higher realms.

When we read about the vows, miracle-powers, and enlightenment of bodhisattvas like Jizo, it can be overwhelming; like watching Michael Jordan dunk a basketball when we're only five feet tall.  Sure, he can do it, but what does that mean for us?

But the Nirvana sutra teaches that the same Buddha-nature that lives in Jizo lives in us as well.  It may not be fully realized, but it's still there.  Thus, we too possess the power of a bodhisattva, the ability to save all beings from suffering.

My neighbor is an example of this.  I imagine the hungry cats that enter her garage feel like they're in hell.  They live a short, brutal life being chased by stray dogs and battered by heavy rains.  But Cat Lady bodhisattva uses what little she has to give them a piece of heaven.  She lets them experience kindness before their lives come to an end.

And while I find inspiration in the story of Jizo, its my neighbor who's taught me the most about bodhisattva work.  Each time she opens her garage, so the cats can come in, she shows how each of us can find goodness within ourselves and offer it up to the world.  

Through her actions, Cat Lady bodhisattva proves we don't need to be perfect, enlightened beings.  We just need to be compassionate.

Each of us can take responsibility for part of this world and keep it safe from harm.  Whether that's feeding the animals under our care, taking time to check-in on loved ones, or picking up litter in our communities we can live the bodhisattva vow in daily life.

We can save all beings from suffering.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Taking Refuge in Cat Lady Bodhisattva


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