It has been 13 years since my sweet pup’s passing. But the lessons continue to unfold, rippling out, concentric circles of love. His life was long and adventuresome, and his death remains a deep teaching. As I wrote in Dharma of Dogs (Sounds True 2017):
Upon the death of my dog Cosmo, I placed a takdrol, a sacred Tibetan amulet enabling liberation upon touch, made by my teacher, on the crown of his head. We performed a traditional Vajrayana Buddhist ceremony and tsok (feast) offering. Cosmo’s body was left undisturbed for three days as is traditionally done for human beings. The small, padded tentlike structure he had inhabited in the last weeks of his life was draped with khatas (white silk scarves), and his puppy pictures were surrounded by candles, incense, and rose petals. His brown, black, gold, and white fur remained soft and vibrant, his ears perked up. One afternoon 15 years earlier, I had driven to the animal shelter in Santa Fe to ‘just look around,’ having been warned by my partner that there was no such thing as browsing at the pound.
Shortly after the pandemic began, I, like so many others, quickly realized that I wanted to foster a dog. I contacted the local Humane Society, but they said that without the required home visit, now on hold, I could not foster or adopt an animal. I was so disappointed, both for myself, and for the dogs who I knew languished at the pound. Later, I learned that many pets adopted or fostered during those initial months were abandoned or returned when people’s lives returned to semi-normal. How tragic! A child is forever and I have always felt the same about animal companions.
As a kid, I had a close relationship with my parakeet for many long years. Then a Siamese cat, then my adored cocker spaniel, Kirby Maxwell. I also had a strong affection for wild animals: in the park, by the ocean, in the suburban yard. Animals are everywhere. In relation to pets, I often hear people lament that, because they live shorter lives than us, the pet’s eventual death gives them pause before taking one home. Fear of loss is a hindrance, and something we all must consider. But for me, especially as a Buddhist, it is not something to impede my close relations with the animal world.
I have counseled countless animal guardians through the death and dying process of their beloved pets. It is an honor and a privilege every time. My own dog’s passing was a turning point in my spiritual path, including the worry, grief, and feelings of helplessness. Because I lived in Buddhist community, his death was different than pets often experience. I had the clear guidance of my teacher, a supportive sangha, rural land to support his failing body, and the precious Buddhadharma to buoy us both and guide my decision-making.
Regarding death, there are no right answers. Life and death are a continuum in the Buddhist view, not two distinct states. One bardo gives way to the next. It is said that as soon as we are born, we begin dying. At present, I have a 100-year-old human relative. My college roommate died suddenly at 18 of an unknown heart defect. Life and death are both mysteries and yet ordinary. Every sentient being has their own journey’s karmic mysteries to unfold, through to the very end. And this “end” is a mere transition. Since my guidebook, Kindness for All Creatures, was published in 2019, I have received messages from readers about the positive impact my counsel on the death process has had for them and their pets. This brings me immense satisfaction and a sense of humility—to share my teachers’ wisdom and guidance on end-of-life matters and to truly be of service. One such anecdote was related to me secondhand, about a burly contractor who expressed feeling deeply moved by the death of his dog and supported by the book’s options for navigating an animal’s death. Time and again, people tell me they didn’t know there were options besides euthanasia.
Although euthanasia is quite common in the West, it is often unexamined. In our control- and fear-based secular, technological paradigm, there are other ways to midwife a creature from one life to the next. My humble wish is for more people to become aware of Buddhist approaches to natural death, in much the same way we attend to the human process of sloughing off this life into the next realm of being.
For humans, we manage pain, try to make a person comfortable, and keep them company through their dying process, attending to physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Why not the same for our nonhuman animal companions? One such way is through terminal sedation, as we do for humans on an increasing regimen or access to morphine. This is the way I let my sweet Cosmo go, slowly, more on his timeline than a sudden lethal, life-ending injection. Pet euthanasia has decreased over the last few decades, and some pet guardians are becoming more aware of and open to a wider understanding of what is possible.
With the public becoming more aware of the topic of animal euthanasia, legislatures could be forced to implement more detailed regulations for animal euthanasia. In addition, the more people are becoming aware of animal euthanasia, the greater there is a chance to reduce euthanasia rates through measures like increased animal sterilization, pet owner education, pet medical insurance, and microchipping.”(Animal Law Web Center)
This research pertains more to pets in shelters and to secular views, but I hope to educate more widely on this vital aspect of animal well-being through my writing and advocacy. As the “right to die” movement grows to advocate for humans—a controversial topic within Buddhist circles—wouldn’t logic follow that animals have a right to die on their own terms? Since we cannot ask their wishes and wants verbally, from a Buddhist perspective, we should respect their right to their own natural trajectory. We can reduce suffering, provide comfort and support, and let things take their course, by giving pain relief in place of sudden death.
Another topic rarely discussed is that euthanasia can be botched. I witnessed an instance of this myself at a reputable shelter. It was awful and agonizing, the opposite of what death—or pain management—should be.
All of our relations—animal, human, vegetable, and insect—have deep lessons to impart. Not only when youthful and robust, but during aging, illness, decay, and death, the realms of our relations are teaching by example. They also have an intrinsic right to their own ways and timelines. May we all deepen our listening and attending skills to embody a compassionate heart, full of wonder and curiosity, easing up on a false sense of “I know,” our defense mechanism for avoiding unknowns. Each of the vets I interviewed for my book agreed that euthanasia is to reduce the suffering of the humans involved first and foremost. The animal is secondary. I am not trying to convince anyone, merely to encourage people to expand their thinking.
I do still daydream about having a dog again, even two. I miss the canine guidance, to be honest. The daily reminders of how to be free, affectionate, and trusting. As soon as I have a place to live with a good-sized fenced yard, I will again invite puppy love into my life. In fact, I have never truly parted from the essence-of-dog, as I wrote in my remembrance of Cosmo:
When I feel most downtrodden and alone, if I fall asleep with a broken-open heart, Cosmo appears in my dreams as a puppy—playful, jubilant, beaming. He brought me so much joy, tenderness, and optimism, reminding me daily to tune in to my feelings and immediate needs, to prioritize smiling, laughing, and snuggling. I hope I can be as steady and graceful as my sweet pup in both life and dying. . . There are many deaths within one life and to find one’s true path requires renunciation of myriad outer attachments and reliance on one’s innermost heart as compass.(“Cosmo Perry” in Dharma of Dogs)
Beasley, Sarah C. 2017. “Cosmo Perry” in Dharma of Dogs. Tami Simon (ed). Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Overview of Animal Euthanasia (Animal Law Web Center)
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