For anyone who has ever owned and loved a pet, losing an animal can be one of life’s most painful moments. My fondness wasn’t reserved for my own cockatiels or budgerigars. Many years ago when I was in primary school, what I thought was a fat, spotted pigeon (I must be vague about its specific species) would fly by our yard and forage for food on a specific clump of bark under the shade of a bush. Very soon that clump of bark became its own nest away from home, its very own resort. Every morning it came to nestle on its clump of bark, and every morning – usually about 7:30 – I would feed it before heading to school.
One sunny day I ran outside to greet my expected guest, and it was breathing shallowly, eyelids fluttering, body no longer able to completely support itself. I never knew if it was already an old bird, or if it had been ill. Despite its condition deteriorating, the plump pigeon persisted in coming to its nest, as it grew weaker each day. It finally died one morning as it sat on that clump of bark. I kept it company until its last peaceful moments were spent, stroking its feathers and scratching its face. I buried it underneath its favourite spot, marking its grave with two Paddle Pop sticks I tied together to make a cross. “Rest in peace, Furball”, it said.
I still remember very clearly that that was the time I started thinking about the afterlife – not for myself, but for Furball. Where had the adorably ugly bird gone? I didn’t learn about the Buddhadharma or read the Bible until many years after that, but losing Furball had planted new seeds of reflection in me. It would be some time before I studied religions at all, but I owe my later seeking in no small part to my affection for animals and my questions of where, if anywhere, do they go when they leave us.
It seemed like a logical question to ask, especially if all the great world faiths postulated an afterlife for human beings. From the outset I felt that it was mistaken and somewhat arrogant to accord homo sapiens privileged access to some state of beyond while denying the same thing to animals. As time went by, particularly after the deaths of other birds I raised during high school, I explored possible answers within different faith traditions. I was most inspired by those that did propose theological suggestions about the ultimate destiny of animals, particularly in the Dharmic traditions.
When I decided to become a Buddhist, I imagine a big part of the choice came from my firm conviction that if there is an afterlife of any sort, it won’t involve just one sub-species. It will encompass the entirety of sentience. And most crucially, an enlightened religion must articulate a vision of transcendence that all beings share an opportunity to enter –even if, in Buddhism, one can only do so through a human rebirth. To date I haven’t seen any pigeons meditating. Back then, it seemed to me that the Buddhist Vehicles were (and still are) theologically equipped to express a doctrine of universal liberation for all beings.
I believe this has some important consequences for animal lovers and environmentalists. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that my Buddhism informs my love of nature. It fires my concern about the Earth’s ecological problems and prompts my fears about biodiversity and environmental degradation. What can we do on our own and within our communities that can protect the extinction of beings with Buddha Nature?
It’s probably over-sentimental to accord a religious journey to Buddhism to an ugly bird called Furball. While I hope he leaves samsara as soon as possible, I’ll recognize an old friend when I see one. It would be nice to meet you again – just like when you flew by our garden every morning and came to nest on that small patch of bark, on which two ice pop sticks were tied together and lovingly erected in your memory.