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Meditation Over a Kitten: Transcendence from Where We Are

hen we talk about Buddhist practices, we think of seated meditation, reciting mantras, prostrating in front of Buddha statues, or pilgrimages. These all require deliberate efforts to get away from the quotidian and are why many find spiritual practices elusive and disconnected from the lives we are living. However, this does not have to be the case. In fact, we can still transcend ourselves while staying where we are at the moment.

Someone once asked Venerable Miaojiang at Mount Wutai: “Do you practice seated meditation every evening?” The master responded: “One can meditate not only while seated, but also while sleeping. If you enjoy a good night’s sleep with calm and ease, or dream about the red Sun, glowing Moon, bright stars, white clouds, clear waters, that is also meditation.” Such a response was not meant to prescribe another type of meditation, rather it illuminates that the truth of meditation is not confined to any specific time of day or body posture, but can be accessed and integrated into daily life. In fact, all Buddhist practices are intended to lead us from chaos to stillness, from worries to calmness, from darkness to brightness, and from ignorance to wisdom.

Chaton playing with her favorite toy. Image courtesy of the author

I certainly could not sleep well last month. Because I bought a kitten. I like dogs and cats, but I was never a pet person—until around 2019, when I had the sudden urge to own a cat. Perhaps because more and more people around me were also getting cats as pets, and because cat videos were therapeutic and viral. However, at that time I lived in a 30th floor apartment with a balcony, which prevented me from pursuing the idea. Recently, after some traveling and lengthy hotel quarantines, I finally settled in at a new place and the idea returned to haunt me. So I made a zippy purchase from a pet shop. I had also considered adoption, and indeed browsed the websites of some local animal protection organizations, but I could not find the particular breed that I was looking for. For my first cat, full ownership sounded much more attractive. Also, many animals at shelters have previous physical or mental traumas and I was not sure whether I could handle that.

So Chaton, my cute little kitten, is a silver-shaded British shorthair, which are supposed to have a friendly and affectionate personality. However, once I took her home, she started to develop a series of health issues in the first week in her new environment. It is possible that she was taken away from her mother earlier than she should have been, which I later learned has become a common practice in the pet industry for maximizing profit. While I was told that her problems were typical among kittens in the process of building up their immune system, they seemed daunting to me as a green caregiver. The most difficult and frustrating period was when she had to wear a cone to prevent her from touching her infected eye. The poor baby must have been scared to wear that strange object in a strange new home, stuck with a stranger who did not even know how to properly hold a cat. She would stare at me with flattened ears, and even scratch and attack me while I was trying to administer her eye drops.

This situation continued for a few days, and at one point the idea of giving Chaton away flashed across my mind. I had never spent so much time, energy, and thought on another living being; making sure that she had the right food to eat; fresh, clean water to drink, good ventilation, blankets to keep warm, and lots of toys to stay entertained . . . I also took her to different vets to ensure that everything was okay. The first vet we saw was so irresponsible. He performed unnecessary and intrusive tests, prescribed many medicines, and made a misdiagnosis. Absolutely terrified and exhausted, Chaton slept the whole day after the visit. I burst into tears and promised her I would take care of her no matter what happened. I even killed mosquitos for her, which I usually refrain from doing so as not to create negative karma for myself. After all my efforts, did I deserve these bleeding wounds? I felt so deflated and started to question my ability to raise a cat.

Wheel of Existence, Tibet, 20th Century.
Pigment on cloth, Rubin Museum of Art

I felt within me the “three poisons,” desire, aversion, and ignorance, the root causes of suffering according to the Buddhist teachings. In Buddhist art, they are depicted at the centre of the Wheel of Existence, represented by a rooster, a snake, and a pig in a circle, each biting the tail of the other. Under the influence of the three poisons we accumulate merits or demerits, and thus are reborn into one of the Six Realms of gods, humans, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings, depicted in an outer circle. The outermost circle depicts the “12 links of interdependent origination,” which elucidates the arising of suffering and thus the cycle of rebirth: ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, sensation, desire, grasping, becoming, rebirth, old age, and death. For spiritual transcendence and ultimate liberation, we can reflect on any of the links and reverse the suffering.

In my case, I realized that my craving (desire) to own (grasping) a cat was under the influence of consumerism in the pet industry, rather than an appreciative understanding of felines (ignorance). Moreover, my motive was selfish: to have a sweet pet in my lap without going to too much effort. As a result, I created so much suffering for myself and perhaps for Chaton too.

Nevertheless, such realization is not to inflict disillusionment or self-criticism. Rather, it evokes deep insight into our conditions of existence and deep compassion for others and ourselves. I was so lucky to have the kindest people around me throughout this process. The second vet taught me how to make a lightweight cone with a transparent plastic folder at no charge; a friend who has kept a cat for 10 years visits me regularly helping me wash Chaton’s ears and trim her nails; my dance teacher brought Chaton a new toy; not to mention my family and good friends who gave me moral support online.

I have been learning a lot about cats, their nature, behavior, and how to interact with them. I have also forgiven Chaton’s past aggression, which was simply caused by stress, her predator instinct, and perhaps worms in her body. As Chaton recovers and I become better at taking care of her, we also bonded quickly. She would purr when I held her in my arms and give her eyedrops, reach up and touch my nose, and knead my blankets. Feeding her, playing with her, scooping her litter box, these become daily spiritual practices, just like sweeping fallen leaves in a Chan Monastery.

Chaton gazing into a sunbeam. Image courtesy of the author

As a kitten, Chaton would spend 30 minutes chasing after and biting her own tail. I laughed, and I know that I am no different. We are both frightened, wounded, and ignorant little creatures trapped in the cycle of rebirth, who met through inexplicable karmic connections from previous lives. I want to thank her for keeping me company in this crazy world, despite my human frailty as a pet owner. While the direction of transcendence seems straightforward, the path is full of obstacles. We go up and down, back and forth, but I say to Chaton and myself: I will take good care of you.

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