Buddhism, Taming the Wild Child: Save the animal, not the wild…

img_2116“…the animals I’ve trapped/Have all become my pets/And I’m living off of grass/And the drippings from the ceiling/But it’s okay to eat fish/’Cause they don’t have any feelings–Kurt Cobain, ‘Something in the Way’

And that’s about right, I’d say. But a tamed animal, a mammal—especially cats and dogs—are nothing BUT feelings, it seems to me, having long ago lost their wildness and their feral instincts, on some cold dark night way back when it was far preferable to cultivate humans as masters, in exchange for security alarm services, rather than toughing it out in the wild with wolves and foxes and other lower uncivilized breeds…

But we Westerners, Americans especially, are so in love with the wild, and the wilderness, or at least our romantic conception of it, that we go to great and elaborate expense to ‘reintroduce’ those other lower species that we once hunted or otherwise annihilated, i.e. ‘extirpated’ to near or even complete extinction…

Simg_1915o what good purpose does this serve? Perhaps many, including pest control, but I suspect it eases our consciences more than anything else, and promotes our fantasy that all is well with the world—yeah, right—if only we take the time to patch up and plaster over our pesky little psychoses…

But there’s another possibility in our romantic nostalgia-drenched culture, that we’re merely indulging our fantasy of ‘everything-ness’: we want it all, even when the suggested rewards are mutually incompatible. For example, we despise violence in our cities, but we love it in our wilderness. That is the definition of wilderness, after all, isn’t it? Now I love animals, too, but has anyone ever considered the opposite option—tameness? Has anyone ever considered the possibility of making the world one big zoo?

Parts of Africa are almost like that, where you can see representatives of the ‘Big 5’ with regularity at many national reserves, and even more of the less glamorous also-ran next ten—wildebeest, hyenas, various cats and canines. But those aren’t tame, of course, just merely constrained, and that ain’t exactly the same…

Planet of the Pets

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the only evidence of our civilization are the pets we leave behind? ‘Planet of the Dogs’, maybe, or ‘Civilization of Cats’? I can see a sequel already, future cosmonaut archaeologists scratching their heads, while dogs juggle their balls, lords of it all, with nary a human in sight. But seriously, doesn’t it seem sometimes like our pets reflect our best attributes, that they’re almost more ‘human’ than we humans ourselves?

A dog in Ulcinj, Montenegro, almost seemed like he was there waiting for me, when I got off the bus at 5:00 a.m. in the morning, after an all-night ride from Pristina, Kosovo. It was a long night up through the mountains on the border with Montenegro, snow falling and road plows steadily clearing the asphalt…

But that dog was there waiting for me, down on the coast, ready to take me on a tour of the town, as if we were long-lost friends, like he hated to see me go. The puppy in Valdivia, Chile, a few months before, really DID hate to see me go. He ran up to greet me on the docks that day, like he’d planned it just that way. So we hung out a while. Then I tried to explain to him that I just wasn’t in a position to take on family at that point, but he wasn’t having it. He looked betrayed…

The dogs at Mahasi Monastery in Yangon, Myanmar, last winter were three brothers, all exactly the same, in every way. I wanted a picture of them, so somehow got the inspiration to mix them up , in some weird Korean-style yin-yang-yung mash-up, of mock anger. They must have liked that, because every time I saw them after that, they were mixing it up like that, fighting mad. Then I finally realized those dogs at Mahasi were fighting for my benefit. Left to themselves, they never fought at all!!! 

So what if the entire world were one big petting zoo? We love our animals more than our neighbors, these days, don’t we? As people grow farther and farther apart from each other, it seems we grow closer and closer to our pets. Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world housed our pets?

It’s only a fantasy, of course, but maybe as good or better than our fantasy of wilderness, which is a fantasy of a romantic past mostly, now, isn’t it? I prefer future fantasies, and it’s not entirely impossible. Animals that are raised together, without parents to ‘guide’ them, have no animosity to each other—and that’s a fact, regardless of species or breed…

And it suggests that humans might be the same—that violence is learned. And this is what Buddhism does for us, ‘unlearning’ us of all the civilization that’s become of us, ‘getting and spending’ and ‘lay(ing) waste our powers’ (Wordsworth). The mind, after all, is like a child, in Buddhist doctrine, and without discipline, soon to go astray…

So not only might there be something called ‘basic human nature’, but it might just be good. So the lion might not just be able to lie down with the lamb, but we might be able to lie down with them, too—cool. So what will that future cosmonaut think when he sees a planet of dogs running through the ruins? “Very clever creatures…”

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