October 6, 1999

The Dog In The Temple

In illustrating the urgency of attending to higher spiritual needs, Tibetan Buddhists never tire of telling the story of Atisha and the dog in the temple.

Atisha, also known as Dipamkara Srijnana, was an Indian monk and scholar who arrived in Tibet around the year 1038. He's credited with reintroducing Mahayana Buddhist texts, practices, and ethical principles to a region where Buddhism had been largely reabsorbed and rendered almost unrecognizable by Tibet's indigenous Bon religion and numerous shamanistic cults. Atisha, considered a reincarnation of Manjushri Bodhisattva, the Celestial Bodhisattva of Wisdom, founded the Kadampa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which around the beginning of the 15th century was reformed to become the ruling Gelugpa sect, over which the current Dalai Lama presides.

Atisha's writings and historical acts, however preserved in dubious texts and obscured by legend, are of special, renewed significance to the Gelugpas in exile today, faced as they are by the double task of restoring "true" Buddhism to Tibet after its dilution by over forty years of Chinese anti-religious propaganda and of carrying "true" Buddhism to the New Age barbarian hordes of the Western wastelands in which they have been forced to wander. Their task today is not very different than Atisha's almost a millennium ago, and they know it.

And all about the dog's history, contributions and reincarnations? Nothing more is known. Except that, in typical American fashion, some California Buddhist centers schedule a regular "Doggie Dharma Day" on which devotees bring their best friends to experience the teachings as best they can. The Gelugpas certainly have their work cut out for them.

In any event, here, at some length, is one of the Dalai Lama's retellings of the story of Atisha and the dog in the temple, from The Path to Enlightenment ( Snow Lion: Ithaca, New York, 1995, 35-36):

There is no realm of samsara where we have not taken birth, no samsaric pleasure we have not enjoyed and no form of life we have not known over our countless stream of previous lives. Yet even now as humans most of us are like blind animals, unable to discern the patterns of life unfolding within us, leaving spiritual aims behind and chasing only the biological and emotional needs of the senses. Totally unaware of the spiritual methods that produce everlasting joy, we admire the ignoble and have distaste for the noble. Rather than giving ourselves to vain and negative pursuits, we should take note of the words of the Kuntang Rinpochey: "Having found a rare and precious human rebirth, guard it with the stick of mindfulness. Stretch to the realm of liberation."

At this time when we have a human body and mind and have met with the profound teachings of the Great Way, we should take advantage of the opportunity and engage in spiritual methods. If we do not practice now while we have an incarnation most suitable to the attainment of enlightenment, what hope do we have for progress in the future? Many types of sentient beings, such as dogs and insects that live near a temple, meet with the teachings but, not having an appropriate physical or mental basis, they are unable to comprehend them or put them to use. No matter how much we love an animal, we are not able to teach it how to meditate and cultivate spiritual qualities. Whenever Atisha would meet a dog he would stroke it lovingly and whisper into its ear, "Because of your previous negative karmic actions you are now unable to practice the holy teachings." Atisha did not do this out of lack of compassion but because the dog lacked a basis capable of practice and he wished to lay an instinct of the teachings upon its mindstream.

OK. I confess. I am that dog.

You may think that's funny. But I don't....

Imagine my pain! Imagine my frustration and disappointment! Having finally, after nearly a millennium of wandering here and there, now and then, found this supposedly rare and precious human rebirth, it turns out to be America, the latter half of the twentieth century. What a waste. What horrors have I done to deserve this? I can only imagine.

Consider my noble instincts, the basic hunger for spiritual awakening that brought me here across centuries. And yet I was born into the shadow of Sputnik, my early formal education, emphasizing mathematics and the sciences, devoted to turning me out as another Cold War instrument of global nuclear destruction. And on the "spiritual" side, my unending misfortune continued. Imagine, I was early exposed only to the most whitewashed of Protestant christian-bush.html">christian-bush.html">Christianity, Presbyterianism. As a human child looking up to adults, what could I gather but that religion was something about dressing up in stiff clothing, being bored in a big woody place for an hour or so, and then having coffee and cake over the buzzing excitement of an exchange of business cards.

Recently, I reread the New Testament. I discovered that I was not far wrong as a child, that it was not just my parents' particular Presbyterian church but something older and deeper. Aside from the different and contradictory genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke , each designed to leverage "the asset" into then proper prophetic lineages, the most revelatory passage in my reading was the beginning of Acts 5:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back a part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet.

But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and later it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.

And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came unto all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, come in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.

Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried your husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.

Then she fell down straightaway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.

If only all business could be conducted so efficiently today, in an atmosphere of total terror backed by deadly invincible force. The exchange of business cards, what a true communion would that be then!

My apologies to the mere handful of genuine christian-bush.html">christian-bush.html">Christian souls on this planet. I don't know how you do it, manage to extract, isolate and live "Love thy neighbor as thyself" from buried within hundreds of pages of miracle worker ad copy. As for myself, I can be no more impressed by those than by Saytha Sai Baba's miracles today. Mind you, I'm not denying them on some materialistic, scientific basis. I'm just not impressed. And how could I be? My own long strange trip over the centuries seems perfectly ordinary to me, just a another dog's life, yet this endless, dizzying reincarnation of mine makes their best tricks look like, well, tricks, something to bedazzle ignorant masses adrift with them in samsara.

In any event, just thinking about the howling emptiness of it all is boring me to tears, and probably you too. I think we all need to curl up and take a good long nap. Perhaps when we next awaken I'll be able to tell you more, about what I learned in college and so on and on up to the very present of my travails in this wide wide wilderness. Or perhaps nothing. Perhaps another life. Perhaps, if I have a daughter, I'll name her Sapphira.

Until then....

Woof! Woof!

Now, doesn't that make you feel like barking back? Just a little bit?

We are all Atisha's dog.

Posted by rri

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