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If you were asked, “Who would you save if you could only save one: your pet or a stranger?” would you struggle with what to say.
We love our pets. Psychology professor Hal Herzog writes that newspaper stories on animal abuse often generate much more reader response than stories about violence toward human beings. Sites like doesthedogdie.com tell us which films have a canine death scene in case we want to sidestep the heartache.
Our love for our pets comes from a deep place. Dogs, for example, have evolved together with humans for close to 15,000 years. As a result, dogs are deeply sensitive and in tune with human social cues expressed by our eye contact and hand gestures.
While our pets typically depend on us to be fed, bathed and exercised, our pets too can contribute greatly to our well-being. Psychologist Jason N. Linder wrote about recent research that found that pet owners were significantly less depressed than non-pet owners during the pandemic. Both individuals and families with dogs reported more positivity, less isolation and more social support, the study showed.
Buddhism is all about respecting and treasuring life, including the life of our pets. However, if you have difficulty answering the question “Who would you save: your pet or a stranger?” it might have less to do with your feeling toward Fluffy and speak more about how hard it is to treasure and respect other people, especially those in our immediate environment.
Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda writes:
It is easy to speak abstractly of love for one’s fellow human beings or love for humanity, but it can be very challenging to have love and compassion for actual individuals. A character in one of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels observes: “The more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons.”
Linder echos how humans are often more difficult to love and respect than pets: “Pets don’t have ulterior motives. They won’t try to get something from you (besides love, attention, play, time outside or food) or gaslight you. They won’t ever abandon you to go to their friend’s party instead of spending time with you. … Pets understand us non-verbally. They’re in sync with us emotionally and aren’t distracted by the words and other complexities or nuances in human relationships.”
Why is it hard to value other people like we do our pets? It’s easy to blame it on the faults we find in others, however, Buddhism teaches that having a big enough heart to embrace other people, shortcomings and all, is proof of our humanity.
Buddhism teaches that having a big enough heart to embrace other people, shortcomings and all, is proof of our humanity.
The Lotus Sutra depicts a person named Bodhisattva Never Disparaging who greets each person he meets by saying, “I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance” (The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 308.) Though Bodhisattva Never Disparaging is laughed at and chased with sticks, he continues to bow to each person showing them the utmost respect. The 13th-century Buddhist teacher Nichiren Daishonin writes of this, “The heart of the Buddha’s lifetime of teachings is the Lotus Sutra, and the heart of the practice of the Lotus Sutra is found in the ‘[Bodhisattva] Never Disparaging’ chapter” (The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, pp. 851–52).
Daisaku Ikeda elaborates:
The behavior of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging is based on his conviction that all living beings are noble because they possess the Buddha nature. By revealing their Buddha nature—the universal nobility or dignity inherent within them—any and every individual can open the way to an unparalleled life.
The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace, part 2 revised edition, pp. 240–41
Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the title of the Lotus Sutra, inspires within us respect and compassion for the people around us, even when they work our last nerve. We can find at least one thing we truly respect or appreciate about them. The more we chant, the more compassion and wisdom we develop to see where someone is coming from and develop a big heart to embrace them. We don’t need to unsee their faults but instead have faith in their inherent Buddhahood.
Often how we see others is colored by how we feel inside. We may struggle to have confidence around people who seem more accomplished than us. Or we may find it hard to muster the courage to say what needs to be said to a close friend but rather avoid them altogether. As we chant and develop genuine belief in ourselves, we overcome these pitfalls and become people who can create genuine harmony with those around us.
Also, interestingly, the more we strive to respect others for who they are, the more others respect us. Daisaku Ikeda writes:
Believing in others’ Buddha nature, we respect and treasure them from the bottom of our hearts. When we treat others in this manner, the Buddha nature within them responds, on a fundamental level, with respect toward us in return. Broadly speaking, when we interact with others with true sincerity, more often than not they will come to respect and value us as well. And this is all the more so when our actions are based on prayer—chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Conversely, denigrating others only leads to being denigrated oneself. And those whose lives are tainted by feelings of hate toward others will come to be reviled by others in turn.
WCHP, part 2, revised edition, p. 233
So even if we’d rather watch TV with our pet iguana than spend lunch with an annoying uncle or classmate, it’s the people around us that give us the chance to polish our humanity. And become even better pet owners too.