For the past few weeks, we’ve been entertained almost every day by a family of raccoons: a mother and five cubs.
The cubs are SO cute! They climb the chicken wire enclosure where the guinea hens used to live, engage in wrestling matches, and wreak general, adorable havoc on the property, as mom looks on to make sure they stay safe. Early one morning one of the cubs picked a green tomato (our only food crop, aside from a few herbs), and one of the retreatants, who happened to be outdoors just before the 6:00 a.m. chanting, hissed at it to discourage further destruction. It hissed back nonchalantly, and carried on.
The other morning, in pre-dawn twilight, I was out on the front porch enjoying a brief break in the summer heat, when suddenly one of the cedar trees that line the maroon fence waved at me! Astonished, I kept my eyes on the tree…and it waved again! Then I noticed a pair of bright eyes near the top of the tree, and another pair on the waving arm. It was still waving when I had to go back inside.
Observing the raccoon cubs’ antics, it is easy to forget a key downside to the animal realm, but sooner or later, there is always a reminder. One day last week, the birdhouse near the guinea hen coop had its top open, and there were telltale feathers.
Usually when there is evidence of predation, it is left behind by our resident cat, Dee Dee. But prying open the top of a birdhouse is a bit beyond her capabilities. Darn those cute raccoons.
And that Dee Dee! Her full name is Dun Drup, which in Tibetan means “Goal Accomplisher.” She is an ace hunter, and we frequently stumble upon her victims, dead, mortally wounded, or merely terrified. Occasionally we can intervene in the nick of time, but usually all we can do is dispose of the remains and say a few prayers.
Dee Dee is a poster child for the paradox of cyclic existence. She is absolutely the world’s most lovable cat. She lends herself to almost any sort of contact with humans. You can pick her up, rub her belly, scratch her head, squeeze her, turn her upside down, play her like an accordion, or carry her in your arms as you circumambulate the house. She is a perpetual purr machine. They don’t come any cuter than Dee Dee.
Unless, of course, you are a mouse or chipmunk or vole or sparrow or, the worst case so far in retreat, a pair mourning doves. The Dreaded Dee Dee is a certified mass murderer. She revels in the sheer joy of killing. She is also convinced, despite all our scolding, that her deadly sprees contribute to the household larder. There seems to be no way to discourage her.
Why do we keep a cat? In a word: rodents. Why don’t keep her indoors all the time? Eight residents and four doors, versus a cunning, one-pointed feline brain. But even if we kept our personal hands clean of murderous felines, there are billions more where she came from.
We do our best to make sure she is in at night—not only to protect others, but also to save our sweet kitty from a similar fate at the hands of one of the local coyotes. What goes around comes around: that is the law of karma, cause and effect. Dee Dee is headed for a gruesome fate, whether or not it is the way this particular life ends for her. In fact, her victims are paying off their own karmic debts, according to the Buddha’s teaching. Even in this lifetime, some of them were terrifying predators a little further down the food chain.
If you are expecting me to attempt to tie this up into any perspective that makes sense within the context of life as we know it, forget it. It’s a mess! When things are going well and we’re not confronted with the direct evidence—if our cat hasn’t brought in a bluebird lately, and no one close to us has died or received a devastating diagnosis, and we haven’t lost our job or been hounded to the brink by paparazzi—it’s easy to forget what a whirlpool of confusion and vale of tears we really inhabit. For awhile. And when bad things do happen, we can never ultimately sort out who’s to blame. There’s always another layer to it, if we dare to look, and eventually our analysis just hits a wall.
When the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001 along with thousands of ordinary citizens going about their daily routines, we were horrified. KTC monastery is within commuting distance of New York City, and some of our members knew victims, or were even there. But when we prayed for the victims, we also prayed for the killers. According to the Buddha, people (and animals) do terrible things out of ignorance, thinking they are doing something else entirely, often quite oblivious to the heinous nature of their acts or the suffering they cause. They are busy focusing, as we all do at least most of the time, on another part of the picture: their own goals and their own immediate happiness. And they will pay dearly for it in the end. Just like lovable Dee Dee, and those adorable raccoons.
But wait—that’s not all! The truth that life as we know it is laced with suffering is just the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, his nutshell description of the way things look to a fully awakened mind. The other three truths are all good news: the truth of origination (the mayhem has a cause), the truth of cessation (the mayhem can be ended), and the truth of the path (the complete, step-by-step how-to manual). The raccoon story, and everybody else’s, can have a happy ending. All we have to do is get to work.