Edit: We have since lost Tiger to a blood clot in his leg that paralyzed his hind legs and slowly killed him before we euthanized him. I'll miss him, but I may comment in a future post about how our stray cat, Whiney, has improved my Buddhist practice in his own way.
Our present household has three cats, each of which I have a decent analysis of their personality. Cat personality at first glance seems to be a contradiction, since cats are essentially non human and thus have little potential to manifest what we’d term personality traits. But part of this difficulty comes through our regarding our pets as sources of amusement or distraction as opposed to companionship. When cats are observed as human companions, they have shared traits of behavior and approaches to their environment, and in this way there is what one can call a pet personality. Here’s the first link that gave me some insight into this apparently underrated topic in veterinary studies.
The title of the post may still confuse you, and that’s because I haven’t explained what the connection between cats and Zen is. While my knowledge of Buddhism is limited, even Zen, of which I probably possess ten or more texts of koans and the like, there are things that my cats make me realize as I observe them on a daily basis and seek more wisdom in Zen proverbs. This is actually something I only recently started doing in the free time I possess now that I’ve finished college and am working towards graduate school in the future. Each cat presents a certain facet of Zen teaching that I’ve discovered over time and these will be explained in the concluding points of each cat’s so called biography.
The oldest, to my knowledge, is Tiger, who is my younger brother’s cat. He is more than likely tied with the spot for the oldest with his cousin, Rachel, but we’ll get to her soon enough. At first glance, you would probably think he’s older. This is no coincidence, since he’s been exposed to the most in his life. First off, he was always the cat that was always outside and into things, exploring the yard, keeping up with all manner of pests and maintaining a perimeter of sorts. Although this by no means makes him what one would call the Alpha cat, who is the one at the top of the proverbial cat hierarchy. Tiger actually left the household for a significant period of time after we recently moved. And after returning, he has become a primarily outside cat, coming inside for limited periods of time. This is what I mean by his larger pool of experience. Though even as a cat that was a consistent part of the household, he was more at home outside. And as befitting what I’d say is a Gamma personality, he maintains an aloofness you don’t see as much in our other cats. With Tiger, the Zen property I find manifest in him would be tentatively called contemplation. When you see Tiger, he is actually commonly sleeping, which is a common trait of cats. But in his waking moments, he has a lingering suspicion about everything. Even with people like my family he trusts, there is a slow adjustment and not an immediate clinging. He slowly approaches you and is not one for being a lap cat, unlike the youngest cat. A direct connection to Zen with cats at present may be impossible, but with Tiger there is a distinct sense of his having experienced harsh reality and affirming a tenet of suspicion with a willingness to adjust, which he has over time done in his readjustment.
Rachel is our second cat within the hierarchy, and unlike Tiger, could be said to be very much in the middle, whereas Tiger is on the bottom, which he doesn’t mind. Rachel, being within the middle, is (ironically?) the heaviest of our cats, and this is due to a combination of factors, one of which may be the fact that she had kittens and they were systematically given away. There is a thesis among our household that due to this shock and trauma, she has given herself to eating more and more to fill a void of sorts. This also may be due to her general attachment to the house itself as a place that is safe. Her cat type is tentatively Beta, though she may also be a Gamma in some respects. Her Beta status is bestowed by my analysis that she is the mediator and general speaker for the other cats, though not necessarily in the audible sense. Our most vocal cat is the last of the three. Rachel possesses an equanimity that is belied by her insistence that you do not pick her up. Though that is a hard task as she weighs around 18 pounds. If you observe her interactions with our other cats, she is very unassuming. She isn’t too inquisitive or affectionate, but she isn’t one who hides away from the family either. She has points where she will have alone time, but there are also points of interaction with the family and the cats as well. None of our cats are very outgoing in terms of visitors, though, and will hide at the first sign of children or other intruders that they don’t recognize, and this is more than likely a flaw of their personalities or environment. But I’m hardly qualified to speak more than theoretically on these points, so on to Rachel’s Zen quality. If Rachel demonstrates anything best, it is a sense of compassion and human love. She is never one to be especially put off by even pulling her tail unless it becomes especially harsh. If she interacted with children (which she hasn’t to my knowledge) she could probably take some of their less than gentle treatment of her body. But if you meet her and she trusts you enough, she shows a trait rarely seen in humans to the same extent. She desires affection and will return it back to you as well with the cat headbutt that in her case can be surprisingly tough. This connects with Zen in the willingness to go outside the monastery, to interact with everyone and exhibit traits of the bodhisattva, one who has achieved enlightenment and postpones it to help others achieve liberation as well. Rachel similarly tries her best to be as friendly as a cat can be with everyone, including my grandparents when they come to visit, which is more than I can say for Tiger or Miss Kitty.
Miss Kitty is the last cat and the one I have the most experience with recently, since she has become particularly attached to me. This is not only because I’m home more than usual, but also due to an incident where she was anesthetized for a point and after recovering, she stumbled into my room and found someone who wasn’t too busy or too loud and just let her lay awkwardly and adjust to getting over the imbalance, which manifest acutely as she tried to jump on the bed and got halfway up, falling back on the ground. She’s quite fine in terms of jumping to places nowadays though. Since I got my new bookcase, she has taken it upon herself to get up as high as possible, which luckily is only the 3rd of 5 levels. My other family can attest that she is a very curious and inquisitive cat. She’s the first to smell new things as we bring them in the house and with at least my mother and I, is especially protective. Though this is not to say she isn’t like most cats, since she’ll just as easily leave without warning and go somewhere else. But as what I would describe as a definite Alpha cat personality, she is the dominant cat. Which is ironic, since she’s the smallest cat and it seems she will maintain the size that is her blessing and curse: a blessing in that she can jump higher and hide in smaller places, but a curse in that children are able to pick her up with relative ease. I would say her Zen trait is harder to place, but it definitely comes out in her nonchalance towards human expectations. She will be considerate to people when they are in need of cat comforts, but then will just as soon leave when she knows she is no longer needed. Like Zen koans and masters, she is equally unconventional in her methods of teaching.
While none of these cats are particularly good Buddhists, it is a general theme in Buddhist proverbs to use examples in nature to demonstrate a point of the Dharma and our cats are no exception. Until next time, Namaste and aloha