Requiem for Buddha
by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2001, Tom Bentley




Sometimes it seems as though we know so little of what's at the core of our selves, and only an event of great moment brings that core to the surface--where it's something of a surprise to encounter it, and know it as your own. My cat was killed by a moving car in front of our house yesterday morning. His death pulled so sharply at my core that I can barely catch my breath; the rich vein of sorrow that was pricked seems like a fountain that won't stop gushing.

I heard my girlfriend Alice scream from the driveway and rushed out to hear her say, "Buddha's been hit by a car and killed!" while she pointed to the road just feet away. When I turned to the road and saw his splayed, inert body, I made a sound I'd never heard, a sound I didn't know I could make. It was a broken, strangled scream, a weird yelping wail, followed by a succession of "no, no, nos."

But it was yes. He was dead, hit by a car just a moment before. His little frame was stretched up the small hill, where our house is perched on a narrow country road. I could only look at him for a moment before I turned to Alice to sob with her in her arms. Not long after, I wrapped him in a colorful scarf. He was still soft and warm; his essence had barely left his body. We buried him that morning, his body accompanied by some wildflower seeds and his toys, so that the dark hole wouldn't seem so forbidding.

Pets can engage your emotions in so many ways: living things themselves, their whole vitality at times seems directed solely at captivating you, connecting to you in their particular animal ways. It's such a shock for them to die, for their innocent affection towards you is so flattering, so welcome at some direct level. It's wounding to give up the reward of their affection.

And it's not simply that pets often display an unselfish love for their owners--it's that this attractive quality is compounded by the full exposure of their consciousness. Closely observing an animal that you know can be very revealing, for you can see an emotional range: peevishness, insecurity and dismay, as well as highly developed senses of humor and farce. It's easy to go overboard with anthropomorphizing, attributing highly subtle emotions to your household creatures, but any close observation will reveal that animals have layers of character, substance of feelings.

Buddha was still a kitten, only nine months old, so his limbs were still filled with fire--he'd rush up the trunk of a tree, and be shocked to find himself in the branches. He was a full participant in a game we'd play, where I'd charge up our hallway and peek out of a doorway at one end, and he'd peek out from one at the other. Then we'd reverse places in mock pursuit, and seem to have the same level of amusement in the game.

He was handsome, supple and lean, with a smoky coat and subtle grey stripes. It was a pleasure to watch and participate in his mad rompings, for they exhibited his essential catness, his cool dignity quickly punctured by a silly pratfall in reaching for some precarious object he'd never encountered before. Animals can weave a comic spell; the depth of that spell is only revealed in its extinction.

I work at home, so I could see very clearly how he'd spend his days, dividing time for outside romps, food breaks, play breaks and accomplished bouts of napping. Our schedules meshed pretty well, and when Alice would arrive home, he'd jaunt up to the door to see what she was about and to welcome her back into our world. It's been a mere two days, but it does seem as though that world has irrevocably changed. Life brings light; its counterpart so often brings darkness.

We had carefully introduced him to the yard and the road over time, and I thought he had shown a fair amount of caution towards the movement of cars. But the lingering voice of paranoia whispered to me that the road would be his undoing. I'm going to have to work out the feeling that I failed him, that I failed to protect him when he needed me most. But that's got some kind of self-directed grandiosity in it, a wallowing, an investment of my weight in this picture, when it's simply one of those blows that are dealt freely, and without prejudice, by existence.

The depth of my anguish has taken me by surprise and made me consider: how can a parent ever lose a child? Here I am completely unstrung at the death of my cat--what chance does a mother or father have in coping with the cruelties of that kind of loss? Your mind casts about for an explanation, a cause, but there's nothing, just life's randomness, neither cruel nor kind. I want to rail at the last two days, because they have been sunny and beautiful, a seeming mockery of my hurt feelings. But they are just days, and more like them will follow.

There's an old Zen koan that I've smiled over before: does a cat have Buddha nature? I don't know the answer, but for me, the question is compelling in this context. Many of the tenets of Buddhism have to do with understanding that life is suffering, and that "Renunciation isn't the giving up of the things of this world, it's knowing that they go away." I know that I don't have Buddha nature; right now I can't accept that Buddha has gone away.

It's the finality of it that's unbelievable, the finality of the cold ground. Life's voice crackles with electricity; death's voice is silent. This dull, hollow feeling that marks his passing is blunt loneliness, my life calling out to a life gone. Buddha will always be a kitten now, fixed in memory, and whether this was his first life or his ninth, I know I won't see his happy face again. I was eagerly anticipating the cat he might become.

But even through tears, I can see that some things are precious. It's easy to dismiss peoples' love for their animals as just weak sentiment. But I think it's a measure of our higher connections with life. Watch for those creatures crossing the road.

Farewell my friend. Godspeed.