A GOOD FRIEND GONE
Badger: April 1984 - June 12, 2001
Badger, the big, handsome Australian Shepherd who lived at Heartland Temple in Omaha for many years, died June 2001. He was seventeen years old.
For a dog Badger’s size -- he weighed ninety-five pounds – seventeen years is an exceptionally long life. Every veterinarian who treated him in his later years was amazed that a dog his size had lived past ten. Badger was exceptionally strong, however; he had a big heart, and it sustained him for seventeen years until it finally gave out the evening of June 12th. He was a good and loyal friend over many years, and I’ll miss him.
We were in the middle of our annual, month-long Prairie Wind practice period at Deep Spring Temple near Pittsburgh, where Badger had been living for the past couple of years. He had moved to the area with Rev. Kyoki Roberts when she left Heartland Temple in Omaha in the Fall of 1998. Near suppertime on a day of relaxed practice, Badger’s breathing became labored, and he was having a hard time getting comfortable. He would move from place to place, breathing heavily. It was very hot, and he’d just returned from a trip to Kyoki’s parents’ house in the back of the pickup truck. Kyoki and I thought he’d eventually settle down, but he didn’t. After about an hour, I noticed that his tongue was getting pale, so we decided to take him to the vet.
Badger had slowed down considerably over the past few months. Long-standing heart problems, thyroid problems, and severe arthritis in nearly every joint had taken their toll. His medications took up a whole windowsill in Kyoki’s room! But he still came to the zendo for every period of zazen, walking heavily and breathing hard during hot weather, and he still chugged up the stairs to the second floor Buddha hall whenever the bell signaled that a service was about to begin. He was a dedicated monk, and he refused to quit!
He also continued to go on long walks with us, but he had begun to lag behind and slowly labor up the hills. He still maintained order among the other dogs, however. He was the alpha dog right until the end, and all the other dogs knew it: Sammy, my vigorous three-year-old yellow lab/husky mix; Li’l Red, Kyoki’s other Australian Shepherd; and Barry and Laurie, Kyoki’s parents’ German S hepherds, both of whom were much bigger than Badger. Badger had a regal bearing that commanded respect, from both dogs and humans, and he never hesitated to set straight those who usurped his authority, violated his domain, or threatened his humans. If Sammy started yapping at Li’l Red, or vigorously running around in circles trying to get Barry to play with him, Badger would perk up his ears, puff out his chest, stretch to full height, and straighten out the miscreant with a well-placed shoulder bump and couple of barks. He had disciplined Sammy in this way the day before as we walked the hills in Sewickley Borough Park.
It was a half-hour drive to the veterinarian’s -- plenty of time to think. One of the early sutras says that the dharma is “good in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end,” and as we drove, I thought of Badger. His dharma (truth) was good in the beginning, when he was a young, vigorous cow dog on Kyoki’s farm in Nebraska – herding cattle, jumping four-foot fences, and r unning off coyotes trying to get at the chickens. It was good in the middle, when he became a monk and lived at the temple in Omaha – greeting everyone who came to the door, protecting Kyoki and me, accompanying us on our walks, and disciplining and training Li’l Red, a younger dog, to be a good Australian Shepherd. It was also good in the end, when he was an elder at Deep Spring Temple – determinedly climbing up the stairs for morning service, laboriously hauling himself off the floor to check out everyone who came to the door, and chugging up the hills like the “little engine who could” during our walks. He was completely what he was, at all times, uncomplainingly living his life and doing his best. He was a good example for us all.
Badger had been a part of my life for over ten years, and even though he’d slowed down considerably, he’d always been so big and strong that it was hard for me to consider, as we drove to the vet that June evening, that he might not make it. I thought of the time Kyoki and I were walking through a back alley in our neighborhood when two big dogs, a St. Bernard and a German Shepherd, bounded up to a chain link fence as we walked by their back yard and jumped up snarling and barking with their front paws on top of the fence. Kyoki was nearest them and Badger calmly moved between Kyoki and the snarling dogs and stayed there as we walked past their yard. He wasn’t being aggressive, but he was clearly saying, “to get to her, you’ll have to go through me.” There were two of them, and they both had at least fifty pounds on him. I knew then that he would die before he let anything happen to Kyoki.
However, impermanence is a condition of all existence, and whether I wanted to consider it or not, when I reached back to pet Badger as we pulled into the vet’s parking lot, I didn’t feel the big and strong mature dog I’d been reminiscing about. I felt a weak and suffering old dog struggling to breathe, and I felt myself beginning to cry.
We had to help Badger out of the car when we reached the vet, but he gamely walked in on his own. When we got to the counter, however, he plopped down exhausted on the floor. Kyoki and I had to carry him into the examining room. We lifted him onto the table rather than let him lie on the floor, and Kyoki and I petted and talked to him as we waited for the vet. We told him that everything was okay, to just relax, that we’d take care of him.
This was hard for all of us, especially for Kyoki. She had raised Badger from a pup and had trained him to herd cattle. He had been a big part of her life for seventeen years, from her days as a hog and cow farmer in outstate Nebraska, through her Zen training at the temple in Omaha, and into her teaching career at Deep Spring Temple. I knew how she felt about that old dog.
The vet came quickly, and it didn’t take long for him to determine what the problem was. Badger’s heart wasn’t pumping enough blood through his system; the heavy breathing was a desperate attempt to get enough oxygen. His big heart was finally giving out. There was nothing that could be done.
Kyoki’s eyes filled with tears as we discussed what to do. We decided to take him home, so he could die quietly and naturally in familiar surroundings near those who loved him. The vet suggested we give him a sedative to calm him down and ease his breathing, so we did. It began to take effect quite soon, and Kyoki and I had to carry Badger out to the car. She rode in the back with him, and I drove home.
I, like most people, entered Zen practice to find relief from suffering and pain. I thought that if I practiced hard, I would “get enlightened” and live in bliss from then on. How silly. I have come to realize that the only way to successfully negotiate suffering and pain is to go into and through it, not around it. An old Zen story deals with this issue:
A Zen Master’s oldest disciple had died, the one who had been with him the longest and whom he had designated his successor. At the funeral, while giving the eulogy, the Master broke down and cried. Later, a visiting monk said: ‘Life and death have no beginning and no end. Why do you cry?’ The Master said: ‘He was my oldest and closest disciple; if I don’t cry now, when am I supposed to?’
Zen practice trains us to enter each moment of our life and experience it fully, without aversion or greed. In other words, we accept the circumstances of our life and live them fully, willing to let go into the next moment as things change, as they always will. In moments of grief and loss – the death of a friend, a lover’s leaving, a child’s going away to college – feelings run deep and true. We have to accept and honor them before we can begin to move on. This is our karmic life.
My karmic life as I drove back from the vet’s was a sad mixture of grief and reminiscence. I thought of the time many years ago when a stray dog had treed Lola, the temple cat. Badger ran over to the base of the tree, chased the dog away, and stood nearby while Lola c limbed down. She walked over to him, and they touched noses before they went their separate ways.
I also thought of the time a big Black Labrador Retriever attacked Li’l Red up in the park near the temple in Omaha. Red was on his back yelping in terror when Badger came from nowhere, rammed the bigger dog with his shoulder, bowled him over, and tore fur out of him until Kyoki and the Lab’s owner pulled them apart.
When Kyoki was training in Japan for two years in the mid-nineties, Badger and I were inseparable. We not only lived together at the temple in Omaha but also took daily walks together through the neighborhood, out on the prairie, and through the Loess hills in neighboring Iowa. We went on camping trips together in Western Nebraska and he went with me when I visited my friends. We became best buddies during those years. Every night when I went to bed, Badger would tuck me in. He’d jump up next to me and lay down for a bit until I turned out the light.
Now, he lay in the back seat of the car, still struggling for breath.
When we got back to the temple, we carried Badger up to Kyoki’s room and laid him on the floor. His breathing was still heavy, and he kept shifting his body, trying to get comfortable. We set up a fan so he’d be a little cooler, and gradually, his breathing calmed down. He finally laid down on his side.
The others participating in practice period – Eido, Margaret, Keith, and Gary – came up to check on things, and we filled them in on what had happened at the vet’s. Eventually, everyone drifted away to bed, and at around nine-thirty, I did too. I left my tee-shirt near Badger, so my smell would be nearby, and I asked Kyoki to come and get me if there was any change in his condition. We were both un-realistically hoping that he’d get past this crisis and recover, so we could have him in our lives a bit longer.
I didn’t sleep much. Shortly after midnight, Kyoki came to my room and told me that Badger was dying. By the time I put on some clothes and got to her room, he had quietly taken his last breath.
We petted and talked to him for a while, telling him what a great dog he’d been, what a good friend and companion. We told him how much we’d miss him. I encouraged him to not stay here too long, to continue on his journey, and I told him that although we loved him and would miss him, we would be all right.
Then, Kyoki and I put on our robes and did a deathbed service, one of the many ceremonies we have in Soto Zen to help up through times like these. We lit Kyoki’s altar, offered incense, and chanted the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the sutra on the death of the Buddha. Toward the end of this scripture, as Shakyamuni Buddha is dying, he calls Ananda, his attendant, who had been weeping in the next room, and says:
Have I not already told you many times that it is the nature of all things, even those most near and dear to us, to pass away and that we must leave them, di- vide ourselves from them, sever ourselves from them. Everything born must die; all beings carry within them the seeds of dissolution. For a long time, Ananda, you have been very close to me. You have been kind, good, and loving, in thought, word, and deed; that has never varied and is beyond measure. You have done well, Ananda. Put forth great effort, and you too, will soon be free.
Kyoki and I had great difficulty getting through these words. Tears are welling up now as I type them. Badger was kind, good, and loving, He truly did well. He brought great joy to our lives, and because of that, his passing was a time of great sadness.
After the deathbed service, we sat with our old friend for a while. I told him that he’d done as well as a dog that any dog could do. There was no need for him to come back as another one. I told him that I hoped I lived long enough for him to come back to me as a young man or woman in a few years so that I could ordain him a priest. Then, we took one of Kyoki’s old rakusus and placed it around his neck. I went to my room to find something of mine to leave with him, but I didn’t have much with me. I came across a red Nebraska tee-shirt and took it to Kyoki’s room, folded it, and placed it under Badger’s head. It was not only a fitting link to me but also to the years he’d spent out on the farm chasing cows. Now, he had something with him from both his careers, cow dog and monk! We moved him in front of Kyoki’s altar, and I gathered a bouquet of flowers from the other temple altars and laid them across his shoulder. We sat quietly with him for a time, and then we went to bed.
The next morning, instead of our regular morning service, we did a memorial service for our dear friend. Kyoki, Eido, Margaret, Gary, Patricia, Keith, and I all crowded into Kyoki’s room. We lit the altar, offered incense, and chanted “The Great Compassionate Dharani.” After chanting, we individually spoke to Badger. Kyoki thanked him for being her protector all these years, and for helping her get settled into her new temple home. I told him that I would never forget him; that he taught me how great a dog could be, and that he’d always live in my heart. Margaret said that he’d been a part of her practice life since she began coming to the temple and tearfully told him that her practice life just wouldn’t be the same without him. Everyone had something heartfelt to say.
After service, we returned to our regular routine; we did our morning cleaning and prepared for breakfast.
After breakfast, Kyoki and I discussed how we should proceed, and we decided to have the funeral and burial later on that morning. It had been very hot the past few days, and today looked like more of the same. Traditionally, we preserve a body for three days and then cremate it, but that would be difficult with the heat. Also, Kyoki wanted to bury Badger rather than cremate him. So, we walked the temple grounds looking for an appropriate spot for a cemetery. Badger’s grave would be the beginning of it.
We picked a nice spot on the downward slope of the hill behind the temple, near enough to be a part of things, but far enough away so as not to interfere with future expansion. It is near a well-established birch grove and has a magnificent view of the Big Sewickley Creek Valley.
Then, Eido and I carried Badger into the Buddha Hall and laid him on top of a clean white sheet on a low table in front of the altar. I brushed him and picked some burrs out of his coat, remnants of our last walk two days before. He still wore Kyoki’s rakusu and his head rested on my tee-shirt. We would bury him with these things. Eido left to begin digging the grave with Bob and Patricia – we would all soon join them there to finish up – while the rest of us prepared various things for the service.
We have in Soto Zen a specific memorial and burial service for animals that gives shape to our grief and provides a container to hold it. Kyoki led the service, and I led the chanting. We recited “The Life Span of the Thus Come One,” the pivotal chapter of the
Lotus Sutra. Many years ago Kyoki and I started calling Badger “Best Boy,” and Kyoki now formally gave it to him as his Buddhist name. We then spoke to him again, as we had during our memorial service early that morning. I remember thanking him for his companionship and for his love. When my tears cleared, I chanted an eko, a dedication or merit transfer that ends all of our services. The one for this service reads:
From the beginning there is no birth and death,
because of karma you assumed an animal body,
Discard this body quickly and enter into the world of purity
Desire the pure crown of buddhahood and realize the mind of the bodhisattva quickly.
When the service was over, Eido and I wrapped Badger in the sheet, using it as a shroud. Bob and Eido then carried our friend down the stairs to the back door, from where we would begin our slow procession to the grave.
I led the procession, walking slowly and ringing the inkin, the small hand-held bell, every few steps. Kyoki was service leader, so she came next. Then came Bob and Eido, carrying Badger. The rest of the sangha came after him. Kyoki had had asked Margaret to ring a cowbell during the procession, and the first time she did, all the tears that had been welling up in me that morning burst out. The bell was calling the old cow dog home. I still can’t think of that moment without crying.
We laid Badger in the ground, and Kyoki called Li’l Red over, so he would know where Badger was. The little dog climbed down into the grave and sniffed the shroud-wrapped body. He then hopped out, ran about twenty yards, and flopped down in the grass, facing away from the grave. Clearly, this moment was as disturbing and difficult for him as Shakyamuni Buddha’s death was for Ananda.
Then, we all took turns covering Badger with earth. As we did, we chanted two sutras, the “Verse of Homage To Buddha’s Relics (Shariraimon)” and “The Great Compassionate Dharani.” This is the “Verse of Homage to Buddha’s Relics:”
With wholehearted reverence we bow to the relics of the true body
Of the Tathagata Shakyamuni, who is fully endowed with myriad virtues;
To the Dharma Body, which is the fundamental ground; and to his stupa, which is the whole universe.
With deep respect we venerate the one who manifested a body for our sake. Through the sustaining power of the Buddha, which enters us even as we enter it,
We verify awakening.
By means of the Buddha’s spiritual power
We benefit living beings, arouse the thought of awakening,
Cultivate bodhisattva practice, and together enter perfect peace,
The knowledge of the equality of all things.
Now let us reverently bow.
We made a nice grave. Kyoki found some rocks to line it with and placed a large one upright to serve as a headstone. We left an incense burner, so when people came to show their respects, they could offer incense. When I did so that evening, I noticed that someone had spread flower petals over the grave. It was beautiful.
Some years ago, Lola – our Omaha temple cat – died. Over the years, she had developed the habit of jumping up into my lap whenever I sat down in the chair in my room. Sometimes, I just wanted to sit quietly by myself or to read, so I’d push her away onto the floor. After she died, I missed her so. I thought how wonderful it would be if she were there to jump up on my lap, and I regretted having pushed her away so often.
As Badger got older, I decided that I wanted no regrets after he died, so I welcomed him every time he came to me. I rubbed the spot between his eyes, scratched behind his ears, and talked to him a bit. When he still lived in Omaha, I made sure we got out for walks often, and I frequently took him with me when I ran errands with the car. Whenever I visited Deep Spring Temple after he moved away, I made it a point to spend a little quiet time with him every day, brushing him or massaging the arthritic joints that caused him so much pain as he aged.
Now that he’s gone, I have no regrets. Every time I visited Pittsburgh the past two years, I took him aside as I was leaving, got down on my knees, looked him in the eyes and said, “You stay alive till I get back, you hear?” And he did.
I’d had a feeling for months that he would die this past June, when Kyoki and I were both there, practicing the dharma together in the way we did when Badger lived with us in Omaha. I was with him on his last walk and for his last car ride, two things he loved to do as much as anything, and I was fortunate and grateful to have been there when he died.
He’ll be with me always. I can see him now, looking up at me with his deep brown eyes and bounding across the hills of the mind.
Written by Nonin Chowaney
Copyright Nebraska Zen Center 2001
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