My favorite bumper sticker, often quoted to my patients, reads “My goal is to look at myself like my dog looks at me.” Will the Year of the Dog view us all this way? As beings worthy of love and affection? The last couple of years have been, well, dog-years, but not in the way many of us would like. We’ve had natural disasters, climate cat-astrophes, and political anguish enough for the End of Times. 2017 marked the year that polo shirts, khaki pants and tiki torches became hate couture. No longer was it men hiding in sheets, looking through sheet-holes; it was the Commander-in-Chief, talking about s**t-holes. I may have a different political party than you, but all our political parties should have the courage to stand against hatred and misogyny. “But the economy! But the economy!” some will cry. It’s not all about money, though, is it? It’s possible to do well and do good, I think…
I have a feeling that despite my best hopes, we’ll spend a lot of this year barking. But it’s not all bad, even though it is very, very bad. Maybe it’s good that self-centeredness, greed, hatred and abusive power are in plain, undeniable view. The spectacle of it all pushes us to make choices and changes, to prioritize and work harder. Think and organize. Everybody I know is doing all of the above. 2018 is going to be one very smart dog. A rescue dog, perhaps, but a smart one.
Some of my friends have ranted before about the evils of pet ownership, likening it to slavery. But humans and dogs have evolved together for 32,000 years, and it’s not clear who’s more beholden to whom. I know many people who have been saved physically and emotionally by their dogs. Dogs work to sniff out drugs, bombs and cancer. We’ve grown fond of each other; we need each other. Scientists speculate that friendlier wolves started out being tolerated by humans, and were then adopted. Gradually, domesticated proto-dogs looked and acted markedly different from their wolf cousins. Dogs liked human gaze and touch. And we found Fido’s look irresistible. Now, research shows that levels of the “cuddle chemical,” oxytocin, go up in both caretaker and dog when they look at each other. This, of course, is just the chemical language of love and attachment, of man’s-best-friendship. It also makes me feel that we urbanites are becoming more wolfish when we refuse to look at each other and smile. That’s my pet (pun intended) peeve every year, not just the dog year, as readers of my book Facebuddha will know.
Can our wild humanity be tamed, as wolves gradually became tame under the influence of human sociability? Maybe we should start petting each other more – with kind words, looks, love, and hugs – rather than looking at screens for comfort. In the absence of attachment and affection, apathy and aggression rise. My iPhone doesn’t do much for my cuddle chemical, personally speaking. No wonder there are so many trolls online.
There’s a famous Buddhist koan, or Zen question. “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The answer is “mu” – meaning interdependence, or emptiness of independent existence. One dog owner told Scientific American (“What Your Pet Reveals About You,” September 1, 2015) “dogs are living Buddhas: compassionate beings who live completely in the moment.” If you’ve seen this video of a dog rescuing a fawn, you’d have to agree.
So does the Dog Year have Buddha nature? Mu. It depends on us. It will exist in the strength of our community, compassion, and interdependence.
I wish us well. Our dogs are looking at us.