February 2021 Message

Choose: Dogs, Snakes or Frogs
by Reverend Dean Koyama

February marks the observance of Nirvana Day when the historical Sakyamuni Buddha’s physical body succumbed to some tainted food and could not recover. According to the legend, even the animals wanted to pay their respects and honor the Buddha on his deathbed. Because of this, we honor the wisdom and compassion of these animals by combining this Nirvana Day service with our Pet Memorial. For this reason, I thought that you might enjoy an exchange of e-mails with a temple member many years ago.

Dear Rev. Koyama,

I am facing a difficult and heartbreaking situation, and I don't yet know enough about Buddhist teachings to know the best decision to make.

I have two dogs that I've had for more than 10 years. In more recent years, they have started to attack and kill small animals that have strayed into my yard, including squirrels, an opossum, and even two cats and a small dog. I have fortified the fence, and done everything I could to protect other animals from my dogs, but occasionally one has gotten in anyway and met with a violent death.

Recently the dogs, apparently excited by the sudden movement of one of my cats jumping up on something, attacked my own cat in the house. I was able to intervene before she was injured, but I'm afraid it's just a matter of time before my two cats become the next victims.

I have begun thinking of euthanasia as the · only possible solution. I don't want to give the dogs away for two reasons: Because they are older dogs, I don't think they would adapt easily to a new home and would be bewildered and confused. And I don't believe there is an environment in which it would be safe to keep them, because no healthy place is completely devoid of other creatures.

I love my dogs very much, but I don't want to allow them to continue endangering the lives of other animals. I would be very grateful if you would give me some thoughts and perspective on this situation. I'm having the most difficulty understanding how to weigh taking a life or causing a life to be taken, in order to protect other lives.

With gratitude and respect,

Dear N.,

You are in a very difficult situation. Trying to figure out what is the most compassionate thing to do can be very troubling. There is a parable or koan one of my teachers gave me: Suppose you are on a deserted island. The only creatures on the island with you are a snake and a frog. One day, you see the snake sneaking up from behind the frog to eat it. What is the most compassionate thing you could do? If you let the snake attack, the frog dies. If you save the frog, the snake will die. A Jataka tale (fable) would probably say that if you were a Buddha you would offer part of yourself to the snake. But realistically that is not possible because you may be able to protect the frog for only so long until you have given every part of your body meaning your whole life up as well.

The Jodo Shinshu perspective would be to try to realize the preciousness of each live. And if there is an action that we must take for the benefit of others, we take with full responsibility. If you must put the dogs to death, you must accept the responsibilities and consequences for your action. If you decide not to put them to sleep, you must accept the responsibilities and consequences for that action or in-action as well. What is important is that we make an honest attempt to realize the value of each life and understand that we are limited human beings who must make decisions from time to time which affect others.

If you must put your dogs to sleep, I will be willing to conduct a memorial service to acknowledge your loss and love for them. I will write further as I contemplate this situation a little more, but I hope this will help for the time being.

Rev. Dean Koyama

Dear Rev. Koyama,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, and for your kind offer to conduct a memorial service for my dogs if I should have to have them put to sleep.

The story you related about the frog and the snake was very helpful and comforting to me. It gave me reassurance that I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to face difficult choices in which there are no "right" answers. And it was also an intriguing story in that my Mother, who passed away in 1996 at age 88, had faced exactly such a frog-or -snake decision when she was a child in rural Minnesota. She had told me about being out in the garden and hearing a frog croaking frantically. She looked around for it, and saw a bulging snake with frog's legs sticking from its mouth. She grabbed a hoe and chopped the snake in two, and pulled the frog, apparently unharmed, from its mouth. She had an interesting reflection on the incident. She said, "I didn't even stop to think. I just instinctively felt like I needed to rescue the frog, because it was being victimized. I didn't realize until years later that in doing so, I was victimizing the snake."

I can see the teaching value in stories - and experiences - such as these, to open our minds to new ways of looking at an apparently insoluble dilemma. Spending some time in the feeling that I was facing a "Sophie's Choice" kind of problem, an idea came to me that I had never thought of before. I am thinking of a way to reconfigure the way we use the rooms in our home, in order to keep the cats permanently separated from the dogs. It will take some adjustment and will be less convenient, but I think it might work, and is certainly better than having my dogs put to death or having my cats endangered. So maybe giving up some convenience is a way of offering part of myself to the dogs and cats.

I am very grateful for your kindness and wise counsel, Rev. Koyama. I'm looking forward to attending services again at the Temple.


There is an episode in the Tannisho, where Shinran asked his disciple, Yuien, “Will you do anything that I ask of you?” Yuien, of course, replies “Absolutely without question.” Shinran then proceeded to tell him that if he would like to attain birth in the Pure Land and realize Enlightenment, then he must kill a thousand people. Yuien is aghast and replied that he cannot kill even a single person. Shinran goes on to explain why Yuien could not kill even a single person:

The late Master (Shinran) said, "Know that every evil act done-even as slight as a particle on the tip of a strand of rabbit's fur or sheep's wool-has its cause in past karma." ..."By this you should realize that if we could always act as we wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth, you should have immediately .done so. But since you lack the karmic cause inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill. It is not that you do not kill because your heart is good.

In the same way, a person may wish not to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or a thousand people."...

"For those who make their living drawing nets of fishing in the seas and rivers, and those who sustain their lives hunting beasts or taking fowl in the fields and mountains, and · those who pass their lives conducting trade or cultivating fields and paddies, it is all the same. If the karmic cause so prompts us, we will commit any kind of act."
(Tannisho, Chapter 13, The Collected Works of Shinran, vol. 1, page 670-671.)

We often think that to be compassionate is a wise and noble thing to do. But according to Shinran, it really is not up to our volition. We simply act. And that action or in-action is what the teaching of karma is all about. "If there is a karmic seed within us, we will do anything." Compassion is often dependent upon perspective. The story of the mother is a wonderful example. The mother felt compassion for the frog because it was attacked by the snake. But later, the mother realized that it was she who victimized the snake in order to save the frog. Was her action truly compassionate?

In our ordinary way of thinking, we look at ourselves as being wise and good with no intention to harm another. And yet, under certain circumstances we often do hurt others. It is this realization that is the humbling experience of awakening to a wisdom and compassion that goes beyond our own limited capacity. It is from this point, that we can truly open our lives to a life of appreciation and gratitude and thereby begin to live a life within true wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism, especially Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, the emphasis is not on us practicing wisdom or compassion, but more importantly that wisdom and compassion is being extended to even those, who would kill a snake in order to save a frog, Even such a being as this, is embraced within Amida Buddha's Great vow of wisdom and compassion which forsakes none.

Rev. Dean Koyama