A Dog's Buddha Nature

In the fall of 1968 I had moved away from a disbanding communal living situation on New York’s Long Island, and wound up in northern Dutchess County alongside the Hudson River. Others were slated eventually to join me at the rented farmhouse, either on a half-week or weekend basis. For the most part, though, I was alone and wanted to reach out to the community surrounding me.

I believed that a good way of doing this would be to attend various church services right in the tiny village, Tivoli, or in the surrounding area. Perusing the free weekly shopping circular that landed at my doorstep, I noted an invitation from a Quaker worship group, Bulls Head Meeting, not too far down the road. I had long known of Quakers, and even some of their history and beliefs, but I had never experienced a Quaker meeting.

Another impetus to accepting the invitation was that, quite some years before, a friend of mine had been enrolled in a class about Buddhism at the New School For Social Research in New York City, which I sat in on from time to time (most of the attenders were "visitors," and not registered students). The teacher was quite a vibrant man, who taught Buddhism not so much by way of the intellect, but by being Buddhist in his mannerisms and style of teaching. I had, of course, assumed that he was a Buddhist in belief and practice, and maybe he was; but when queried by one of the students, he said that he was a Quaker. A Quaker?

I had a hard time reconciling this very hip (hey, it was the ’60s), vital young man, so Eastern in his outlook, with Quakerism, which I pictured, for all the liberal viewpoints it held, as a bunch of old fuddy-duddies dressed as Amish, walking around with clutched Bibles.

Well, my first visit to a Quaker meeting dispelled those notions very quickly, and in short time I became a regular attender, and could find very few First Days I was not able to attend in order to be at some other factional services instead, including a Catholic Worker enclave right there in my little village, one that ignored and was ignored by the local regulation Roman Catholics.

So, I got hooked quickly at the Friends meeting for worship, housed in an old, one-room schoolhouse, feeling that this was something that my heart and spirit had long longed for, without my knowing it. It spoke to me. I felt so at ease from that first visit, at which I even dared to speak, falling immediately into the fluctuations of contemplative silence and shared verbalizations, and the lack of a distinct agenda or managed service of worship.

But there was one thing that I had found disturbing, and that was the appearance at the meeting of a dog—a small, dark cocker spaniel, if memory serves me right—who shared a name with the county: Dutchess—or perhaps she was Duchess. What was a dog doing inside a house of worship? Despite having long considered myself an iconoclast, and open-minded . . . a dog? This was a step that I took as sacreligious, or at minimum, incongruous.

Although I had always been warmly welcomed and included there as a newcomer, an "outsider," I never took this issue up with anyone, and if the meeting showed lack of concern about this, who was I to throw in a monkey wrench?

I don’t now recall if it came to me in a flash of enlightenment, or little by little, but I did come to realize that Duchess played a very big role at the meeting. She was, in a way, the minister, the pastor. While the rest of us had a verbal and intellectual communion with one another, it was Dutchess, by going around from person to person to nudge or lick and be petted, who made the physical communion amongst the rest of us. She was the conductor of our physical contact, which we humans didn’t really make.

I had almost ascribed "spiritual contact" as one of the human attributes for our communion, but then what do we know of a dog’s spirituality? As another worship/contemplative group would have it: "Does a dog have a Buddha nature?"

Irwin Gooen

Irwin Gooen considers himself a Quaker who subscribes to Taoist philosophy, or a Taoist who tries to practice the values of the Religious Society of Friends. He has never become a member of a meeting because he believes that to "belong" to one group excludes one from others.