[Buddha-l] New Buddhist Topic--Buddhism and Cats

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Fri Dec 30 07:54:28 MST 2011

On Dec 28, 2011, at 21:40 , Katherine Masis wrote:

> Several years ago, I heard that "the only animal that was not invited to the Buddha's Parinirvana was the cat."  This statement was accompanied by all the usual stereotypes about cats: they're mean, treacherous, etc., which is why they were excluded from the guest list.  Where in the world did that statement come from?

Several years ago I overheard a tour guide in the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. explaining a large painting of the parinirvāṇa. She pointed out that all the trees were sagging, and all the animals were weeping, and the entire natural world was in a state of mourning. (John Ruskin would surely have disapproved!) But in one corner of the painting there was a cat licking its paws, completely unperturbed by the pathos of the occasion. The tour guide went on to say that cats have a reputation in Buddhist culture for being self-centered and aloof and independent. (Hmmm, isn't that what arhants are supposed to be?)

This theme of cats being viewed negatively in Buddhism is explored in Elizabeth Coatesworth's children's story "The Cat Who Went to Heaven," which is a very nice cautionary tale of overcoming prejudice. It's set in Japan and deals with a Buddhist artist monk who befriends a cat that everyone else is always shooing out of the temple, because cats don't belong in temples. Most people I know who have read the book admit to having been in tears by the end.

Also in the Freer Gallery there is a wonderful Indian sculpture of a very busy temple scene. One of the figures is a cat sitting in a lotus posture. He looks perfectly serene and pious, but one eye is open. If you follow the gaze, you notice he is looking at a little herd of mice who are worshipping off in the corner. Such fun.


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