I am fascinated by our impact on each other, partially because it is the only form of permanence that we have, and partially because it is so close to the heart of incarnation and karma. So I was moved to tears when I read (yet another amazing) obituary in The Economist…for a cat. Go to this web page, and check it out. Tama, the vice-president of a Japanese railroad, died on June 22nd at the age of 16.
Moved to tears, wow. Yes, the Economist has great writers, yet this cat touches something deep in us. I’ve found blogs about personal journeys to meet Tama, countless photos, news articles and videos.
Everything in the obit might be written about one of us, and in fact when you boil our lives down to their essence, it’s a lot like this single page of prose. We move through life doing what we do – sleeping, wearing some funny stuff, and in this case rubbing up against the legs of people – yet know not anything of our impact. Tama became a symbol: generated livelihoods for people near and far, resurrected a train line, and created some level of delight and fulfillment for thousands (or millions, who knows?) of people traveling distances to see her. She broke gender and species barriers in Japanese management. Inspired an entire world of train decor. Now there appear to be non-human stationmasters all over Japan, including cats, dogs, and even a goat.
It is easy to dismiss this story as a reflection of Japanese culture, and yes, there is that quirkiness about the Japanese that perhaps all of us, not Japanese, find fascinating. But why would a simple obituary about a cat touch me so deeply?
Maybe it is my secret fantasy that one day after I’m gone, I will be seen and remembered in this way, having a rippling impact on the people around me that shifts the economy, cultural attitudes, train decor, and gets reported on the evening news. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be the obituary on the back page of The Economist, like Nelson Mandela or Allen Ginsberg? Some form of permanence, having a lasting impact on the world? Perhaps I could have a planet or comet or nebula named after me forever, lasting longer than ancient Arabic star names. Humans or non-humans, in ten thousand years will still be referring to me by name, even if their pronunciation is wrong.
This is illusory of course, as all of these things, the train, The Economist, my house, my body and everyone who knows me will be dust. In ten thousand years, or perhaps a hundred or a dozen, the alphabet, and surely Childers, will be erased by an asteroid striking the earth, or techno-linguistic shifts beyond our wildest imagination, or a gamma-ray burst that sends the planet back to the cockroaches.
I wonder why ‘permanence’ and ‘legacy’ stir such feeling. When I sit still and reach into what I feel, it is vast and divine and good. My life falls into refreshing perspective when I remember my tiny, transient place in the universe. Sitting outside on the deck at midnight, watching for the occasional Perseid meteor and contemplating the stars and planets, I find that same vast, divine, good sense. It’s so much the opposite of what my ego wants. My tiny self wants to be remembered, and my greater self is enormously content to relax into vastness.
This is Refuge. Palden-la and my other teachers ask, “what is it that truly gives us refuge?” We seek refuge and comfort, deeper meaning in all the toys of our ego, the people and things we love, the causes we support, the legacy we create. Yet all are transient, and true refuge only exists in that which is transcendent. I realize now, when I gaze into the night sky or the eyes of a contented cat, I see the Buddha.