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Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006


My dog -- the Buddhist

When it comes to matters of religion, I tend to equivocate.

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For example, all I need do to question intelligent design is to glance in a mirror.

Yet I also reserve some doubt for evolution, wondering, among other things, if we all rose from single-celled goop, how come so much of that goop hasn't evolved with us? Can it be mere chance that most goop is still goop while some has developed into, say, Jessica Simpson?

On more intense topics -- like what happens after death -- I suppose I'll find out myself sooner or later. In a family mix of Bible belters, agnostics and Trekkies, this eternal subject has sparked relatively little debate. Until now, that is, as one member has become a Buddhist.

The new Buddhist is not my Japanese wife, who professes Christianity. Nor is it her kin, who advance the sukiyaki approach to religious faith: whatever adds flavor to the pot is welcome.

No, the family Buddhist is my dog.

The story behind this is approximately 14 years long. One third-grade morning, my son found a frisky puppy outside his classroom window. Turn the clock ahead, and this past September our neighbor found that very same puppy plopped before her doghouse, this time in the most unfrisky state imaginable. At the moment, my wife and I were on a plane flying back to Tokyo from abroad.

The orangish mutt that our boy had carried home we named Tofu. Our other colorful choice had been Sushi. Regardless, she now has a Buddhist name for the afterlife, a name I cannot even pronounce.

For most of her life, Tofu did not seem especially spiritual, although she did have her meditative moments. Yet I would have listed her primary interests as urinating on trees, barking at the meter lady and eating from her dish, at which times she displayed a cannibalistic tendency and devoured even tofu. She was also known for an endearing lack of courage. Somewhere in the history of her breed had perhaps entered a chicken or a fraidy cat, for she would turn tail and run from even shadows.

This is how she got religion.

Our neighbor had a dead dog on her hands. We had left Tofu in those capable hands before and never had the dog died, so we had left no instructions for what to do. Perplexed, the neighbor phoned a Buddhist temple that specialized in pets.

A priest arrived in flowing robes. The neighbors gathered in our pitiful excuse for a yard, the humble plot of land that had been Tofu's final earthly home. As the priest chanted over our dog's body, the small crowd of people -- good neighbors all -- inserted themselves in our place as family mourners . . . and wept.

The priest then removed Tofu's collar and escorted her to the pet crematorium, where she formally entered the great beyond.

My wife and I rattled home on the last train of the night, set our suitcases in the drive and called for a dog that was no longer there.

The next morning we heard the mournful tale. Tofu had been ill just before we departed, yet we had no idea when we patted her head goodbye that it was really and truly goodbye.

Or -- eschatologically speaking -- was it?

That afternoon, the priest brought Tofu home in a small porcelain urn. I received this with solemnity. The priest, like all well-trained men of the cloth, offered the same solemnity back. Until I paid his fee.

"Tofu!" he laughed. "That's the weirdest pet name yet! I'll remember Tofu!"

So will we. She sits now in all her Buddhist glory on a cabinet in our kitchen. She had always yearned to be an inside dog, and now she has her wish. Buddhism, it seems, is working for her.

"She was such a good dog," my wife sniffles. It is the second death in our little household in two years. The previous spring my wife's mother had also passed away.

"Tofu sort of reminds me of my mother -- unassuming, shy and never complaining, even at the last."

"Oh, don't be silly. They were nothing alike."

"But even their urns look the same. And the way they would always wait so patiently. There's a resemblance. Can't you feel it?"

"No. Think about it. Would your mom ever catch a ball in her mouth? And would she roll over?"

This last image contained more truth than tease, as my mother-in-law fought a constant battle with bedsores. So there was no reason for my wife to push me, especially in front of our religious dog, whose newfound faith has added a touch of decorum to our kitchen.

We broke the news to our sons by e-mail. Their dog had died. And had converted to Buddhism. I don't know which item was more surprising.

We told them we would hold the urn until they returned and then we would bury it in the yard. After all, it is now the year of the dog. But . . . with what kind of ceremony?

"Does it matter?" says my wife. "Tofu was always so eager to see the boys. I don't think she would let her faith hold her back."

"Well, of course it matters. The family should all end up in the same place, right? How else will we find each other?"

At this point, I suppose, reincarnation and transmigration should enter the discussion, aspects of Buddhism of which I know very little.

Yet I am sure Tofu had positive karma and -- if the Buddhist view of the next step is correct -- I have no doubt there may come a day when she will be walking me and not vice versa.

In the end, I am proud to have a Buddhist in my family, especially such a gentle one.

Sleep well, good dog. The meter lady will torment you no more.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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