Monthly Archives: July 2015

Rats! Rats! Rats!

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My home is so quiet. No little scratching noises in the walls. No fresh poop on the mantle. The last of the rats is gone, at least I think they’re gone. But then, I tend to think, “This is the last rat” and then am ambushed by 6, then 10 more… I’ve learned to stay open to the possibility that there may be new recruits. They say that if you see one rodent there are at least 20 lurking in the shadows. If that’s the case, my home has hosted over 200 rats this summer. When I tell people about the rats in my house they grimace and share stories about a rat that lived in their garage, or stove, or kitchen and then go on to say what a hard time they had getting rid of him, or her, how it took months, sometimes even a year. This is not that sort of rat story. This is the story of a full on rat infestation.

You can expect some mice and rats and raccoons and lizards to find their way into your home when you live in the country. That’s just country life, especially in an older home. And, I’m not a messy person. I store food in the cupboards, except for the occasional ripening banana, clean up the kitchen before I go to bed and have a below average amount of furniture and tchotchkes for creatures to hide in. The house is thoroughly scrubbed every other week. Still they come. People feel comfortable and safe in my home. Apparently so do rats.

A few years after my cats died I’d see a rat or two, but nothing I couldn’t handle by setting a trap. Occasionally I’d run into one of their poops when cleaning, but I wasn’t too worried. In retrospect I can see that perhaps I wasn’t aware of how bad things really were. Rats are very quiet invaders. The only time a problem called me to action was one winter when everyone in the valley was experiencing heightened rat activity. While on a book tour I got a frantic call from my roommate telling me that there were rats running around the house. I called in a rat professional. After that things seemed to settle down…until this summer. Apparently, over the years the rats have created numerous pathways into my house, usually through holes made by pipes leading to appliances. Everywhere there is a pipe entering the kitchen the rats widened the space and made their way in. Still, I didn’t worry. It wasn’t until a particularly ambitious rat chewed a hole through the ceiling and parachuted down into my living room that I took a deep breath, girded my loins, and prepared for battle.

Before going to battle, like so many warriors before me, I prayed. With a heavy heart I told the rats I was sorry, but they needed to vacate the premises. For a week I brought them to mind in my meditations, wishing them well, warning them to flee, to save themselves and their families, that there was plenty to eat for them outside. Still I awoke to rat poop on the kitchen counter and the smell of rat urine. Reluctantly putting aside my do-it-yourself mantle, I once again called a professional pest removal business. They set a few traps, caught a few rats, plugged a few holes, sent me a bill and gave me the number of a contractor. The contractor scraped off the old ceiling, filled in the hole made by the industrious rat and re-plastered. $2000 later, there were still rats making themselves at home in my kitchen- behind the refrigerator, behind the stove, behind the dishwasher, in the cupboards and behind the washing machine. There was fresh rat poop on the mantle, floor, and counters each morning-and it was increasing.

I set out have a heart traps, but the rats weren’t going for that. So I moved on to sticky board traps. One morning I found two terrified baby rats stuck in the goo and, not being able to free them, my heart broke. I couldn’t bring myself to do that to another living creature. So I chucked the sticky boards, even though they were highly effective, and moved on to electronic rodent zappers. One day I pulled out the zapper trap while a rat was still being electrocuted. It was gruesome. I threw the zapper trap in the trash and moved on to snap traps, which worked well- until the rats caught on and were able to take the bait out without getting caught. I felt helpless and wondered if I’d even be able to win this battle. But loosing was not an option, how could I give my home over to the rats? I needed it for my family and myself.

As one worker after another (none of them stayed for long) uncovered more and more rat’s nests and entry points in the living room and kitchen we’d find little metal containers that once held the tea candles I had around my home. The rats had been absconding with my tea candles for months. I wondered if they might be creating a zendo somewhere in the attic. These rats are smart, smarter than me, smarter than the pest professional I hired and smarter than the three different contractors who hunted with me for entry points. We’d plug up one hole and they find another. They just kept coming. While searching for their nesting spots one day, we turned over my living room sofa and discovered that they had made a nest in the batting! Every night as I sat and watched TV or read or visited with friends they were sleeping snugly under the warmth of my body. We brought the sofa, my favorite piece of furniture, to the dump. Then we proceeded to take off the outside paneling on the side of the house, the side the kitchen was on. There we found pathways through the insulation where the rats had made holes leading inside.

I am a devoted lover of all living creatures, including rodents. When I was a little girl I cherished the little moths that flitted around our lemon tree. I loved the bugs and horned toads that stood in for wild life in the San Fernando Valley. My little brother and I saved our allowances to buy animals at the pet store for a zoo in our garage. I have no fear of rodents or bugs or reptiles and even harbor warm feelings for the rats in my home. They were smart, community oriented and just trying their best to stay alive. But I could not allow them to take over the home where my family lived. The health hazards were too great. I wish I could be like Cinderella who, rather than killing the creatures, sang to them. But I had to face reality. It came down to a cut and dry decision. I had to kill them or they would take over my home. In fact, they already had taken over my home. I was finally pushed to use something I vowed never to use in my home, poison.

I remember discussing the precept not to kill with other Buddhist students. The discussion usually came around to some version of, what if someone is threatening your family with a gun? Would you kill them first? That question was challenging to answer when it was hypothetical, but ultimately the response was that killing is wrong, period. Once this became a question that had real consequences, inquiry into the precept not to kill was even more challenging. In an article in the Guardian, when asked whether or not the killing of Osama Bin Laden was justified, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that the terrorist deserves our compassion but, “If something is serious you need to take counter measures.” There is a famous story about one of the Buddha’s past lives as a ship captain whose name was Super Compassionate. While at sea he learned that there was an assassin on board who intended to kill all 500 passengers on the vessel. In order to save the passengers from, not only death, but bad karma for becoming murderers themselves, he stabbed the criminal to death. Unlike Super Compassionate, the passengers would have killed the man in fits of rage and fear, whereas he killed in a state of peace and compassion. This story, as well as other’s in Buddhist history and literature, point to the idea that there is a time for killing and that it is one’s state of mind that creates karma, not the killing itself. No one can tell us when that time is, we need to feel it for ourselves through deep listening.

We Westerners tend to think of things in terms of black or white, omitting the infinite shades of grey in between. Given this vantage point we’ve adopted a sentimental view of Buddhist compassion. I discovered that my precept not to kill was more nuanced than I had originally imagined. The Earth’s creatures can pilfer my garden and gorge themselves on my fruit trees but I draw the line when it comes to endangering my home and family. I amended my original understanding of non killing. I would kill to protect my family, and with my eyes wide open. During this battle I was aware that I was committing rat genocide and didn’t try to sugar coat the action with words like “friendly fire” that people come up with to make themselves feel better about killing. I was killing beautiful, natural creatures, albeit reluctantly and with sorrow for their suffering. It’s all very humbling.

Practicing keeping my eyes open during years of meditation left me with no choice but to stay aware during this entire rat fiasco. At times the task in front of me felt impossible but I just kept slogging through it. Moving through a seemingly endless, sometimes hellish, ordeal with eyes wide open garnered wisdom that would otherwise have been lost. What I noticed was that my suffering, the rat infestation, did not define me, or even color my daily experience of reality. When I went to the market I was shopping, when I met with a friend we laughed and talked and made plans. When I was killing rats, I was killing rats.

Miss organic Buddhist has learned quite a bit from this home invasion. I’ve learned that it’s more important to keep my heart open when making tough decisions than to hold to static rules. I’ve learned that, as is written in Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a place for everything, and that, yes indeed, part and parcel of life is suffering-for all living things. We have no control over the fact that suffering is part of each life, all we can do is practice meeting our own personal allotment of suffering with open eyes.




sensuality and awakening

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Waking up next to a child, feeling their warm breath. The scent of your sweetheart’s shirt as you pick it up from the floor and put it into the laundry basket. Jasmine wafting through the living room window on a hot day. Warm, sudsy water on slippery dishes. Hundreds of flowers are thrown at our feet every day.

Religion sometimes breaks the world down into two parts; the temporal world of pleasure and pain- the world that is constantly dissolving and rearranging itself, and the absolute world of meditation- the vastness we enter when we become deeply quiet or during peak moments. Pleasure and pain come and go, are always dissolving. There is loss, hunger and frustration in this relative realm as time relentlessly marches on. The vastness does not contain any of this messy stuff of life; birth, death, disease, only undifferentiated bliss. These worlds live side by side, superimposed upon one another.

Our Zen patriarchs invite us to be open to awakening under all circumstances. Sengtsan wrote,

The Way is perfect, like vast space,
Where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject,
That we do not see the true nature of things.

Some, many, advocates from various religions would have us believe that it is best to avoid worldly pleasures, since pleasure has the ability to seduce us into believing its illusionary nature is real and that we can have some control over it. It’s easy to become attached to the pleasant, we all do. Yet the vastness also has the power to seduce us into the same sort of illusory attachment. I remember a retreat I attended where we practiced deep concentration meditation late into the night. At about midnight the alarm on my watch went off. I hadn’t set the watch and, to this day, have no idea how the alarm got set. This hasn’t happened before or since (I suspect my former teacher, Annagarika Dhamma Dinna, returned from the grave to impart one more lesson. She had a great sense of humor). A woman who was deep in meditation exploded in rage when the alarm went off. For her, the bliss of silence instantly turned into rage, like a match thrown on gasoline soaked papers. For others, attachment to emptiness, to the bliss of deep meditation, can take the form of greed, greed for retreats, greed for quiet. Still others may use meditation as a way to avoid messy problems at home. Attachment to the vastness can be as much of a danger, and as detrimental to our well being, as attachment to sensual pleasure.

When you think about it, it’s clear that the problem is not a product of the sensual world verses the world of meditative absorption. The problem lies in attachment…to anything. Any time we want things to be other than the way they are we are running away from the moment. This brings to mind the koan where two monks are on a pilgrimage. They come to a stream where a beautiful woman needs to cross but is unable to do so. One of the monks lifts the woman up and deposits her on the other side of the stream. The two monks go on their way and after awhile the second monk says, disgusted at his friend’s behavior, “How could you hold that woman. You know we monks are not supposed to even look at a woman let along lift one up and carry her.” The other monk says, “I let her go hours ago. Are you still carrying her?”

Separating sensuality and spirituality then putting one above the other has led to some unintended cultural consequences. Distain of sensuality, distain propagated by a surprising number of religions, has trickled down to the householder engendering feelings of shame, feelings of not being worthy of awakening. Sadly, the lion’s share of this shame has fallen on the heads of women and children since women and children are intimately associated with sensuality. Children live in a world of wonder. All of life, its smells, its sights, its sounds, are fresh and exciting to a child. Women also live in a sensual world. She makes love and the world emerges from between her legs, she nurses her baby with her breast and sustains life on Earth with her hands in the rich, fragrant soil, she creates alchemy in the kitchen. This does not, however, mean that they cannot live simultaneously in an awakened state. But for those who need to believe that spirituality is at odds with sensuality a woman’s life is deemed less spiritual. To make matters worse her body is blamed for the lust it evokes in those who can’t have her, or choose not to have what her body offers. Life itself is on trial here. Sadly, as valuable as religion is in so many ways, it has made a grave error in judgment in this area. If we truly want to be pro-Earth and all that entails, we need to rethink the interface of spirituality and sensuality.

Being a mother and homemaker is one sensual activity after another. Actually, being alive, fully alive, is a sensual endeavor for anyone, man, woman or child. Issa writes:

Summer’s first melon
Lies firmly hugged to the breast
Of a sleeping child

Rather than teaching women and householders that in order to find awakening they need to leave their home, they need to stop making art and eat only to for sustenance, it might be a more fruitful tact to teach us how we can find awakening within all the activities of our sensual lives. Life is wonderful when we are take each moment as it is and let it go when it is over. This is a real challenge! Embracing the pleasure, the pain, the bliss of emptiness- and then letting it go, over and over, day after day.