Some might be surprised to know that Tennyson wrote these powerful thoughts not in reference to romantic love, but rather upon reflection of the sudden death of a dear friend from Cambridge, Arthur Henry Hallam. Sadly, Hallam died unexpectedly in 1833 from a cerebral hemorrhage. Tennyson finally completed the work in 1849, over 16 years later. Hallam's demise affected Tennyson and his family very deeply, for many years.
In July, my family and I were faced with a difficult choice. Our little dog, Winnie (short for Winnifred) became ill.
Winnie had been with us for over 11 years, and was truly part of our family. She was a tough little miniature wire-haired dachshund. A great watchdog with a bark that was 100 times larger than what one might expect out of her diminutive 14 pound body.
Dachshunds were originally bred to hunt badgers underground. To succeed, they needed a strong disposition and a loud bark so their owners could locate them under the ground. She carried that karma with her, but to me she was quick to reveal her softer side. For most of her life she slept in my bed with me, and was there to warm my feet on cool winter evenings. She feared nothing except a thunder storm, and when one drifted by she would hide her face between my neck and the pillow. She loved a belly scratch, and I obliged frequently. Whatever my mood, when I arrived home she was overjoyed to see me, wagging her tail feverishly. We trusted each other.
When Winnie became ill, the veterinarians advised us that there was little chance of recovery. She was very sick, and very frail.
To make a long story short, we decided that the best action to take, in the name of compassion for her, was euthanasia.
In the course of life, each of us will lose someone or something that we love deeply. It is when we lose that person or thing that the strength of our attachments is revealed most profoundly.
Buddha taught us to respect all sentient beings, and to recognize the interconnectedness of all life. Dog lovers and animal lovers in general, feel very real pain and sorrow when they lose a pet. Our pets give us unconditional love, teach us to respect life and care for those less fortunate or able than us, and they teach us that there is a world out there that is larger than our own egos and our limited human perceptions. I have often thought of pets as little bodhisattvas, here to help us on our journeys. To experience the loss of such an angel is difficult for anyone who feels.
The fateful day came, and you might understand how difficult it was to take her to the vet's office. We gave her an ice cream cone on the way, and we held her up to the open car window so that she could enjoy the breeze. The vet and his assistant were very kind and understanding. She was not alone, and she passed peacefully.
Immediately afterward, I could feel my heart breaking. I was overwhelmed with emotions. Here I was, a person who practices mindfulness meditation, who is supposed to be able to calm himself in difficult circumstances, losing composure. Reduced to tears, I remembered something.
I took the bracelet that I wear around my wrist, wrapped it around my hands in gassho, and recited the Nembutsu. Namu Amida Butsu. Slowly, and deliberately over and over again. It worked.
First, it helped me to calm down, and stop the thoughts that were racing through my head from feeding off each other. My breathing slowed, and the sick feeling began to dissipate. Then, very gradually, my thoughts turned to feelings of gratitude for having encountered this little being, and for the love that we shared.
It's easy to be grateful when we are happy. When our parents and our children and our spouses and friend and pets are healthy, it's easy to be grateful.
Being grateful in hard times and times of sorrow and loss is difficult. But it is exactly in such times, it seems to me, that gratitude pays its greatest dividends. For me, it is the key.
We are taught that Amida Buddha extends compassion and light most powerfully to those who are in greatest need. Tannisho I says, “…the Vow is directed to the person burdened with the weight of karmic evil and burning with the flames of blind passion…” Amida’s Primal Vow is there when we are floundering most dramatically in a stormy ocean of suffering and dis-ease.
So, in the days and weeks after my Winnie passed away, I took refuge in the Dharma.
There are times, when I open the front door and expect to hear her bark and see her wagging tail, and there is only silence ... my heart sinks. I literally feel a pain in my chest and a sickness in my abdomen. I realize that this pain that is being created by my brain and that my thoughts are manifesting in physical suffering. I wish that things are other than what they are. I wish I could turn back the clock. Of course, that is foolish thinking.
I try to meet these reactions, as Buddha taught, with acceptance, mindfulness and gratitude.
I still miss my dog. I hope I will always miss my dog. I always want to remember the lessons that she taught me in life and in death.
And for encountering her, I will forever remain grateful.
Tennyson grappled with the sorrow of losing his best friend for over 16 years. But ultimately he concluded that " 'tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."
I think if we cultivate a nature of gratitude, and if we accept that difficult times are a normal part of life, and if we trust that the Three Jewels - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha - are there to guide us, our path will be a contented and happy one.
Namu Amida Butsu