While you might expect to leave a Buddhist monastery with a renewed sense of calm, you might not expect to leave with a few new feline friends. A visit to Shasta Abbey, however, will bring you both. Located at the base of Mount Shasta in Northern California, the abbey serves as a training center for Buddhist monks, a place of practice for visitors and a home for nine cats.
Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett, who founded the abbey in 1970, saw animals as teachers of patience, compassion and acceptance and allowed the abbey cats to roam free around the entire property, a practice that is still in place today.
The Cats of the Abbey
Though the cats technically don’t belong to anyone specifically at the monastery, they will stay with their “own” monks in their rooms and are as close to the monks as family members.
Reverend Meiko’s black Maine Coon, Mitra, is the newest abbey cat. She came to the monastery from Portland, Oregon, where Reverend Meiko had been Prior (a monastic superior) of the Portland Buddhist Priory. At a little over three years old, Mitra was the youngest cat on the property when she arrived. She had never been outside, so this move opened up an entire new world to her.
“And did she ever take to it,” says Meiko. “Even though she was hesitant about her cat door at first, she has been busy establishing her territory.” Mitra likes to follow her monk and a few other friends around the property, giving directions by a quick roll in front of the person to say slow down, or redirect them. If she is not able to get her point across, she will softly swap at the monk’s foot. “She has learned very quickly how to be harmonious in this new world of hers,” says Meiko.
Mitra is also a healer kitty. “There are times when she pays particular attention to a monk who is not feeling well,” says Meiko. The reverend has no doubt that this enhances the healing process. “How fortunate we are to be in the presence of these creatures.”
Reverend Margaret’s gentle ginger kitty, Brandy, is one of the oldest abbey residents. At 16 years of age, this one-eyed beauty is an extraordinary teacher and frequently shows up in the reverend’s teachings.
“Brandy was living wild, hungry and sick, at the southern end of the abbey grounds,” says Margaret. “She lost one eye to herpes, received a diagnosis of early kidney disease two years ago, and has been deaf for over a year.” Brandy moved in with Margaret four years ago.
“Brandy has a job as my chaplain, which means an assistant,” Margaret says. “We don’t often meditate together in the formal sense; however, our religious tradition brings meditation and the Buddhist precepts into all activities of our lives, and this is where Brandy’s help is beyond measure.”
Margaret offers an example: Brandy tends to vocalize at the top of her voice. “These aren’t pretty little mews,” says Margaret. “They’re cries from deep in the heart.” Unfortunately, this happens frequently at night.
Through much of the night before a Sunday morning talk, Brandy serenaded Margaret with her soft moans, pacing the room, jumping on the bed and licking her head, until about midnight. The clock read 1:33 a.m. when she began again.
“One of our precepts is not to be angry,” Margaret says. “We practice watching the mind, and when anger arises we give it full attention, accept it, and allow it to pass away. Simple, not easy. A strong feeling of anger arose at 1:33 that morning: What kind of talk could I give without any sleep? I’d make a fool of myself.”
The reverse side of anger is compassion. Listening to Brandy’s anguished-sounding howls reminded Margaret that “it’s not about me. Do good for others is another of our precepts. This includes sitting still and seeing what, if anything, needs to be done. At that hour, a dear friend needed comforting; her presence helped me find the courage to hear her cries (and my own) without dismay.”
Life at the Monastery
The abbey offers a number of programs that are open to the public, including meditation instruction, retreats, teaching and spiritual counseling. While the cats are not officially part of these programs, they do make their presence known. The chief cook’s cat is often seen outside the kitchen, greeting guests (or perhaps waiting for a hand out?), and the guest monk has a cat who is very much alert and present when guests come.
Although meditation is a central part of Buddhist practice, “the cats don’t share our formal meditation practice,” says Reverend Cummings. “Though several kitties strive mightily to come into the monks’ Meditation Hall, especially in the summer when we have only a light screen covering the doors.”
Fortunately, cats often make a nice match for people who enjoy spending time in contemplation.
“Cats have an appreciation of silence,” Cummings says. “They can be at ease in silence, alone or together.” She also feels that cats have an appreciation of space. “They know the value of leaving room to allow for all possibilities. The word ‘contemplation’ comes from Latin roots that mean ‘to make space.’”
Reverend Meiko agrees. “Every cat person knows that a cat can’t be owned. They are never ‘mine.’ They just simply love you and include you in their lives however that may be at any given moment. All of this fits right in with the contemplative life that we at this monastery are dedicated to.”
Photos: courtesyShasta Abbey