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Cats in Buddhism

In Buddhism, there are myths about cats and then there is the truth.

This blog post begins with a myth, contained in the tale called The Cat Who Went to Heaven. It's a book printed in 1930 by Elizabeth Coatsworth,an American author of fiction and poetry for children and adults. She won the Newbury Award for it. The daughter of a grain merchant, Coatsworth once slept in a Buddhist monastery during her travels in Asia after graduating from Vassar College in 1915. Originally a poet, she wrote poetry for magazines, which led to publishing her first book of poetry for adults in 1923. In a chance conversation with her college friend, Louise Seaman, she was inspired to write The Cat Who Went to Heaven.

In the story, which takes place in ancient Japan, an artisan's housekeeper is sent out to buy food but instead returns with a cat. After complaining that he has forgotten what rice tastes like, the painter notices the cat's coat has three colors, which is a lucky omen.

Each of the eight chapters ends with one of the housekeeper's songs, her wise summary on what took place.

Displaying remarkably appropriate behaviour, the cat evokes affection by the artist, who calls it "Good Fortune". At breakfast, he notices the cat appearing to bow in respect to the image of the Buddha, so he admits to his lack of prayer attributing it to destitution. Later, he observes the cat catches and releases a small bird. Well-mannered, it leaves the room when its presence is of no benefit, following socially discreet behaviour.

Almost destitute the painter gets commissioned by the monks of a temple, who chose his name through divination. After paper slips written with various artists names were placed out in the courtyard, his was left when the others were blown away. He has to paint a picture of the dying Buddha, surrounded by animals who came to pay homage to him. To put his mind at ease, the monks give him a large sum of money as first payment.

Progressing with the painting, he meditates on the Buddha's life and his previous lives, to enable the artist to paint each part of the scene sincerely.

Near the completion of the artistic process, he becomes aware that his cat, who he presently views without doubt as a noble being, cannot be depicted after painting many other animals.

According to the story, the traditional belief in ancient times was that cats were cursed, due to their pride and sense of superiority, which apparently caused them to refuse to bow before the Buddha in his lifetime. Therefore this meant they were barred from Enlightenment. Since then, the common belief is that no cat goes to heaven.

Once the picture is completed, Good Fortune, appearing to notice the absence of any cat in the painting, grieves before it. Profoundly moved by her sadness, the artist at last creates the image of a small cat at the back in the corner, despite the anticipated disapproval of the monks. Observing this, Good Fortune dies in a fit of joy.

Hanging on a peach tree by her grave is a bell that the housekeeper claims to hear singing "Rejoice!".

When the painting is finally delivered to the monks, they praise it. Then they see the cat. With the monks rejecting the painting, the artist leaves in disgrace. Yet, by evening the news of a miracle comes to the painter, who arrives at the temple to discover that the painting has changed. In it the dying Buddha extends his hand in blessing over a small white cat that is beside him.

So ends the myth of the cat who went to heaven. Now comes the truth about cats and Buddhism.

According to a blog post on The Buddha's Face, a Buddhist blog:

In some Buddhist cultures cats can be regarded as holy creatures particularly so as they are perceived to be one of the more ‘mindful’ animals and have traditionally been useful in keeping down pests such as mice and rats that feed on food stores.

The Birman cat - also known as the sacred cat of Burma descends from cats that were raised in Buddhist temples in Burma and the monks regarded that the souls of the departed returned to earth as a cat.

Traditional folklore posited that on the death of a person if he had reached the highest level of enlightenment then their soul would return to earth for one last time as a cat and when it dies would be freed to reach nirvana.

Furthermore the cat is believed to speak with Buddha in favour of its owner that is still alive. Thailand has similar beliefs and so the cat is respected highly amongst Buddhist monks and many temples will have cats that live amongst the monks and Buddha statues and images.

The Cat Who Went To Heaven:
Incredibly Cute Kitten with Its Mother:
A cat and its cute kittens in Thai Buddhist temple:
Elizabeth Coatsworth:
Louise Seamon:

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