It’s been months since I’ve had the time to write up anything for the blog—the usual turmoil of life with an almost nine-month old—but in the past few weeks two separate occurrences have started me thinking about the mysterious and intricate way that cause leads endlessly to effect. The machinery of karma, the river of events.
First, our beloved cat Cosmo disappeared for a few days and then came home. We got Cosmo from the Providence Animal Rescue League in 2008 as a kitten—he’s a good-natured and affectionate guy, loves to crawl up onto my chest, or onto Devon’s, to purr. A few years ago—the weekend before my ordination, actually—he somehow crawled inside the engine of a parked car on a chilly Rhode Island morning, to get warm, I guess, and was mangled pretty badly when the engine was started. He crawled home bleeding, and needed all kinds of stitches and care. For a while he had to wear a cast, which was hilarious and heart-breaking. He’d try to run across the room, but this giant thumping casing on his leg would interfere and he’d tumble over it. Finally he learned an awkward half-gallop, bringing the cast around in a huge step to thunk it down and push off.
Here in Oakland, we started letting him out of our apartment into the driveway and the patch of grass behind us. He likes to sniff around, sleep in the sun, crawl under things. He strolls into neighbor’s apartments, apparently, just to say hello. He’s usually back scratching at the door before too long.
A few weeks ago, then, when he wasn’t back by nightfall, we were pretty worried. I called up and down the block. Same thing the next morning, and then the whole long day—going downstairs every few hours to walk and call. It was really sad. He still limps from his old injury, and he’s a little chubby to begin with—not exactly an animal you’d think can take care of himself out in the violent and scary world.
I think he first went missing on Saturday, and that Monday Devon made up 100 flyers to put around the neighborhood. I taped them to telephone poles and put them into mailboxes, but honestly it felt ceremonial more than anything—as if putting the flyers up were a way of marking Cosmo’s death, part of his funeral service.
Cause and effect. A few years ago, Devon had heard a story from her brother about a friend of theirs who opened his garage one day and found a cat who had gotten trapped and died. She remembered that as she was making the flyers, and so at the bottom, along with a description of Cosmo and our phone number, she asked that if someone had a garage or crawl space, they please look to make sure he wasn’t stuck inside.
Two days later, Cosmo came home. He was dirty and exhausted, face swollen with dehydration. For the next day or two, he was panicked, hiding at loud noises. And we got a call, from someone who had seen our flyer, and went down to check in his basement, and said that Cosmo streaked out the second he opened the door. He was already home before the guy got back to his phone to call us. His message was, “I think your cat’s going to be home in about thirty seconds . . .”
If we hadn’t put up the flyers, Cosmo would’ve died in there. Or if the neighbor hadn’t decided to check his basement. Or if Devon’s brother hadn’t told the story about the cat in the garage. Stories sometimes get a bad rap in Zen circles. I’ve heard “Oh, that’s just my story”—or it’s more aggressive variation “that’s just your story”—used as a way to dismiss an experience. And of course all stories are limited, conditional, incomplete. But in this case, through the unknowable, intricate patterns of cause and effect, a story—a simple recounting of a particular lived experience from a particular Dharma-position in time, space, karma—led, years later, to demonstrable benefit for a living being. That story—and the chain of events that led from it—saved Cosmo’s life.
Cause and effect. Just a week or so before our adventure with Cosmo, a man named Rafael Garcia, who I never met but lived about a block and a half from us, was murdered in front of his house. He was 41 years old. Our East Oakland neighborhood is fairly violent—most people on our block pretty much stay in their apartments most of the time. The network of conditions that led to his murder, like the network of conditions that led to Cosmo’s miraculous return, are too complex to fully understand. Someone had to buy a gun, to decide to use it. To be on that block on this particular summer evening. On and on.
I’ve heard two different versions from the neighbors. Someone said that he got robbed as he was coming home from work, and that he fought back and things escalated. Someone else said that he was just hanging out in front of his porch when it happened. The Oakland Police Department has put up a $10,000 reward for information, but I haven’t heard of anything coming of it.
For a while after Rafael Garcia’s murder, there was a makeshift altar on the steps of his house, flowers and photographs and candles, but now that’s been taken down.
This world is a devastating, glorious, inexorable place. It contains murder and it contains furry cats coming home to lap water from a bowl. It goes on forever, it never stops. It’s more than I can understand.
I want to be clear. I don’t mean for a moment that Rafael Garcia’s particular actions are somehow to blame for his murder. There is a perverted way of using the teaching of karma—to blame the suffering for their suffering—and I think it’s a deeply mistaken view. All I mean is that from the swirl of conditions a universe wide, the event of those gunshots arose. From the vast net of actions, of particular causes and conditions—consequences.
In the Eight Verses for Training the Mind, the seventh verse reads “May I quietly take upon myself all hurts and pains of my mothers.” Another way of saying that might be something like, May I not try to hold myself apart from the way things really are. May I not try to avoid the river of unknowable cause-and-effect, of ceaseless change, and the pain that follows from change.
As I worked on this post, Cosmo napped on a pile of laundry. There used to be some brightly colored plastic playground equipment on Rafael Garcia’s porch, but now that’s gone. Devon says that when she went by yesterday there was nothing left out there but a mattress against the gate.