Quaker Universalist Conversations

Words to a Dying Cat: On Buddhist Right Speech vs. Quaker Testimony of Integrity

Excerpts from Light and Lotus (& Cats)

T has shared two previous posts from nir blog: “Bi-religious Duality” and “My Center.” The following are excerpts from nir latest post. Here is an introduction from T’s About page:

“The name T is encompassing of all my other names. As an agender person, I currently prefer to be called T (my preferred pronouns are ne/nem/nir). I’m a convinced Quaker and member of Third Haven Monthly Meeting.

“I am also a Buddhist: I formally took my Buddhist Refuge, Bodhisattva, and Precept vows on July 21, 2010 and was given the dharma name Tenzing Chödrön (“Truth light holder of the teachings”) by Easton Meditation Group.”

Kosette, from "Light and Lotus (& Cats)"
Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer
It was time. Kosette was 18 days shy of her 18th birthday, but though her chronic health conditions…appeared stable, new symptoms had manifested that strongly suggested she had a brain tumor behind one of her eyes. We’d watched Kosette’s behavior, likely due to the suspected brain tumor, deteriorate over the last two days.

We’d watched her suffer from anxiety–from fear of being left alone, but not wanting us to touch or pet her. We knew that, if she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, we would choose to euthanize her to end suffering….

Where before loading her into a carrier was easy and she would be relaxed the whole drive (and at the vet’s office), this time was different. She was confused and alarmed and fought us as we gently but firmly pushed her into the carrier. What used to be a calm, routine occurrence for her was now terrifying, as if this had never happened before. She was frantic and crying. Once in the car, she cried out in panic the entire drive to the vet.

Attempting to calm her, I told her repeatedly in the car, “It’s okay. It’s okay, Kosette. It’s okay.

I don’t know if it helped at all, but I had to try. My husband, who was driving, said nothing.

Later–after she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and we had made the decision to put her down (read more about Kosette here)–I asked my husband why he had said nothing.

Because it wasn’t okay. We were taking her to the vet to put her down.

Vine
Over a year later, this exchange has stuck with me, not just because of the sorrow of the moment, but because of how this exchange illustrates an apparent disagreement between my Quaker and Buddhist faiths….

For Quakers, telling the truth–the whole truth–is important. It is part of why I identify as a Quaker, because this act of being truthful–always–is an important part of why I am and has guided my behavior for as long as I can remember.

While Buddhism has a practice of Right Speech, this practice differences significantly from the Quaker Testimony of Integrity; in that Right Speech usually requires telling the truth, but not always:

"The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching," by Thich Nhat Hanh (1999) “Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, ‘I was just telling the truth.’ It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech.

The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is ‘Right’ in both form and content.”

— from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Vine
In those words I uttered to Kosette–“It’s okay”–I knew it was not okay. I knew we were likely taking her to the vet to put her down. There is nothing that is okay about having to make that decision.

But in that moment, I knew that–for me, at least–what was more important than telling the truth was saying something that could possibly relieve Kosette’s suffering and calm her down. “It’s okay” was what I would usually say to her when she was upset and I’m trying to calm her down. At that moment, I chose Right Speech over Integrity.

My husband, who is neither Quaker nor Buddhist but whose ethics usually accord with my own, chose to say nothing because he would not lie to her. And I also suspect it was easier for him at that heart-breaking moment to say nothing instead of saying something he knew in his core to be a lie.

Would I make the same choice if it had been a person I was speaking to instead of a cat? Reflecting back on that day, I believe both of us made the right decision, because both of us acted out of love for Kosette.

Please read the entire post on T’s blog.

Comments

Thank you for this very enlightening reflection on your response to Kosette. Two aspects I noticed.

Your cat instinctively knew what your intentions were. Animals perceive our intentions through various ways that are not in a spoken language. Maybe your anxiety was conveyed. At this point, who knows?

The second aspect was that you did something whereas your partner seemed to have done nothing, except drive to the vets. Both of you were showing your love, each in your own way.

I think Kosette sensed this. That wasn’t the problem for her. She was assured of your love, but at the same time she was letting you know that she “would not go gently into that good night!”

I would follow the Buddhist way rather than the Quaker in this situation. No matter what was said or unsaid to the cat, her fate was sealed. That being true, your attempt to reduce the cat’s anxiety seems more loving and appropriate than your husband’s silence.