Going to the Dogs?

“Buddha!” she called. “Come here! Buddha!" Her command had yet to work, and the young woman anxiously fingered the visor of her baseball cap.

“Buddha!”

“You call your dog Buddha?” I asked in disbelief as a honey-colored mutt slithered up, displaying shame for misbehaving in his every crouching step.

I had not seen the young woman before. The regulars of this downtown Manhattan dog run know the names of all the dogs, but not of one another. The anonymity is part of the morning ritual.

"Why did you name your dog Buddha?" I asked.

“He’s a good dog,” she said. “What’s your dog’s name?”

Strangely unprepared for this most common of questions, I answered, somewhat sheepishly, “Moses. My dog's name is Moses. He was found in the bulrushes.”

Moses, a one-hundred-pound half shepherd with long wolfy legs, is usually the tallest, if the not the heaviest dog in the park. Not merely by my own biased assessment, Moses is the most gentle, noble, and dignified of beasts. Buddha, with a silky golden-retriever coat, exuded a goofy, happy-go-lucky disposition, willfully happy, a Pepsi ad from the heartland - a sweet, guileless, casual, careless, and unwise kind of dog. An American buddha, he lacked the contained grace of ancient ways, chased his tail, and cavorted with his shadow.

This was not my first encounter with dog-run dharma. Only weeks before, on a wind-whipped morning that brought out only the faithful, I had walked into a conversation about travels in the East. A man whose pedigreed Jack Russell was nagging for the pleasures of being swung by his front paws recounted his visit to the relics of Avalokiteshvara, the founder of Buddhism, in an outpost of Tibet. The owner of two half-breeds contradicted him, informing us that Shakyamuni was the founder of Buddhism. “I thought it was Siddhartha,” said a woman, “like in Herman Hesse.”

“Siddhartha is the first name of Shakyamuni,” said the half-breeds man authoritatively. “I was in India last year.”

“But have you been to Tibet?” countered the Jack Russell owner. “It’s different there.”

The Hesse reader explained that she travels in search of fabrics for Ralph Lauren, then spoke of a serendipitous meeting with a Buddhist monk in Taiwan that led to her joining a retreat in a secluded mountain temple.

That morning I had departed amused by the conversation. But canine Buddha got under my skin. I wondered if this could be just one more indication of the growing interest in Buddhism. Was it also an indication that the boundary between the sacred and profane was being beneficially dissolved—or destructively land-mined? The Tricycle office is around the corner from a Chinese restaurant called Big Buddha. The new SoHo office that we’re moving to is up the street from the hip Buddhabar. I am considering these questions as Moses and I walk into the wind up Seventh Avenue to the office where I shall spend another day spreading dharma, selling dharma, selling magazines, looking at ads that sell dharma, accepting them to sell dharma, to spread dharma. Buddha dog: avatar of the end of the beginning, or of the beginning of the end?

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