Buddhist Dog-Brain

For the most part, dogs in the USA have it made:  They don’t have to work. They don’t have to worry about rent or taxes, They don’t have to worry about feeding their kids. So if I had to choose, heck, maybe being reborn as a dog would be better than being reborn as a human in my next life.  Heck, nowadays even calling someone a “dawg” is considered a compliment.

But anyone can tell you, much of the world treats dogs horribly.  I use to live in Pakistan where Muslims hated dogs.  Calling someone a “dog” is a deep insult in Islam.   It is not uncommon in Pakistan for people to throw rocks at dogs.  I saw diseased, malnourished, maimed dogs wander around towns all over Pakistan.  They run for cover every time some bends over in fear that another stone would come whistling toward their heads.  I even saw dogs get attacked with knifes and then wander about with a bloody dangling ear looking for food.

So it may not seem that being reborn a dog is such a good idea given the risk of being born in a Muslim country.  But even suffering dogs seem to suffer very differently than we humans do.  I am sure you noticed something I have:  dogs don’t pity themselves like we do.  You see 3-legged dogs hop around like nothing happened.  They wag their tails and play around just like other dogs.  Even the dog with the dangling bloody ear acted like almost nothing happened.  It seems like a dog can find happiness much easier than us humans.  It seems that they don’t have half the self-pity that we human carry around.  So it seems like hoping to be reborn a dog might not be as bad as you imagine even if I were reborn in Pakistan. [BTW, I love much about that country — just not they way they treat dogs and women.  Well and a few other classical Muslim things.]

So is it possible to have a Dog Brain when we face suffering?  I have recently been reading about Dzogchen (a stream of Buddhism).  Dzogchen idealizes the “non-dualistic” state.  Dzogchen looks at dualistic thinking like it is a curse.  Maybe that is what a dog doesn’t have — maybe they don’t have a sense of self that allow self-pity.  So  maybe these Buddhist are trying to shut down the parts of their human brains that make them human and returning to being a simpler mammal like a dog.  Well I am sure that is not a 100% true (smile), because I know Buddhists manage to keep the parts of the brain that enjoys all the wonders of the world.  And I doubt that dogs feel the wonder and awe that we do.  So maybe Buddhist are having their cake (a dog’s lack of self-pity) and eating it too (human awe).

That may sound derogatory and sacrilegious to Buddhists but maybe that is because all of us carry about a little Muslim in us that looks down at dogs.  Just as my earlier post asked the reader to see the beauty of the apparently sacrilegious phrase, “life is a game“, so today I am wondering if it is possible for readers to pause their dualistic mind long enough to see why desiring a dog brain may not be half bad?

Question to Readers:  Why do you think dogs can act fairly normal with injuries that would cause  major depression many of us?  Have you seen this?


Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Buddhist Dog-Brain

  1. DaCheese

    A very interesting (and for me, timely) post. Letting go of what you may have lost, and getting on with the business (and joy) of living, is a very important skill that we all need to practice from time to time.

    Of course, the scientific reductionist in me wonders if the dogs are *really* so Zen about it, or if they just don’t show their inner discomfort so openly. Dogs are known to be susceptible to “learned helplessness” (in fact they were used in the experiment that founded this behavioral theory), so I wouldn’t be surprised if they are susceptible to other depressive states as well. It could be that they simply hide or suppress any self-pity might feel, as it would not be advantageous in typically hierarchical canine social structures.

  2. I used to have thoughts like these until I thought what it would be like to have no fingers. Maybe, as a Buddhist I’m a bit too “attached” to my hands, but I’d sure dislike having to pick up everything with my mouth. Playing the ukulele would be a bitch, too.

  3. DaCheese :
    Wow, accidental timing. Glad for it though.
    Also, I think you are right. One of our dogs (we have 3) wouldn’t eat or go outside for days after the other died. It took about 3 months until his behavior normalized. Sounds like depressed to me. I don’t know though: maybe part of meditation is enlivening and part is turning down. Part of the turning down seems to be going back to easier animal forms while maintaining some humanness.

    Dan :
    I guess even Hungry Ghosts need a little Ukulele music! Play on my friend!!

  4. Temaskian

    Great idea, and timely for me too!

  5. Temaskian

    Maybe some dogs are more Buddhist than others!

  6. Jenny

    “Why do you think dogs can act fairly normal with injuries that would cause major depression many of us?”

    Because contrary to popular belief, dogs aren’t people.

  7. Temaskian


  8. Love your new slogan under the Triangulations title, btw.

    I’ve seen dogs carry on quite oblivious to changes in self, quite content despite physical or family changes. Mentally healthy dogs have a remarkable keenness for living in the moment, being present and not getting bogged down by past or future.

    I’ve been reading something recently on theories of self. Dogs are social animals like human beings, but social in some very different ways. I don’t think all dogs would recognize themselves in a mirror, for example, so they might not even know what to pity if they were to experience self-pity. I’d imagine their ‘self’ is made up in great part by their social placement and their group and not just individual intentions or motivations or conditions.

    I’d agree with you – there is a lot we can learn about our selves from animals that may look at their selves differently.

  9. @ Andrew G :
    Thanks, I keep playing with that tag line just like I keep playing with this blog. I agree with your comment.

  10. I’ve experienced severe physical trauma a couple of times; and found that it was impossible to be depressed when I was dealing with it. I was lucid and took notes about both incidents shortly after, and a common contributor to the lack of depression/anxiety was the rapidly shrinking time horizon induced by the trauma. Depression and anxiety comes from worry about the future, and when you’re living minute to minute, you don’t have time to stress about the future. This is almost certainly a factor with dogs, who don’t have nearly as large a time horizon as we do.

    In the case of the dogs, I think low mental capacity is also a factor. Of the two major trauma incidents in my life, one involved tremendous cognitive impairment for about 12 hours. I experienced what it would probably be like to mentally retarded; and remember eventually wondering if people would make fun of me (since I just assumed it was my new permanent state — future thinking took too much effort). But it took too much effort to stress out about what people might think, and so the source of anxiety just evaporated. One doesn’t realize how much mental effort is required to be anxious until one tries it while retarded. I was retarded, but happy.

    As another data point, one of my closest friends had a brain aneurysm about 2 weeks ago, and required open brain surgery. He is in the hospital right now recovering. He’s expected to make a full recovery, but was initially unable to talk, recognize his name, or understand basic language. During the week or so that he was barely cognitive, he was terribly annoyed by the tubes in his brain and throat, but I doubt that he experienced these as existential anxieties or sources of depression. In other words, to the extent that he remembers at all, I think he’ll remember the times of lowest cognitive capability as being the most stress-free, and he’ll find that anxiety and stress gradually come back in correlation with full cognitive recovery. This is speculation, of course, but something I’ll be discussing with him soon enough.

    Dan Ariely has done research that could illuminate a third reason for the happiness of the dogs in your examples. Dan has shown that people with major trauma tend to react more positively than they expect, but he showed that people who have repeated and chronic illness with no hope of recovery are the ones who become depressed. IMO, it’s not the “lack of hope for recovery” that causes the depression — despite what the self-help gurus say about “hope for a better day”. I think it’s the future expectation of suffering that eventually gets to people. IOW, thinking about the future is the *problem*, not the cure. I’m virtually certain you’ll find the same with dogs: slice that dog’s ear every month at random, and watch him turn into a chronically depressed and skittish creature.

  11. Sabio Lantz

    @ JS Allen

    Worrying about the future vs worrying about the injury or past is an interesting distinction. I agree that the notion of time may have something to do with it. But maybe the notion of time may also be part of the notion of self.

  12. Anon Dog Lover and Buddhist

    Actually, dogs in the US do not have it made. 4,000,000 are put down in shelters each year. I have seen dogs sliced with sledgehammers, burned over 95% of their bodies, thrown out in sealed bags. 16,000 dogs die in dog rings each year in our “dog-friendly” country. More than 3/5 dogs that are purchased do not stay with a single family their whole lives and end up at high-kill shelters. 2/3 will be euthanized. The abuse statistics are staggering.

    If you are Buddhist, or if you love animals, please don’t support the puppy industry- instead, save a life. Adopt a dog who was surrendered due to no fault of its own, and give it the one thing it wants: to love and be loved.

    It bears repeating: Adopt. Do not buy.

  13. Anon Dog Lover and Buddhist

    Also, dogs do indeed feel suffering. If you have ever volunteered at an animal shelter and seen the utter look of devastation that a dog has when you put it back in its cage, close the door, and walk away, you know this.

    If you have ever seen a dog terrified of being lovingly stroked because its last owner brutally abused it, you know that a dog is capable of suffering and fear.

    If you have ever seen a dog refuse to eat, lose all desire to play, start to have its hair fall out, and lose interest in people after its long-time family abandons it to a shelter, you know a dog can feel depression.

    I am Buddhist and usually appreciate discussions about aspects of suffering, but this article struck me as overly academic and far removed from the realities of an animal’s inner world.

    Yes, dogs bounce back much more quickly than humans. But they only bounce back if they have their most fundamental need: the reciprocal love from a human or another animal who is their “pack”. With abuse and isolation, a dog loses its spark. But start giving that depressed, trembling dog regular love, attention and patience? It’ll forget all about that old hurt and slowly start to heal. It is about healing and nurture, not a static “dog mind” with which all dogs are imbued.

  14. @ Dog Lover,
    We have 3 shelter dogs. I agree with many of your points. I have seen my dogs take time to heal after taken from a bad shelter and horrid pre-shelter experiences. Sorry my post seemed “overly academic and far removed from the realities of an animal’s inner world”. But I hope the point of my post was meaningful to other readers even though my perceived ignorance stopped you from finding anything meaningful in my post. Keep up the good work with dogs.

  15. Ok, you may me feel bad. Our adopted dog died in December. I decided that we would not get another one. Taking care of a dog takes more money and time than I imagined. If you use that money to take care of a dog there is less money left to take care of people.
    So the thing is can the suffering of a dog be said to be equal to the suffering of a person?
    I do not want an unwanted dog to be sad. But, I think that I do not want a person to be sad even more. That would seem to point to euthanizing dogs as the most humane solution. Humans who care about suffering have a limited amount of resources to alliviate and prevent suffering. I think that preventing and alliviating the suffering of humans has to get priority.
    Yet I am willing to listen to your response and maybe this summer after we have moved I might adopt another dog.

  16. Dennis

    My German shepherded always reads me,emotionally ,happy,sad,were am I going,if I grab my shoes he gets my socks.always reads strangers.Great gaurd dog.all I have to do is say watch.he is always in the same room as me.

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