By Dewain Belgard I was driving home from work when I first saw Sister Dog. She appeared thin and hungry. Her collar was too tight, and she was dragging a broken leash. I suspected she had been homeless for some time.
The neighborhood where I saw her has a reputation for danger and violence. Yet despite my fear, I found myself stopping the car. I got out and called to her softly, "Sister Dog, could you use some help?" But evidently her experience with human beings had not left her with any basis for trust. She disappeared under a nearby abandoned house.
I tried for a few minutes to coax her out, but it was getting dark. And with darkness, the danger of the area increased. An obviously intoxicated man approached me and put his hand in his pocket. I expected him to produce a gun or knife, but he just stooped down with me and said, "That your dog?" "No," I told him, "I'm just trying to get her to come out so I can remove the collar. I'm afraid it's choking her." He nodded in agreement. It occurred to me that he also was probably hungry and homeless. "I guess she's not coming out," I said. I got up and walked to my car, wondering with every step if he would try to stop me.
The next day I went back to the same place at noon, but Sister Dog wasn't there. I drove by again after work, and this time she was standing on the sidewalk where I had first seen her. I had brought food with me. I offered it to her, but she ran under the abandoned house again. I left the food in the alley nearby and returned to the car to watch. In a few seconds, she came out cautiously and ate the food. The next day I returned and put out more food and some water. That evening when I drove by, the food and water were still there untouched. I checked several times after that, but never saw her again.
For some time afterwards I couldn't get the image of Sister Dog out of my mind. It was difficult to sit down at the table to eat or to lie down in the comfort of my bed at night without thinking of her. It seemed to me that the suffering of millions of sisters and brothers, both human and nonhuman, had rolled itself into one little mass of flesh and had confronted me in Sister Dog. I felt overwhelmed by feelings of sorrow and pity.
In observing these feelings of sorrow and pity, I noticed how different they were from the spontaneous and unselfconscious feeling of compassion that had appeared when I first saw Sister Dog. That feeling of compassion was not overwhelming at all, but the subsequent feelings of sorrow and pity were draining me of energy.
I realized then that pity is not a wholesome feeling. Pity is demeaning. It doesn't see the nobility of the one who is suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is never separated from the noble and miraculous nature of awareness that shines through even the deepest misery. Compassion doesn't drain us because it connects us to the infinite energy of our true self.
I am grateful to Sister Dog for this insight. I no longer see her as a poor helpless victim to be pitied, but as a Mahasattva Bodhisattva — a Great Being, a Being of Light. I feel honored and privileged to have met her.
Dewain Belgard, True Good Vows, is a social worker and practices with the Blue Iris Sangha in New Orleans.