Shasta_Abbey_cats

A king, a cat and a monk will all sit in the highest places. – Zen saying

Located in a rural area on 16 forested acres at the foot of Mount Shasta in Northern California, Shasta Abbey is a Buddhist monastery of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. Founded in 1970, the monastery serves as a training center for Buddhist monks and a place of practice for lay people.

It is also home to 12 cats, ranging in age from 3 to 18 . “The kitties just somehow make their way to the abbey,” says Reverend Helen Cummings. “They find us.” Only one of the current residents came from the Siskiyou County Humane Society, a local no-kill shelter. (The monks perform a monthly blessing for the animals at the Humane Society.)

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Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett, who founded the abbey in 1970, always had animals, and saw them as teachers of patience, compassion and acceptance. “These are all things we value so much,” said Cummings, “and what better teachers!” She adds “these little beings will listen to whatever it is you’re dealing with – pain, anger, you name it.”

The current Abbess, Reverend Master Meian Elbert, shares her life with two of the 12 cats. “We don’t say ‘we have cats’,” says Reverend Cummings, “we’re their caretakers.” The cats wander about the whole property, so in that sense, they’re everyone’s cats, but they will stay with their “own” monks in their rooms.

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“It’s just so wonderful to be able to share these lovely beings and rejoice in them,” says Cummings. When one dies, the monks celebrate his or her life and offer a funeral and memorial service, then bury them in the abbey’s pet cemetery. “People visit their graves,” says Reverend Cummings. “These beings are as close to us as family members.”

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Since meditation is a central part of Buddhist practice, I asked whether the cats meditate with the monks. “We meditate in community in our meditation hall,” explained Cummings. “The cats don’t generally get into that space, but we’ll frequently find them sitting right outside during meditation.” During Sunday ceremonies, the cats will try to join the proceedings. “We smile when we pick them up and carry them outside,” says Cummings.

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The abbey also offers a number of programs that are open to the public, including meditation instruction, retreats, teaching and spiritual counseling. While the cats are not officially part of these programs, they do make their presence known. The chief cook’s cat is often seen outside the kitchen, greeting guests (or perhaps waiting for a hand out?), and the guest monk has a cat who is very much alert and present when guests come.

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“They have a sense of being at home,” says Reverend Cummings about the cats. I can’t think of a lot of places that would make a better home for cats.

For more information about Shasta Abbey, please visit their website. The abbey is a 501-(c3) non-profit organization. In the Buddhist tradition of dana (spirit of generosity,) the abbey does not charge for any of its offerings. They are deeply grateful for any kindness and support that helps them maintain the abbey.

All photos ©Ensho, used with permission.

24 Comments on The Cats at Shasta Abbey

  1. We were there for a funeral in 1974. It was a beautiful experience and have never forgotten it. I remember there were a lot of dogs, I think a lot of beagles and the names were like : It, She, He, etc. Are there still dogs around? The experience there was very comforting!

  2. I also share my humble life with approx.14 kitties which have been dumped by uncaring people.I love and feed them all.

  3. Oh how I wish I could go to your monetary!!!! It must be wonderful there. And I dearly love the cats! I have some of my own too

  4. I think it is wonderful what you give to and provide for the kitties. But why are they not allowed to come into the meditation proceedings? I would not think they would do any harm and it is their home too…just a question. Thanks.

  5. Yow what a pawsum story about da Mt Shasta kittehz…we finkz da Hu’manz dere are bunderfull n we lub dat cemetary fer da kittehz what go to Summerland! Phankz fer sharin dere storey wif us.
    Nylablue n Sherriellen Mum
    (Da Purrfect Pad)

  6. How lovely. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this. My husband’s dad had a home at Shasta, and we visited often, but I never heard about the Abbey. I would have visited had I know. Thanks for sharing. Hugs, Janet

  7. What a great story, love this! I wonder what the monks feed the cats since the monks themselves are likely vegetarian and don’t believe in eating animal products? I am guessing they realize the kitties are obligate carnivores and need meat to survive so there’s no contradiction. Anyway-just curious, thanks for posting this endearing article!

    • I asked Reverend Cummings about this, and this is what she wrote to me: “We monks are vegetarian (though we do have eggs, cheese and milk), but we don’t impose this on the kitties. They ARE obligate carnivores and need meat for their good health and overall thriving. Feeding them in this way lessens the likelihood of them from going after the birds and lizards, another –though not as obligate – aspect of cat behavior! And also they are cats, and we can’t change, insist, or force them to be anything otherwise. As one of our Scriptures actually says “…of cats there some kinds, and also some white cows, that perfect are just as they are…” So we offer an array of cat food flavors, wet food and kibble. Dr. Colleran (the cats’ veterinarian) has been a great help in giving us good advice about suitable brands and diets.”

      • Oh great, thanks for asking Ingrid! I knew there had to be some exception to the rule but it was interesting to read the response – thanks!

  8. This looks like a very peaceful, special place. Quiet and plenty of cats! I would love to visit someday.

  9. I love it. Cats can bring such harmony into our lives, so it seems logical that they would be drawn to such a place.

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