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.)
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.