In Praise of the Cat Path; or, I Can’t Save Me
Heaven help me I’m
Drownin’ and I can’t save me
Send some salvation
To keep me alive–Anna Nalick, “Satellite”
On Facebook, posts with cats get lots of traffic. Maybe the same will be true of my blog because of this post! 😉 Even if not, cats are never out of place….
Back here, I made reference to the Hindu concept of cat paths (or religions) and monkey paths. Though I had originally encountered the term long ago–probably sometime in the 80’s–I couldn’t remember the original source of the metaphor (though I think it was in something by Huston Smith). I did find a worthwhile and very readable discussion of the concepts here.
The poles of my religious life are Buddhism and Christianity. I was raised in a vague and generic cultural Protestantism, without ever belonging to a church. When I read the Dhammapada in my freshman year of college, it was the beginning of a long flirtation with and study of Buddhism, though once more I never actually took refuge or joined a sangha. Eventually, I moved back towards Christianity, eventually joining the Catholic Church twenty-eight years ago and change. Throughout all this time, and up to the present day, I have periodically practiced Buddhist forms of meditation and Catholic devotions. It has been a sort of oscillation between the two ends of the spectrum, Buddhism and Christianity.
However, when I reread the Bhagavad Gita, I discovered that I was actually more Hindu than I thought. Why that’s so I discussed here. The point I want to make is that in some ways Hinduism does a better job of categorizing human religious thought and response than either Buddhism or Christianity manage to do. This is probably because of Hinduism’s long-standing and in fact dizzying pluralism, coupled with its enormous antiquity and the availability of holy men and scholars who have analyzed Hindu thought for millennia. These sages have long realized that human temperaments are varied, and that each relates best to the Absolute–i.e. God–in different ways. Thus, despite my tendency to ping-pong around the poles of Buddhism and Christianity, I think that using Hindu categories will be most effective for this post. Thus, I’ll put on my sannyasi robes and adopt a Hindu perspective for what follows. Namaste, and let’s start!
One way Hindus analyze religion is as one of various forms of yoga. In this context, “yoga” does not mean a series of exercises, headstands, and such. “Yoga” comes from a Sanskrit root that shares a common ancestor with our own word “yoke”. Just as a yoke ties two oxen together, yoga ties a human to the Divine. How this union of human and divine is to be accomplished varies, since humans are different and their needs and abilities differ. The four basic yogas are generally said to be jñāna, bhakti, karma, and rāja. Jñāna yoga is the yoga of knowledge. “Jñāna”, in fact, is cognate to the Greek word “gnosis” and our own “knowledge”. This is not knowledge in the sense of information, but mystical knowledge of the Divine. Jñāna yoga is essentially the path of the theologian or philosopher who though study, introspection, and speculation about the nature of self gradually comes to a realization of the Divine.
“Bhakti” means “devotion”. Bhakti yoga is the path of loving devotion to God as conceptualized through one’s personal favorite deity (known in Sanskrit as iṣṭa-devatā, “beloved deity”). Which deity one chooses depends on one’s personality, temperament, and needs; but once having selected an iṣṭa-devatā, the devotee focuses all his devotion, prayers, and rituals on him (or her). In jñāna yoga, the Divine is often conceptualized in very abstract and impersonal terms. In bhakti yoga, the Divine is always personal, cherished, loved, and worshiped as a person.
We are all familiar with the word “karma”, but in this context it doesn’t mean getting back what you deserve from the cosmos. The literal meaning of “karma” is “deed”. Thus, karma yoga is the yoga of deeds. One doesn’t just speculate in the abstract about the Divine, or just pray to a deity. One puts one’s money where one’s mouth is and dedicates all one’s actions to the Divine. This can be directly, by doing charity work, helping the poor, becoming an activist, or supporting one’s local religious organization. More broadly, though, the idea is that one dedicates the fruits and merits of all one’s actions to the Divine, as one conceives it. For example, a janitor might consider that he’s really sweeping the floor for Krishna; or a cook might make meals as if he’s cooking for Vishnu.
“Rāja yoga” literally means “the yoga of kings” or “king yoga”. Rāja yoga is the path of direct mystical practice. Instead of pondering God, like the jñāna yogin (yoga practitioner), or praising and worshiping Him like bhakti yogin, or serving Him like the karma yogin, the rāja yogin wants to experience God directly. This is done through long-term ascetic practice, involving dietary changes, physical postures and exercises, often (but not always) celibacy (known as brahmacharya), complex ritual practice, in some cases, and intense meditation. The exercises we think of when we say “yoga” are properly hatha yoga–“the yoga of force”–and are a subdivision of rāja yoga. The idea is that the exercises help to discipline and purify the body, so that afterwards, the mind can be properly focused on the Divine.
The Hindu idea is that all these various yogas are legitimate, with different ones being appropriate for different people. More broadly, one could categorize entire religions or branches of religions as being more or less like one of the four yogas. Christianity, which emphasizes devotion to Christ, is obviously bhakti. Judaism, with its emphasis on the 613 commandments of the Torah, is more like a karma path. Buddhism has an intensely jñānin aspect to it. Mystics and contemplatives of all faiths could be said to be rāja yogins. All have the same destination–the Divine, God–but they approach by different paths.
The distinction between cat paths and monkey paths is a simpler model than that of the four yogas. These paths are named, obviously, from the observation of cats and monkeys, and what they do with their young. To reverse the order I’ve been using, a monkey, from a very early age, must grasp its mother’s back for dear life–literally. As the mother walks, runs, jumps, or climbs, the baby must keep tight hold of her. It is literally up to the young one to stay with the mother. On the other hand, with cats, the kittens need exert no effort at all–need not even be awake. Mother cat carries her kittens by the scruff of the neck and takes them where they need to be. They’re just along for the ride.
Hence the metaphors. God (or more neutrally, the Divine) is the mother and we are the baby monkey or kitten. With the monkey path, the idea is that the responsibility for our spiritual lives is completely on ourselves. God is not going to do the work for us–we have to seek Him. Ascetic practice, fasting, meditation–whatever it is we do, it is based on our initiative and the effort we put into the spiritual quest. Like the baby monkey, we have to hold on tight, since it’s our responsibility not to fall off. Clearly, from this perspective jñāna and rāja yoga are monkey paths. To some extent, karma yoga is, too, though not completely. As to religions, Judaism, with its emphasis on performing the requirements of the Law, is a monkey path. Buddhism and Jainism, with their strong non-theistic views and their emphasis on practice, tend to be monkey paths (though some schools of Buddhism are otherwise). Hinduism has some schools that are oriented towards the monkey path–Shaivism, for example, emphasizes personal effort.
The cat path is the opposite of the monkey path. Just as a mother cat carries her kitten, with the latter needing to make no effort at all, cat paths emphasize the initiative of the Divine, however conceived, over any actions by humans. The Divine freely gives grace or merit to humanity, allowing them access to salvation or enlightenment not through their own efforts, but by the gift of the Divine. Now, cat paths, like monkey paths, have things you actually do–there are rites and rituals, hymns and prayers, liturgies and devotions. The difference is in how they are understood. In a monkey path, prayer or meditation or liturgy, for example, might be understood as methods by which the practitioner forges his path to the Divine. In a cat path, such things might be seen as having value, but they are not instrumental. I am not saved (to use Christian terminology) because of what I do; rather, my actions might indicate my response to a salvation already granted. For example: In some schools of Buddhism, chanting a mantra might be part of a program of meditation and spiritual practice, where it is conceived of as helping develop certain states of mind conducive to enlightenment. In short, just as pumping iron builds your muscles, chanting builds your spirit.
By contrast, in Pure Land Buddhism, it is said that if even the worst sinner invokes the Buddha Amitābha by chanting his mantra (“Namo Amitābhāya” in Sanskrit, but most commonly said in Chinese–“Nāmó Āmítuófó“–or Japanese–“Namu Amida Butsu“) even once, with faith, the sinner will, by Amitābha’s power, be reborn into the Pure Land, a blissful land of perfection, in which enlightenment is inevitable. Unlike in the previous case, saying the mantra is not considered to to be efficacious as such. Rather, to do so acknowledges the helplessness of the one reciting the mantra, and serves in effect as an acknowledgement and acceptance of the power of Amitābha, who has vowed to use his infinite merits for the benefit of sentient beings.* There are other practices in Pure Land Buddhism, of course; but these are more supports or reminders to the believer, rather than means of salvation.
Pure Land Buddhism is thus obviously a cat path. Christianity is, too–the unilateral action of Christ in his death and resurrection is what makes salvation possible. There has been a perennial debate on works vs. grace, which boils down to arguing the extent to which human actions are necessary in addition to the grace offered through Christ. I intend to give that debate a wide berth. Suffice it to say that by any interpretation, Christianity is clearly in its essence a cat path. Bhakti yoga is a cat path, as it involves pure devotion to a saving deity. Karma yoga, though tending towards the monkey end of the spectrum, has some aspects of the cat path in that one often dedicates one’s actions to a deity. The idea is that you’re not “saving yourself” as such, but making your deeds an offering to a deity who saves you. Within Hindu denominations, Vaishnavism (especially Gaudiya Vaishnavism) and Shaktism tend to be cat paths. Islam has some characteristics of monkey and cat paths, depending on interpretation.
So why do I want to praise the cat path? As Americans, the so-called Protestant work ethic has always been a huge part of our cultural psyche. The American values of independence, individualism, and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps are closely allied concepts. From the very beginning, Americans have tended to look at spirituality and religion as a technique, a discrete set of actions that, if properly performed, would make us a spiritual–and perhaps also temporal–Utopia, or to use the well-known phrase, a “city upon a hill“. It’s no coincidence that Utopian communities (such as the Oneida and New Harmony communes) and new religious movements have proliferated throughout American history, from the Deism of the Founders down to the New Age and beyond. It’s also no coincidence that all these movements tend towards dynamic action–we Americans have never been temperamentally contemplative, and it’s no surprise that “don’t just stand there, do something” is a typical Americanism. No matter how much we may love cats as pets, we are firmly committed to monkeys as a path! Even self-help literature–a peculiarly American genre–is in essence a secularized version of the monkey path. If you do such-and-such, you’ll lose weight or win friends and influence people or get your heart’s desire, and so on.
In writing about the Dhammapada, I had this to say:
[The Dhammapada] showed me that religion could be an active choice. The emphasis throughout the Dhammapada is on what you do, on making the effort to take the path. Once more, very much different from the “born again” Christianity of my youth with its emphasis on the powerlessness of the believer.
I was very young then, of course. The idea of the rugged monk heroically forging his own path to enlightenment by asceticism and meditation was romantically appealing to me as a teenager. Of course, I never actually did any of that–I don’t have an ascetic bone in my body, really, and my meditation practice has always been pretty spotty. Also, I don’t think I ever seriously had any notion of giving it all up to be a monk or ascetic of any religious tradition. Still, like most Americans, I had the internalized notion that I should not just stand there, but do something. It took me a long time to do something–I didn’t enter the Church until I was almost twenty-seven–but at least I could say that one of these days I was going to get serious with my spirituality–kind of like I was going to get serious and lose weight.
Alas for such ambitions. Weight loss has been a yoyo thing for me, and at fifty-five I am increasingly skeptical that I’ll ever reach my supposedly “ideal” weight, or maintain it if I do. As to religious practice, I’ve been all over the place. Mass on weekdays and holy days is really the only thing I’ve maintained, having missed it not more than a dozen times in twenty-eight years. Everything else has gone through cycles. I’m not even sure I’m a better or more spiritual person than I was twenty-eight or more years ago. Sometimes my life seems to echo Paul Simon: “The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away.” More and more I feel that the human predicament is truly insoluble in a profound way, both for individuals and societies. Maybe that’s just middle-aged jadedness. I don’t know. All I can say is that more and more, I want to cry out, in the words quoted at the top of this post, “I’m drowning, and I can’t save me/ Send some salvation to keep me alive.” Interestingly, until I Googled the lyrics to make sure I had them right, I’d always heard the first phrase as, “I’ve tried it, and I can’t save me.” Both sets of lyrics work, actually; and the first is how I often feel.
Does that mean I’m giving up on even trying? No. No matter what, it is our lot in life at least to try, to struggle to do better, both in secular life, in personal life, and in one’s spirituality. Quitting is not an option, attractive as it might seem at times. I have, however, given up on the American belief in the monkey path. No matter how hard we try, we’ll fall off mother monkey, sooner or later, and probably often. If the God of infinite love, mercy, and compassion as revealed in Christ is indeed as He is said to be–and I believe He is–then no matter how roundly and frequently we screw up, He can deal with it, picking us up again and again as a mother cat does. I take sin and human imperfection deadly seriously; but my philosophical and emotional shift to the cat path perspective is part of what makes me increasingly convinced of an ultimate universalism. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to try to lead better lives. It does mean that there is no magical spiritual or temporal self-help method that’s ever going to fully fix us or the world. If we are to be saved, if there is to be a new heaven and a new earth someday, we’re not the ones who are going to implement it. That much should be plainly obvious. We must continue to strive, but we also must put away any expectations of success. In the end, we are all mewling, bedraggled kittens, and our one hope is in the love of our Mother Cat.
*I am aware that there is an alternate interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism which is, to put it simply, that it’s a monkey path that just looks like a cat path. There is a distinction in Pure Land Buddhism between jiriki–“self-power”, or spiritual development based on one’s own abilities and efforts–and tariki–“other-power”, the merits and spiritual attainment bestowed on one by an outside being such as a Buddha or bodhisattva. The alternate interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism to which I’m referring argues that the distinction between jiriki and tariki is an illusion. The idea is that one starts with a notion of an exterior deity that give assistance when invoked. As one continues in the practice, one develops greater insight and wisdom, and comes to realize that the “other-power” is actually coming from within. Amitābha is thus not so much a buddha who confers merits on the supplicant, but a metaphor for the potential for enlightenment within each of us. The more spiritually developed one becomes, the more one understands the metaphor as a metaphor, and the more one is able to work out her own salvation, so so speak. There is some controversy, both in Asia and in the West, as to whether this is a correct interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism, but that’s a debate I’m not interested in. For the purposes of this post, I’m using the straightforward interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism as being exactly what it is presented as–a religion that stresses the unilateral action of an outside Divine being, and hence, a cat path.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“
Posted on 20/07/2018, in Christianity, Hinduism, religion and tagged Anna Nalick, bhakti, buddhism, cat paths, Christianity, four yogas, Hinduism, jñāna, karma, monkey paths, religion, rāja, spirituality, yoga. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.