Last week, under a news story about some other tragedy, the news source suggested some other stories I might be interested in. While I don’t usually take these recommendations, as part of my feeble attempt to control the negative media that I permit myself to absorb, this time, the top story caught my interest. At the Metropolitan Zoo in Santiago, Chile, a young man (a child…really…too young to order a beer in the United States), jumped into the lion enclosure, took off all his clothes and began to taunt the lions by shouting biblical quotes. They found a suicide note with the man’s clothing and the note was signed, “Jesus”. In order to save the man, the zoo was forced to shoot and kill the two lions. The male lion had been born into captivity. The female lion had been rescued from the circus. And, in that moment, the lives of the man, the lions and the zoo staff and all the children and adults who witnessed the happening unfold came together in a most unexpected and terrifying way.
I am a mother. I have empathy for those who love the man who jumped into the enclosure thinking he was God. Of course, they are sad about the lions and all the children who watched the lions shot and killed before their eyes. But, their prayers are for their boy. The young man’s mother had recently passed away and perhaps it was the depth of his grief that put him over the edge? Perhaps it was the angelic force of maternal love that saved him in that moment from death? From their perspectives, everything needed to be done to save the life of their friend, brother, son, nephew, lover. What happened was tragic, but necessary.
I am a human. My heart feels broken for those lions who never had a chance, never saw it coming, and were trapped in that deadly narrative not of their own making. While it could be argued that those lions did not have to suffer the natural cycle of hunger, hunting and being the hunted, we also must examine the price that they paid for this relief. A protected life behind bars may be an oxymoronic statement. Perhaps being behind bars creates the greatest vulnerability of all?
Yet, it’s a singular story. One specific day, with one young man who happens to believe he is God and decides not to swim with the sharks, not to wrestle with flamingos, not to cha cha with chimps. No, the man wants to sacrifice himself to lions. Say what you will about zoos, this sort of thing doesn’t happen everyday. As a matter of fact, I’ve never read anything like it before. So it brings up all these questions for me about perspective, fate and how the things we spend so much time worrying about aren’t likely to be what gets us in the end.
In the Spring 2016 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review magazine, there is a very interesting teaching by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on the idea of “interdependence”. He suggests that “…We’re related not by what we inherently are but by what we choose to do.” (SOURCE) Basically, we are interconnected through action. It’s terrifying and yet liberating because, while we may not be able to control the flood of thoughts through our mind, most of us have control over our actions. We can learn how to watch our perceptions, desires and clinging to pleasure and rejection of pain and start to see how what we might consider a “fact” is really just our opinion or a particular way of looking at things. The picture is of me, with my almost two-year old son, sitting outside the tiger enclosure at the Pittsburgh Zoo. By “outside”, I mean that there is a piece of plexiglass separating us from the tiger. But, the fact remains that we were sitting right there next to the tiger. In many ways, the facts of this picture are not unlike those of the situation at the zoo in Chile. Of course, there are some very important details that are not the same, but it’s less than a centimeter between us and that tiger.
Our actions impact the lives of others. Everything from spraying urine on the seat in a restroom and not wiping it up before leaving the stall to how we talk about our neighbors to what we plant in our gardens and whether or not we drive or take the bus to the fruit we eat (Is it in season? Is it local? If not, where did it come from? What was the human cost of that harvest?)……every action we take or fail to take brings us into unity with the vibration of all living beings. While some tragic events make this obvious, such as an act of terrorism or a mentally ill young man killing most of the first graders at the neighborhood school, we can deny it for the less obvious choices we make every moment of every day. How did you treat that snarky sales person? How did you treat yourself today? Did you say mean things to yourself about your appearance, weight, intelligence? Did you feed yourself an entire box of twinkies at your desk? Or did you feed yourself something nourishing and say kind words to yourself about both your perceived successes and failures?
We can look at this isolated and obviously tragic incident as separate from ourselves, or we can see how we are implicated in the system. Is it my fault that man decided to jump naked into the lion enclosure at the zoo? Well, no. But I am a part of this system. The Buddha’s teaching on karma, as taught by Thanissaro Bhikku in this Tricycle article, is that, “…the most compassionate course of action is to practice for your own awakening…The path to awakening involves generosity, virtue, and the skills of meditation, which include developing attitudes of unlimited goodwill and compassion. (TRICYCLE, Spring 2016, pages 76-77).” Be nice to your barista, compassionate with your assistant who messed up your calendar for the morning, and understanding to that lady who just cut you off in traffic, but gave you the middle finger mudra. Breathe. The actions you take today have just as much of an impact on the lives of other living beings as those of the man who thought he was Jesus, as much as the people who tried to save that lion from a circus, as much as those who shot those lions dead and the children who cried as they witnessed the situation unfold.
BY SANDRA MCPHERSON
Lions don’t need your help. In the Serengeti,
For instance, one thousand like the very rich
Hold sway over more than Connecticut. The mane
Of the lion, like the hooked jaw of the male salmon,
Acts as a shield for defense and is the gift
Of sexual selection. His eyes are fathomless amber.
The lion is the most social of the big cats.
Pride members are affectionate among themselves.
They rub cheeks when they meet. They rest
And hunt together. And cubs suckle indiscriminately.
But strangers or members of a neighboring pride are not
Usually accepted. If a pride male meets a strange female
He may greet her in a friendly fashion
And even mate with her
But the pride females will drive her off.
Male lions, usually depicted as indolent freeloaders
Who let the lionesses do all the hunting, are not mere
Parasites. They maintain the integrity of the territory.
Lions eat communally but completely lack table manners.
Indeed, lions give the impression that their evolution
Toward a social existence is incomplete—that cooperation
In achieving a task does not yet include
The equal division of the spoils.
More bad news: lions are not good parents.
But prowess, that they have. Their courage comes
From being built, like an automobile,
For power. A visible lion is usually a safe lion,
But one should never feel safe
Because almost always there is something one can’t see.
Given protection and power
A lion does not need to be clever.
Now, lions are not the most likable kind of animal
Unless you are a certain type of person,
That is, not necessarily leonine in the sense of manly
Or ferocious, but one who wouldn’t mind resting twenty
Of twenty-four hours a day and who is not beyond
Stealing someone else’s kill
About half the time.
Lions are not my favorite kind of animal,
Gazelles seem nicer,
A zebra has his own sort of appealing pathos,
Especially when he is sure prey for the lion.
Lions have little to offer the spirit.
If we made of ourselves parks and placed the lion
In the constituent he most resembled
He would be in our blood.
Sandra McPherson, “Lions” from Elegies for the Hot Season (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970). Copyright © 1970 by Sandra McPherson. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Elegies for the Hot Season (Ecco Press, 1970)
Written by Sharon Fennimore, a rogue anthropologist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I love to travel, take walks and seek inspiration in my environment. When I find something interesting, I share it on my blog and Facebook page: Pilgrimage Pittsburgh.