The Cat

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Several Buddhist deities are associated with members of the cat family:  Dakini Pukkasi holds a lion, Vaishravana rides a lion, Dombi Heruka and Dorje Drollo ride a tiger.  Among the animals held by great Hevajra is a mysterious one that appears to be feline.

According to a traditional account, Princess Mandarava, wife of the young Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), manifested as a cat-faced dakini during the couple's sojourn in Bengal.  This may have influenced the adoption of Buddhism by huge numbers of the population since Devi, Bengal's Great Goddess, is identified with both the lion and the tiger.    

Buddhist sage, Taranatha, tells a story about the magical powers of Aryadeva, who was a disciple of Nagarjuna (2nd century.) After his guru died, Aryadeva received a message from a crow that emanated from a self-manifested image of Mahakala at Nalanda University.  It begged him to return to northern India in order to defeat a brahmin known as "Evil One Difficult to Subdue."  (According to Buston, this person is now known to us as the Buddhist poet, Matricheta (ca. 160.)) 

On his journey north, he was waylaid by a woman who requested one of his eyes for use in her practices. Then "with the help of a shameless layman, a cat, and a jar of black oil, he subdued a sister pandita, a parrot, and chalk of the brahmins. He encircled the place of contest with the brahmin with mantra, and tattered rags, etc., so that Mahadeva could not enter into the heart of his opponent." Aryadeva defeated this brahmin, arrested him and imprisoned
him in a temple where in a sutra he read a prediction of his own conversion and accordingly converted to Buddhism. Aryadeva then sang the oft-quoted stanza: "Siva has three eyes but cannot see the truth; Indra has a thousand eyes but is spiritually blind; but Aryadeva, with only one eye, can see the true nature of the entire three realms of existence."  Aryadeva's one eye is, of course, the third eye of non-dual awareness.

             ~ Keith Dowman's Masters of Mahamudra.


" . . . one Friday night I had a dream of an orange and white cat. I woke up that Saturday morning with the desire to go and see if they had any orange and white kittens at our local shelter. I took my (then) young son with me and of all things, they had only ONE kitten in the entire shelter, and surprise! -- it was orange and white. It was winter, and it was NOT kitten season, which was odd in itself.

He had been picked up the previous day in the local K Mart shopping center, and it was extremely bitter cold ... near zero (fahrenheit) weather. They let me adopt him and right away he developed pneumonia, which we nursed him through. His paws had been nearly frozen and for weeks he had scabs on his pads from the frozen pavement.

He grew up to be smart and beautiful and one of the most loving and affectionate cats I have ever had. Once he even saved another baby kitten which was trapped in a tree, sitting underneath the tree and looking at us and meowing, till we found the "baby" and got her down. (That "baby" is now 17 years old).

When Jamgon Kongtrul [the 3rd, d. 1992]was coming to our center to teach, he and his entourage approached my front door, and this orange and white cat RAN as fast as he could, and laid on his back in front of His Eminence, rubbing around, so that H. E. could not possibly enter the house without stepping on or over the cat or moving him away.  [Rinpoche] paused, looked at the cat, then reached down and rubbed the little white furry tummy which was presented so nicely to him.  Everyone laughed and we entered the house. I got the distinct impression that this was a cat "prostration"  and that there was some special spark happening there.

Unfortunately a few years ago (winter of '96) he developed cancer, and he died. But he was one of the best and smartest cats I ever had, and he certainly knew who was "special" and how to honor him in the best cat fashion he knew.

I get tears in my eyes, missing them both. . . .  ." 

~ Evelyn, The Kagyu Mailing List

Two Natures

The cat is sacred, as it was to the ancient Egyptians.  The cat is evil, as it was in relation to the European prejudice against so-called witches.

The cat is variously seen as vain and proud, or independent and self-possessed -- sometimes to the extent of foolishness.  (Think of Rudyard Kipling's "The Cat Who Walked Alone." ) It is either considered very clean (from its habit of grooming itself) or extremely unclean and barely a step above vermin. 

Some folklore has it that being vainglorious [overly proud of one's accomplishments] and hostile to others is characteristic of the cat.   His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, in a teaching about meditation, recounts that there was a brahmin who meditated for twelve years upon Emptiness without giving any thought to the condition of other beings (ie, without bodhicitta) so he became vain and overconfident of his accomplishment.  He thought, "No one can meditate like me. No one is as good as me in realizing Emptiness!"

In developing this attachment to his own state of mind and an aversion towards others, he was convinced he was better than everyone else.  Thus, it came to pass that after he died, he was reborn as a cat. 

In Japan the cat has assumed the qualities of the fox, which is believed capable of shape-shifting. Therefore, it is sometimes viewed as a bad omen, but we will see that it is also considered a protector.   In Cambodia, its appearance is a sign of impending drought.   Its predatory nature made it an apt symbol for the resented rulers of Asia from Mongolia to Vietnam.   Tibetans refer to China as a cat in The Cat and The Mouse a film produced by BBC Television in 1995 for the Association for Asian Studies about the resistance to the Chinese occupation. 

In the introductory article of The Animal Realm, in the myth about the Buddha's passing, the cat was not among the animals who attended him, and this is sometimes used to explain the reason for its being ostracized.  

A Biblical legend tells how, when rats overran the ark, Noah merely passed his hand before the lion's  nose.  It sneezed and produced a couple of cats to help control the infestation.  But the cat is not merely useful; it is also viewed as an embodiment of good and a bringer of prosperity, as we shall see. 

"Don't be rash!" 

Then [the magic parrot] told the following story: "In old days, a woman went uphill hunting and left her child at home for the family cat to look after. When she was gone, a huge python came and tried to eat the child. The cat wrestled desperately with the python and bit and killed it. When the woman returned, the cat went outdoors to greet her. As soon as she saw its mouth and claws covered with blood, she thought that the cat had eaten her child. In a surge of anger she killed the cat with an ax. When she went into her house she saw the dead python and her child safe and sound. Only then it dawned on her that she had done something wrong."

            ~ Chinese "" site, section on Tibetan opera, The Maiden Chukyi Nyima. 

The Beckoning Cat

A cat with its right front paw raised high is the emblem of Jotoku-Ji (Buddhist) shrine that is near Joshi Park in Setagaya City, part of Tokyo, Japan.  The place is also known as The Temple of Maneki Neko, where in Shofukudo Hall is enshrined a statue commemorating an incident involving that animal.

Protector and Talisman 

Built in 1480, the temple was only a small hermitage in the feudal domain of Setagaya.  It was  "no more than a thatched hut run by poverty-stricken and half-starved monks." The priest used to share his meager meal with a pet cat, who some say was named Tama.  One day as the cat was sitting by the roadside, a half dozen samurai rode by.  As they passed, it was observed raising its paw to its ear as if beckoning to them. 

This surprising gesture motivated their leader, Ii Naoka, to call a halt and as the horsemen pulled up, the cat continued to beckon.  They followed it inside just as a torrential rain began.  The monk invited them to stay for tea, and the occasion became one for expounding the Buddhist doctrine. 

A more dramatic version has the cat warning the samurai so that he and his companions narrowly avoid being struck by lightning. 

Ii eventually became a disciple of the old priest and, in the Edo period (17th-18th centuries,) the family donated a large estate to the hermitage, known since the cat incident as Goutokuji.  The cat, Tama, was eventually buried in the cemetery on the site where also is found the grave of Ii Naosuke, who was the Tairo (highest ranking man after the ruler, the Shogun.)   It was he who signed the 1858 Harris Treaty that opened Japan to trade with the USA, and he was assassinated by the ronin of Mito Satsuma.

More About the Cat as Protector

The Chinese sometimes believe that cats have the power to detect evil spirits and put them to flight.  Perhaps based on the animal's reputed ability to see in the dark, a cat spirit was worshiped in some parts of China.   Cats were also collected to protect silkworms, and if they were unavailable, images and drawings were used instead.  

In sixth century Japan, offerings were made to the "Guardian of the Manuscripts," a sacred cat whose responsibility was to guard the temple scriptures from mice and rats.


A 9th-century Chinese proverb says, "If a cat washes its face and ears, it will rain." Rain causes seeds to sprout, and so it is an indicator of eventual abundance.  Hence, the connection between the cat and prosperity.

To this day one can find, at the entrances to Japanese shops and restaurants, a clay, papier-mache, or wooden figures of the seated cat with one paw raised to the side of its face.   Such cats figurines are believed to invite passers-by to come in and do business.  (The business people likely do not known about Tama, the 15th-century temple cat.)

These cat figures --  left, or right pawed or even both -- are usually placed in a prominent position where they can be seen clearly.  With the left paw raised it beckons guests or visitors; with its right paw raised, it invites prosperity.  To derive full benefit from a left-pawed maneki-neko, it is best set close to the entrance of a home or store.  The benefits are also considered to differ depending on the cat's colour.  

Bodhisattva or Goddess of Mercy

An interpretation of the legend of the beckoning cat, who draws the attention of the passing feudal lord so he will not be struck by a lightning bolt, holds that the feline  was a manifestation of the Goddess of Mercy.    Therefore it has also become tradition for owners of lost or sick cats to install votive tablets ("prayer boards") adorned with the beckoning cats at the temple.  Today there are dozens of these cat images and statues, and new maneki neko figures are available for sale.

A Setagaya City newsletter (December 2001) states that both attributes of the deity are honoured, for "They are placed beside a hall to the left of the Buddhist hall in front of the gate as if to pray for the prosperity and safety of families. "

Golden-flower Cat

 Indian legend tells of a man who sent his cat, Patripatan, to go to a heavenly realm in order to retrieve a special flower.  But in Japan, the association between the magical flower and the cat is very different.

Pinkish orange cats have a demonic nature, according to Japanese folklore.  One type is called Kinkwa-neko or Golden Flower Cat.  They are believed to have the ability to transform themselves into beautiful women, a quality they share with foxes, but with the anthropophagous [cannibalistic] inclinations of ogres.

It is said that one day a nobleman brought one of these pretty cats home to his aged mother.  When next he visited her, there was an untidy heap of ... something ... at the gate.  He called to his mother but she would not come out, claiming her eyes were troubling her and she had to keep to the darkest corners of the house.  Next, the two servant girls were nowhere to be found.  Later, a few rags and bones were discovered in the garden where a neighbour thought he had observed the old woman washing her bloody mouth.  

Cats and Zen Buddhism

Cutting the Cat

"Nanchuan saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: 'If any of you can recite a word of zen, you can save the cat.' No one answered. So Nanchuan cut the cat in two pieces. That evening Zhaozho returned and Nanchuan told him about this. Zhaozho removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.  Nanchuan said: 'If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.' "

Lineage Tradition

In a Zen temple, every evening during meditation the temple's cat would screech at the top of its voice preventing the monks from concentrating.  Eventually the Master had to order the cat to be tied and gagged during meditation sessions, and in this way the problem was solved. 

Years passed and both the master and the cat died, and a new master was appointed. Then a new cat was found and every evening before the meditation, it was tied and gagged.  

Several years later, scholars at the temple wrote treatises about the significance in Buddhist practice of tying up cats.  

The Cats of Nga Phe Kyaung

In Myanmar (formerly Burma) near Ywama on Lake Inle in Shan, a group of Buddhist monks at 155-year-old Phe Chaung monastery trains cats. 

Those cats do not belong to the breed known as "Burmese," however.  The origins of that variety, also known as Birman, derive from an incident in pre-Buddhist Burma:

There once was a wise, old monk called Mun Ha who was devoted to Tsun-Kyan-Kse, the golden, blue-eyed goddess of immortality.  The monk had a white male cat with orange eyes whose name was Sinh. 

One day the temple was attacked, and though the monks found shelter in the sanctuary of their temple, Mun Ha died there of shock. 

As he lay dying, Sinh his faithful cat, leapt upon his head.  Then the monks observed that it seemed as though the old man's soul entered the cat. It changed colour from white to golden, but the paws and tail tip which rested on the monk white head retained their whiteness.  The cat's eyes turned the sapphire blue of those of the goddess as they directed their gaze to the one gate which the monks had still to close to block the invaders' progress. 

The traits of that one cat were then passed on to all its descendents.  The Burmese cat has only been available outside Burma since 1919.

Natural History

On April 08/04, the journal Science reported that the bones of an 8-month-old kitten were found 16 inches (40 cm) from the curled-up human female skeleton in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus dating from about 9,500 years ago.  Researchers from the National Museum of Natural History (Paris, France) led by Jean-Denis Vigne says it is an example of one of the earliest domesticated cats, since prior to this find it had [incorrectly] been  

" . . . generally accepted that cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt at the latest by the 20th to 19th century B.C. (3,000 to 4,000 years ago)." 

The animal skeleton was not actually that of the modern domesticated cat (Felis domesticus)  however, but rather that of a forest cat (Felis silvestris,) a wild cat somewhat larger than the house cat.  The sex of either skeleton has yet to be determined. 

"The burial of a complete cat without any signs of butchering reminds us of human burials and emphasizes the animal as an individual," and 

"The joint burial could also imply a strong association between two individuals, a human and a cat. In addition, the young cat might have been killed in order to be buried at the same time as the human." 

Researchers note that, since the island of Cyprus was not the habitat of any felines, the cat had to have been brought there deliberately. 

Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, told Science, "In lieu of finding a bell around its neck, this is about as solid evidence as one can have that cats held a special place in the lives and afterlives of residents of this site,"  

Some Asian Wild Cats

Besides the lion, the tiger (see links at the foot of this page) and the rare, legendary Snow Leopard, in the Himalayas are also found the

  • Chinese Mountain Cat felis Bieti (or Tibetan cat) wild cat resembling a little lynx.  

    Known to Uigur and Khazakh people as shel müshüki, it is called Desert Cat in many languages, but today it is unknown in that type of habitat.  It is called huang mo mao, or chao shihli in Chinese, and it is found in north-eastern Tibet.  

    • An account of the sighting of a mysterious Tibetan cat (more than halfway down the page, in 1998 article.) 
  •  Pallas' cat Otocolobus manul

Cats: Lucky and Unlucky

The Middle Eastern Connection

The Greek goddess, Artemis, turned herself into a cat and hid in the moon so Typhon could not find her to chase her into Egypt.  She seems to have ended up in Egypt anyway, in the form of Bast. 

Pasht or Bast of Egypt, where cats were domesticated about 4, 000 years ago from the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica),) is the cat-headed goddess of the moon, comfort and healing, and cats were sacred to her.  She is depicted wielding her knife to cut off the head of the serpent that sometimes swallows the sun.  Her temples were havens to innumerable cats, and there they were treated as embodiments of the deity.  Ancient Egyptians shaved off their eyebrows to mourn the death of a cat, and sacred cats' corpses were mummified.  At one ancient site, over 300,000 of these mummies were found.  Physicians used a representation of a black cat in their practice.  Isn't it fitting that the Egyptian word for cat is mau?  It is not merely an onomatopoeia; it means who sees.

Just as a cat will catch and kill small mammals, bugs and snakes, so the sun god, Re was viewed as a cat when he vanquished the serpent of darkness, Apep, at the dawn of each day.  In fact, he is invoked in an inscription on a royal tomb at Thebes, as "the Great Cat, ... avenger of the gods, ... ."

Abasambo is the Ethiopian designation for a mysterious spirit cat of African folklore. In Central Africa, it is called Bakanga; in Ruanda, Ikimizi and in Cameroon, Bung-bung.  Still, in Africa, medicine and articles of power are sometimes kept in bags made of catskin.

It is said that Adam's first wife, Lilith, having been evicted from the Garden of Eden, transformed herself into a great black cat known in the Arabic of North Africa as el-Brusha (cf. bruja, Spanish for sorceress.)  Lilith is one source for the notion of the Evil Eye, for it is believed that she envies the fact that Eve's offspring can bear children. Perhaps the unlikely notion that a cat lying with a baby can cause it to die -- that is, induce Sudden Infant Death (SIDS,) is related to this.  

In Islam

Muezza was the pet of the Prophet of Islam.  According to tradition, he cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb the cat sleeping on it, when he was called to prayer.  Some say that the M on the forehead of tabby cats was created by the prophet's own hand.

The Prophet is reported to have mentioned cruelty to a cat as the reason for a woman's going to hell after her death.


Scandinavia has a Butter Cat, protector and provider of the home.  In earlier times, Freya, Norse goddess of love and fertility was described as drawn in a chariot driven by a team of grey cats.  Her sister, Hel, from whose name we get the English word hell, rules the underworld. Her symbol was the black cat, and therefore some believe that to see one, or for it to cross one's path, is a bad omen.  

On the other hand, the French consider black cats auspicious. They were once thought to be able to find buried treasure: At an intersection of 5 roads, release the cat and follow it.  Fortune will lie down the path the cat chooses.  This is the Chat D'argent, the lucky cat as depicted in Steilen's 19th-century poster.  

Folk wisdom:  Rubbing a sty with the tail of a black cat could cure the unsightly eye blemish.  Dreaming of a tortoiseshell cat meant one would soon have a lover. 


Caith Sith, (pron. Cat Shi) the cat spirit of the Scottish Highlands, is described as the size of a dog.  It is black with a white patch on its breast and when it appears, her fur is a-bristle as she arches her back and hisses. 

In Celtic territories, cats were generally reviled as opposing "church-going" people.  For example, while enacting his cat revenge on the poet who had mocked his kind, Irish legend relates that the King of the Cats was killed by a Christian saint, 

When the horrors of witch-hunting arrived in Scotland, one poor victim was recorded as saying that the Devil appeared to her "coven" and, shaking his hands above their heads, turned them all into snarling cats.

The Americas

During the Salem witch trials, 7-year-old Sarah, testified that “a cat, identifying herself as Martha Carrier [her own mother], had carried her along to afflict people while her mother was in prison.”  This testimony ultimately led to the mother's conviction, and she was hanged on August 19, 1692, along with four others. 

Killing any cat was considered bad luck.  Nevertheless, in the Colonies the treatment for tuberculosis was a broth made from the meat of a black cat.  

The mysterious phantom cat of Africa appears in American folklore as the Cactus Cat, whose fur is a mass of spines.

Peruvians say there is a kind of cat demon that causes lightning and drops hail which destroys maize standing in the fields. 

The Sailors' Cat

Mariners believed that it was good luck if a cat ran ahead of a sailor.  If she crossed his path, disaster would follow.   Although the main reason for keeping a on board was to catch vermin, her well-being was linked to that of the ship and its crew.   Feline behaviour was scrutinized, for it could foretell the weather and predict the outcome of a voyage.  For example, a meowing cat meant  danger lay ahead, while a playful cat indicated an easy voyage.  When a cat licked her fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm;  if she sneezed, rain would follow.   Storms could be started with the disruptive energy of a twitching tail. 

According to tradition, if someone drowned a cat, his fate as well as that of the ship would be the same: a storm would send the vessel to the bottom of the sea.

Dangerous for Cats

Did you know that both Tylenol and Ibuprofen, which are analgesics / pain-killers used to treat humans, are deadly for felines?  Also, do not assume that something that is safe to feed a dog is suitable for a cat. Their bodies do not function exactly the same way.

Cat's Cradle

The pastime of forming string figures on one's fingers is called Cat's Cradle.  It is also the title of a well-known science fiction book ca. 1974 by Kurt Vonnegut that presages the mysteriously destructive "programming" molecules now known as "prions." 

The "Cat's in the Cradle" is the title of a popular song (Harry Chapin, 1974)  and the phrase is used to signify that all's well.  It may derive from an old custom where eastern European peasants used to put a cat into a new baby's cradle to drive away evil spirits.  The practice was discouraged in the New World, where it was thought that the animal could "steal the baby's breath."  

See also:  

Patricia Dale-Green's The Cult of the Cat. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.


You may enjoy The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (JM Dent, 1930/1990.)  Once, a poor artist painting the Passing Away of the Buddha had a cat who used to like to sit and watch.  Since the picture would likely be refused if a cat were included among the animals, . . .   . 

Hevajra (Tib. Kye-rDorje,) also known as Heruka, holds in each of his six right hands a cup containing:  an elephant, a horse, a mule, a bull, a camel, a man, a deer, and a cat, although some say it is a rat, a shrew or some other small animal.  In the skull cups in his left hands are:  Varuna, god of water, Vayu, god of air, Agni, god of fire, and Prithvi, the earth goddess;  Chandra, the moon god, and Surya, the sun god; Vasudhara, goddess of wealth and Yama, god of death. 

orange cats: Also known as marmalade cats, it seems that they are almost always male.  They have a reputation for aggression and cunning. 

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