Jon Kawamoto, the editor of the Wheel of Dharma, recently shared with me an amazing article and video from the Washington Post about a woman in Ukraine, who in the midst of the war there, returned to save the animals from her animal shelter.
Asya Serpinska is from the town of Hostomel, Ukraine, and was formerly a math professor. Upon retirement, she established an animal shelter that quickly grew to have hundreds of cats and dogs. With the attack of Ukraine, she was forced to initially flee, but then returned to rescue her animals at the shelter. Her surrounding area was bombarded and she said it felt like an earthquake. Russian soldiers confronted her and her staff, accusing them of assisting the Ukrainian army. When Asya’s favorite beloved dog, Gina, barked at the soldiers, one soldier shot and killed her dog. She said, “Any dog defends its territory. It’s their nature.”
The soldiers threatened to kill her, and a staff member was bound and restrained on the floor overnight.
Asya even fed and took care of a lion and other animals from the local zoo that were also innocent victims of the war.
I was so impressed by something that Asya said in the video that ran with the story. She said, “To save animals is to be human.”
The war and the attack on Ukraine, is a vivid example of what it means to lose one’s sense of humanity. As we have seen on the news, hospitals, schools, residential areas have all been bombed and attacked, and innocent citizens from children to the aged have lost their lives. How can you do such things if you have any sense of humanity?
Asya, on the other hand, in saving the animals at her shelter, is affirming her humanity. Such an expression of her humanity is maybe stronger than the bullets and bombs being inflicted on the Ukrainian people.
Many years ago, I translated a book on Shin Buddhism from Japanese to English, by Hideo Yonezawa, a popular lay speaker in Japan. In his book, he expressed that Shin Buddhism is the path to becoming truly human. The path of the Nembutsu, is the path to becoming a true human being. I immediately recalled that expression when I saw what this woman in Ukraine was doing for the animals.
Other religions “assume” that we are human, but in Buddhism, we have to “discover” our humanity. In other religions, it is often thought that man was created by god to rule over the earth, over other beings like plants and animals.
In Buddhism, we are all sentient beings, no greater and no less than other beings. We were not made to rule the earth over other beings. In contrast, if it weren’t for other beings, we couldn’t live. If anything, it is the opposite. We should be bowing our heads in respect and gratitude for other beings that make our life possible.
In the midst of this terrible war in Ukraine, where we see what happens when human beings lose their sense of humanity, we also see a beautiful example of one person who is affirming their humanity by saving the animals. Asya Serpinska, in saving animals, is saving not only her sense of humanity, she is showing the entire world what it means to be human.