Animals in Buddhism have a rich and special importance.
For many people, animals strike a special place in our hearts and mind that often transcends logic. Many love them as they would their own child (and would run into a burning home to save them), while at the same time have no problem at all eating the flesh of another type of an animal for lunch.
As it relates to Buddhism, animals take on many important meanings. Animals help illuminate Buddhists’ relation to nature, kindness, humanistic ideals, and to further show the relationship between Buddhist theory and practice.
Buddhism is Rich with Animal Symbolism
The creatures that inhabit this earth-be they human beings or animals-are here to contribute, each in its own particular way, to the beauty and prosperity of the world. ~ The 14th Dalai Lama
The life of the Buddha is rich in stories about, with, (and sometimes “as”), animals.
Whether these are dramatized, parables, or really did happen, are of course things we are unable to ever validate. My personal opinion is that many, but not all, are stories to help explain a Buddhist teaching or concept so people could more easily understand them. Buddhism is not always the easiest thing to understand, and using animals surely helped.
During the Buddha’s time, people’s connection with animals was stronger than it is today due to the closeness of the wilderness, and the agricultural society that existed.
Here are a few of the different stories which include animals in them (not meant to be all-inclusive):
- The Golden Monkey: The Buddha went into the wilderness of Parileyya forest to bring peace to quarreling disciples. During this time, a monkey and an elephant fed the Buddha (the elephant brought fruit, and the monkey brought a honeycomb). As the story goes, the monkey was overjoyed that the Buddha accepted his gift of the honeycomb, and began jumping from tree to tree until he fell to his death, only to be reborn immediately (sounds like a plot twist you would find in a summer movie blockbuster).
- Buddha Subdues a Raging Elephant: Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who turned against him, let an elephant attempt to kill the Buddha. However, the story goes that due to the loving-kindness of the Buddha, the elephant knelt in front of him instead of killing him.
- The Jataka Tales: The Jataka tales often featured animals to help explain Buddhist concepts. For some Buddhists, they take this as literal truth that the Buddha had previous lives as actual animals that he recalled. My opinion is that these are teaching aids (known as upaya, or “expedient means”, which helps laypersons understand complex concepts more easily and quickly). You can see some of the Jataka tales here on Buddhanet: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/budtale1.htm. These stories are not part of the canonical Buddhist scripture, yet they are extremely popular.
These stories, whether true or untrue historically, are not important in that context. They are intended to relay teachings of Buddhism in ways that regular folks like you and me could understand about love, kindness, virtues, morals, and more.
However, these stories were probably more relevant to the lifestyle people lived long before the industrial age making them less likely to be easily understood today. In that context, they are taken as “religious fact” by many, which is, unfortunately, missing the point.
A Horse is a Horse, Of Course of Course. Or Is It?
Compared to other religions where man is “made” and is “separate” from animals, Buddhists and Buddhism do not look at animals in the same way. Buddhists see all animals as sentient beings, who exist like us due to the five aggregates.
The five aggregates are:
- Mental Formation
All must exist for any sentient being to be what we know as “alive”. Because animals share the same five aggregates as we do, they are not separate from us. However, there is one thing that does separate them from us: their mind.
Unlike humans (it is considered a rare privilege to be born a human), animals are not, and cannot, aware of what is happening to them in the context of “life”. They are unable to learn and understand the teachings of Buddhism, for instance, in order to change their condition like we can.
Because of this lack of understanding of their world (and condition in which they are in), animals act instinctual and primal during their life. While I think we can all agree that there have been plenty of animals we have known in our lives that truly are kind and put humans to shame (who can act instinctual and primal as well), they, unfortunately, cannot become “enlightened” nor can they change their karma. A human can understand their condition, whereas an animal cannot.
This does not mean, however, that animals suffer any less than humans, only that humans have the rare opportunity to become enlightened. A Buddhist knows, however, that how they treat animals has a direct impact on themselves as well. Therefore many Buddhists, especially in the Mahayana tradition, are vegetarians or vegans or strive to be (we will talk more about this later).
Well, perhaps if a horse could talk…it could become a Buddha. But that is a discussion for another day!
“A Doggie (or Kitty) Treat For You, a Buddha to Be”
Buddhists greet each other with their palms together like a lotus, and say “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be”.
So why not animals?
Yes, perhaps for a puppy or kitty we can greet them with “a treat for you, a Buddha to be”. It might be remarkably interesting to have a dog or cat become a Buddha, yet I don’t think any humans would be able to understand the teachings! 😉
Buddha Nature means that every sentient being has a “Buddha” inside them…the only thing limiting us from becoming a Buddha (enlightened), is…well…”us”.
As explained in the first section of this article, animals may have Buddha Nature (and I personally believe they express it better than humans a lot of the time) but are unable to fully progress and achieve enlightenment.
Immediately following the Buddha’s awakening, he made the following proclamation:
“Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s* wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.”
(* Tathagata is another name for the Buddha, and the one he most frequently used when talking about himself)
There are Buddhists who believe that if you have enough “bad” Karma, you will be “reborn” as an animal.
Because of this belief, they believe any suffering they cause on animals is justified, as this “reborn” person in an animal deserves it. This is nothing close to the truth and only serves to reinforce cultural or personal beliefs and not anything in Buddhism. The Buddha did not say it was ever OK to use violence against any sentient being.
Some Buddhists also believe animals to not be able to reduce any unwholesome (bad) Karma they have like a human can. Therefore, they must ‘burn’ through their unwholesome karma until it becomes no more. Whereas a human can actively “water down” their unwholesome karma through actively creating wholesome karma. An animal is unable to know the difference, so they are simply active instinctual and primal. Once again, I personally believe that animals generate a lot of wholesome karma!
For humans, hurting animals relates to unwholesome karma. Hurting, mistreating, or killing animals is all unwholesome no matter how you look at it.
(for those who don’t get the meaning of the title of this section, it is a fun play on related to this song)
He who, seeking his own happiness, punishes or kills beings who also long for happiness, will not find happiness after death. – Dhammapada
Should Buddhists eat animals? This is surely a topic for a longer article I am writing, but I will briefly touch on it here. My belief is the short answer is “no”.
Buddhists should, if possible, not eat animals simply because they are sentient beings that share the five aggregates as we do. Eating meat encourages suffering and killing, and because it creates unwholesome karma for us and others.
It is true that some Buddhists *do* eat meat. Specifically, the Theravada, Tibetan, and some Mahayana Buddhist branches allow meat-eating, due to interpretation of scriptural and cultural influences.
- For example, Tibetan Buddhists eat meat due to the region in which they live is difficult to grow agricultural products. The 14th Dalai Lama was vegetarian for a time; however, he did go to meat-eating for what was stated as health reasons.
- For southern (Theravada) Buddhists, there is a mix between scriptural (where the Buddha did say that monastics should eat what they are given, to include meat, during alms rounds as long as it was not prepared specifically for them), and cultural where meat-eating was already common.
- In Japan, Mahayana Buddhists can often be found eating fish (due to the historical reliance on the sea for food before Buddhism came to Japan). In contrast, some strive towards non-meat eating such as Mahayana Buddhists in China and Taiwan, especially those who that the Bodhisattva vows as laypersons, or who are monastics.
However, Buddhists as a principle in these regions do not want to “kill” the animal, as part of the precepts against killing, yet still want to eat meat because they enjoy it/the taste. So, what do they do?
My opinion is that they pass along this unwholesome karma to people of (typically) non-Buddhist religions to butcher the animals for them. It is a practice that makes my eyes roll with the hypocrisy as the only reason these “non-Buddhists” are killing the animals for Buddhists so they can enjoy the taste of meat. By having someone else kill on your behalf is still killing. Actions have consequences. As Buddhists, we should genuinely care about the suffering of others (and other sentient beings).
Let’s go back in time to the Buddha’s early teaching life. He had just finished begging for his first meal and was venturing from Kapilavasthu to Rajagaha (the capital of Magadha). During his trip, he came across sheep which were being taken to the city of Rajagaha to be sacrificed. One of the sheep was injured, and feeling great compassion, picked up the sheep, and carried it with him.
Upon entering the city, a large fire was burning, and priests were chanting as the King, Bimbisara, had his sword drawn to kill the first sheep. The Buddha suddenly stopped him and told him:
All living things fear being beaten with clubs.
All living things fear being put to death.
Putting oneself in the place of the other,
Let no one kill nor cause another to kill.
~ from the Dhammapada 129
Moved by these words, the King became a follower of the Buddha. Wouldn’t that be great if we all took a lesson from that experience! (Note: According to Bhante Dhammika, the origins of the story of the Buddha carrying the injured sheep is not from the Buddha’s life, however, I believe the story can still provide some insight).
But what does that mean to us in our modern life? We are surrounded by “easy” food choices that consist of meat, and the resulting mistreatment in our animal factory-farmed world. Not only is this issue complex, but it means that suffering has become industrialized, constant, and growing rapidly as the population of the world increases. Buddhists should take an active role in preventing this suffering through their own wholesome actions and livelihood.
Should a Buddhist be a vegetarian/vegan? I believe that yes, they should. Or at least they should strive towards that goal. Not only is this a much healthier lifestyle, but it is also even more easy to follow in our modern world where more plant-based choices are becoming available. Through right effort, it can be accomplished as proven by many. You do not have to be a “perfect” Buddhist in this regard, although we should all heavily strive towards this goal. Bhante Dhammika emailed me about his writings on eating meat, or not, and are available on his website.
To help explain this topic a bit more, here is an informative video consisting of Buddhist monastics, authors, teachers, and more. You’ll learn about how animals are the same as us (such as with the five aggregates), how we become responsible for future killing when we order meat (even if it was not killed directly for us at that moment), and more.
On January 1st, 2016, my kitty Bella had a heart attack right in front of me. In remembrance of her on this first anniversary, I found it fitting to author an article regarding animals in Buddhism.
- Featured Image: Photo by Claus Nhemzow on Flickr (used with permission)
- For further reading: What the Animals Taught on Lions Roar, Buddhism and Vegetarianism by Barbara O’Brien, and A Plea for the Animals on Lions Roar
- Additional resources can be found here: Dharma Voices for Animals (Website / Organization), Animals and the Buddha (Video), A Mahayana View on Buddhism and Animals (PDF), Forks Over Knives (Documentary Video / Affiliate Link)
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