Why Animals Matter:

A Religious and philosophical perspective

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Why Animals Matter: Buddhist Quotations

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Page one Introduction, History and Basic teachings
Page Two Why animals matter in the Buddhist tradition 
Page Three Reasons why Buddhists should be vegetarian or preferably vegan
Page Four Modern Day Buddhism and vegetarianism/veganism

Page two

Why animals matter in the Buddhist tradition

To answer this question we need to examine what Buddhists believe concerning non human animals.

According to Buddhist belief there is no fundamental difference between a human and a nonhuman animal, therefore if humans are important than so are other animals.

Buddhism teaches universal compassion, compassion towards all beings without species discrimination; Buddhist teachings therefore advocate compassion to non human animals. There are of course those who interpret Buddhist teachings to imply that animals may be killed as food, however the vast majority would strongly disagree. Although there is no specific admonition to be vegetarian in so many words it is blatantly obvious from the reading of Buddhist scripture that Buddha forbade not only the eating of meat but both the direct and indirect causing of harm to any living being. He even stated in the eightfold path that adherents should refrain from carrying out a livelihood which causes harm to both people and other animals.

A basic principle of Buddhism, the first of the five precepts mentioned earlier, is that of non-harm: I undertake the precept to abstain from killing living beings. Although remaining essentially the same this precept varies in some translations with an added commitment such as I undertake the precept to protect life and refrain from killing. Here the implication is that simply not taking life is not quite sufficient and one should also protect life. Any action which results in the taking of life from any sentient being directly or indirectly contradicts this basic precept. This is why many Buddhists endeavour to to avoid killing any being by, for instance, adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. There is an ancient poem, reputed to be the only text ever written by the Buddha himself, which states:
"Let creatures all, all things that live, all beings of whatever kind, see nothing that will bode them ill. May naught of evil come to them."

The precepts are not commandments as such, in Buddhism there is no deity to issue them. They are voluntary commitments centring upon not harming oneself or others, including as the first precept clearly states all living beings not just humans. All sentient beings come under the umbrella of the first precept.  Sentient beings of course includes insects and invertebrates not just creatures considered by us as so called "higher animals", such as mammals and birds for example.

In the very beginning of the history of Buddhism, as you may have read earlier in the history section, concern for animals is evident, beginning with Buddha himself who early in his quest saved sheep from sacrificial slaughter.  In ancient times it was common for people to placate their respective Gods by performing a sacrifice. Buddha was aware that such a practice was not only inappropriate but also cruel.  As a young boy under his father's care he tried to protect animals from suffering, in fact seeing a man ploughing a field with an oxen he observed not only the suffering of the man and the ox as a consequence of the arduous labour but also the suffering of all the tiny creatures accidentally killed, such as mice and insects. Not only did Siddhartha wish to save animals such as the sheep from suffering the terror, pain and death of sacrifice but in addition he wanted to save the people who carried out the sacrifices because they were creating a cause for their own suffering as you will read later on.

Buddha taught that it was wrong to gain for yourself happiness at the expense of another being. The moral of this being that we cannot harm another living being in order to bring about our own happiness. Although for the most part animal sacrifice no longer takes place - sadly there are still notable exceptions (Gadahimi festival) -  the principle is the same today: to kill an animal for his meat, to use him for experimentation or entertainment and so on to bring about our own happiness cannot be condoned in Buddhist practice. When he put a stop to the sacrifice of the sheep, those gathered who heard the teaching of Buddha recognised the truth of his saying and stopped this practice. This was a big step for the Buddha in his quest to lessen the suffering of all creatures human and non human animals. Moreover as you will read further down wrongful actions accrue negative karma therefore the people who sacrificed animals were not only harming the animals in a most brutal and violent manner but by so doing they were inflicting harm upon themselves

There are many stories in the Buddhist tradition showing clearly the Buddhist concept of non harm to all beings, here is one such account.

King Ashoka, 268-223 BC, popularly known as Ashoka the Great, a monarch of India become Buddhist after witnessing first hand the huge number of casualties caused by one of his military campaigns. At this time be was sincerely grieved and as a result he converted to Buddhism, after which this once ruthless, cruel and bloody leader became transformed into a kind and gentle person.  He bought about a number of changes and established some of the first animal rights laws. He expresses in his edits a concern about the number of animals killed to provide him with a meal and his intentions to end such killing. He therefore stopped the royal hunting parties and ended the killing of animals for the royal kitchen and abstained from eating meat. He outlawed the sacrifice of animals and made it illegal to kill many species such as parrots, ducks, geese, bats, turtles, squirrels, monkeys and rhinos.

Non human animals were included with humans as beneficiaries of his programs for obtaining medicinal plants, planting trees and digging wells.  In his fifth pillar edit Ashoka decreed protection for young animals and mothers still feeding their young from slaughter, prohibits forests from being burned to protect the creatures living in them along with the banning of a number of hunting practices harmful to animals. He decreed that  certain days were "non-killing days," and on these days fish could not be caught, nor any other animals killed. He established wells and watering holes, places of rest and hospitals for humans and animals alike.

In Addition Ashoka taught his people to have compassion for animals and to refrain from harming or killing them.  In one of his famous pillar edits he declares "I have enforced the law against killing certain animals. The greatest progress of Righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favour of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings." Furthermore he sent missionaries to other Kingdoms to spread the Buddhist message of compassion and nonviolence to all beings. Buddhism was spread over the Indian sub continent because of the patronage of King Ashoka. By taking these actions and making these decrees Ashoka was carrying out the advice to the Cakravartin king given in the Cakkavattisīhanāda-sutta, that a good king should extend his protection not merely to different classes of people equally, but also to beasts and birds.

The fact that Buddhists consider that all animals are sentient, and that they just like us they are capable of suffering is of great importance concerning animal rights issues. In fact animals according to Buddhist belief inhabit a realm where suffering is worse for them than it is for us. 

Animals in Buddhist cosmological*2) terms are said to inhabit a world or realm separated from human animals not by space but by mind. This realm is called Tiryagyoni in Sanskrit, Tiracchānayoni in Pāli, the animal realm.  In Buddhism there are six realms in the cycle of rebirth into which sentient beings may be incarnated or born, the remaining five are: Deva (the realm of the gods), Asura (the realm of the demi gods), Manusa (the human realm) preta (hungry Ghost realm) Naraka( an hell realm). Some forms of Buddhism believe these realms to be literal states of existence, while other types of Buddhism such as Mahāyāna Buddhism teach that these states are metaphorical, symbolic of states of mind.*3)

Rebirth in the animal realm (animal kingdom) is considered an unhappy and undesirable incarnation because in the animal realm there is more suffering than in the human realm.  In Buddhist text there is considerable mention of the extent of suffering in the animal realm even when humans do not play a role in such suffering, for example animals are pry to other animals, attacked and eaten, and furthermore they live out their lives in constant fear and anticipation of this possible outcome. Many animals in the wild, and even those who are domesticated, do not loose this fear and spend their lives in a state of constant alert jumping at every sound, any disturbance any change in their environment. Animals have no security of habitation in their lives and must endure extremes of weather. Domesticated animals in many instances may suffer worse at the hands of humans beings as they are slaughtered for meat or for their skins, fur or wool; used for painful experimentation or for entertainment; enslaved, forced to work often mistreated and abused; or confined in zoos or worse. Buddhists believe that animals also endure all this in ignorance neither knowing nor understanding what is happening to them with any real clarity and are not able to take much action against their circumstances, acting mainly on instinct. Buddhists believe that rebirth in the animal realm means that there is no means to attain enlightenment available during the lifetime spent in this realm; animals have no way of obtaining the knowledge and taking the steps towards enlightenment.

Animals however possess Buddha nature, all beings possess Buddha nature, the potential for Buddhahood.  Buddha Nature or Buddha Principle is thought of as an internally hidden potential within the depth of the mind present in all sentient beings for awakening or enlightenment and becoming a Buddha. Put another way Buddhists believe that all life forms are evolving towards a higher consciousness or state of being

Buddhists believe that all beings are interconnected, all part of one single family.  This results from the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth which believes that non human animals may be reborn as humans and vice versa. It is believed that if you were able to retrace your previous incarnations you would realise that every creature was related to you in some way. Beings currently living in the animal realm, may have been your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children spouses or your friends. An animal that you care for or conversely mistreat may well have been a departed relative either fairly recently or at some time during the infinite number of lives you have lived. Put simply: every creature who has lived, is, was or will be related to you in this or a former incarnation. Therefore, for this reason it is important to make a commitment to abide by the first precept and not to harm, kill or eat the flesh of any sentient being as to do so would be tantamount to harming, killing and eating your own child or mother or sibling or any other relation or indeed any human being.

"As practitioners of this precious Dharma, we need to eradicate all non-virtuous deeds in general, particularly the consumption of meat, as it has the heaviest negative karma. This is because all the livings beings that we eat are actually our own parents who have been very kind to us in many lifetimes. Eating meat is a non-virtuous act with such heavy misgivings that the Buddha Himself also mentioned that consuming the meat of other sentient beings who have been our parents one lifetime or another is the gravest and most heinous deed to commit."
Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche

Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche is a  great and accomplished Buddhist practitioner in the Tibetan tradition, born in Drikung, Tibet in 1921.

You will be able to read more about Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche's teachings later.

Monks are forbidden from intentionally killing any animal, including the so called lowliest of creatures such as insects, and they may not drink water which may contain living creatures such as for example insect larvae.

From the Buddhist perspective considering the above Buddhists should treat animals more humanely with compassion and abstain from eating meat or other exploitation.

Sadly such considerations are not always part of the Buddhist practice .

What surely is clear from reading the above, for the Buddhist adherent, both lay and monastic, there can be no moral distinction between
nonhuman animals and humans; rules for nonhuman animals must be the same as those for human beings.

Lets look more closely at some of the points above and other examples from Buddhist teachings and apply them to specific circumstances in daily life. To begin look at the code of Buddhist ethics the Eight Fold Path which includes Right Livelihood. What does right livelihood mean in real terms?

Right Livelihood means avoiding a job that involves violence to any being, for instance a butcher or a soldier, a scientist experimenting on animals, a person in a factory making cosmetics which have been tested upon animals, and which contain animal derivatives, a chief preparing the remains of animals for others to eat, and instead to be employed in tasks that help people or animals.

Buddha taught that we should not harm other beings in our quest for happiness:

One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.
Dhammapada,

It is clear here according to Buddhist teaching, that it is wrong for any person to carry out any practice or action at the expense of other sentient beings, while seeking happiness for himself.

What does it mean in everyday terms not to seek happiness by harming others, either man or animal?

Eating the dead flesh of slaughtered animals is of course the most obvious, many people will not abstain from eating meat simply because they would miss their enjoyment. But also consider the use of cosmetics used as an enhancement which are tested on animals and often contain animal derivatives.  Also consider less obvious enhancements at the expense of less well thought of living beings such as insects, creatures who people do not deem as worthy of consideration in the same way as a cat or a dog for instance. For example cochineal, a food colouring derived from an insect of the same name, is added to food for aesthetic appeal, it is used to add a pink or red colour to food such as cakes and sweets, it is derived from the crushed remains of these insects. Honey a food taken mostly for pleasure is a luxury produced at the expense of bees, their industrious work stolen to titillate our taste buds. Colourful tropical fish in tanks bring aesthetic pleasure but at the expense of the fish so confined, there are many similar examples. A bird in a cage never able to spread his wings, animals trapped in zoos. If a Buddhist adherent is to truly take his religious commitments seriously ideally he should abstain from any exploitation of any animal.

If in Buddhism human and animal life is of equal importance and if all sentient beings are progressing towards the attainment of enlightenment, we should therefore as fellow travellers on the path neither harm
nonhuman animals or impeded in their progress. With these concepts in mind ideally followers of Buddhism should treat all creatures without discrimination regardless of species or intellect.

Therefore considering the above why do some Buddhists eat meat, eggs and drink milk and even use animal derived products such as shoes from leather, clothing from silk, candles made from animal derivatives such as tallow and stearic acid and incense which may contain animal derivatives (Unless it is stated on the packaging it is likely that some makes of incense and candles contain animal derivatives,) all of which cause harm to other sentient beings? Buddhists need to be mindful particularly of these less obvious things. How can we achieve enlightenment or have a spiritual experience if we light candles and use incense which contains ingredients derived from the death and suffering of sentient beings?

Eating meat by Buddhists is by no means a new phenomenon, here is what Great Master Lianchi Zhuhung 1535-1615, the Eighth Pureland *4) Patriarch, says concerning the reasons people eat meat, why they should not and the consequences of doing so.

"People who eat meat often make the excuse that it is natural to do so, that people were meant to eat meat. They promote this idea, and then freely indulge in taking the lives of their fellow creatures, thereby creating extensive hatred and enmity-karma.

Over time, as their killing and consuming becomes a habit, meat eaters no longer feel their killing is unusual. They do their evil deeds unknowingly, unaware of the consequences of slaughter and the resentment it evokes.

As somebody in the past said, "It is a cause for tears and sobbing, for wails and cries, for deep regrets, and mournful cries."


To begin with, all creatures with awareness share just one identical body. When we humans eat the flesh of our fellow creatures, we are doing a bizarre and abnormal act. Yet we don't feel it is strange, because the whole family takes part, and for generation after generation, killing and eating meat becomes a custom. Our neighbors in the local villages copy one another, and repetition makes the practice seem normal. Over time we lose sensitivity to the wrongness of killing.

We think instead, that it is right to kill animals for the good flavor their bodies provide. Our desire for taste dominates our sensibilities, and we no longer feel that eating dead flesh is strange or grossly savage. Consider, if you will, our response if someone were to kill and eat the body of a human! Surely everyone would reckon it a monstrous act, frightening, and taboo. We would be anxious to execute the culprit as a murderous criminal. Why? Only because eating human meat is very much not a part of our conventional habits.

But eating the flesh of animals' bodies has become a habit the world over, so that we no longer feel that killing these creatures is wrong. In fact, "it is a cause for tears and sobbing, for wails and cries, for deep regrets, and mournful cries."


In his essay Great Master Lianchi Zhuhung lists seven reasons
*5) why it is wrong to kill finishing with :It is wrong to kill for one's occupation.
 

It is wrong to kill to make a living. For the sake of clothing and food, and in order to sustain their livelihood, some people go hunting or fishing, or slaughter cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, and the like.

When intelligent people read this essay they will find it credible, and hard to refute. If they can resolve to completely put an end to all meat-eating, there could be no greater goodness.

Sadly of course some Buddhists, like any other religious practitioner, may not understand or comply with the implications of Buddhist and indeed similar teachings with regard to all beings, nonetheless the teaching remain as an ideal towards which adherents should strive. Most certainly animal rights should be in the forefront of a Buddhists interaction with his fellow creatures.

Next: Page Three Reasons why Buddhists should be vegetarian or preferably vegan
 

2) Buddhist cosmology is the description of the shape and evolution of the universe according to the canonical Buddhist scriptures and commentaries.

Buddhist cosmology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

3)
The Six Realms -- Buddhist Six Realms of Existence and Samsara

4) Pureland Buddhism

"Pure Land Buddhism as a school of Buddhist thinking began in India around the 2nd century BCE."

BBC - Religion & Ethics - Pure Land Buddhism: Pure Land Buddhism

5) On Stopping Killing! An Essay By Great Master Lianchi Zhuhung 1535-1615

Provisional Translation By Bhikshu Heng Sure In Collaboration with
The Buddhist Text Translation Society, June, 1991

On Stopping Killing

 

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