At the bookstore talk I attended last Saturday, promoting his new book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, our Call to Defend Them, Wayne Pacelle was refreshingly optimistic about human nature yet clearly clued up about the egregious cruelty that takes place every day everywhere when it comes to human treatment of animals. The Humane Society of the United States work very very hard to make life better for thousands and thousands of animals, and I for one am very appreciative that they are doing what they do.
I very much appreciated this book and wanted to share some ideas on what Buddhists think about animals, and in particular some of contemporary Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on them. It is a huge subject! But I believe it is a very important one.
From a Buddhist perspective, confronting the suffering of animals enables us to develop renunciation, compassion, and bodhichitta so that we are ever more strongly motivated to train in all the practices that will lead to lasting mental freedom (nirvana) and full enlightenment for all our sakes.
I find this an entirely encouraging perspective–without it, focusing on the seemingly never-ending sufferings of all animals (and other living beings) feels sad and hopeless as there is nothing I can do to bring an end to it all. And I’m even complicit in it – in my walk just now, I know I squished some ants beneath my feet without meaning to.
In some ways I understand very well why many people turn a blind eye to the tremendous suffering of animals and others; they consciously or unconsciously don’t want to open the floodgates of grief from having to think about how awful it is without having a solution. But Buddha’s point is that we have to, and the sooner the better. The truth of suffering is the first of the four noble truths that, taken with the other three, will lead us, at last, to freedom from all suffering. And burying his head in the sand doesn’t stop the ostrich from being run over by the jeep.
However, just because a Buddhist is primarily training their mind doesn’t mean they should give up the effort to help animals as much as they can and always do the right thing. Things can change for the better. Slavery was abolished, women got the vote. The Humane Society is not going to solve samsara, but just because we can’t permanently solve problems doesn’t mean we don’t have to do anything at all. Bodhisattvas are committed to doing two things: train their minds and help others practically.
What are animals?
One reason I’ve always loved Buddhism is because of its view of animals. Not to mince words, ANIMALS ARE PEOPLE!!
In Geshe Kelsang’s commentary to Prajnaparamita in 2008, he said:
Self, person, and being are synonyms. They are called person, being, or self because they have mind, feeling, discrimination, understanding, and so forth. Other things, like trees, flowers, mountains, water, are not beings or persons because they have no mind, no feeling, no happiness. Animals, human beings, hell beings, demi-gods, gods – these are beings because they have feeling. We understand many things. We have discrimination.
For example, a fish is a being, a person, a self, because it has feelings, mind. Fish sometimes experience suffering, sometimes happiness. When people fish, the fish experience great suffering. Flowers are not beings. They are very different.
Over the last few years, moving around, I’ve made good friends with six dogs and cats in particular. I am introducing you to these six people in the pictures on this article. To me, the fact that animals and insects are all people has been clear my entire life. (My older brother tells me that as a toddler I flew into a rage and charged him because he was stomping on ants.) This is not unusual, many people just know that animals are people, it is common sense.
Someone may not LIKE animals for some bad karmic reason, but they’d have to twist themselves in knots to argue that animals are just a bundle of unconscious “instincts” or soulless unfeeling automatons or worthless commodities no more valuable than a vegetable. They’d have to ignore all the evidence of their senses and the voices of their hearts.
But people have of course done just this, many times over, and arguably — with the blind eye much of society turns to factory farming — our ignore-ance is at an all-time high. Pacelle gives a chilling history of the wrong views about animals that have been held and, worse, propagated by philosophers (Descartes for example was no friend to animals) and even religious figures. (I wonder if the wrong views people hold about animals are all intellectually-formed (acquired from others and/or faulty reasoning) as opposed to innate (we’re born with them)?)
Once you’ve made a mind-to-mind connection with one dog, recognizing his personhood, I think it is far easier to see other dogs as people too. You are far less likely to eat one or experiment on one. Once you’ve made a connection with one pig, like Habibi whom I met in Brazil last year, you also realize that it is unconscionable to cram intelligent sociable pigs into isolated crates for their entire lives. Once you’ve been licked by a cow, as I was during one Summer in England at Manjushri Centre, it’s hard not to feel sick at the thought of a calf being kept alone in a dark veal crate or the dehumanizing atrocities of the kill floor. And those of you with intelligent parrots or friendly hens as members of your family, are you anything but horrified at the mass extermination of chicken “commodities” or the insane pigeon shoots where children are applauded for stomping on the pigeons wounded by their parents’ shotguns? (Look at this world clock, try and get the chicken counter to stand still for even a second). There is no type of animal without its defenders. (Except we may collectively still have a way to go on insects, more later… if you have any good insect stories, let us know in the comments!)
We don’t just have connections with those who have patchy hair, two legs, two arms and opposable thumbs. We also know the heart of those who have a luxurious mane of fur, liquid eyes, and the ability to beat us up the stairs. Our love for an animal gives us eyes to see. People have felt a deep bond to animals of all shapes and anatomies – that is partly what the book is about. And from a Buddhist point of view, everyone has been our mother in past lives, so this kinship is not surprising.
Are animals conscious?
Ermm, yes. They think. They have emotions. They have personality. They are aware. I’m afraid I do actually have trouble understanding how anyone can think that, for example, a fish writhing around on a hook is not feeling any pain, or is feeling a pain that doesn’t count? Even an insect, like the beetle I rescued yesterday as it was being eaten alive by ants, was desperately trying to get away from this unimaginable ordeal with the last inches of its strength.
Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar that if you put a finger in front of an ant, it will turn away due to its self-grasping. So animals have ignorance and all the other delusions just as we do! They also have all the virtuous minds – in a moving chapter called The Mismeasure of Animals, Pacelle tells some wonderful stories of the empathy, bravery, and self-sacrifice shown by animals who had nothing to gain from it. And videos abound on YouTube. (If you have any stories about your animals, please share them.)
People dismiss it, “Oh it’s just their instinct”, when animals do something nice or clever. But what is an instinct other than a tendency, and why do we tend to do things? Because we have repeated them so often in past lives; they are habits. We ourselves were born with plenty of “instincts” for both virtuous and non-virtuous tendencies.
They even have a subtle mind! Yes, just like us. So when they die the formless continuum of their mind will travel to their next life. In the commentary to Mahamudra Tantra in 2007, Geshe Kelsang said:
Even for animals, such as dogs, when their very subtle mind manifests during deep sleep, this mind is clear light and it perceives emptiness because it perceives the mere absence of the things that we normally see, like space…. Even an animal’s very subtle mind is located inside the indestructible drop at the heart.
This shows that they also have Buddha nature and always possess the potential for enlightenment; they simply cannot do the practices in this life as they don’t possess all the necessary conditions. But we can hardly hold that against them, especially if we’re not making an effort to engage in the practices leading to liberation and enlightenment ourselves! (We barely recognize the Buddha nature in ourselves half the time, so perhaps it is not surprising that we miss it in others.)
For all we know, and depending on our karma, we’ll be switching places with them next time around. (Lets pray they don’t hate us). Geshe-la tells the story in Modern Buddhism (p.33) about the fish and the people of Yamdroktso in Tibet, switching places life to life.
What’s the difference between me and an animal?
From a Buddhist point of view, the difference depends on what you can do with your life. We human beings can practice moral discipline and other spiritual practices and make our lives meaningful. We have some power. But we need to exercize our capacity to do good and refrain from evil. Otherwise, it seems that not only are we not much more fortunate than animals because we are not controlling our destiny, but we also possess no more wisdom!
As it says on page 53 of that book:
Like all the best moral causes, in the end animal protection reminds us of what we know already—that to mistreat an animal is low, dishonorable, and an abuse of power that diminishes man and animal alike.
In the teachings on How to Solve Our Human Problems in New York in 2006, Geshe Kelsang said:
The great yogi Milarepa said that moral discipline makes human beings different from animals. This means that we human beings have the opportunity to practice moral discipline. We can have consideration for others. To prevent our own future suffering and others future suffering, we can develop and maintain the determination not to perform any inappropriate actions. Through these actions we can transform the environment into a pure environment, ourselves into pure beings, and give other beings happiness. So this is a human being’s opportunity. Animals have no such opportunity. With regard to this, a human rebirth is higher than an animal rebirth….
…Anyway, Milarepa is very correct. From the point of view of moral discipline practice, human beings are higher, but, as Milarepa is saying indirectly, other than that we’re the same. There is no difference between human beings and animals in terms of finding conditions that we need, caring for our families and destroying enemies – both human beings and animals can do these things. Some animals are more intelligent than human beings you know! There is no difference. The only difference is from the discipline practice point of view. Then a human life is very precious. Moral discipline is the inner water through which we can clean ourself and make ourself become pure.
The next article on this subject is here.
Please share these articles on social media if you think it might help animals, and tell us your animals stories in the comments!