A Buddhist perspective on animals

(I wrote this article some years ago, and Wayne Pacelle is no longer CEO of the HSUS — but the truths about Buddhism and animals remain.)

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.

Frodo, my BFF. Buddha emanating as a human being in a dog’s body.

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.

Bunny: Sat next to me on my meditation cushion for a month.

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.

Luna: (how do you think i got my pen name?!)

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)?)

Habibi the Pig

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?
Bear: Abused for the first 5 years of his life, now well loved.

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.

Fluffer: What is it like to impute your I on a big ball of cuddly fur?!

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?
Mr Meow Meow: Such a dignified and patient fellow.

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!


Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

36 thoughts on “A Buddhist perspective on animals”

  1. Our now long-departed family dog D’Arcy was as, if not more, loving, compassionate and intuitive as any human I’ve ever met. If I merely thought of taking her for a walk, she would immediately come from wherever she was in the house and stare at me, wagging her tail. One rainy night, my husband, who usually walked her in the evening, thought he would not take her that night, it was too rainy. She immediately rose from her nap and went and got her leash and dropped it at his feet, something she had never done before, even though we had tried to teach her many times to go get her own leash. One day, my husband lost his job. That evening, we were sitting on the couch. D’Arcy kept trying to get my husband’s attention, but he was not in the mood to pet her, so I tried to give her my attention, but she would not have it. She would pull away from me and kept butting his hand with her head. I soon realized that she was insisting he pet her, not because she needed it, but because he needed comforting and she wanted to comfort him. She taught me so many Dharma lessons. I often wondered if she was an emanation.

    Over 50 years ago, when I was about 7 years old, our beloved family dog Sandy was mistakenly shot and killed by a hunter. The next day at school, I shared my sad news with my classmates and our teacher. I said: “He’s in heaven now”. My teacher then said that animals don’t go to heaven when they die because they don’t have a soul. I remember not really being bothered by what she had just said. I just sat there looking at her. I didn’t react, didn’t argue or object. I remember just knowing in my heart that she was wrong about animals not having a soul. Of course now, as a Buddhist, I understand they have mind.

    Thank you Luna for all your wonderful articles about animals and for sharing Geshe-la’s particular teachings on them. <3

  2. Only on the momentous day, when declaration is made by Kadampa ‘central’, that all centres/festivals/retreats worldwide and wherever/whatever possible, have become Vegan, will be the day of rejoicing. In the meantime, though words, eloquently written, or, spoken, pacify the hardest of hearts, there is nothing to compare with action. This alone, will result in the full understanding of The Four Nobel Truths, the first sermon given by the Buddha, after his *enlightenment. Thereafter, all teachings will become clear in the hearts and minds of practitioners. IDAM GURU RATNA MANDALAKAM NIRYATAYAMI

    1. In general, everyone has to come to an understanding and decision on their own, using their own wisdom — that’s how it works in Buddhism. The Festivals, Centers, and so on are vegetarian with vegan options, which is already cool. Maybe over time they’ll be vegan when everyone wants that.

  3. Hi, i totally agree with all your saying having three cats who are growing old with me…do you have a good solution when they catched fleas? I have to react, trying soft solutions like vacuming often and search the ny hand and comb, but what to do when all not work? The cats suffer and the flea….?
    Thank you for advice dear friend!

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have a good solution. I use Advantage. Leaving the fleas on the cat leads to all sorts of other problems, including anemia, worms, and Haw’s disease (I know this from experience.) I try to prevent rather than cure, putting it on them regularly. It does mean some fleas die, but fewer than if I left it until there is an infestation and even more have to die. I don’t like it, but I have not come up with a better solution, and I don’t feel comfortable recommending any solution to others, I think we have to figure this one out each on our own. When I put it on them, I try to have no delusion in my mind, just as much compassion as possible; and I do Medicine Buddha Puja for the fleas, wishing them the best possible rebirth.

  4. When I decided not to kill any animal any more I got an opportunity to practice this. The leaves of one of my favorite plants was going to be eaten by ants. Instead of “getting rid” of the ants the common way, I had to find a better way: I talked to them, I made a pact with them. I said, I am going to destroy the different poisons I have (insecticides, ant killers, etc.) and I am not going to harm any animal again except for self-protection, but please leave this plant and look for your food elsewhere. They did!

    1. Thank you for this Maria. I would put a Reese’s peanut butter cup outside my old apartment door so that the ants would go eat that instead of swarming the kitchen. Not only did it work, but they made the most beautiful sculptures 😉

      1. thank you for this marvellous idea! I did not know that ants like peanut butter. But please, any peanut butter will do? I do not know Reese’s, I live in Mexico, we have other brands like Skyppy or PeterPan.

        1. Reese’s peanut butter cups are that very American combination of chocolate and peanut butter! I’m not sure which the ants liked more 🙂

  5. Thank you Luna! I rejoice so much when I see articles or actions from people such as yourself, Wayne Pacelle, Liz Jones (Daily Mail journalist and animal lover) etc., that speak out for beings/animal-people who cannot speak out for themselves.

    I too boggle at the theory that ‘fish don’t have feelings’. It’s so obvious, looking at small fish in a tank, that they are EXTREMELY sensitive. You can tell by the way they move around, sensing and sensitive to every obstacle, current, nuance around them. I wonder if there are so many ‘pescatarians’ – I’ve heard a few people saying ‘I don’t eat MEAT but I eat fish’ – because they think that fish are less sentient or less important or something..

    A good (Buddhist) friend of mine once told me how he strongly realised how sentient and feeling insects were when he spent a while watching one trying to move up a wall and not being able to because there was some obstacle. It was trying again and again and my friend could sense its frustration.

    I have a particular affinity with cats and to me, they seem almost psychic in that at times when I have been physically ill, different cats I’ve known will come to me, sit by me, comfort me. I think of cats as little doctors or healers. May just be a mad thought of mine but I like to think it! Actually there are a lot of stories of animals sensing illness or impending death and giving comfort to humans.

    Finally, apart from animals being seen as live’stock’/units/rubbish to be used and discarded, in terms of us EATING them, it is horrifying how they are seen as units to be used for TESTING for the good of human health (hmm, valid? uhuh – huge subject for debate), and even worse – vanity. One thing I try to do at least once in a while, is to email or write to some company or manufacturer and make my views on animal testing, as a consumer, known. The more humans that do this, and vote with their money by what they buy, the more we can help to end all this testing. Great that Co-op, M&S and now Sainsburys stock BUAV approved products.

    Oh! Finally finally, I remember one of the NKT Festivals in England where Geshe-la focussed very much on animals in his teaching(s). It was great! He highlighted how badly treated by humans animals are and said something like humans should be sued by animals for all the wrongs done to them!

    Animals are so vulnerable and the best thing we can do is to look after them, stick up for them and love them!

    1. You’re absolutely right about voting with our money. that’s the *only* thing that’ll make any difference. for as long as factory farming/animal testing etc. is profitable, it will be done, and those who profit from it will lobby policy makers to keep their farms/labs/factories legal. no amount of public indignation will stop this *unless* it’s accompanied by a drop in profits. as soon as the cash cows dry up, they’ll be released from their bondage! *nothing* else will work, conventionally – they will only, ever, listen to the money.

      so we need to start improving our compassion. and we need to apply it practically to our spending: stop buying dairy produce/battery eggs/animal-tested cosmetics/etc.

      and we need to set a good example, to raise awareness skilfully, and to encourage everyone, everywhere to improve their compassion and wisdom.

      as Mahatma Gandhi said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” we are very, very immature as a society, and we need to grow up.

    2. Eileen, this is a beautifully written comment with so much food for thought, thank you !!!
      I’m going to quote that whole teaching from Geshe-la in the next article, its a treasure.

  6. good article, thank you. i share your inability to understand how a person can possibly convince themselves that animals have no consciousness – that they don’t suffer like humans do. anyone who’s ever looked into a dog’s eyes… i think it’s the most tortuous, wilful denial. maybe we just can’t bear to face the truth, because as you say so charitably it’d “open the floodgates of grief”. grief – and shame.

    we owe animals big. Geshe Kelsang once said he sometimes wants to sue humans on animals behalf. as he says: we need to work on our compassion, all of us, ’til it has the power to protect all living beings without exception; and at the same time we have to start facing our responsibilities in this world, right now, and do what we can to end the hell on earth our society inflicts on so many millions of living beings every day.

    i applaud Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS, and all those speaking out for our brothers and sisters without a voice – thank you. think i’ll go buy his book.

    1. Thank you so much Dougal for your touching comment, beautifully argued on behalf of “our brothers and sisters without a voice”.

      Someone said yesterday that the etymology of the word responsible is “able to respond”. We are able to respond right now, so does that mean we are responsible whether we like it or not?

  7. Just received a reply from Wayne Pacelle:

    Subject: Thank you for your blog!


    That was just great of you. Very compelling and well-argued and well said. Thank you so much for taking the time to do it, and offering such positive observations.

    I am sure it will draw a good number of people to the book.

    Hope our paths intersect soon!

    All best,
    Wayne Pacelle
    President & CEO
    t 202-452-1100 f 301-258-3077

    WaynePacelle.org (blog)

    The Humane Society of the United States
    2100 L Street NW Washington, DC 20037

  8. Thank you, another beautifully written message for all. I am so happy to have had teachings on not harming any living being for many reasons but a favorite is that my kids have followed this example. Having taught them not to kill any insects or animals (or humans) has saved them a lot of negative karma. Watching them not kill bugs and encouraging their friends not to and teaching their friends to save insects is wonderful.

    1. It must feel wonderful to watch your children show compassion and in this way make the most of their lives. Your kids are lucky. Wayne Pacelle tells of how parents encourage their kids to stomp on pigeons at the yearly pigeon shoot — they were taught that in turn by their parents, and this practice has been going on for generations now, and is strongly defended. When I was in Brazil I saw parents teaching their very young children how to snatch queen ants out of the air so they could later fry them alive as a delicacy — they were all seeing it as annual fun and frolics, with no regard for the insects or their childrens’ future lives. Again, a practice that has been going on for generations. But your kids will teach their kids that animals and insects deserve to live.

  9. Beautiful article-heart opening for anyone. You are helping those who read this to deepen their own relationships with animal beings. Many more will be happy. Thank you.
    PS-would love to read Wayne’s grateful response to this “perspective.”

    1. Love that expression “animal beings”! Duly stolen…

      I would love to read Wayne’s response too, if I get one 😉 He’s a busy man…

  10. Though I don’t come from a Buddhist background, I’ve always related to its principle of compassion. I have to confess that I remember stepping on ant-hills as a young child, but as I got older I tried to stop boys at summer camp from drowning daddy long-legs (the common name for harvestmen bugs in the U.S.). Recently I’ve found several large wasps in my apartment, and was able to catch them and put them outside without being stung. I do the same with moths and beetles. I dislike parasitic insects such as ticks, but if I find most insects or spiders inside I always try to carry them outside and release them. I once found a cicada caught in a large spiderweb and untangled it from the web so it was able to fly away.

    1. Hi Calliope, I’m really glad you take the trouble to rescue insects. In Buddhism, that is also part of giving fearlessness, and creates good karma. There is no doubt that insects experience fear and pain too, and that they don’t want to be killed. Thank you.

    2. Well, I agree with you about taking insects out into the open and free them, but what about an insect caught in a spider’s net? Poor spider will be without his food after a “hard day’s work” of catching his prey. Anyhow, I would probably have done the same, we better work hard on getting out of samsara.

  11. Well done! My dog Fred, for one, is very pleased that you wrote about animals.

    He is one of the lucky ones who is not exploited or in danger of starving or being eaten by a wild animal. I love to whisper mantras in his ear, and he loves to sit by me when I’m meditating.

    I will try to be more mindful about including all animals when practicing Taking and Giving.

    Thank you for writing and sharing.

    1. This is Fred’s lucky break, meeting you!

      Great idea about taking and giving — it is such a simple yet powerful practice. We can use our own animal friends as examples to evoke love and compassion for the others, and it means there is always something we can be doing in the face of suffering and cruelty.

      It just occured to me, for example, that Chenma can breathe in the bad karma and inappropriate rejoicing of her neighbor and breathe out compassion and wisdom.

      Sometimes when we practice taking and giving in our daily life like this, the right thing to say or do can become apparent too.

  12. It breaks my heart how humans treat animals. When a friend tells me they took their nephew fishing and had a great time, it’s hard for me to say something. I don’t know exactly how to approach it without sounding like a fanatic. Any suggestions in these kinds of situations?

    1. It is such a common scenario and, although it depends on your relationship with the neighbor and their background, I sometimes think we can be too quick to shy away from expressing our opinions as Buddhists. What do other people think? I would be very interested to hear about what works and doesn’t work in these situations.

      1. Good question. re: fishing for fun or relaxation. I try to keep a compassionate, non-judgemental mind (if you judge folk they just become defensive). I just say ‘i couldn’t imagine killing for pleasure….’ This tends to make folk at least question the morals of what they are doing and can lead to a good discussion. Most people know i’m a Buddhist, so it’s not so surprising for them.

        “Chenma’ – sounds like this would be true for you too?-)

        1. PS. Chenma, Goddess of the Earth 🙂 coz they know who/what you are, there’s no fanaticism – just the heartfelt desire for others not to suffer.

          1. Just asked Gen Chonden how he’d answer your nephews, Chenma – (i’d forgotten it was for a friend). His reply was that the fish or the bait wouldn’t have had a great time.

            Thought that was worth sharing – seeing it from the animals’ perspective.

  13. This is an inspiring and timely blog! It’s particularly helpful for me to think of animals as people with personalities – the photos speak volumes to that – well done!

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