7 questions to ask about animals and us (part two)

Click here for part one.

On page 43 of The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, our Call to Defend Them Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle says:

How we treat the world’s animals—whether coldly or compassionately, selfishly or justly—is a measure of who we are. It defines our character, our moral progress, and our ability to look beyond self-interest. There’s a reason why the decent treatment of animals commands ownership of the word humane.

“Animals have no opportunity to sue us!”

Buddhism agrees that if we are not decent to animals, our humanity is compromised. In his commentary to Vajrapani in 2008, Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang said:

We use animals, which is horrible. We take away their freedom. We use animals for our own purpose – for money, for meat, for our own activities. So in reality we human beings are very bad; but animals have no opportunity to sue us! For our temporary enjoyment alone, we go fishing. The animals are suffering, we know this from the blood coming out of them, but we are still laughing. This is dishonest. Then sometimes we play with cows, you know in bullfights – using animals to make money. We are just temporarily enjoying ourselves but they are suffering.

Just now I saw one lizard grab another by the throat. Nature red in tooth and claw — animals can be so cruel to each other, doesn’t that justify our being cruel to them too? No. Right now we have a choice. They don’t.

Geshe Kelsang says:

So we are nothing special and in some ways we are bad. But we have some qualities. If we actually use our human life for spiritual development – for the development of correct view, correct intention, and a good heart – then we have a very good opportunity. Our qualifications are much better than animals.

I have won the karmic lottery in this life. But, from a Buddhist perspective, if I am not working on my view and my intention I am fast throwing my winnings and my future away.

But surely human beings are so much smarter than animals that they deserve better treatment?

We may be at the top of the food chain, but are we smarter in every way?! That depends! In some ways our non-virtuous “intelligence” (namely ignorance) is far more stupidly dangerous than the confusion of animals. In the Prajnaparamita empowerment in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

We know that some animals are very intelligent at hunting and we human beings are very intelligent at creating things that destroy others’ lives. This kind of intelligence is not wisdom. We should never think these are wisdom. Actually we human beings are very intelligent at creating things that destroy human life, including nuclear bombs. These kinds of intelligence are not wisdom but part of ignorance.

If we are not taking advantage of our precious human life, and in particular if we are using it to create negativity (including harming animals), can we hand on heart say we are wiser than animals? In the Prajnaparamita empowerment Geshe Kelsang said:

We are ignorant beings but we do not know what ignorance is. From one point of view we human beings are so intelligent, but from another point of view we are so stupid. We have the books; we can understand these things through reading books and listening to teachings. Animals have no such opportunity. No matter how intelligent animals such as dogs and horses are, they have no opportunity to listen to teachings and no opportunity to read information in books. We human beings have this opportunity but still don’t know what ignorance is and how to abandon ignorance and so forth.

As the great Tibetan Master Shantideva (687-763) said, if having attained this rare precious human life we are now wasting it, there is no greater self-deception, there is no greater folly.

So animals may be confused insofar as they are powerless to break free but they do also possess some intelligence that is not so different to our own. Geshe Kelsang says they can be more intelligent than us at finding food and mates, building homes and warding off predators! Wayne Pacelle tells of Alex the parrot and other stories demonstrating animal intelligence that surpasses even that of five-year old human beings!! And I saw an article recently about Chaser, a border collie who, at 1,022 nouns, speaks a lot more English than I speak dog. Her enthusiasm for learning is tiring her poor trainer out:

“She still demands four to five hours a day,” Dr. Pilley said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.”

As for emotional intelligence, just look at this lion! And the story Pacelle tells of Binti Jua, a gorilla who saves a three-year old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure, made headlines, and is also relayed in this book by a biologist: Wild Justice, The Moral Lives of Animals.

Besides, we know it is not correct to consider people inferior on the basis of their IQ or whether we decide they can or cannot do the things we can do. There is something immensely distasteful about that – think about the eugenic experiments and the killing or abandoning of disabled people that have taken place in the past. Even when animals do have a lower IQ, does that give us any good reason at all to disrespect them and use them to our own selfish ends? One could argue that the opposite is the case. Babies are pretty dumb but thankfully there are laws to protect them. I know mothers of severely disabled children who love them more fiercely than they have ever loved anyone, who understand their good qualities and heart, and who fight their entire lives for their rights.

We human beings have a moral compass, it is how we got this human rebirth. So, even if that compass is currently submerged, one part of us understands the moral imperative to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and certainly we abhor taking advantage of their powerlessness to abuse them for our own ends. Otherwise, these things would never make us uncomfortable but, if we check, they do, and so collectively we lock people away for taking advantage of other humans. Would it not be wonderful if we could now apply this same moral intuition to animals? Truly, is there any difference? (I’d be interested to hear what you think about this in the comments).

In the same Vajrapani teaching, Geshe Kelsang says:

If there was an opportunity, I could sue on behalf of animals against human beings but there is no law, there is no court. Some groups try to help animals; I know this is the case in many countries. There are very kind but they do not have enough power because the law mainly does not protect animals, it only protects human beings.

Part three (of three) is here, including more teachings from Geshe Kelsang and suggestions for some things we can do.

For Wayne Pacelle’s bookstore schedule over the next few weeks, click here.

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