Animals and us

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”. ~ The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, our Call to Defend Them

Continuing from this article

“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 we human beings are so much cleverer than animals that we 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! The Bond 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 acquired 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.

There is more on Buddhism and animals here, including more teachings from Geshe Kelsang and suggestions for some things we can do.

Please raise awareness of Buddhist teachings on animals by sharing this article if you like it.


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!

11 thoughts on “Animals and us”

  1. Wonderful article! Thank you 🙏
    We should be protectors and benefactors of animals not their torturers and abusers.
    I love all the “live album” quotes from Geshe-la

  2. Boy of boy, such a smorgasbord of topics! I have watched one of my dogs (we live surrounded by woods) hunt and kill possums, and carefully help me rescue, carrying them in his mouth (he weighs in at 140 the way), and then care for kittens. I have squirrels in and out of my house (don’t ask) and they leave them alone. If I’m away too long, they totally ignore me, but if I’m blue, sick, or hurt…on me like glue – so many natures. I see no difference between me and them, except for what you stated, I have a willful opportunity to learn and to practice, and of course the most precious to me – I get to make my own choices knowing the consequences, for better or worse, of my actions. I struggled with the termite issue, my wood house was literally being destroyed, and i chose, with great regret, me. And I actually did powa for them. I knew their life was no less important then mine, and i knew I was making a choice that will have consequences, but that is samsara, isn’t it? I believe despite our best efforts and intentions, we will always fall short, which certainly increases my renunciation and desire to end these cycles, which leads me to such gratitude to have had the great fortune to have met Kadam Dharma, our beyond kind spiritual guide Geshe Kelsang Gyasto…..and you!

  3. A swarm of wasps have just built their home in our back garden. They are not causing any harm & I have watched over the past 6 weeks as they have carefully constructed their nest in a bird box we have hanging out on the patio.

    My natural urge in the past has been to squat wasps or spray them with some kind of pesticide to kill them off. I have felt threatened, as I do now, by their presence. I guess that in a few weeks when the BBQ comes out they will be nose-diving for the soft drinks.

    The difference now is that i’m determined to follow a good path and not cause them any harm. I’m still trying to think of ways to remove them from the back yard without A) getting stung to death, or B) causing any of my neighbours in the surrounding area to get attacked.

    Any ideas? Does talking to them really work?

    1. Have you googled this for humane ways to remove wasps? Some would say that talking to them definitely works, worth a try! And making prayers too. At any rate, the thing about wasps is that they go eventually, whatever we do. And I don’t think you’ll be stung — they only seem to sting if people panic, not if they just alight on someone’s arm.

  4. I am a student .I am interested in the world out of school.Maybe it is hard ,but that is my hope.You let me know some .Thank you.

  5. moral intuition to animals? Truly, there is no difference between th compassion we often show for humans, and that we could be showing for animals.
    In Understanding th Mind, Geshe-la defines a person as “an I imputed in dependence upon any of th 5 aggregates” (body + mind).
    Keep your moral compass pointing due right!

  6. My mother was moments away from giving birth to me, when, overhead on the thatched ceiling, a large African spider appeared and she was gripped with fear. Safe to say, from child to a sixty year adult, i too feared spiders. ‘Killing’ them was not the chosen option, rather, i would try to capture in a jar and release, but they always returned. Then in 2009, i arrived at Manjushri in Cumbria for Summer Festival and reveled in the calm happiness of all there, but what astonished me the most was how tame the wildlife was! In one of dearest Gesh’la’s teaching, he spoke of ‘how like animals’ we are, this resonated within me. However, the ‘test’ was to come. While walking alone in the below ground corridors of the building, i heard a voice. I turned to see a resident nun, in dressing gown, pleading for the large spider to be removed from her bathroom. Momentarily transfixed by fear, i had no option but to help. There, on the white tiles, sitting quite still, was one of the largest spiders i had ever seen in England. Taking a large jug, it dropped in and was dispatched to the garden. From that momentous moment in my life, fear of spiders large and small, has disappeared. I now admire and respect their remarkable life.

  7. I would love to hear what others do in the situation of termites, mice, head lice, bed bugs. We have had three, thankfully no bed bugs. While I feel compassion, understanding even the louse are looking for a clean place to lay eggs, and that they hold their breath when you shower, if they are not stopped then they spread very quickly, others will kill them. While I love the mice, I don’t want them living in my silverware drawer. We have caught many and released but they continue to live very comfortably in our home.

    I know it a tricky topic and I have had a few moving and amazing stories myself but am curious of practical, compassionate ways of dealing with these things.

    1. It is a tricky topic as it depends on many factors and I too would love to hear of practical, compassionate ways of dealing with these things. There is an argument that you need to remove insects before they multiply to the extent that you have to kill far more. There are also those who say you can always find other ways and e.g. Maria in her comment to the first article says that she asked the ants to leave her plants alone and they did (and people report things like that quite often).

      I do think that it is not so good in general to involve other people in our decision-making, but instead to come to our own decisions based on our understanding of karma, our motivation, and so on. For example, sometimes people ask a teacher or someone they respect “should I kill these fleas” or whatever. For one thing, if that teacher says “ok”, the person might feel vindicated and safe; but in truth they are still creating karma and also the teacher has now become part of that decision-making and has therefore had to create the karma of killing too, so it is not really too fair to ask them in the first place. That’s what I think, anyway.

      Geshe Kelsang said at Madhyamaka Centre that we should do a dedicated Medicine Buddha Puja each month for all the animals and insects we have harmed inadvertently. With strong faith in Medicine Buddha and strong compassion, he said they will go to the Pure Land.

  8. As Geshe-la says, we use animals for our own purposes. I’ve been thinking a lot about how, for one thing, humans eat animals recently.

    I’ll be honest (and I could get pilloried for this), I eat meat/fish maybe 4/5 times a year. That is through habit/laziness/selfishness/craving.

    My husband is a complete vegetarian and has been for over 20 years, so with that, my natural low urges towards eating meat, and the fact that I’ve moved in ‘veggie’ circles so much in my life 4/5 times a year is all.
    I don’t say ‘I am a vegetarian’ because it’s not quite the whole truth, I’d say I’m a 99.9% vegetarian or something like that.

    The few times I do eat meat or fish remain because I’ve never wanted to force myself to be a complete veggie. I see vegetarianism as a realisation and I want that to occur naturally. It is occurring naturally for me because I am increasingly horrified by the fact that we eat other creatures and the few times that I do so myself are naturally becoming less and less. I feel worse and worse about doing it. I THINK and increasingly feel, that is just WRONG to eat other creatures. Horrific actually. When I see pics, for example, of people holding up dead fish with a big grin I almost can’t get my head around it. Same with people on telly caring for animals affectionately, knowing that they’re doing so expressly so they can be eaten!

    I grew up in Northern Ireland which is one of those places where, if it moves, stick it in the frying pan and eat it. My Dad is a total meat eater, my Mum hardly at all – she eats like a bird – and my sis, again, an over 20 yrs committed veggie (and her partner is now too).

    Christmas dinner – it’s getting to the stage where I’m only eating ham and turkey now so as not to inconvenience my Mum & Dad or be as if I’m ‘looking down my nose’ at their eating habits, but I’m not gonna beat myself up about that one!

    Well, that’s my ramble. Luna, I like your point about babies too. Apart from the fact that animals and babies could be said to have similar ‘IQs’, why do we protect our own children and eat and abuse other ‘peoples’?! Strikes me as very much the same case when it comes to animal-testing for human health.

    1. A lovely ramble! I was a 99 per center too for quite a long time. I like what you say here: “I see vegetarianism as a realisation and I want that to occur naturally.” As with anything, if we feel coerced to do something, we can get resentful. I had that thing too with not wanting to look like i was looking down my nose, but when I finally said that i really was vegetarian even at Christmas, no one could care less.

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