What do we owe animals and insects?

In the Vajrapani teachings in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

Milarepa said to the hunter Gonpo Dorje:

“You have the body of a human but the mind of an animal.”

That is, we have the same intention or view. What we human beings want and what animals want is exactly the same. We know all about computers and many other things, but our aim is the same – temporary happiness or worldly pleasure. Animals have various methods for finding worldly pleasures, and so do human beings. Their methods may differ but their aim, view and intention are the same; and, with regard to this, human beings are no more special than animals.

Carrying on from this article.

But surely my mentality, wants, needs, and actions are far more sophisticated than an animal’s?

Are they? We are all equal in that we wish to be free from suffering all the time and always want to be happy. We never wake up and think, “Hey, I’d love a whole bunch of suffering today”, and nor do animals. In his commentary to Medicine Buddha in 2006, Geshe Kelsang said:

Everybody wants to be free from suffering and be happy all the time; even animals have the intention to be free from suffering. They want to liberate themselves from suffering of this life.

Buddhism teaches that unless we have developed a spiritual perspective and wish for the happiness of future lives, liberation or enlightenment, our outlook is really quite hard to distinguish from that of an animal! Our aims are the same. And as everything depends upon our intention, the results we’ll ultimately get out of our life are pretty much the same too.

If we can equalize our self and others, really understanding how just like our own self animals wish to be happy and free, we are not going to project alien “other” so strongly upon them, and with this inclusive perspective we can empathize with them. They are just like me. From their perspective, they are “me”.

Animals also create actions and experience their karmic effects, just like we do. In the Prajnaparamita commentary in 2008 Geshe Kelsang said:

Even animals, like dogs, also experience some inner mental peace from time to time. Why? Because they have on their consciousness the imprints of mental actions of meditation and concentration that they performed in their previous lives, and when these imprints of the mental actions of meditation ripen they experience mental peace. When they experience mental peace they are really happy because their mind is happy.

According to Buddha, we human beings are also not inherently or permanently human. We too can take rebirth as animals, and have indeed done so many times already in our countless previous lives. We are all in this ocean of samsara together. In the introduction to the Paris Festival in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

When we take rebirth as human beings we will have to experience various kinds of human suffering; when we take rebirth as animals we will have to experience animals’ suffering; and when we take rebirth as a hell being we will have to experience the sufferings of hell beings. We should contemplate this continually again and again until we develop the strong wish to attain permanent liberation from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives.

When you open your eyes, what do you see?

Geshe Kelsang has said things like this so often:

Our intention is to benefit people throughout the world, to benefit all mother living beings including animals, other non-human beings.

Buddhists are encouraged to remember animals all the time, and to pray for their welfare. Geshe Kelsang has said that if we wish to develop compassion, all we have to do is:

Open our eyes.

When I take the paper bag of self-preoccupation off my head and look around here, I see lizards, cats, birds, worms, beetles, ants, dogs, and so on… animal beings are everywhere! If I bother to put myself in their “shoes” for even a few moments, and feel how they struggle to survive, it is quite an eye-opener and hard not to develop concern for them.

It can also be a perspective shifter on how lucky we are at the moment, and — depending on our familiarity with Buddha’s teachings — a constant reminder of the need to use this time to attain liberation from samsara as soon as possible and enlightenment for their sake.

Animals have nothing. As Geshe Kelsang said in the 2008 Vajrapani teachings:

For example, dogs and other animals have nothing belonging to them. Relatively their body belongs to them but human beings control everything, even their body. They don’t even have any ability to control their own body. Human beings use them.

But how am I responsible for animals?

I’d like to quote here from Dougal’s comment that appeared in part one:

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 the HSUS, and all those speaking out for our brothers and sisters without a voice – thank you.

Someone told me yesterday that the etymology of the word responsible is “able to respond”. We are able to respond right now (in both ways mentioned in this comment), so doesn’t this mean that we are responsible whether we like it or not?

We are immensely privileged right now with our precious human life. And with great privilege comes great responsibility.

What about being decent to insects, isn’t that going a bit far?

We collectively have a low tolerance for insects it seems – I’m constantly passing white vans with slogans on them promising one way or another to be the best at ridding my home of “pests” and “stop being bugged”. Factory farms may be hidden away, but no one bats an eyelid at these proud proclamations of slaughter. We tell annoying people to “buzz off…”

There is to my knowledge no humane society for insects at this point in time. I personally have always had a thing for insects. I like what Issa says:

“Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet.”

But although some may see me as a ridiculous bleeding heart liberal, at the same time I know I have a way to go. I am more careful with animals than insects – I would be far more concerned if I ran over a raccoon than if I trod on a beetle. This tells me that I still haven’t comprehended the full horrors of samsara, where I and my kind mothers can take rebirths in these forms.

In the What is Karma? chapter in Introduction to Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we kill even a tiny insect, this is a non-virtuous action because it causes great suffering to the insect.


In Tantric Grounds and Paths (p. 151) he says:

It is with the help of subtle external winds that plants draw up water, grow new leaves, and so forth. Such winds are the life-force of plants…. Thus, although it is incorrect to say that plants are alive in the sense of being conjoined with consciousness, we can say that they are alive in this sense.

We can choose to believe these things or not, of course. I don’t have trouble seeing animals and insects as sentient and flowers and vegetables as not, I’ve always thought of it that way. However, it is not obvious judging by people’s sometimes paradoxical relationships with their plants.

Yesterday I visited an old friend who is very fond of her plants, and she showed them to me one by one. The last one, a hibiscus, had tiny white insects all over its flowers and she explained that she was spraying it with insecticide to save it. I objected that I didn’t think one hibiscus plant was worth the lives of hundreds of insects, no way. And she replied, “That is where you are wrong. Plants have feelings too.” And I said, sort of under my breath, “Well, why do you keep attacking them then with those large scary garden shears, that’s got to be agony”, and, louder, “Plants don’t have consciousness.” And she replied, “No they don’t, but they do have feelings.” However, no consciousness = no feelings.

As part of the meditation on generating universal compassion, explained in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

In the third stage, we focus on ourself and all animals and we think, “Just as I want happiness but not suffering, so too do all animals. In this respect we are all exactly the same. Therefore, I must believe that I myself and all animals are equally important. My happiness and their happiness, my freedom and their freedom, are equally important.”

In this way we develop a caring attitude towards all animals, including insects, and we hold this for as long as possible. We should practice this every day in many sessions, continually until we cherish all animals, including insects, without exception.

Geshe Kelsang lovingly picks up the dying wasps on a summer’s day near his window and spends ages blowing mantras on them. I don’t know how many of you were at Madhyamaka Centre the year a fly flew into his teacup, and he scooped it out, paused the Je Tsongkhapa empowerment, made a lot of prayers blowing into his hand, and then laughingly but seriously told us that the insect was now in Tushita Pure Land.

I once had a pet cockroach — saved him from being eaten alive by ants and then he lived a lot longer than I expected, long enough for me to feel a real bond. I still remember him.

I have more questions than answers when it comes to insects. What is our responsibility toward them? Are they necessary collateral damage because it is impossible not to harm unintentionally in samsara, as some people say? Have you found ways to increase your concern for them without resorting to going around with a cloth over your face and sweeping the path before you like the admirably compassionate Jains? What is to be done about insects?

But what can little old me do to help all these animals and insects? The problem seems insurmountable.

Buddha said that anyone who deliberately harmed another living being was no follower of his. At the very least, we can observe this refuge commitment.

As mentioned in part one, we turn a blind eye perhaps because we just don’t want there to be that much suffering. However, our head in the sand sadly doesn’t stop the suffering. Buddha advises us in the first of the four noble truths not to shy away from suffering – we need to know suffering in order to take the steps to overcome it. We can let animals remind us that there is immense suffering in the world but right now, with our precious human life, unlike them there is something we can do about it.

As Geshe Kelsang said in 2008 during the Vajrapani teachings:

Because we have the opportunity to study and practice Buddhadharma, we have the opportunity to understand the nature of samsara, and to cut the continuum of samsara and achieve permanent liberation from suffering. We have the opportunity to control our delusions, through which we can solve our own problems of anger, attachment and ignorance, and we can benefit others effectively.

We have all this opportunity because we have met Buddhadharma. With regard to this, human life is valuable and very precious. It depends on our view and intention.

If we try to be brave and courageous, like a hero or heroine, and contemplate others’ suffering, we can increase our capacity very quickly. When I saw the lizard just now with the other by the throat, after running after it to make it drop its prey, I prayed mentally:

May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.

So simple, but so effective. Taking and giving is also so useful at times like this. And if we always remember our potential and theirs, we need never be discouraged. If you are a Tantric practitioner, use a situation like this to remind and motivate you to be a Buddha right now. If you are not, you can think “I am a Bodhisattva already, right now, bringing an end to this suffering.” Bring the result into the path. Please never despair, it helps no one, and there is always something we can do.

If we keep animals on our radar, they are a far larger category than human beings and will help our renunciation and compassion grow strong. If we think about animals, there is also more chance of our turning our attention to the other realms of samsara, such as hungry ghosts and hell beings, so that we will actually develop universal rather than biased compassion, the only basis for bodhichitta and enlightenment. Then we can pull the plug on samsara’s ocean.

Meantime, we can also specifically look out for the animals in our life, whoever they are. If you are stuck for ideas, there are 50 practical suggestions at the end of The Bond for how to take action to help animals.

The starfish

Even helping one animal makes a big difference. One day a woman came across a girl walking along the beach throwing dying stranded starfish back into the ocean. She asked her: “Why are you doing that? There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish. What difference does it make to throw that one back?” The girl looked at the starfish she was holding and replied: “It makes all the difference in the world to this one.” I don’t know if the Starfish story is true or not, but it could be.

And most significantly, if we combine our actions with bodhichitta, we create vast merit or good karma. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

With bodhichitta, if we offer just one morsel of food to a dog, our merit will be as great as the number of living beings upon whose behalf we perform the action.

I was wondering too how Pacelle has become able to protect so many thousands of animals? He has been passionate about them since a boy. He must have created the karmic causes to help them. We can too.

Last but not least…

Geshe Kelsang himself has two rescued dogs. I remember when he and his assistant found the first one several years ago — a dirty grey bedraggled creature who, upon being given his first bath, looked like a drowned rat. But then he arose as a wonderfully radiant white fluffy fellow, whom Geshe-la now describes as very special, like a Bodhisattva.

In the Brazil Festival last October, Geshe-la talked about how even our pet dog could be an emanation of Buddha, just as Buddha Maitreya appeared to Asanga on retreat as a dying dog (and maggots!) to help Asanga quickly purify his mind through compassion.

Enough already with our human superiority complex. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, in the section on humility, Geshe Kelsang says:

“Since we cannot be sure one way or another, rather than wasting our time speculating whether the dog is an ordinary animal or an emanation, we should simply think, ‘This dog may be an emanation of Buddha.’ From this point of view we can think that we are lower than the dog, and this thought will protect us against any feelings of superiority.”

We never know. So, for all these reasons, and just in case, let’s be nice to animals and insects.

Your comments are most welcome. And please share this article if you think others might 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!

16 thoughts on “What do we owe animals and insects?”

  1. I prostrate to the mind of great compassion. Absolute Dharma Jewel. I rejoice in Venerable Geshe-la’s fearlessness in teaching the unmistaken Dharma and I prostrate to you, Luna, for this wonderful teaching. May we all wake up and stop creating the causes of suffering for ourselves and others. Thank you from my heart. xxxx

    1. Thank you too. We do have to stop creating such terrible causes. I wish everyone got that they are hurting themselves — and one day, through our own increasing practice and example, they may.

  2. Can we eat eggs and drink milk? Hens and cows at the “farm” are suffering isnt?

  3. Dear Luna there is so many truths on this.. like if our own world was separate from the insect world, most of the time…we are not aware of them…unless they bother, annoy, trouble, molest, tease, pester, irritate, harm us, isn´t it funny?

    i discovered that if we wish so, we can change from a mind of “horror” (specially with Cockroaches) to a compassion mind.
    i needed 3 months,courage and blessings,(almost abandoned)
    i promise my self that i have to see them with love….. they were my kind mothers, they could be an emanation, and i am on my way to do this, though not yet to take them in my hand and kiss them…uuuhhhchhh…but they don’t disgust me any more,
    and i can say that i think i like them! : )

  4. The single most helpful thing one can do to benefit animals is to stop eating them. Maybe that will be the subject of part 4? More than 100 lives are saved by a single vegetarian every year, although sadly several billion (yes, SEVERAL billion) animals are murdered for food in the same time period. More than that I have often thought about those who pay others to take on the negative karma of killing so they don’t have to directly experience the danger and unpleasantness of that truth. Thank you for posting this important article.

  5. ☆ Th Starfish story could well be true.
    When we were kids my brother n I found a seaside cove carpeted with starfish stranded by th receding tide. He threw a few back then continued exploring; but i spent hours getting as many as i could back into th water.
    I remember crying in th car on th way home coz there were so many left dying on th shingled beach. I wish i’d have had that little girl’s wisdom. I’m getting there now, tho.

  6. thank you for the practical advice on ways to increase compassion – i will try to use them more to improve mine!

    re. insects, i think it’s a lot easier for us to de-personify them because it’s harder to see, or to relate to, their faces and to hear their cries. it seems much easier to call an insect “it”, where we might call a dog “he” or “she”, or to say that there’s “something” in the bathtub… for this reason i always try now to say “someone”:

    “hey, careful where you’re stepping – there’s someone on the path down there!”

    1. I’ve been finding your comment really spot on and I’ve been saying it all the time “There is someone on the path down there!” Thank you so much.

  7. Absolutely excellent Luna, thank you. ‘They are just like me. From their perspective, they are “me”.’ If i can hold this view i will always find ways to reach out and help more and more. I also find that saying Amitayus mantras and quickly sending them to the Pureland when driving…walking…etc..really increases my sense of Bodhichitta…one day i will send them there..all of them.

    I remember once i found a wounded bird that had flown into a window at Manjushri… i took it home, it was unconscious/dead? anyway i began to say Vajrayogini’s mantra because i have great faith in it and imagined it transforming into Vajrayogini again and again..then suddenly to my surprise it flew straight out of the box and out of the open window! Also other birds like chickens have been very receptive to the mantra. The greatest help i find is to believe that they aren’t animals from their own side…like we aren’t humans..but that they are Buddhas already…like we can be too…we all have pure potential so when they are being hurt or suffering greatly i try to dissolve them into emptiness and appear them as Buddhas. This of course is very reliant on my faith in emptiness…so often i just get caught up in the suffering of them and the future suffering of their attacker and feel overwhelmed…our hearts need time to be able to have the capacity for this kind of compassion…every day i guess we need to try and meditate on doing this. Then our wings of compassion and wisdom will truly be able to fly all these beautiful beings to Buddalands…hoooray!

  8. Luna, I relate to what you say about having a greater virtuous reaction towards animals than to insects.

    Sometimes if I, for instance, brush my face or run a tap and accidentally kill a tiny fly, I’ll kind of go ‘oh no’ but the mental reaction will be nowhere near the same as if I see a larger animal come to harm. The thought of accidentally killing, say, a dog or a cat – I can’t find the words – horrific!
    I can only think that it’s because insects are so small and seem so very very many (and maybe somehow more ‘expendable’?).

    I can see that my concern for insects is lesser than for animals somehow and I have started to imagine some huge giant striding the earth, a giant maybe 2 or 3 miles in height. To that giant, all the human beings below would be like the tiny insects are to humans. We would just be many many many little dots moving around.

    The giant might unthinkingly step on one and vaguely think ‘oh no’. Hmm, sounds familiar.

    He would not be able to see the feelings and experiences of that individual little almost invisible human, feelings and experiences which are very likely huge-seeming to the human.

    Our arms, legs, lumbering meaty bodies which seem so very real and important to us would just appear as an inconsequential dot to the giant.

    This thought of the giant is one I think I will imagine more as it seems helpful in regard to developing more compassion and concern for those beings that are physically tiny compared to me.

    As for your plant friend, I’m wondering if she is seeing ‘consciousness’ as being the same as ‘higher’ conceptual ability, as in humans in relation to animals, and ‘feelings’ as feelings of physical pain?

    Enjoyed this 3rd part of your article thanks Luna, will share.

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