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.

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

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

Wayne Pacelle is smart, humble, personable and compassionate, the right CEO for the Humane Society of the Unites States I reckon. At the bookstore talk I attended last Saturday, promoting his new book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, our Call to Defend Them, he was also 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. He walks the talk, working hard for 17 years to make life better for thousands and thousands of animals, and I for one am very appreciative that he and the HSUS are doing what they do.

I have since read the book, enjoyed it, 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 share Wayne Pacelle’s sentiment that it is a very important one and I told him I would write this to help raise a little more awareness. (He asked me convincingly to send it to him when I was done – see what I mean about humble?!)

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 ig-nore-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). And so on. As Wayne Pacelle points out, 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 Pacelle’s 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 Pacelle puts it on page 53:

“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.

More questions and teachings from Geshe Kelsang in part two.

Please share these articles on Facebook or Twitter if you like it, and tell us your animals stories in the comments!

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

A Buddhist take on factory farming

The book Eating Animals is brilliant. Jonathan Safran Foer has done the world a service. He is a best-selling novelist who has managed to write a book about factory farming that is readable — horrific, yes, but still readable. Even un-put-downable. He has looked at the question of eating animals from many angles — culture, community, history, politics, husbandry, morality, health etc. He has avoided black and white haranguing and reasonably discusses shades of gray so people can come to their own conclusions.

“I need some exercise!”

Those of you die-hard carnivores who don’t want to change your habits at all, don’t read any further, and don’t pick up this book. As 99% of USA meat is factory farmed, really knowing about factory farming forces you to change in some ways  — and you may not want to change! The facts in this book, if digested, will lead most people (a) to become vegetarian or vegan, (b) to eat less meat, or (c) to be far more careful about choosing meat from animals that have not been tortured their entire lives or stewed in their own filth and stuffed with antibiotics, hormones etc. (If this book gets people into the habit of asking the store and restaurant owners where their meat or eggs actually come from, this will in itself have the power to improve animal welfare and human health). The alternative from digesting this book (as opposed to dismissing it) is that you won’t change but you will feel guilty, and that is not a useful state of mind according to Buddhism.

“I *really* need some exercise.”

This article is more about me than about you. I can’t lecture anyone about vegetarianism (let alone veganism)  — until some years ago I was an imperfect vegetarian, eating meat when I went to visit my family for holidays for example, thinking erroneously it was the best way to blend in, plus secretly digging the excuse …  But I never felt that good about it. I love animals, and I could see that loving animals was somewhat contradictory to eating them! It sat uneasily with me. But hey, steak smelt so good, and I didn’t always have the will-power to ignore others tucking into it whilst I nibbled on the brussel sprouts.

Pigs are as intelligent as dogs. Who would push their dog in a closet and throw away the key?
“I can’t help it. I have to eat.”

Then I watched a nature program about animals in the Arctic. Like these programs always are, it was brutal. Kill or be killed. It dawned on me that — unlike every animal struggling every day in the wild — I have the choice, every day, not to eat meat. That is my good fortune. I don’t have to kill anyone in order to eat. And every time I exercise that choice, I create the karmic cause to have that choice again. Whereas if I deliberately allow animals to be killed for me so that I can eat them, am I not creating the cause to have less freedom to choose in the future? Every thought and action has consequences. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. From a Buddhist understanding of rebirth (and depending on my motivation) could one even say that I might be creating the cause to be a powerless animal in future lives?

None of us likes being told what to do or having our lives controlled by others. Imagine what it is like, then, to be an animal.

Even by omission, by ignoring the facts, I personally felt like I was buying into samsara, the cycle of impure life.

This all got me thinking, and later I visited a friend who happened to have a copy of Eating Animals on the table. I read it avidly over the next two days and then could think or talk of little else but the horror of factory farms, driving everyone around me mad. I even fancied I caught a glimpse of what it felt like for the local Germans finally seeing the concentration camps that had been invisible in full sight all along.

“Let me out. I want to go outside!”

When Buddha Shakyamuni tried to help us improve our states of mind or our actions, he would explain the benefits of doing something positive and the faults of not. This way people could check these out for themselves, in their own experience, and come to a genuine intention that was all theirs. No one can force us to be good or kind or healthy. Everything depends upon our own intention.

So for myself I have a quick mental checklist of the benefits and faults of eating animals — a mixture of worldly and spiritual. Although my temptation to eat anyone with a face is now down to zero, this list has been helpful in helping me get here. Much of this is explained in the book Eating Animals, the rest in Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth.

Benefits of not eating animals

  • I am more conscious to avoid harming animals

    “Let us out. We *really* want to go outside.”
  • I avoid the hypocrisy of saying I love animals and then eating them
  • I’m healthier and slimmer
  • I’m helping the planet
  • I’m less likely to create the karmic causes to be tortured or eaten myself in the future
  • I am trying to purify the karmic causes of taking an animal rebirth where it is eat or be eaten in samsara
  • I’m increasing my empathy and compassion

Faults of eating animals

  • The opposite of the above
“Cute, aren’t we? … but where are you taking us …?”

This, or any similar checklist of your own, might work for reducing your factory farmed intake, one way or another. Ignorance is not bliss according to Buddhism. In fact, it is the complete opposite of bliss (which is indivisible with the wisdom realizing emptiness, more another time). So my feeling is that if we’re going to eat factory-farmed animals, we should at least do so with full possession of the facts. I don’t think we need to harangue others (sorry if I am haranguing you!) — in Buddhism we try to identify and get rid of our own faults, rather than dwell on the faults of others. But nor do we need to, as it says in one of my long-time favorite quotations from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (who doesn’t eat meat):

“Act as if we are sleepwalking or let our habits dominate our behavior.”

Find out more.