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The role of animals in Buddhism

By Devik Balami at
The role of animals in Buddhism

Animals hold an important place and position in Buddhism since Buddhists are perceived as close to humanitarian. Not only this, It is also because of Buddhist theories and practices revolving around the animals.

Animals in Buddhism as mentioned in Buddhist doctrine

As portrayed in Buddhist thoughts, animals are always regarded as a sentient being. Furthermore, according to the Mahayana School of Buddhism, it is believed that animals possess Buddha nature and therefore they have the potential for enlightenment as well. The doctrine also holds that any human could be reborn as an animal as per their karma and deeds, and also the animals have the equal opportunity to be born as humans. Therefore, the Buddha thoroughly explained that all the sentient beings currently living in the animal realm might have been our near or far relatives in the past rebirths. So it is very hard to make any distinctions between the moral rules applicable to animals and that to humans since they are all interconnected.

It is also thought that the animals were separated from humans by a state of mind and believed to live in the distinct world which is known as Tiryagyoni in Sanskrit while in Pali, it is Tiracchanayoni. It is also thought that rebirth in this world is one of the unhappy rebirths as the negative karma leads to this world. Hence, Buddhist texts also depict many suffering associated with the animal world. Some of these sufferings are- they are attacked and eaten by other animals; therefore they live in fear of it. Also, they are slaughtered for their bodies, or and even forced to work. Not only this, they are also ignored and are not understood when they are alive. However, it is also mentioned that the animals regularly doing good deeds will again be born in the human realm.

Animals as mentioned in the Jatakas and other Buddhist scriptures

The Jataka stories are the Buddhist stories that tell the past lives of the Buddha in folktale fashion. These stories involve animals as peripheral or main characters. It is also seen that the Bodhisattvas have appeared as an animal as well. It is recorded that the stories sometimes were documented with animals alone while sometimes involve conflicts between humans and animals. If the story is depicted with humans and animals, then the animals would often exhibit characteristics of kindness and generosity that are absent in the humans.

It is also clearly mentioned in the teachings of Buddha, the first of the five precepts that taking the life of others are bad deeds which will lead to negative karma. Primarily, it applies to the killing of human beings but in the broader sense, it also applies to the animal realm. Also, from the very beginnings, there were regulations intended to prevent the harming all the beings for various reasons.

Being Vegetarianism

Most of the non-Buddhist thinks that Buddhist are pure Vegetarians but this is a misleading belief because there are Buddhists and in some cases, Monks as well are not vegans. These cases are changing but it is the sour truth that they do eat the flesh of animals. This contradiction is due to various interpretations of the sutras.

One of the interpretation is eating meat is not explicitly prohibited in the Sutta and Vinaya of the Pali Canon also encouraged Monks to accept whatever food they are given. However, they are forbidden if they know, believe or suspect that the animal was killed especially for them.

In the Mahayana Lankavatara and Angulimala Sutra, the Buddha prohibits the eating of meat and any animal products. It is also mentioned in these sutras that if the purpose of accepting the flesh of sentient beings is as medicine, then it is acceptable. But the animal should have died in accordance with the Dharma, (due to the natural cause).

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