A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE ON ANIMAL RIGHTS
by Ronald Epstein
Dharma Realm Buddhist University and San Francisco State
Based on a Paper Presented at the Conference
"Animal Rights and Our Human Relationship to the Biosphere"
San Francisco State University
March 29-April 1, 1990
I want to relate to you two striking examples of animals
acting with more humanity than most humans. My point is not that animals
are more humane than humans, but that there is dramatic evidence that animals
can act in ways that do not support certain Western stereotypes about their
About fifteen years ago there was an Associated Press
article with a dateline from a northern Japanese fishing village. Several
people from a fishing vessel were washed overboard in a storm far at sea.
One of the women was found still alive on a beach near her village three
days later. At the time a giant sea turtle was briefly seen swimming just
offshore. The woman said that when she was about to drown the turtle had
come to rescue her and had carried her on its back for three days to the
place where she was found.
In February of this year, also according to the Associated
Press a man lost at sea was saved by a giant stingray:
A man claims he rode 450 miles on the back of a stingray
to safety after his boat capsized three weeks ago, a radio station reported
Radio Vanuatu said 18-year-old Lottie Stevens washed up
Wednesday in New Caladonia. It said Stevens' boat capsized January 15 while
he and a friend were on a fishing trip.
The friend died and after four days spent drifting with
the overturned boat, Stevens decided to try to swim to safety, Radio vanuatu
reported. There were sharks in the area, but a stingray came to Steven's
rescue and carried him on its back for 13 days and nights to New Caladonia,
the radio said. (AP, San Francisco Chroncicle, Feb. 8, 1990)
BASIC BUDDHIST PRINCIPLES
Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, Buddhism affirms
the unity of all living beings, all equally posses the Buddha-nature, and
all have the potential to become Buddhas, that is, to become fully and
perfectly enlightened. Among the sentient, there are no second-class citizens.
According to Buddhist teaching, human beings do not have a privileged,
special place above and beyond that of the rest of life. The world is not
a creation specifically for the benefit and pleasure of human beings. Furthermore,
in some circumstances according with their karma, humans can be reborn
as humans and animals can be reborn as humans. In Buddhism the most fundamental
guideline for conduct is ahimsa-the prohibition against the bringing of
harm and/or death to any living being. Why should one refrain from killing?
It is because all beings have lives; they love their lives and do not wish
to die. Even one of the smallest creatures, the mosquito, when it approaches
to bite you, will fly away if you make the slightest motion. Why does it
fly away? Because it fears death. It figures that if it drinks your blood,
you will take its life. . . . We should nurture compassionate thought.
Since we wish to live, we should not kill any other living being. Furthermore,
the karma of killing is understood as the root of all suffering and the
fundamental cause of sickness and war, and the forces of killing are explicitly
identified with the demonic. The highest and most universal ideal of Buddhism
is to work unceasingly for permanent end to the suffering of all living
beings, not just humans.
The Buddha in a former life was reborn as a Deer-king.
He offers to substitute his own life for that of a pregnant doe who is
about to give birth. In another previous lifetime, the Buddha sacrificed
his own life to feed a starving tiger and her two cubs, who were trapped
in the snow. He reasoned that it would be better to save three lives than
to merely preserve his own. It is better to lose one's own life than to
kill another being.
The following selections are from the Ta Chih Tu Lun:
The Relative Value of One's Life and the Precepts
Question: If it is not a case of my being attacked, then
the thought of killing may be put to rest. If, however, one has been attacked,
overcome by force, and is then being coerced [by imminent peril], what
should one do then?
Reply: One should weigh the relative gravity [of the alternatives].
If someone is about to take one's life, one [should] first consider whether
the benefit from preserving the precept is more important or whether the
benefit from preserving one's physical life is more important and whether
breaking the precept constitutes a loss or whether physical demise constitutes
After having reflected in this manner one realizes that
maintaining the precept is momentous and that preserving one's physical
life is [relatively] unimportant. If in avoiding [such peril] one is only
[able to succeed in] preserving one's body, [then] what [advantage]is gained
with the body? This body is the swamp of senescence, disease and death.
It will inevitably deteriorate and decay. If, [however], for the sake of
upholding the precept, one loses one's body, the benefit of it is extremely
Furthermore, one [should] consider [thus]: "From
the past on up to the present, I have lost my life an innumerable number
of times. At times I have incarnated as a malevolent brigand, as a bird,
or as a beast where I have lived merely for the sake of wealth or profit
or all manner of unworthy pursuits. Now I have encountered [a situation
where I might perish] on account of preserving the pure precepts. To not
spare this body and sacrifice my life to uphold the precepts would be a
billion times better than and [in fact] incomparable to safeguarding my
body [at the expense of] violating the prohibitions." In this manner
one decides that one should foresake the body in order to protect [the
integrity] of the pure precepts.
The Butcher's Son and the Killing Precept
For example, there once was a man who was a srota- aapanna
born into the family of a butcher. He was on the threshhold of adulthood.
Although he was expected to pursue his household occupation, he was unable
to kill animals. His father and mother gave him a knife and a sheep and
shut him up in a room, telling him, "If you do not kill the sheep,
we will not allow you to come out and see the sun or the moon or to have
the food and drink to survive."
The son thought to himself, "If I kill this sheep,
then I will[be compelled to] pursue this occupation my entire life. How
could I commit this great crime [simply] for the sake of this body?"
Then he took up the knife and killed himself. The father and mother opened
the door to look. The sheep was standing to one side whereas the son was
[laying there], already expired.
At that time, when he killed himself, he was born in the
heavens. If one is like this, then this amounts to not sparing [even one's
own] life in safeguarding [the integrity of] the pure precepts.
End Notes: A srota-aapanna is a first- stage arhat,
otherwise known as a "stream-winner."
(Translation and copyright by Dharmamitra)
I. The Rite of Liberating Living Beings is a Buddhist
practice of rescuing animals, birds, fish and so forth that are destined
for slaughter or that are permanently caged. They are released to a new
physical and spiritual life. The practice exemplifies the fundamental Buddhist
teaching of compassion for all living beings.
A disciple of the Buddha must maintain a mind of kindness
and cultivate the practice of liberating beings. He should reflect thus:
'All male beings have been my father and all females have been my mother.
There is not a single being who has not given birth to me during my previous
lives, hence all beings of the Six Destinies are my parents. Therefore,
when a person kills and eats any of these beings, he thereby slaughters
my parents. Furthermore, he kills a body that was once my own, for all
elemental earth and water previously served as part of my body and all
elemental fire and wind have served as my basic substance. Therefore, I
shall always cultivate the practice of liberating beings and in every life
be reborn in the eternallyabiding Dharma and teach other to liberate
beings as well.' Whenever a Bodhisattva sees a person preparing to kill
an animal, he should devise a skilful method to rescue and protect it,
freeing it from its suffering and difficulties... (Brahma Net Sutra
In China the Rite of Liberating Living Beings was very
popular and has continued to be so to the present day. It also is practiced
in the United States at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Mendocino County
and at other Buddhist centers.
All beings-human or beast-
Love life and hate to die.
They fear most the butcher's knife
Which slices and chops them piece-by-piece.
Instead of being cruel and mean,
Why not stop killing and cherish life?
(Cherishing Life, I, 83)
In Buddhism adhering to a completely vegetarian diet is
a natural and logical ramification of the moral precept against the taking
of life. The Bodhisattva Precepts also explicitly forbid the eating of
Student: "...when you eat one bowl of rice, you take
the life of all the grains of rice, whereas eating meat you take only one
The [Venerable] Master [Hua] replied: "On the body
of one single animal are a hundred thousand, in fact, several million little
organisms. These organisms are fragments of what was once an animal. The
soul of a human being at death may split up to become many animals. One
person can become about ten animals. That's why animals are so stupid.
The soul of an animal can split up and become, in its smallest division,
an organism or plant. The feelings which plants have, then, are what separated
from the animal's soul when it split up at death. Although the life force
of a large number of plants may appear sizable, it is not as great as that
of a single animal or a single mouthful of meat. Take, for example, rice:
tens of billions of grains of rice do not contain as much life force as
a single piece of meat. If you open your Five Eyes you can know this at
a glance. If you haven't opened your eyes, no matter how one tries to explain
it to you, you won't understand. No matter how it's explained, you won't
believe it, because you haven't been a plant!
"Another example is the mosquitoes. The millions
of mosquitoes on this mountain may be simply the soul of one person who
has been transformed into all those bugs. It is not the case that a single
human soul turns into a single mosquito. One person can turn into countless
numbers of mosquitoes.
At death the nature changes, the soul scatters, and its
smallest fragments become plants. Thus, there is a difference between eating
plants and eating animals. What is more, plants have very short life-spans.
The grass, for example, is born in the spring and dies within months. Animals
live a long time. If you don't kill them, they will live for many years.
Rice, regardless of conditions, will only live a short time. And so, if
you really look into it, there are many factors to consider, and even science
hasn't got it all straight." (Buddha Root Farm, 64)]
Mahakashyapa asked the Buddha, "Why is it that the
Thus Come One does not allow eating meat?' The Buddha replied, "It
is because meat-eating cuts off the seeds of great compassion." (Cherishing
Life, II 5)
CURRENT ANIMAL RIGHTS ISSUES FROM A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE
Although the following guidelines for working on animal
rights issues follow clearly from fundamental Buddhist teachings, they
are by no means exclusively Buddhist. My hope for this conference is that
many of the participants, regardless of their religious views, will wholeheartedly
embrace them in their future work for animal rights.
1) We should reduce the fear, hate, and thoughts of revenge
generated by the torturing and killing of animals.
2) We should not be prey to negative emotions or violence.
They compound the problem. Real solutions come from changing people's minds
rather than from creating confrontation and friction.
3) We should not limit our compassion to the animals and
to those of like mind, but extend it to all living beings, even if we feel
that some are clearly in the wrong. Compassion should be the basis of all
our interactions with others, regardless of their views and actions in
the area of animal rights.