Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 1997

"The Early Buddhist Tradition and Ethics"
by Lambert Schmithausen

VI. The Status of Animals

Still, even against this attempt to establish ecological ethics on the intramundane level, one serious

objection can be raised: the objection that the positive evaluation, in the "hermit strand", of (wild/intact)

nature as an ambiance might seem to have, more or less, lost sight of suffering in nature. The more so

since in many canonical texts, and mostly in those which may be characterized as rational discourse,

animals and existence as an animal are so negatively evaluated that efforts to preserve them appear

highly problematic.

According to these texts, animals are, firstly, intellectually inferior. Though they have some capacity for

thinking (manasikaara), they lack the faculty of insight (praj~naa).201 Hence they cannot understand the

Buddhist doctrine and cannot attain liberation, unless they are, in a later existence, reborn as men, which

is regarded to be possible but very rare.202

Secondly, animals are not just subject to suffering like man, but subject to much more suffering; their

existence is considered to be extremely unhappy,203 not only because they are exploited and tortured by

man204 but also in nature itself, where the weaker one is threatened and devoured by the stronger,205

and, moreover, because at least many of them live on disgusting food or in uncomfortable places.206 In

contrast to rebirth as a human, rebirth as an animal is hence usually regarded as an evil rebirth.207

Thirdly, animals are considered to be (for the most part at least) morally inferior or even wicked,208

because of their promiscuity including even incest,209 or precisely because the stronger devours the

weaker.210 The latter argument is, by the way, adduced as a reason why rebirth of an animal as a human

is so rare.

Such a negative evaluation of animals and animal existence is no doubt extremely unfavorable as a basis

for an active ecological ethics. To be sure, the commitment not to take life prevents Buddhists from

killing animals once they are there. But if animal existence is in fact such an unhappy state, why should

we make any effort to perpetuate it? If the presence of many animals and few humans means that the

world is in a bad condition,211 should we not welcome the present growth of human population212 and

decrease of (at least wild) animals, and should we not be glad if, for some reason or other, animals were

to disappear entirely from this world, just as there are none (at least no real ones) in the later Buddhist

paradise Sukhaavatii?213 Would it not be rather cruel and selfish to preserve them for our own spiritual

progress, let alone our happiness, if even by an increase of our spiritual perfection we cannot essentially

ameliorate their sombre situation because it is inherent to their status?

On the one hand, one could, from the traditional Buddhist point of view, rejoin that the number of beings

to be born as animals cannot depend on external factors like man-made pollution or deforestation, etc.,

but is solely determined by the previous karma of those beings themselves. This would mean that a

decrease in the total number of animals would have to be either merely apparent or somehow the result of

a preceding large-scale moral and spiritual improvement, and can also in future be achieved only in this

way. Hence, at least as long as such a large-scale improvement has not taken place, there may be good

reason to argue that in the sense of the Golden Rule it is part of everybody's moral duty to preserve the

world in an agreeable condition not only for future generations of humans but also for the beings to be

reborn as animals. This would, by the way, even coincide with one's own interests since--in view of the

complexity of karmic processes--few persons can exclude the possibility that either they themselves or

their friends and relatives may be reborn in one of these groups, so that protection of intact ecosystems

would even amount to protecting what may be one's own future abode.

On the other hand, apart from this, the idea of the extreme unhappiness of animals would, it too, seem to

be a wide-spread preconception of the peasants and townsmen of those days, met with in Jainism and

Hinduism as well214 --a preconception which may be rooted in frequent bad treatment of domestic

animals and in the civilization strand's fear of wilderness. To that strand we can probably also attribute the

idea of the wickedness of (at least certain wild) animals. Both of these ideas seem to have been adopted

or utilized by Buddhism for didactic purposes. Their main aim is not to make a statement on animals but

to warn against the evil consequences of bad karma and to underscore the necessity of maximum moral

and spiritual effort.215 I suggest that in an age where establishing an ecological ethics has become

imperative, they ought to be de-dogmatized by being relegated to their specific didactic contexts. For,

though animals have doubtless to suffer, the assumption that they have to suffer more than man appears

unwarranted, at least as long as their natural situation is not additionally aggravated by man.

Actually, in another strand of the Buddhist tradition--in the Jaataka (together with its commentary) and

related texts--animals are often viewed quite differently.216 I admit that this view is a more popular one

and not specifically Buddhist either, but it is not therefore necessarily less appropriate, and it has exercised

a considerable influence on the feelings and attitudes of lay Buddhists.217 As is well-known, in these texts

animals are described as being both unhappy and happy, stupid and prudent, bad and good. They are

even susceptible to religious admonition.218 To be sure, these texts largely anthropomorphize animals.

But in not regarding them as particularly unhappy and wicked creatures they seem to come closer to the


The evaluation of animals in these texts shows some affinity to the hermit strand. In fact, this strand

stands out quite frequently in the Jaataka and related texts; in a pre-Buddhist setting, to be sure, but

nevertheless mostly in connection with ascetics exemplifying such virtues as the Buddhist compilers too

wanted to inculcate. In some passages,219 nature around the hermitage (assama, aa"srama) is described

as, and expressly called,220 lovely and beautiful, abounding in a variety of blossoming and fruit-bearing

trees spreading delicate odors and inhabited by various kinds of birds and quadrupeds, and embellished by

ponds and rivers with clear water and full of lotus-flowers, fishes and other aquatic animals. The

emphasis on variety of species (which are enumerated in great detail)221 is conspicuous.

This kind of description of nature around the hermitage is obviously closely related to the romanticizing

strand of nature description in secular poetry mentioned above (p. 14). It is current in non-Buddhist

literature as well,222 and in the Jaataka similar descriptions can also be found of the forest inhabited by

animal heroes.223 There can be little doubt that it too depicts nature mainly from a human aesthetic point

of view.224 Even the inclusion of fierce animals like lions, tigers, bears, boars and crocodiles does not

contradict this since they would rather appear to be envisaged--from afar, so to speak--in their majestic

beauty. Hence, a positive evaluation of intact nature and biodiversity, but tacit omission of the violence

and suffering involved in nature as it actually is.

Yet, some passages show that suffering and violence in nature may not simply have been ignored. One

passage,225 e.g., stresses that in the forest around the hermitage there is plenty of food also for the

animals (thus suggesting that in nature food is often scarce). As for violence, the idea is rather that around

the hermitage there is an exceptional situation in that violence has been neutralized or overcome226 by

the (non-violent) spiritual power or irradiation of the hermit, especially by his practice of friendliness or

loving kindness (mettaa). Not only in the sense that by practicing loving kindness the hermit protects

himself from the aggressiveness of dangerous creatures, i.e., renders them non-aggressive towards

himself. Rather, by his spiritual power227 and irradiation of friendliness or loving kindness228 the hermit

affects, so to speak, the animals around him so that they abandon even their natural mutual enmities and

to become friendly and non-aggressive even towards one another. Thus peace not only with nature but

also within nature.229

To be sure, this is a vision of an ideal state of nature, disclosing dissatisfaction with nature as it actually is,

i.e., as involving violence and suffering. But at the same time it does not regard animals as hopelessly

miserable. It presupposes that as animals they may be happy and good, and may even advance

spiritually, at least under the influence of human spiritual perfection.230

Such a view of animals would tally well with arguing for ecological ethics for the sake of maximum

spiritual progress and intramundane happiness of all living beings, not merely of human beings. I do not

know to what extent a modern Buddhist is ready to subscribe to such a view of animals; but it would

anyway be sufficient to abandon the idea that animals are wicked and the idea of their irremediable,

extreme unhappiness, and to admit that under natural conditions animals, though, to be sure, not living in

a paradise and by no means free from suffering, may, after all, not be so extremely unhappy, at any rate

not more than an average human being.


[202] M III 169; S V 455 f.; 476; A I 37. For copious evidence, from Buddhist as well as Hindu and Jaina

sources, for the idea that rebirth as a human is difficult to attain cp. M. HARA, "A Note on the Hindu

Concept of Man", in: Journal of the Faculty of Letters, The Univ. of Tokyo, Aesthetics, 11/1986, 45 ff.

[203] M I 74 f.; III 169; Th 258; cp. BN ▀ 21.2 + n. 85-87.

[204] Yogaacaarabhuumi (ed. V. BHATTACHARYA) 87,14-16.

[205] Ibid. 87,13 f.; cp. M III 169. Cp. also T vol. 3, 467b18 ff.

[206] M III 167-169.

[207] A III 339. Cp. also the hierarchy of forms of existence at M II 193 f. As for VisM 13.93, see fn.

103. Besides, Buddhaghosa justifies his statement that animals are apaaya but not duggati by pointing out

that the gati of animals includes powerful naagas. Precisely for this reason, the passage hardly implies the

attribution of a higher value to existence as an ordinary, natural animal.

[208] Cp. BN ▀ 21.2 + n. 88, and ▀ 26 + n. 119.

[209] D III 72.

[210] M III 169.

[211] Thus quite clearly in the Story of the Elder Maaleyyadeva (see fn. 229), 43,1 and 84.

[212] Cp. the opinion reported in BN, end of n. 84.

[213] Cp. BN ▀ 23.1; SCHMITHAUSEN 1985, 105 f.; cp. also A¨.t 178,28-30.

[214] Cp. BN ▀ 39.2 + ns. 170 and 171.

[215] Thus especially M III 163 ff. (Baalapa.n.ditasutta).

[216] Cp. BN ▀ 27.1; HARRIS 1991, 105 + ns. 29 and 30.

[217] MAITHRI MURTHI 1986, 7 f.

[218] Cp., e.g., the story of the furious elephant Naa╬aagiri tamed and admonished by the Buddha (Vin II

195 f.; Ja V 336 f.), or Ja II 53. A famous example from another Buddhist tradition is, of course, the

Tibetan Yogin Milaraspa who is reported to have not only enjoyed the beauty of landscape, vegetation

and animal life--in a detached way due to his awareness of their ultimate emptiness (rNal 'byor Mi la ras

pa'i rnam mgur [Xining: Qinghai minzu chuban 1981] 249 f.; 441)--, but also to have preached to wild

animals and pacified them, so that in his presence the frightened stag becomes fearless and the fierce

hunting dog peaceful (ibid. 430 ff.; H. HOFFMANN, Mi-la ras-pa: Sieben Legenden,

M.mnchen-Planegg 1950, 87 ff.; GARMA C.C. CHANG, The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa,

Boulder: Shambhala 1977, I 275 ff.).

[219] E.g., Ja V 405 f.; VI 529 f. and 533 ff.; Ap I 15 ff.; 328 f. (no. 393, vss. 1-5); II 345-47 (no. 402,

vss. 1-31); 362 f. (no. 407, vss. 1-20); 367 f. (no. 409, vss. 1-20). Cp. also Ja VI 496 f.

[220] Cp., e.g., Ja V 405 (vs. 68b): ramma.m; VI 530 (vs. 343) and 534 (vss. 376 and 379): manorame;

536 (vs. 395): sobhanaa, upasobhita.m; Ap I 15 f. (vss. 3-5; 10-13): sobhayantaa, sobhayanti.

[221] ALSDORF (Kleine Schriften, ed. A. WEZLER, Wiesbaden 1974, 333 f., is certainly right in

identifying these descriptions, in the Vessantara-jaataka, as an obstruction in the d╚nouement and in

regarding the description of nature by means of a mere enumerations of species of plants and animals as

rather primitive from the artistic point of view, but it may be "intolerably boring" only for readers who are

unacquainted with the species enumerated and for whom they remain mere names, but not for those in

whom each name evokes a colourful vision of the corresponding reality.

[222] Cp., e.g., MBh 1.64 and 3.155.37 ff.; (crit. ed.) 3.69.2 ff.

[223] E.g., Ja V 416 and 420 (Ku.naalajaataka; cp. W.B. BOLLÈE's edition and transl.

[London 1970], 8 f.; 14 f.; 124 ff.) describing the beauty of forests inhabited by two birds (the second of

whom is, however, virtually a sage; besides, ascetics [taapasa: 420,9] are mentioned in passing among the

creatures inhabiting that forest). Without any connection with hermits or animal-heroes: Ja VI 277 f.

[224] Clearly so MBh 1.64.6 stating that around the hermitage there are no trees without flowers, fruits

and bees, nor such as have thorns. Similarly 3.155.65cd.

[225] Ja V 405 f. (vss. 264 f.).

[226] For tameness of animals around the hermitage also MBh 1.64.18ef; (crit. ed.)

3.69.8ab; ATINDRANATH BOSE, Social and Rural Economy of Northern India, Calcutta 1970, 100.

[227] Ja VI 591,13 f. (tejena). Cp. also Milaraspa (see fn. 218).

[228] E.g., Ja VI 73; 520; Jm ch. 1.8; cp. Ja II 53. Cp. also »a"nkara, Yogasuutrabhaa¨ ad

Yogasuutra II.35 (natural enmity among animals stops due to the yogin's ahi.msaa).

[229] Cp. also E. DENIS (ed.) and ST. COLLINS (transl.), "The Story of the Elder Maaleyyadeva", in:

Journal of the Pali Text Society 18/1993, 50 and 88.

[230] Cp. also Ja VI 29,26-28, and, for a later example, Milaraspa (loc. cit.: see fn. 218). In these two

cases at least, self-protection of the ascetic does not seem to play a significant role. What happens is

rather a spontaneous transformation of the character and behaviour of the animal under the influence of

the perfected person for the benefit of the animals themselves only.