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Animal Rights and the Dhammapada
Rosemary A. Amey

© Copyright retained by the author, December 1996

Do not what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha. (Dhammapada, 183.)

Background: Buddhism and the Dhammapada

What does Buddhism have to say about animal rights? Among the world's hundreds of millions of Buddhists, there is disagreement about this basic issue. I first became interested in Buddhism because two of my favourite restaurants (Buddha's Vegetarian Foods and the Lotus Garden, both on Dundas Street West in Toronto) are Buddhist, and are very careful to serve only vegetarian food with no eggs. In one restaurant I was told that this was necessary because Buddhist monks and nuns eat there. This suggested to me that Buddhism takes the plight of nonhuman animals very seriously indeed. On the other hand, my fiancé and I have several friends who are Buddhist, but continue to eat meat and feel this is consistent with Buddhism.

Do Buddhists, or at least Buddhist nuns and monks, have to be vegetarian? What does Buddhism have to say about our treatment of animals in general?

To resolve this controversy, it is necessary, I feel, to return to the Buddhist scriptures and see what (if anything) they have to say about the issue.

So far, I have been frustrated in my attempts to purchase my own copy of the Bhuddist Pali scriptures -- perhaps because they are eleven times as long as the Bible. The bookstores I have been to all stock large numbers of books about Buddhism, but not the scriptures themselves! These secondary (or worse!) sources about Buddhism shed little light on what the Buddha's own teachings about animals were.

However, I have been able to acquire a copy of an important part of the Pali scriptures, the Dhammapada. Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit), means "law, a moral law, a spiritual law of righteousness, the eternal law of the Universe, Truth;" and pada means "foot" or "step." So the Dhammapada are the steps we must take to live according to (Buddhist) moral and spiritual laws. According to scholar Juan Mascaró, "that the spirit of the Dhammapada is the spirit of Buddha is accepted both by his followers and by scholars." Therefore, it seems reasonable that we can derive at least a first approximation of the Buddhist approach to the question of animal rights from the basic moral foundation laid by Gotama Buddha in the Dhammapada.

Not Killing and Not Hurting

In Buddhism, there are five "precepts," which could be considered to play a similar rôle as the Ten Commandments do for Jews and Christians. These precepts provide moral guidance for lay Buddhists as well as monks and nuns. They are concisely summed up as follows:

He who destroys life, who utters lies, who takes what is not given to him, who goes to the wife of another, who gets drunk with strong drinks -- he digs up the very roots of his life. (Dhammapada, 246-247)

The injunction against destroying life is known as the First Precept.

In addition, the Buddha also tells us not to "hurt" others, for example:

He who for the sake of happiness hurts others who also want happiness, shall not hereafter find happiness. (Dhammapada, 131.)

Probably because not killing and not hurting are so important, Buddha repeatedly asks us not to do either in many places throughout the Dhammapada (see next section for details).

The fact that the First Precept and other teachings forbid killing and hurting is not controversial among Buddhists. Where the controversy comes in is the question of whom Buddhists are forbidden to kill or hurt.

Who is Protected by The First Precept
and the Prohibition on Hurting?

Do the First Precept and other passages against hurting protect non-human animals? Perhaps they, like the Judeo-Christian Commandment "Thou shalt not kill," were intended to apply only to humans. This possibility can be ruled out almost immediately, for in the Dhammapada, there are numerous explicit injunctions against killing or otherwise hurting "living beings," rather than "persons":

But although a man may wear fine clothing, if he lives peacefully; and is good, self-possessed, has faith and is pure; and if he does not hurt any living being, he is a holy Brahmin, a hermit of seclusion, a monk called a Bhikkhu. (Dhammapada, 142. Emphasis added.)

The wise who hurt no living being, and who keep their body under self-control, they go to the immortal NIRVANA, where once gone they sorrow no more. (Dhammapada, 225 Emphasis added.)

A man is not a great man because he is a warrior and kills other men; but because he hurts not any living being he in truth is called a great man. (Dhammapada, 405. Emphasis added.)

It seems clear that the Buddha has taken pains to make it clear that the injunction against killing or hurting is not confined to humans, but extends to other "living beings."

Then we might wonder, who or what are these "living beings"? Some have argued that the protection of "living beings" extends to plants as well as to animals, for they are also alive. If this were the case, then it could be claimed that for a Buddhist, eating a rabbit is no worse than eating a carrot.

Here I am at a disadvantage, as I have not yet learned Pali, nor do I have the scriptures as originally rendered in Pali. However, a beautiful passage suggests that the beings referred to are sentient beings:

All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill.

All beings fear before danger, life is dear to all. When a man considers this, he does not kill or cause to kill. (Dhammapada, 129-130.)

Here, the Buddha explains that we should not kill out of consideration for the feelings of fear and the love of life that beings experience. Moreover, he says all beings share these attributes, suggesting that the word which Mascaró has translated as "beings" really means "sentient beings."

Some skeptics may claim that nonhuman animals are not really sentient. However, in another passage, the Buddha alludes to the sentience of fish in a metaphor describing an unquiet mind:

Like a fish which is thrown on dry land, taken from his home in the waters, the mind strives and struggles to get free from the power of Death. (Dhammapada, 34.)

This passage suggests that, like the "beings" referred to in Dhammapada 130 (see above), the fish's life is dear to him -- otherwise why would he "strive and struggle to get free from the power of Death" when removed from his aquatic home? If the Buddha believed fish to be sentient, it is highly improbable that he would deny that many of the other animals commonly killed and hurt by humans (e.g. mammals and birds) are not sentient. Therefore, at least fish, birds, and mammals could not be killed or otherwise hurt according to the First Precept and other teachings which protect sentient beings. It is quite possible that the First Precept covers other animals as well.

So why didn't the Buddha come right out and say that "animals" should not be harmed, rather than "living beings"? Perhaps it was because, when and where the Buddha lived, practitioners of other well-known religions such as Jainism were already conscientious about protecting animals and so it would have been obvious to the Buddha's students that not killing "living beings" meant not killing animals. Perhaps there was no word in Pali which would encompass both nonhuman and human animals, so that the term translated as "living beings" was needed to be inclusive. Or perhaps the Buddha wanted us to be more concerned about sentient animals, rather than any nonsentient animals which might exist.

Implications for Our Treatment of Animals

Since the Buddha's time, there have been enormous changes in the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. Practices such as vivisection and factory farming would have been unknown to the Buddha, and so of course they are not explicitly mentioned in the Dhammapada. Moreover, the Dhammapada is very concise, and does not catalogue all the possible misdeeds which could be committed against animals (note that includes humans as well as nonhumans!)

However, although the myriad harms to animals are not all explicitly mentioned in the Dhammapada, we can infer a great deal merely from the First Precept and the teachings against hurting other beings. It is clear that the Buddha does not want us to kill or hurt animals ourselves. Therefore, Buddhists cannot be hunters, fisherpeople, trappers, slaughterhouse workers, vivisectors, etc., nor can we "euthanize" homeless animals in so-called animal "shelters."

What about eating meat? Some might claim that, as long as people don't kill animals themselves, it is okay to eat meat. However, note that passages 129 and 130 in the Dhammapada specify that we should not "kill or cause to kill." When people buy products made from the bodies of dead animals, they must necessarily cause someone to kill those animals. Therefore, meat, leather, and fur are off limits. It is probably true that, in order to be economically viable, killing older, less productive animals is necessary to produce milk and eggs -- certainly this is one claim of the egg and milk industries in justifying this practice. If so, then buying milk and eggs also necessarily causes killing, and thus should be avoided under the First Precept.

How about meat that someone else has bought? In most, perhaps all cases, by accepting meat served to us by someone else, we are causing killing. For example, if meat-eating friends invite us over for dinner, they will buy extra meat for us in anticipation of our visit, or if our visit was unplanned they are likely to buy extra meat to restock their larder after we leave. In either case, our acceptance of the meat has caused additional animals to be killed. So ideally, we should not accept meat served to us by others, and should let people know this in advance whenever possible.

Some claim that the contents of their stomach do not matter, only the contents of their mind. However, the Buddha points out that we should give thought to what we eat:

He who lives only for pleasures, and whose soul is not in harmony, who considers not the food he eats, is idle, and has not the power of virtue -- such a man is moved by MARA, is moved by selfish temptations, even as a weak tree is shaken by the wind. (Dhammapada, 7. Emphasis added.)

Not to hurt by deeds or words, self-control as taught in the Rules, moderation in food, the solitude of one's room and one's bed, and the practice of the highest consciousness: this is the teaching of the Buddhas who are awake. (Dhammapada, 185. Emphasis added.)

Probably these passages refer to avoiding gluttony as well as vegetarianism. Certainly, people who find the thought of "giving up" meat (or other products of animal killing) distressing should also consider if they have allowed themselves to become too attached to material pleasures, and heed the words of the Buddha:

He who does what should not be done and fails to do what should be done, who forgets the true aim of life and sinks into transient pleasures -- he will one day envy the man who lives in high contemplation.

Let a man be free from pleasure and let a man be free from pain; for not to have pleasure is sorrow and to have pain is also sorrow. (Dhammapada, 209-210.)

Although the ideal of detachment does not mean we are forbidden to experience material pleasures, clearly allowing one's attachment to, say, the taste of meat to override adherence to the First Precept is contrary to the spirit of the Dhammapada.

Many people have tried to justify killing animals because of the (alleged) benefits it brings, whether economic benefits to people who work in animal-killing occupations, or potential medical benefits which might arise from vivisection. But the Buddha says:

He who for himself or others craves not for sons or power or wealth, who puts not his own success before the success of righteousness, he is virtuous, and righteous, and wise. (Dhammapada, 84. Emphasis added.)

That is, doing the righteous thing (obeying the Precepts) has a higher priority over worldly "success." Moreover, the Buddha cautions against being overly attached to our current bodies:

Consider this body! A painted puppet with jointed limbs, sometimes suffering and covered with ulcers, full of imaginings, never permanent, for ever changing.

This body is decaying! A nest of diseases, a heap of corruption, bound to destruction, to dissolution. All life ends in death.

Look at these grey-white dried bones, like dried empty gourds thrown away at the end of the summer. Who will feel joy in looking at them?

A house of bones is this body, bones covered with flesh and with blood. Pride and hypocrisy dwell in this house and also old age and death.

The glorious chariots of kings wear out, and the body wears out and grows old; but the virtue of the good never grows old... (Dhammapada, 147-151).

Although the Buddha does not ask that we harm our body, either directly or by neglecting our bodies' needs (this would be pointless), he emphasizes that the body is impermanent, and we should be more concerned about being virtuous than about preserving the body. Therefore, killing animals (a violation of the First Precept), cannot be justified by the claim that it will prolong human life. Moreover, unlike the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Dhammapada does not claim that humans are superior to or more important than other animals.

Where does it end? It is a depressing fact of life that absolutely everything we buy has involved harm to sentient beings at some point in its production, simply because the vast majority of people are willing to harm nonhumans whenever it is expedient. For example, the vegetables we eat may have been fertilized with bone meal, plant-fibre clothing may have been treated with animal-derived products, medications are currently required by law to be tested on animals. However, in buying products such as these which do not require killing for their production, it is not clear that we are causing others to kill -- especially if we are also working to change the practices in these industries. Still, it is best to keep the consumption of all products to a minimum, both to minimize our monetary contribution to killing, and in keeping with the Buddhist ideal of detachment.

Implications of the Dhammapada for Animal Rights Activists

At a minimum, the Dhammapada is consistent with animal rights. Indeed, it seems to mandate many of the goals of the animal rights movement, for example the abolition of the meat industry and vivisection. Given that the Dhammapada is one of the core scriptures of Buddhism, it is difficult to see how Buddhists who do participate in activities which kill animals can justify the discrepancy between their practice and the words of the Buddha.

However, animal rights activists should note that killing of animals in "shelters" is also forbidden. As far as I am concerned, this is a logical consequence of animal rights as well as Buddhism, however it is an unfortunate reality that many who consider themselves part of the animal rights movement still see killing of homeless cats and dogs as legitimate or perhaps even necessary.

Also, although the goals of animal rights are by and large consistent with Buddhism, too often the actions taken to achieve these goals are not. Many animal rights advocates speak harshly of those who oppress animals, but what good does that do? The Buddha reminds us to

Never speak harsh words, for once spoken they may return to you. Angry words are painful and there may be blows for blows. (Dhammapada, 133.)

So how are we to work to liberate our fellow sentient beings from suffering? We would do well to reflect frequently and often on the following:

Overcome anger by peacefulness: overcome evil by good. Overcome the mean by generosity; and the man who lies by truth. (Dhammapada, 223.)

It is sufficient merely to tell the truth about what is happening to animals -- there is no need to attack the character of the people committing these actions as well. And striving to live peacefully will teach the world more about compassion than hostile ranting.

Of course, this isn't easy! I don't claim to have mastered this myself, although it is something I continue to strive for. Buddha acknowledges the difficulty, but encourages us to keep striving:

If he makes himself as good as he tells others to be, then he in truth can teach others. Difficult indeed is self-control. (Dhammapada, 159.)

At times when this ideal seems pointless, and frustrating, and futile, let us try to set aside our rage and despair at what our fellow humans are doing to animals, and focus on the love for animals which motivates our animal rights work:

For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal. (Dhammapada, 5.)


The Dhammapada, (translated by Juan Mascaró). Penguin, 1973.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught (2nd ed.). Grove Weidenfeld, 1974.


I would like to thank David Sztybel for his assistance with this article.

Source: http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/~bp239/dhamma.html


Updated: 3-7-2000

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