The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animals

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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animals

Claudette Vaughan, Editor of Abolitionist Online, interviews Joanne Elizabeth Lauck, May 2007

“Buddhism ought to be an animal rights religion par excellence”, says Norm Phelps in his book, “The Great Compassion Buddhism and Animal Rights” – but is it? In his book, Norm Phelps respectfully studies the various strains of Buddhism and the sutras that command respect for all life. He is a long-time student of Buddhism and an acquaintance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is also a scholar, a gentleman and an ardent animal rights activist. Thank you Norm Phelps!

Abolitionist: In The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights, you say that “Buddhism ought to be an animal rights religion par excellence. It has long held that all life forms are sacred and considers kindness and compassion the highest virtues.” Why isn’t it then?

Norm: In many ways, it is, at least as far as the teachings themselves are concerned. Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings are entitled to full moral consideration, regardless of species, right down to insects, worms, and slugs, and that we should hold all sentient beings as dear as if they were our own mother. The Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures condemn meat eating, hunting, fishing, and animal sacrifice. They forbid Buddhists to engage in occupations like butcher or fishmonger. But far too many Buddhist teachers and practitioners have succumbed to the appetites, fears, and customs that have led people of all faiths to exploit animals for supposed human benefit. And so, they either ignore these teachings or find clever ways to circumvent them because they just can’t bring themselves to give up their meat fix or their stylish leather shoes, or whatever. As a result, only about half of Buddhists around the world are vegetarian, and a considerably smaller percentage of American Buddhists.

Abolitionist: Does Buddhism oppose all forms of animal exploitation?

Norm: The Buddha seems never to have objected to the use of animals for labor and transportation. It may be that before the advent of mechanical and electrical power, the liberation of animals from labor was simply inconceivable, even to the Buddha. Or it may be that he believed that as long as they were well-treated, not overworked, and allowed to live out their natural lifespans in peaceful, well-fed retirement, domestic animals were happy with their lives. We simply do not know. He did, however, object to all other forms of animal exploitation, including hunting and fishing, raising and killing animals for food and leather, animal sacrifice, and the use of animals in entertainment.

Abolitionist: Norm, in all your research and findings into religion is it not true that all religions have not yet stepped up to the pulpit – to the alter of self-sacrifice - to consciously take on and join us in the struggle for animal liberation?

Norm: I’m afraid that’s pretty much true, with the exception of Jainism, which has taken a strong stand for animal protection for over 2500 years. Where animals are concerned, our religious institutions have a lot to answer for.

And yet, that’s not the whole story by any means. Animal liberation was originally conceived and taught by religious leaders: Lord Mahavira (Jainism) and the Buddha in India, the Later Prophets in Israel (Specifically, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah), and by Pythagoras in Greece. The Catholic Church stifled the idea of animal protection in Europe from about 300 CE until the Protestant Reformation, when Protestant clergy, primarily in England, reintroduced it, in the form of animal welfare.

Today, the Christian and Jewish mainstreams, including the Catholic Church, generally support an animal welfare philosophy. For the past 2500 years, Hinduism and Buddhism have supported animal liberation, or something very close to it. At least, they have in theory, although their practitioners have been tragically inconsistent in the application.

But I am still very hopeful. The fundamental ethical principle of all the world’s major religions is compassion for the suffering of others. Compassion is also the driving force behind the animal rights movement. Religion and animal rights are natural allies because their fundamental principle is the same. Until the practitioners of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism fully embrace animal liberation, they are not living up to the ethical ideal of their faith. Any religion that claims to be founded on peace, nonviolence, and love must sooner or later face up to the fact that as long as it continues to support violence against nonhuman animals, it is not being true to itself.

Abolitionist: The Great Compassion says that the Buddha taught “that we cannot achieve our own happiness until we are prepared to sacrifice it for the happiness of others”. Please make further comment.

Norm: The Buddha taught that we achieve our own happiness by working for the happiness of others, even if this places a hardship or burden on us. Working primarily for our own happiness is like feeding an addiction. The more we get of the things that we think will make us happy, the more we want, and satisfaction keeps receding farther and farther into the distance. It is in working for the happiness of others that we find true satisfaction for ourselves.

Abolitionist: Did the Buddha realise how cavalierly humans would justify animal slaughter and animal sacrifice?

Norms: I think he must have. His condemnations, especially in the Mahayana scriptures, are so emphatic and categorical that they seem clearly intended to foreclose any possible excuse for eating meat or sacrificing animals.

Abolitionist. You would not believe the opposition to embracing the No-Kill philosophy (esp. Nathan Winograd’s pioneering work) from Movement heads of the animal rights and welfare movements of today. These rich and unaccountably lazy groups who want all the media but no cleaning out of kennels, are destroying the fundamental premise that religion and animal rights hold sacred – and that is No Kill. Please comment.

Norm: I believe it because I have encountered it. First though, let me say that I am by no means prepared to dismiss the large national groups as “ rich and unaccountably lazy.” A few—like American Humane—the animals would be better off without. But others, like PETA, which you mention in your next question, do great amounts of good work and win real victories for animals. (Note to readers: This interview was conducted by email, so I saw all the questions at once.) I support them and I am glad that they are out there working for animals. I believe that PETA, to use your example, has made more gains for animal rights than any organisation in history. Different approaches reach different people, or “different strokes for different folks,” as we used to say in the ‘60s. If every group followed the same strategy and preached the same rigid orthodoxy, the movement would be a lot less effective than it is. We need different groups with different approaches all working simultaneously.

That said, I do agree with you about No-Kill, and I am deeply saddened by the failure thus far of some of the best-known national groups to embrace and promote the no-kill philosophy. I think that no-kill is the only answer to the shameful killing of six million dogs and cats every year in American animal shelters. And by the way, facilities that kill six million animals a year are not shelters; they are death camps.

The animal shelters that existed in the Buddha’s day did not kill their residents, and so he never commented on that particular question—in fact, the idea of shelters killing over half of the animals that come to them for refuge is so grotesque that I’m sure he never even conceived of it. But I have no doubt that if the Buddha were alive today he would be in the forefront of supporters of the no-kill movement.

Abolitionist: How many millions of dollars does PETA have to make before it saves a pound animal?

Norm: As I said, I wish that the large national groups (including PETA) would all promote no-kill. We will never end this holocaust until no-kill becomes the policy of every state in the US. And this is an issue on which I wish our movement was able to present a united front. But overall, based on what I have seen during my twenty years as an animal rights activist, I believe that PETA uses its money to very good effect in promoting animal rights. I cannot criticize them for raising large amounts of money when they put it to work for animals. For most mainstream, middle Americans—the people who have to be convinced before animal rights can become a reality—PETA was their introduction to animal rights. PETA has played, and continues to play, a key role in putting animal suffering and animal rights on America’s social justice agenda.

Abolitionist: What is it about serious social movements who don’t seem to mind trivializing themselves. And the thing that concerns me is that it seems to negate the raison e’tre that provided the original inspiration and impetus for the movement. In animal rights we see it with caricature and naked women running around “for the animals,” although other movements, including the gay and lesbian movement, have done similar things and they also are in trouble. Can you speak about that please?

Norm: I will limit myself to talking about animal rights, because that is the movement I am active in. Obviously, I support other social justice movements, most definitely including the gay and lesbian rights movement, but I have chosen to devote my limited time, energy, and resources to animal rights, and that is the only movement I am comfortable critiquing.

If I thought that PETA’s “naked” campaign negated the moral imperative that drives the animal rights movement, or if I thought that it exploited the participants or contributed in the public mind to gender stereotypes that reinforce the oppression of women, I would be opposed to it. But I don’t think it does any of those things. Participants include men as well as women (Tommy Lee and Dennis Rodman, for example). The participants are all volunteers. And in the advertising phase of the campaign, most earn their living by putting their bodies on public display. In the demo phase of the campaign, PETA leadership (including Ingrid Newkirk and Bruce Friedrich) as well as rank-and-file have taken part. I don’t think the public finds the naked campaign sexually titillating. I know I don’t. I think they just find it startling, and when we are startled, we pay attention, and we tend to remember both the medium and the message. I think the naked campaign has been extremely successful in keeping the fur issue before the general public.

The Buddha taught the middle way, free from all extremes. While I share your concern that the animal rights movement not go to the extreme of trivializing itself, and thereby discrediting its own moral basis, I would also not like to see us go to the extreme of becoming humorless and puritanical.

Abolitionist: What is your understanding of the Buddhist teachings on transmigration and reincarnation in terms of animals and evolution? Would killing, for example, in this lifetime position oneself in the next life for an animal body – in order to learn how to love and be loved?

Norm: It certainly could. We have to keep going back and doing it over until we get it right. There’s an old Buddhist joke that Jesus said, “Ye must be born again.” To which the Buddha added, “And again, and again, and again.” Reincarnation is at the heart of Buddhist belief and practice. It is meant to be taken literally. Someone born as a human being in one life may be a chicken or a cow in the next, and vice versa. And yes, one of the ways in which karma works is that someone who slaughters pigs, for example, may be reborn as a pig destined for slaughter.

Abolitionist: What is “Buddha nature?” And do non-human animals have it or only human beings?

Norm: Buddha nature is the true nature of the consciousness of every sentient being. And since that consciousness is inherently pure, it represents the potential for each of us to become a perfectly enlightened Buddha (which is why it’s called “Buddha nature.”) For our purposes, it might be thought of as the functional equivalent of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim soul, although for ontological reasons that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about here, it would be dangerous to push that comparison too far.

Our Buddha nature is able to apprehend directly the ultimate nature of reality, which is normally hidden from us by the karmic obscurations that cloud our minds. The goal of Buddhist practice is to clear away these obscurations so that we can directly perceive the true nature of reality, and thereby gain enlightenment (Nirvana). It is our Buddha nature that is reincarnated from one body to the next. When I die, it is not precisely Norm Phelps that will be reborn, but the Buddha nature, the pure consciousness, that inhabited the body of Norm Phelps before he died. Depending on the karma that I have accumulated in this life and earlier lives, I (i.e., my Buddha nature) may be reborn in the body of anything from a wealthy, healthy human being in a comfortable, secure country to an earthworm. Buddha nature is thus the same in every sentient being regardless of species. For Buddhism, nonhuman animals are not like us, THEY ARE US.

Abolitionist: One of the Buddhist sects says that if they are offered meat while begging for food it is far worse for them to refuse it, as that would insult the giver. Is that true or is it a fable?

Norm: It is either a fable, or it was a very early teaching of the Buddha that he soon repudiated. The historical record can support either interpretation.

This is a very troublesome story because it is used by so many modern-day Buddhists to justify eating meat that is bought at a store or restaurant. In the Pali Canon—the scriptures of the Theravada school of Buddhism—the Buddha is quoted as saying that when begging their daily meal, his followers could accept meat if they had no reason to suspect that the animal had been slaughtered for them. But in our modern market economy, commercial meat is slaughtered for everyone who buys it. The fact that the animals are slaughtered “on spec,” so to speak, and the order is not placed until after the animal has been killed is merely a quirk of our marketing system. It does not affect the moral equation at all. Make no mistake, when you purchase a piece of meat, you are placing an order for an animal to be killed. You are responsible for the killing. The animal was killed for you. Even if you believe in the so-called “alms bowl exemption,” there is no reasonable way it can be applied to modern meat that is purchased in a supermarket or restaurant.

Abolitionist: In Roshi Philip Kapleau’s To Cherish All Life: A Buddhist View of Animal Slaughter and Meat Eating, he spoke about the complicity of meat-eaters in animal slaughter. What are your views?

Norm: I agree completely. Meat eaters and leather wearers are the sole reason that factory farms and slaughterhouses exist. As the Buddha said, “If no one ate the meat, no one would kill the animal.”

Incidentally, as many of your readers may know, the late Kapleau Roshi was the real pioneer of Buddhist vegetarianism in the United States. And decades after it was written, To Cherish All Life remains essential reading for anyone interested in animal rights and Buddhism. His dharma heir, Sensei Bodhin Kjolhede, is carrying on that tradition at the Rochester Zen Center, which Kapleau founded.

Abolitionist: Buddhism is not a religion of dumb acquiescence or blind belief. The Buddha urged his followers not to believe solely in the written words of some wise man, or in the mere authority of one’s teachers or priests, but to accept as true wherever agrees with one’s reason and experience. Many animal rights people are attracted to Buddhism. Why do you think this is?

Norm: Probably for many of the same reasons that I was attracted to Buddhism. As you so rightly point out, Buddhism encourages us to test what we are taught against our experience and our reason rather than accept it purely on faith. Buddhism is also a very tolerant, compassion-based religion, accepting of other religions and other points of view. It tends to be nonjudgmental, and in trying to reform behavior, it places more emphasis on encouragement than condemnation.

But most of all, I think many animal rights people are attracted to Buddhism because it regards animals as beings who are entitled to moral consideration equal to that which we give human beings. The first Buddhist precept, “Do not kill,” has always and everywhere been understood as applying to all sentient beings, not just humans. Buddhists are forbidden to kill animals for human benefit, or to practice occupations or pastimes that are harmful to animals, such as raising animals for slaughter, fishing, or working in a slaughterhouse or butcher shop. Although the practitioners (including far too many teachers) often fail to live up to the teachings, the teachings themselves are clear and unequivocal.

Incidentally, two of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa (head of the Karma Kagyu school), have recently announced that they have personally adopted a vegetarian diet and that the kitchens in their monasteries are now vegetarian. Since Tibetan Buddhism has historically had the smallest proportion of vegetarians in the Buddhist world, and since Tibetan Buddhism has attracted many Western, Chinese, and Southeast Asian practitioners, this is an extremely important development for Buddhism worldwide.

Abolitionist: Why did you write The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights?

Norm: First and foremost, to encourage Buddhists to adopt a vegan diet and extend the compassion that is the core of Buddhist ethics to all sentient beings. And second, to provide a resource for animal rights activists who may have occasion to engage in dialogue with meat-eating Buddhists.

In closing, let me say that I want to thank the Abolitionist for this opportunity to talk about Buddhism and animal rights, and I want to thank you, Claudette, for your extremely perceptive and insightful questions.

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