Buddhism And Animal Ethics
Buddhism is known around the world as a religion of peace that seeks harmony with nature, and many have argued that the religion supports animal welfare. This article reviews several such arguments, and considers whether Buddhists should be vegetarians. The author notes that analyzing Buddhism in this way is tricky, though, since the religion takes different forms in different cultures, countries, and time periods. Additionally, as individuals, people interpret Buddhist teachings in their own unique ways.
Most Buddhists value the teachings in the Nikāya (Agama) sūtras, the Buddha’s earliest recorded teachings. These teachings include explanations of the four noble truths, which assert that: suffering exists; suffering is caused by one’s desires; there is no suffering once one reaches Nirvana; and one can follow the eight-fold path to reach Nirvana.
These teachings also outline five precepts provided by the Buddha for everyone to follow. The first is ahiṃsā, the precept of nonviolence, which tells people not to kill or harm others. The author notes that there are many reasons to believe the Buddha intended for the term “others” to include animals. He disapproved of jobs like butchery, for example, and he forbid monks from wearing animal skins.
The author then outlines five arguments that suggest Buddhist beliefs are tied to animal welfare. The first argument states that, since suffering is bad in itself, Buddhists should avoid causing suffering, including the suffering of animals. However, some Buddhists think it’s going too far to say that suffering is bad. The second argument raises the point that, in the Nikāyas, the Buddha said people should not take the life of those who desire to live and don’t want to suffer. However, some Buddhists question this argument because desires are believed to cause suffering in the first place. The third argument focuses on the fact that the Buddha doesn’t believe in a self that is constant through time because time brings change. So, this argument asserts that all suffering should be removed, regardless of the “self” that experiences the suffering. However, when applied to the real world, many Buddhists find it strange to discuss suffering without a subject that suffers. The fourth argument posits that Buddhists should show compassion to animals and not hurt or kill them because compassion is a virtue. But this argument could also mean that Buddhists should avoid hurting and killing animals in order to grow compassion within themselves, which some Buddhists argue is selfish. Finally, the fifth argument suggests that Buddhists should not hurt or kill animals because it’s wrong and, as a result, it can hurt their karma and lead to an unfavorable rebirth.
While several practical issues can be discussed through this lens, the author focuses on vegetarianism, noting that the Buddha’s teachings in the Nikāyas don’t forbid anyone from eating meat. Some sources believe the Buddha ate meat himself, and some believe he allowed his disciples to eat meat because they relied on donated food (alms) for their meals, something they couldn’t be picky about. Others think the Buddha permitted meat eating because he wanted to avoid causing disagreement among his disciples. Interestingly, the Buddha did forbid his disciples from eating meat from any animal that was specifically killed for them or that they saw or heard being killed.
As the review clearly shows, there’s a lot of back and forth regarding Buddhism’s stance on animal welfare. This makes it difficult to gain clarity on any related issues, such as whether Buddhists should be vegetarians. However, the study reveals numerous facets of Buddhist philosophy that could help animal welfare advocates form likeminded coalitions with Buddhist groups in certain situations.