Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animals Ethics

To what extent are animals present in Buddhist teachings and what is their place in the Buddhist cosmology? What can we learn from Buddhist metaphysics about the ontological nature of the nonhuman animal, and to what extent has this ontology evolved over time?

This week, I will publish a five-part series in which I will explore (1) the appearance and representation of animals in Buddhism, (2) the application of the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity between sentient beings, including animals.

After first exploring how animals appear as symbolic representations in early Buddhist texts, I’ll examine the literal representation of animals in the Buddhist cosmology and tradition. Finally, I’ll discuss the shift in Buddhist metaphysics that occurred around the 6th century CE, with the emergence of Zen.

I will argue that this shift, which placed an increased emphasis on the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, might reasonably be taken as a basis for the extension of moral consideration to animals through the application of the intersubjectivity principle illustrated by the mythical example of Indra’s Net.

The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness Theory

It may surprise those of us in the West, who are likely to subscribe to a conception of Buddhism shaped by Japanese Uniqueness Theory, to learn that in sum and over time, Buddhism has proven itself far from universally nonviolent when it comes to its treatment and conception of animals.

Japanese Uniqueness Theory, as articulated by Ambros (2014) is the propagation of “oversimplified notions to construct premodern Japan as morally superior to and less dominion is tic than its Western and Asian counterparts” (Ambros 259). Although vegetarianism is common (though not universal) among Buddhist practitioners, a detailed historical survey of Buddhism reveals a morally problematic view of animals that is far from constant or continuous over time.

In fact, within Buddhism, we find “a high degree of ambivalence toward animals by presuming a fundamental kinship between humans and other animals while also taking for granted that nonhuman animals occupied a subhuman status” (Ambros 259).

As I will show in the posts to follow, animals appear in Buddhism in two distinct ways. First, they appear as mere representations of other concepts. Second, animals appear as animal in the literal sense vis-a-vis their presence as fallen beastly creatures in the Buddhist cosmology, and later as sentient beings in Zen.

Sources for this post

  • Ambros, Barbara. “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence.” Religion Compass, vol. 8, no. 8, 2014, pp. 251–263.

Other posts in this series

  1. Buddhist Intersubjectivity and Animal Ethics
  2. Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism
  3. Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism
  4. From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics
  5. Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity

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