Animals as Symbolic Representations in Buddhism

In early Indian Buddhism, animals appeared as symbolic representations primarily for didactic purposes. In other words, they were used to teach moral principles. Animals weren’t present as sentient beings or as beings worthy of moral consideration, but were instead used as metaphor and in allegory.

Even in cases where animals are depicted as capable of superhuman or mythical abilities, it is in service of teaching a greater truth meant to be grasped by human practitioners, not for the purposes of understanding animals in a literal sense. As further evidenced by Ambros,

Even scholarship that deals with animal-related topics usually places emphasis on human concerns. Relatively few studies have explored how Buddhism has affected the lives of actual animals; instead, scholarship has focused on the metaphorical uses of animals in Buddhist literature and has been preoccupied with mythical and hybrid creatures.

—Barbara Ambros, “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence” (2014)

The pre-modern Jataka tales are an example of animals appearing as metaphorical representations in Buddhist texts. There are literally hundreds of individual stories comprising the Jataka tales, many of which depict the former lives of the Buddha as incarnated in animal form.

These tales often show the Buddha performing meritorious acts, or interceding on behalf of other animals, who are depicted as unintelligent and incapable of feats reflecting an enlightened nature. In his analysis of the Jataka tales Paul Waldau, states that

[They are] good examples of the Buddhist belief that one should give generously to ‘others,’ and that one should not violate moral principles even if it is extremely disadvantageous to do so. But the stories reveal that it is humans, rather than other animals, who are beneficiaries of this kind of thinking.

—Paul Waldau, The Specter of Speciesism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals (2002)

In other tales, such as the Kurunga Jataka, the Buddha interacts with humans by taking animal form as a way of again conveying a didactic message. Here the Buddha has been incarnated as the bodhisattva deer who avoids being trapped and killed by a hunter:

The hunter, enraged, says, ‘Be gone! I’ve missed you this time,’ and in response the bodhisattva deer replies, presumably in response to his slaying of other animals: ‘You may have missed me, my good man, but depend on it, you have not missed the reward of your conduct, namely the eight large and sixteen lesser hells and all the five forms of bonds of torture.

—James Stewart, “Violence and Nonviolence in Buddhist Animals Ethics” (2014)

Finally, with the emergence of Zen in 6th c. CE, we see the presence of animals in Buddhist texts turn toward positive representation. The Ox Herding Poems, composed around 1050 by Ch’ing-chi, describe the process of seeking, losing, then gaining enlightenment (Addiss 85).

Here the oxen are not present as oxen in the literal sense, but they are metaphorical representations of enlightenment pursued by human Buddhist practitioners. After searching for the ox, seeing it, and catching it, the practitioner turns to taming the ox:

Image Source:

Don’t lose the whip, hold onto the rope
Or he’ll buck away into the dirt.
Herded well, in perfect harmony
He’ll follow along without any constraint.


Whip, rope, self, ox—no traces left.
Thoughts cannot penetrate the vast blue sky,
Snowflakes cannot survive a red-hot stove.
Arriving here, meet the ancient teachers.

—Stephen Addiss, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan (2008)

Sources for this post

  • Addiss, Stephen, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
  • Ambros, Barbara. “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence.” Religion Compass, vol. 8, no. 8, 2014, pp 251-263
  • Stewart, James. “Violence and Nonviolence in Buddhist Animal Ethics.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol 21, 2014, pp. 623-655.
  • Waldau, Paul. The Specter of Specieism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals. Oxford University Press, 2002.

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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