The ontological status of animals is well established in early Buddhist cosmology, which is divided into six realms: heavenly beings, devas and demigods, humans, ghosts, beasts, and the damned.
Relegated to a cosmic realm only one degree removed from the eternally forsaken, nonhuman animals inhabit the beastly realm. Here they are defined as creatures of “unfortunate destiny” due to their fallen status and lack of praiseworthy features in comparison to humans. In this way, animals occupy a caste against which humans can define themselves as beings of distinct cosmic identity worthy of moral consideration.
As Ohnuma describes the beastly realm, there is “not a single notion of pleasure—no kinship, no communication, nothing but disgust and revulsion. The distinction between human beings and animals must be total and categorical” (Ohnuma 13). Humans are separated from animals on the basis of diet, physicality, and virtuous capacity. The animals are born in filth, move without dignity, live in waste, feed on corpses, engage in cannibalism and commit incest.
Even the Buddha spoke to the fallen pitiful status of the beasts, telling the monks in the Balapandita Sutta, “in that realm, there is no righteous conduct, no tranquil conduct, no wholesome action, no meritorious action. In that realm, Monks, there is only mutual devouring and devouring of the weak” (Ohnuma 12).
Unlike western philosophy, which primarily marks the capacity for reason as the basis for differentiating humans from animals, some Buddhists have based human/animal individuation on the basis of the capacity for gratitude.
For example, Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250 CE), the Indian philosopher and founder of Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, spoke of the karmic implication of a beings capacity for gratitude in The Treatise on Perfection of Great Wisdom:
Knowing gratitude is the root of great compassion and the first gate to establishing good deeds. […] Upon death you will attain rebirth Heaven and in the end you will attain the way of the Buddha. Those who do not know gratitude are beasts.—Barbara Ambros, quoting ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, “Animals in Japanese Buddhism: The Third Path of Existence” (2014)
Despite their incapacity to cultivate the virtue of gratitude because of their beastly nature, there are instances in Buddhism of animals gaining enlightenment, or at the very least karmic advancement, through the prasāda mechanism.
Described by Ohnuma as a loophole of sorts in the cosmic Dharma, it is through this mechanism that “animals are capable of catapulting themselves up the karmic hierarchy to become deities in heaven, and may even make progress toward the final goal of release” from samsara (Ohnuma 40).
Often translated as faith, prasāda is seen to arise within the heart of animals in close proximity to the Buddha Siddartha as depicted in the Divyāvadāna and Avadānaśataka texts.
The animals in these tales appear as animals and not as mere symbolic representations of moral precepts. That is, they are depicted as conscious beings trapped in samsara and in desire of liberation. Although they are clearly seen as members of a subcaste of creatures by humans in the tales, the animals are present as demonstrably bound by karma, just as humans are.
Through these tales, we witness a bull saved from slaughter and foretold to be reborn as a king named Asokarvarna after ninety-nine eons, a talking parrot granted “stream-entry,” and a flock of geese reincarnated as faithful Buddhist practitioners who offer alms to the Buddha upon their return.
We also see the Buddha tame a charging buffalo that is then predicted to be reborn as a heavenly deity, and a venomous snake compelled to bring about its own annihilation through starvation in order to be “reborn among the the superior Trayastrima gods” (Ohnuma 38).
In each of these cases, the animal is able to make cosmic progress after entering the presence of the Buddha and merely laying eyes on him. Acting as prasādika, or attractive agent of faith, the Buddha’s charisma, poise, and grace are sufficient to spark prasāda within even these cosmically-determined fallen creatures.
Characterized as a “wonderful refuge for the powerless,” “the mental inferiority of the animal here becomes irrelevant, since the mechanism of prasāda appears to bypass the mind altogether” (Ohnuma 27).
Again, the key is not the capacity for reason, nor some other form of higher-level consciousness or cognitive function. Through prasāda–faith in the Buddha and proximity to him–the dissolution of karmic chains that encumber the animal is catalyzed, and liberation (moksha) is achieved.
Interestingly, in cases where animal representation appears in the literal sense, we begin to see a striking similarity between humans and nonhuman animals. Though believed to occupy a different cosmic realm depending on the context of incarnation, the being is capable of karmic advancement or release, regardless of whether the being is human or animal.
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.
- Ohnuma, Reiko. Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2017.