Toward An Animal Ethics Grounded in Buddhist Intersubjectivity

In spite of Japanese Uniqueness Theory painting all of Buddhism with the broad brush of compassion for animals, a thorough historical survey of the tradition reveals a much more nuanced reality.

Buddhist cosmology initially defined animals as fallen beasts necessarily fated to endure lives of endless suffering, a characterization that does not evoke feelings of empathy or compassion. This hierarchy of the cosmic realms entails an anthropocentric metaphysics, and thus a speciesist animal ethics.

The early Buddhist tradition held mere membership in the human species to be a moral achievement. Further, this achievement was viewed as elevating members of the species to a status that entitled them to benefit from instrumental, obviously harmful uses of other animals.

—Reiko Ohnuma, quoting Paul Waldau, in Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (2017)

But this cosmology was established centuries before Chan and Zen schools, and the Buddhist understanding of sentient being interconnectedness has evolved over time. Stewart informs us that although “Buddhist moral principles have gone relatively unchanged throughout the course and development of various Buddhist traditions, […] Buddhist metaphysics underwent radical transformations in its travels from India to China, Japan and elsewhere” (Stewart 649).

It is the case that early Buddhist conceptions of animals were unflattering at best and openly disdainful at their worst. However, the unfortunate destiny of nonhuman animals in the cosmos was primarily the result of humans defining their own lived experience contra the Other, and rarely was it a justification for violence toward animals.

When the human subject ponders her own attempt to eradicate suffering and reach the ultimate goal, there is a need to distinguish herself from the beastly realm and invest herself in those capacities she possess that are believed to be uniquely human.

–Reiko Ohnuma, Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination (2017)

When viewed in the context of the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity and the evolved ontology of the nonhuman animal found in Zen, “there is a need to see the world from the other’s perspective be alive to the reality of their suffering, and shine the harsh light of truth upon one’s own moral shortcomings” (Ohnuma 180).

The emphasis on compassion for all sentient beings within Zen, the inclusion of animals within the class of sentient beings, and the key principle of intersubjectivity point toward the possibility of an evolved Buddhist animal ethics.

In general, human/human intersubjectivity is essential in that it allows for empathetic understanding between beings in the world. In particular, there is nothing precluding animals from inclusion under the Buddhist model of intersubjectivity, which is based in comprehending the relationship of another being’s skandhas and dharma as being interconnected to all other sentient beings, including oneself.

The animals are here with us, not for us.

Sources for this post

  • Ohnuma, Reiko. Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2017.

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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