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

From Beast to Sentient Being: An Evolution in Buddhist Metaphysics

With the emergence of Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen around the 6th century, Buddhism underwent an evolution in metaphysics, and an accompanying change in the ontology of the nonhuman animal.

A prime example of the conceptual transition of the nonhuman animal from beast to sentient being is seen in The Platform Sutra: an autobiographical account of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng (638-713 CE).

Considered a barbarian by the monks from whom he sought kinship, Hui-neng was not initially welcomed with open arms into the sangha. Upon his arrival to pay homage to the Fifth Patriarch, he was put to task splitting firewood and pounding rice in the back of the monastery.

The [Fifth] Patriarch said, “You are a barbarian from the south; how could you expect to become a Buddha?”

I replied, “there are people in the south and people in the north, but their Buddha-nature is the same. As a barbarian I may be different from you physically, but what difference could there be in our Buddha-nature?”

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

After eight months of pounding rice, Hui-neng’s understanding of the Dharma (and specifically of the essence of mind) was recognized as distinct by the Fifth Patriarch. Upon transmitting his robe and bowl to Hui-neng as the mark of succession, the Fifth Patriarch assigned Hui-neng a new task:

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Take care of yourself, save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future.” He then gave me this stanza:

Sentient beings sow their seeds
And cause the earth to bear fruit and return to birth;
Nonsentient beings have no seeds,
And their empty self-nature has no rebirth.

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

As seen previously, the Buddhist cosmology views nonhuman animals as karmic beings that experience rebirth, so from the stanza above we can infer from the Fifth Patriarch’s words that animals are to be included in the class sentient beings rather than nonsentient beings.

Although my research has not returned any explicit evidence of such a theory, my interpretation of Hui-neng’s initial reception by the sangha as an outsider is that his experience afforded him unique insight into the nature of Otherness.

Combined with the Fifth Patriarch’s parting stanza, this unique insight may have contributed to the development of Hui-neng’s compassion for animals as sentient beings. As beastly and different from humans as early Buddhist texts represent them, Hui-neng nonetheless came to view nonhuman animals as worthy of moral consideration.

Later in life, when forced into hiding due to being “pursued by evil men,” Hui-neng recounts the way he modeled and enacted this compassion, and how he fulfilled the mission tasked to him by his predecessor.

To avoid trouble, I took refuge in Szu-hui, where I stayed with a group of hunters for 15 years. I occasionally taught the Dharma to them, in accordance with their capabilities. They often asked me to watch their nets, but when I found a living creature, I set it free. At mealtimes, I added vegetables to their pots where they cooked their meat, and when they questioned me, I told them I would only eat vegetables.

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

Buddhist Metaphysics: The Self and Intersubjectivity

In Buddhist metaphysics, the individual is seen as a collection as skandhas, or constituents of existence. In definite terms, the skandhas are known as form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness (Addiss 268). When taken as an aggregate and situated within natural phenomena (dharma), one’s lived experience emerges. Understanding the interplay between one’s skandhas and the dharma of one’s life is key to setting one on the path to cessation of suffering.

Image Source: TheZenUniverse.org

As explained by Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer:

Seeing clearly into the characteristics of one’s own existence and the connection that creates this existence, and in which it is embedded, is the goal of Buddhism, which should lead to an ending of suffering. Suffering is the result of the opposite; the less clearly the characteristics of being are recognized, the more a human being suffers in life.


–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)

Because the dharma of one’s own life and existence is determined by the cause-and-effect principles of the cosmic Dharma, it is necessarily interconnected with the dharma of all other sentient beings within the karmic cycle of birth/rebirth.

A keen awareness of this metaphysical state of affairs, namely that one’s place and experience within the cosmos is connected to and dependent upon the place and experience of others, is key to the Buddhist principle of intersubjectivity.

In basic terms, intersubjectivity can be understood as “seeing from the Other’s point of view.” However, intersubjectivity is distinct from the modern concept of empathy, which is a much simpler notion used to describe the ability to understand or accurately detect the emotional and mental states of others.

More technically, one might define intersubjectivity as the ability of an embodied subjective agent to comprehend the experiences, intentions, desires, and interests of another embodied subjective agent, and to contextualize that understanding within the broader scope of one’s own life experience (dharma).

To put the term in the context of Buddhist metaphysics, intersubjectivity is the ability of one sentient being to understand the interplay between another sentient being’s skandhas and dharma in relation to one’s own life experience, and the interconnectedness of it all more broadly within the cosmic Dharma.

One particularly powerful and well-known illustration within Buddhism is Indra’s Net. Indra is revered in Hinduism, Jainsim, and Buddhism, and each tradition mythologizes the Vedic god in its own way. In Buddhist cosmology, Indra rules over the realm of the devas, and along with Brahma, he is seen as guardian of the Buddha Siddhartha.

Indra’s Net shows the interplay between Buddhist principles of emptiness, interconnectedness, and intersubjectivity. As described by Virtbauer,

Indra’s net is depicted as an endless fishing net with jewels on its knots. The jewels hang in such a way that in each jewel all other jewels are reflected. When looking at one jewel, one sees all other jewels within this particular jewel. Because of the infinity of the net, each jewel, in fact, reflects infinitely many other jewels. The characteristic appearance of each single jewel is only guaranteed due to the connection and mutual dependence to all other jewels.

–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)
Indra’s Net. Image source: Buddhism.org

When enacted, intersubjectivity is characterized by one’s respect for the bodily autonomy, self-determination and non-interference in the life of another sentient being, especially through methods of harm reduction and the avoidance of inflicting suffering (known in sanskrit as ahimsa).

Where the Buddhist value of compassion is concerned, intersubjectivity necessarily originates with an empathetic stance toward the material conditions of the Other’s existence, and an understanding of the Other’s place in the cosmos more broadly, especially in relation to oneself.

Such a conception of intersubjectivity is taught by the Buddhists of today, as Virtbauer quotes the Vietnamese monk and vegan Thich Nhat Hanh:

When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry. To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people.

–Gerald Dōkō Virtbauer, quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis” (2010)

Sources for this post

  • Addiss, Stephen, et al. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.
  • Virtbauer, Gerald Dōkō. “Dimensions of Intersubjectivity in Mahayana-Buddhism and Relational Psychoanalysis.” Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 11, no. 1, 2010, pp. 85–102.

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

Literal Representation of Nonhuman Animals in Buddhism

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.

Image source: ComicNewbies.com

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.

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