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

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

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: Columbia.edu

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

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 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 dominionistic 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 representations of other concepts. Second, animals appear as animals 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

What is Animals Taking Over?

Crossposted from AnimalsTakingOver.com

When I began writing Animals Taking Over in 2013, my primary goal was simply to improve my own skills as a writer. After years of watching programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report and reading The Onion, it became clear to me that the mainstream media and The News is utter nonsense.

As is the case with so many monolithic industries, the News is a mass-produced, monetized commodity, often disseminated with the obvious goal of manipulating the audience rather than informing or educating. I see no real value in the production of such banal drivel other than to sedate the audience, to instill fear of The Other, or to make an appeal to the audience’s confirmation bias.

The Conan O’Brien Show, for example, has a long history of lampooning the News via its Local News Roundup segment. Pause for a moment here to view “Is it time for Dogs to have a Social Network of their Own?”

The writing underlying the News is weak, lazy, and predictable. In its embarrassing present state, the News more closely resembles MadLibs than true journalism. After analyzing only a handful of stories and deconstructing “the formula,” it becomes clear that anyone with half a brain and a touch of moxie can write in the style of News.

I began my project by reblogging amusing posts of animals that made their way to my tumblr dashboard, and at first I saw little need for commentary. But soon I found the exercise to be even more rewarding as I intentionally sought to incorporate humor as a vehicle to spark conversation about truth, fake news, and the relationship between humans and animals.

I conceived of a world where Humans and Non-Human Animals (NHAs) existed in a perpetual state of war that for political reasons was referred to only as “the continuing conflict.” This was a world counterfactual to our own, where humans dominated animals in every conceivable way, from the use of force to the dissemination of propaganda that served to reify the Conflict and homosapien hegemony.

I was Vegan when I started ATO, and the consumption of animal products has made its way back into my life since then. However, I still very much care about animals and find the ways humans exploit them to be abhorrent and morally repugnant. It’s an ongoing atrocity in which I fully admit to now finding myself complicit.

Considerable strides in Animal Welfare have been made over the years, but one need only consider the intrepid photography of Jo-Anne McArthur’s We Animals series to rediscover the horrific realities of modern NHA genocide and industrial scale exploitation, or the disturbing truths behind the work of investigative journalist Will Potter’s Green is the New Red to confirm that indeed there is a true interspecies war at play.

My view about the Animals has evolved over time from one closely aligned with thinkers such as Benthem, Francione, and Torres, to one more along the lines of Kymlicka and Donaldson. Even now as a non-vegan I find the idea of a utopic Zoopolis to be the most realistic and achievable, for it is a view that seeks to fully recognize Humans and Non-Human Animals for what they are–nothing more and nothing less. A truly modern Zoopolis is one that acknowledges the duties and responsibilities that Humans have for Non-Human Animals.

Enter the absurd. From the post-WWII French philosophers, writers, and artists (see Beckett, Camus, Sartre) we learned to deploy the absurd as a theater for examining and clarifying our own views about the world and ourselves. It is a space that forces us to define the necessary and sufficient conditions underwhich our values are founded.

When I speak of Animal Rights, it should be obvious that I am not implying Canines should be afforded the right to drive cars and operate heavy machinery, or that Felines should become fashion moguls, or that Goats secretly control the world’s monetary system. This is absurd.

Instead, I utilize the Absurd to implicitly argue that these species are just as entitled to live in peace and safety as our own and that the well-being of our planet depends on interspecies coexistence, rather than continuing conflict. In the long-term, homosapiens will face a reckoning for the unjust treatment perpetuated upon our planet and our fellow Earthlings.

Whether it be the loss of vital ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef through our over-consumption and environmental neglect, the annihilation of the Great Cats of Africa for sport, or the mass extinction of autonomous Bird Tribes as their migratory paths are disrupted, there is only one known species on this planet who will shoulder the blame: the human animal.

If we fail to expand our understanding of inclusion within the moral community, and continue our path of species-interest and planetary dominance, we will see our own destruction, as well as the elimination of the full majesty that is Nature.

It is my belief that our species, exalted for millennia as the rational animal, is unique in that we are the sole species that can be expected to fulfil duties not only to those we recognize as our own, but also to those who are clearly different from us. This applies to lines of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and yes, even species. I’m no Christian, but I do not jest when I assert that truly the Animals are the least of these among us Earthlings, and we will be judged for what we have done unto them (Matthew 25:40). For they are here with us, not for us.

The emerging science of Cognitive Ethology has taught us through observation and reproducible experimentation that Non-Human Animals are like us in every. way. that. matters. Yes, capability varies from species to species, but as a whole, the Animals form family units, they feel complex emotions such as fear and joy, they create art, they mourn the loss of loved ones, they go insane when isolated from their tribes, they recognize one another, they internalize trauma, they express devotion to beings beyond the borders of their own species.

As the Animal liberationist and intellectual Steven Best so eloquently expounded in his 2012 talk at the Sapienza University of Rome:

“They are sentient beings like we are. Because we are Animals too. And because everything we have, every moral capacity, every capacity to think, we got from the Animals through an evolutionary continuum. And of course we are different from animals: No, they can’t build space ships. No, they don’t do Algebra. No, they don’t write Romantic poetry like Shelley. Goddamnit can you swim like a whale? Can you fly like an eagle? Can you hear like a bat? Are you as beautiful as a cat? Do you smell as good as a cat? To single out Reason as the criteria for the moral universe and for who gets rights and who doesn’t, and who belongs in the community and who doesn’t…It’s absolutely absurd and arbitrary!”

I never expected anyone to take notice of Animals Taking Over, nor could I have predicted the prominent role that Fake News™ would play in our very real political moment of Donald Trump’s presidency. But this is where we find ourselves: Unable to believe that which is seen, unable to hope for truth in what we think is real, and ill-equipped to forge a path forward toward epistemic authenticity.

Where we go from here, I cannot guess. What I do know is that there are boots on the ground doing real work to end the continuing conflict between Humans and Non-Human Animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project is an example of a Real ™ group of Human activists, scholars, lawyers, and freedom fighters working to secure real protections for real NHAs.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.

I urge you to look into the Nonhuman Rights Project and consider donating to support their important work to end our war with the Animals, and to create a lasting, more inclusive and expansive circle of belonging within the moral community (Francione, Warren).

Till we meet again, adieu.

Joshua E. Judd

05 March 2018

Is Veganism a Toxic Culture?

Today as I was scrolling through my reader I came across this video and post from Tobias Leenaert at the Vegan Strategist. It’s one of the best talks I’ve seen in the past few months on the topic of Veganism, especially as I’ve been trying to formulate and organize my thoughts on the next stage of my personal Veganism, which I now call Secular Veganism.

Source: Anti-vegan: the lasagne

Tobias makes several great points throughout the talk, but here are the ones that really struck me:

  • practice slow opinion
  • what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out
  • anger does not make you a better activist
  • “winning an argument but losing a customer”
  • guilt doesn’t help convert people to veganism
  • take your thinking further than the accepted logic of the movement

I also loved the portion about whether we want a vegan club or a Vegan world. For me, the question relates back to what I wrote about a few days ago, with regard to whether you identify or qualify. Is Veganism a club that you can be accepted into/kicked out of based on ticking off items one-by-one from a litmus test-like check list, or does it have the potential to become something larger?

The AR movement has been around long enough now that you’d think we would have developed a more robust discourse for self-reflection and critique, but I rarely see it. In my experience, we have a lot of sacred cows at the core of Vegan ideology and attempts at critical thought quickly devolve into vegan-blaming.

We (Vegans) need to consider whether or not we have become a toxic culture, and what that means for the movement and for the animals.

Food Rules and Vegan Food

Re: Class, privilege & vegan food

I don’t believe a healthy vegan diet is more expensive than an omnivorous diet. That said, junk food is pricey, whether or not it’s vegan. Be smart about your health and be smart in the grocery store.

Any set of “food rules” can result in poor health and a strained budget. The point is to only set “rules” that are realistic and that fit your lifestyle and personal belief system.

Yeah, vegans can be incredibly pretentious and classist. Anyone can. What else is new?