What the Buddha said about Animal Rights—& why it’s in our Interest to Care.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Nov 18, 2012
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This Thanksgiving, Feed the Turkeys.

How a Buddhist celebrates Thanksgiving.

It’s Thanksgiving. Somebody approaches a group of turkeys and…feeds them.

Bhikshuni Thubten Semkye truly celebrates the kindness of others and displays how we can turn compassion into action in every facet of our lives… even on Thanksgiving.

If there aren’t any wild turkeys in your area but you would still like to express gratitude and compassion, visit adoptaturkey.org.

The Buddha on Animal Rights.

“One must not deliberately kill any living creature either by committing the act oneself, instructing others to kill, or approving of or participating in acts of killing.

To completely abstain from the act of killing directly and indirectly, eat only pure vegetarian food.” ~ Buddhism

All beings-human or beast—
Love life and hate to die.
They fear most the butcher’s knife
Which slices and chops them piece-by-piece.
Instead of being cruel and mean,
Why not stop killing and cherish life? (Cherishing Life, I, 83)

What do the teachings of Buddhism say about animal rights?

In Buddhism the highest and universal ideal is to continually work for a permanent end to the suffering of all creatures, not just the human animal, but all animals, all living beings without exception.

Buddhism affirms the unity of all living beings, all equally possess the Buddha-nature, and all have the potential to become Buddhas, that is, to become fully and perfectly enlightened. Among the sentient, there are no second-class citizens. According to Buddhist teaching, human beings do not have a privileged, special place above and beyond that of the rest of life. The world is not a creation specifically for the benefit and pleasure of human beings. Furthermore, in some circumstances according with their karma, humans can be reborn as humans and animals can be reborn as humans.

In Buddhism the most fundamental guideline for conduct is ahimsa-the prohibition against the bringing of harm and/or death to any living being. Why should one refrain from killing? It is because all beings have lives; they love their lives and do not wish to die. Even one of the smallest creatures, the mosquito, when it approaches to bite you, will fly away if you make the slightest motion. Why does it fly away? Because it fears death. It figures that if it drinks your blood, you will take its life. . . . We should nurture compassionate thought. Since we wish to live, we should not kill any other living being. Furthermore, the karma of killing is understood as the root of all suffering and the fundamental cause of sickness and war, and the forces of killing are explicitly identified with the demonic. The highest and most universal ideal of Buddhism is to work unceasingly for permanent end to the suffering of all living beings, not just humans.

The Buddha in a former life was reborn as a Deer-king. He offers to substitute his own life for that of a pregnant doe who is about to give birth. In another previous lifetime, the Buddha sacrificed his own life to feed a starving tiger and her two cubs, who were trapped in the snow. He reasoned that it would be better to save three lives than to merely preserve his own. It is better to lose one’s own life than to kill another being.

A disciple of the Buddha must maintain a mind of kindness and cultivate the practice of liberating beings. He should reflect thus: ‘All male beings have been my father and all females have been my mother. There is not a single being who has not given birth to me during my previous lives, hence all beings of the Six Destinies are my parents. Therefore, when a person kills and eats any of these beings, he thereby slaughters my parents. Furthermore, he kills a body that was once my own, for all elemental earth and water previously served as part of my body and all elemental fire and wind have served as my basic substance. Therefore, I shall always cultivate the practice of liberating beings and in every life be reborn in the eternally­abiding Dharma and teach other to liberate beings as well.’ Whenever a Bodhisattva sees a person preparing to kill an animal, he should devise a skilful method to rescue and protect it, freeing it from its suffering and difficulties… (Brahma Net Sutra I 162)
Source: http://online.sfsu.edu

Turkeys are “smart animals with personality and character, and keen awareness of their surroundings,” Oregon State University poultry scientist Tom Savage says. Turkeys are social, playful birds who enjoy the company of others. They relish having their feathers stroked and like to chirp, cluck, and gobble along to their favorite tunes. Anyone who spends time with them at farm sanctuaries quickly learns that turkeys are as varied in personality as dogs and cats. ~ PETA


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


37 Responses to “What the Buddha said about Animal Rights—& why it’s in our Interest to Care.”

  1. […] Bonus: What the Buddha said on Animal Rights—and why it’s in our Interest to Care. […]

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    eat only pure vegetarian food.” ~ Buddhism. This quote is from where? To eat vegeterian is best. However, the Buddha ( in his time) allowed for the eating of meat so long as it died naturally. The monks were allowed to eat meat which was given to them. probably this will become another veg vs. meat eater discussion but certainly not my intent. What an individual does in their life is not my business. But…"Buddhists can eat meat so long as the animal died a natural death.That kind of meat would be very hard to find though.

  3. Heather says:

    I really agree with this. Long before become a yoga teacher and developing a school, i stopped eating meat.
    First it was all for vanities sake. I believed I would be in better shape and conditioning without it. My motivation was not for the sake of the animals.

    But I just wonder if deep inside I also felt true compassion for the animals. It was a huge deal in my family since I was the first to break the meat-eating chain. No one understood it. It also did not help that my grandparent's raised cattle as a living and an uncle to this day is a pig farmer (ahhhhhhhh).

    As a kid we used to visit them in PEI…and I remember very clearly going out with a bucket of garden scraps to give to the pigs. I was rather fascinated by their noses…and like to touch the rim. I recall thinking how black their eyes were but they were not stupid. Same with the cows…I had many friends with the calves….and their little curly tops heads.

    So, a piece of veal …..how awful.

    I am in the process of converted my husband. I am using the guilt thing…"moo moo moo mooooo moooooooo".
    I do a pretty good impression of a cow since I spent much time also wandering about the back fields.

    Long story short…animals are just as human as people….!

  4. elephantjournal says:

    Yes, good points—the Buddha's exhortations were more about compassion than morality, more about common sense than uptight aggressive PETA-ness. Not sure where the quote from–it was in the text of the video. If it's incorrect, or if someone finds a source, I'm happy to take it down or add the source to it.

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Its interesting watching all of the "Buddhist" articles on EJ and the different schools of Buddhism of influence and the differences in translation of Buddhist tenents and concepts. For example, Theravada teaches enlightenment for one's self and does not believe the Buddha attained enlightenment for all beings. Mahayana is attaining enlightenemnt for all beings along with yourself or before yourself. Very different schools. The eating of meat and using alcohol in ganachakra is part of the vajrayana samaya…depending on your teacher or sect. Recently there appeared an article calling the state to which we aspire as "Nothingness"….I could say the writer meant "emptiness" but how can we assume that is what was meant. "Buddhist" articles which claim buddhism can not represent all buddhists and their samaya.

  6. Mestena says:

    In my experience, the American Buddhist ideal of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is not consistent with the old teachings. The Dalai Lama himself is not vegetarian; he eats red meat frequently. Vegetables are rarely available in the mountainous regions from which he hails. To attempt a vegetarian lifestyle in these areas would certainly mean malnutrition (suffering).

    Buddha in the Anguttara Nikaya Sukhamala Sutta, describes his family being "wealthy and blessed enough to provide non-vegetarian meals even to the servants". After becoming Buddha, he accepted any food offered with respect as alms, including meat. In Amagandha Sutta it is stated by Buddha, "taking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat."

    Mahayana argues that if one is on the path of the Bodhisattva, one may avoid meat eating to cultivate compassion. Similarly, in Theravada, avoiding meat eating for the purpose of cultivation of metta (loving kindness) is also seen to be in accord with Buddhist Dharma. In most Buddhist branches, one may adopt vegetarianism if one so wishes, but it is not considered a necessary aspect of practice, and it is not considered skillful practice to verbally attack another person for eating meat. In the Pali Canon, Buddha explicitly declared meat-eating to be karma neutral and refused suggestion by Devadatta to institute vegetarianism in the monks' Vinaya. However, there were monastic guidelines prohibiting consumption of 10 types of meat: that of humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas.

    In Buddhism, what is most important is to recognize that being alive, by its very nature, is the cause of direct or indirect suffering and death to other beings. One should avoid gluttony and greed, while maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle which is conducive to attaining enlightenment. What constitutes a healthy diet and lifestyle, conducive to enlightenment, is open to personal interpretation, as it should be. There are many roads to awakening, and none will suit us all.

    In this modern world, with our modern food supply, it is frequently the case that a package of vegan 'Tofurkey' (for example) bought at Whole Foods will, if closely examined, have caused far more suffering and damage to the earth than, let's say, a turkey harvested from a backyard flock.

    In the story of Tofurkey, at the beginning, a farm is created. Regardless of how organic, or idyll this farm may seem, it most certainly took habitat away from the critters who resided there. The heavy equipment is then brought in to till the field, seriously disturbing the soil structure, microbial life, and earthworm communities who have worked hard to establish themselves. Then, the soybeans will be planted and harvested by heavy machinery, even if the farm is organic. This heavy machinery, by some estimates, kills between 80 and 300 small animals (mice, voles, birds, etc) per acre in the field. Once the plant is harvested, it is then processed into tofu, packaged, and shipped on average 1500 miles, using fossil fuels, which add pollution, destroy more habitat, and incite war and greed around the world. In a single package of organic Tofurkey, one can find layer upon layer of suffering, death, greed, profit, and destruction, if one only allows him/herself to look closely. Of course, you don't see blood in THAT package, so it's easy to assume that it is a meal free of suffering. It is not.

    Compare this to my backyard turkey. She will live her life free-ranging, pecking, scratching, dust bathing, and foraging for insects and seeds at her leisure. Her days are spent in sunshine and fresh mountain air. Her nights are spent in a warm bed of straw, with the companionship of other turkeys. She may even have a name, and receive a fair share of affection, petting, and special kitchen scraps as treats. One day, while she is cruising around the yard, she may be chosen and quietly dispatched to feed my family. This act will be done in profound gratitude and understanding of the life that has been lost to do so, and will likely be accompanied by tears. No factory farm. No heavy machinery. Zero fossil fuels used. One life taken, compared to countless lives lost and displaced in a package of 'Tofurkey'. When did you last see someone standing in the aisle at Whole Foods, lamenting over the lives lost to produce a package of Tofu? You will not see this, because the packaged product makes it easy to overlook the suffering, and to deny the loss of life. Which dietary choice do you think is more in line with the Buddhist teaching to reduce suffering?

    I see the choice about whether or not to eat meat to be a highly personal one, and need not be the subject of invasive scrutiny, especially in spiritual communities. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of self-righteousness and judgement when we begin to identify ourselves by the lifestyle choices we make. I, myself, have been ostracized and severely judged by others in the Eastern traditions which I hold in such high esteem, simply due to my personal decision to eat meat. My personal practices, deeds, and qualities were disregarded immediately when it was discovered that I was not vegetarian/vegan. I have even been told that I cannot reach enlightenment. Folks, this is where dogma begins!

  7. Edward Staskus says:

    Heather, my wife and I have visited PEI 8 or 9 summers (we live in Ohio) specifically North Rustico, near Cavendish. There are lots and lots of cows, for sure. I am a vegetarian, my wife almost so, but we have found it easy to eat up there, people are pretty relaxed about it, even though they are almost 100% animal-eaters. It's hard to avoid the fish, though, so sometimes we will go to the harbor where we stay and get some hake or cod and grill it at our cottage. For some reason I like to think the Buddha would do the same.

  8. HeatherM says:

    Hi….thanks 🙂

    When it's not your family, I think, people are more relaxed. But when you are an immediate relative different story.
    My grandmother (and my mother too) never gave up asking, "Can I offer you a piece of meat, dear?"

    My distant cousins have prepared veg meals, which were great, however and esp. for me.

    The Buddha would do the same (I think so too). Paramahansa was known to offer fish to his guests.

  9. HeatherM says:

    Good points….your reply could have been a short post! 🙂

    It is all interesting indeed as Paramahansa was known to serve his guests fish….AND I understand Gandhi ate fish (or there is speculation of it).

    Most balanced meditation teachers DO NOT adhere to non-meat eating or meat eating…..as Dipa Ma said no point in being a vegetarian and still being violent (lacking any sense of ahimsa).

    A perfect example of this is Hitler who was a vegetarian. So that just goes to show non-meat eating does not do a damn thing for your lack of violence.

    As a teacher I think the percentage of my students who really are vegetarians is extremely low.
    I never preached it with the firm belief each must find their own way.
    It suits me well, but I converted nearly 21 years ago and have a lifestyle that follows it.

    I think, what people don't look at is the BIG picture in making these choices.

    And I totally agree, some (too many) yogi folk have been the most self-righteous over these concerns/issues.

  10. HeatherM says:

    You posed the question: Which dietary choice reduces suffering? Ex. question.

    I feel the better question is: What mental choice poses less suffering…Diet follows it.

    If mind is the gatekeeper…then diet choice comes from mind first not vice versa.

  11. Auki says:

    Did the Buddha say anything about how to deal with poisonous snakes? I hate to kill anything, but haven't figured out a creative way of dealing with rogue squirrels and poisonous snakes without catching them and dropping them off elsewhere… which makes them someone else's problem. Which is the worse karma? To kill a poisonous snake; or our catch it and drop it off elsewhere where it may eventually bite someone else?

  12. Padma Kadag says:

    Auki…If we remove a poisonous snake from our vicinity of living then we need to be smart about where it is we will move it too so that it has less chance of being harmed or harming others. Just as when we practice the "saving of lives" to gain merit and wisdom for ourselves and others, we purchase, for example, bait fish which are destined for the hook in the immediate future and release them into their natural habitat. It is the power of our motivation in saving the lives from immediate death and the power of helping alleviate the karma of the fish and the fisherman. Of course we are concerned about the little bait fish being eaten by larger fish once released but really there is nothing we can do other than to pray one pointedly for the act of saving the lives in that moment. According to buddhist practice this can purify any killing we may have done in this and past lives and positively effect our longevity or the longevity of others.

  13. Padma Kadag says:

    Point well taken!

  14. Padma Kadag says:

    Mestena…while I respect your ability to quote important Buddhist text, it all boils down to who is killing the turkey's at your home? If we are to strictly or loosely adhere to the tenents of buddhism then we cannot kill no matter the reasoning. Tibetan buddhists in tibet do not do the killing the muslims do it. Who is doing your killing? Though Lamas may visit other places they cannot partake of meat which has been killed for that occassion. If we order the killing for an occassion it is as if we are doing the killing. My intent is not to be accusatorial but rather I want to know how you reconcile all of this if you are a practicing buddhist.

  15. angel says:

    """Furthermore, the karma of killing is understood as the root of all suffering and the fundamental cause of sickness and war, and the forces of killing are explicitly identified with the demonic.""""

    The second Noble truth is that CRAVING is the root cause of all suffering… which, of course, could lead beings to kill.

  16. Auki says:

    Thanks for your thougths, Padma. I don't mean to nitpick, however, where I live there are poisonous rattle snakes everywhere, and really no wild nature left to take them to. I've been told that rattlesnakes, as with dogs, have an internal radar that allows them to instinctively know how to crawl back to where their home is. And what on earth does a practicing Buddhist do about gophers and moles who are eating the roots off the plants in the garden and orchard?

  17. Padma Kadag says:

    Move!!! Hahaha

  18. Padma Kadag says:

    Unfortunately, it depends on, and I am speaking for myself which certainly is not the official buddhist rule, If my crop or livelihood was being threatened by some "vermin" I would consider the least destructive method first and after I have exhausted "do no harm" I would take means necessary to protect my livelihood.

  19. Padma Kadag says:

    I know with roof rats you need to release them more than 2 miles from your home or they will return. Rattlesnakes can find their dens but they often inhabit new holes of prey. This may not be the answer for which you look but maybe you could build houses for owls on your property to control the gophers and moles…some will complain this is only furthering your own karma and the karma of the owl. But this is precisely why we practice buddhism because every action we take is due consideration.

  20. Auki says:

    Yes, we have owl & hawk houses in place already. And we've been-there-done-that with catch-and-release as well. At this point, I've been killing the rattlers, squirrels and gophers and excepting the karma.

  21. Dharma says:

    In the Lankavatar Sutra the Buddha said very clearly eating meat burns the seeds of Bodhichitta . It is in Sravakayana sutras like Theravadin Suttas where the Buddha ( in his time) allowed for the eating of meat so long as it died naturally as bodhichitta is not an important part of the Shravakyana,

  22. Dharma says:

    Chatral Rimpoche is the oldest and the greatest dzog Chen and Vajrayan Master alive and HH The Karmapa is on of the greatest vajrayana lama, without doubt, and both day eating meat is not Vajrayana and both say those who eat meat are not their disciple. Offering to certain dieties and eating for ones pleasure are two different things. However we Buddhists don't follow it like a command but to pretend one is on the Mahyana/bodhisatvayana path( and Vajrayana is a form of Bodhisatvayana as Advaya Vajra says in the Sanskrit Text Mahayanam Dwividham/mahayana is of two kinds ; Paramitanaya cha Mantranaya/ And they are Paramitayana aka sutrayana and Mantrayana aka Vajrayana. So to claim that the Vajrayana permits eating meat freely is non sense and further more even in the ganachakras it should be meat of the above kind , died naturally. Guru rimpoche has said in conduct live like a Shravaka do not ever abandon Bodhichitta and only in view follow Dzogchen/vajrayana

  23. ggarciaordonez says:

    Thank you, Mestena, for such a clear & open approach!! I support every single word of your post, that reads as a superb article by itself.

    We are the choices we make, including food & the sources where that food comes from too. I truly believe in living as naturally as we possibly can, respecting everything around us and being compassionate. From my point of view, artificial food & packaging go against that.

    I love food & tastes so I eat everything, as long as it suits me well. When reading/thinking about these matters I always wonder if we are not 'killing' fruit & vegs too when we pull them up from the tree/soil/roots. If we go extreme, we would not be able to eat anything really. But I can always choose to buy my food (eggs, meat, vegs, cheese, fish…) from the local-respectful people who honour Nature and make a natural living out of it.

  24. Padma Kadag says:

    If you suggest I have supported the eating of meat "freely" as a samaya for vajrayana you are putting words in my mouth. Guru Rinpoche 's advice is the best you quote lastly. My point is that the eating of meat is different for different schools as well as masters. If you are a disciple of Chatral Rinpoche then how fortunate for you. The eating of meat is part of the vajrayana ganachakra and it having died "naturaly" is of no consequence. My ultimate stand is not to promote meat eating. The Theravadans do not acknowledge what the Buddha said to the Mahayana's and the Mahayana's do not acknowledge what the Buddha said to the Vajrayana's. When you quote Guru Rinpoche please make sure you know to whom he was speaking and when and why.

  25. Padma Kadag says:

    So…"Dharma"…Unequivocally you can say that all of the Vajrayana/ Dzogchen masters have attained parinirvana without consuming meat and that attainment is completely dependent upon a vegetarian diet? Please provide a list of those masters who were/are Dzogchen masters who are complete vegetarians and I will assume all others you do not list eat meat. Regarding Chatral Rinpoche…he does have disciples who eat meat and they are from Tibet.

  26. […] like this. I am packed on ice and back in the garage where our relationship began. There is no less care or attention between us than at other points during our relationship. It is intended that the beneficiaries of all this […]

  27. […] their living and slaughter conditions, or the erosion, pollution, and water use caused by the introduction of the animals and their […]

  28. Liam Meekins says:

    There is no humane way to take the life of any sentient being. It amuses me to see people who consider themselves "spiritual" intellectualising and desperately scratching around to justify flesh eating and violent abuse of other animals.
    You eat flesh because you enjoy it and you don't give a fuck about the suffering of other animals. At least be honest.
    You don't need the Buddha or anyone else to tell you that killing and torturing innocents is an abomination.

  29. B. Bogart says:

    "In this modern world, with our modern food supply, it is frequently the case that a package of vegan 'Tofurkey' (for example) bought at Whole Foods will, if closely examined, have caused far more suffering and damage to the earth than, let's say, a turkey harvested from a backyard flock."

    While I don't have enough information to comment mathematically on the comparison, and don't partake in any meat or diary and reduce consumption of processed foods, I must take issue with a missing term from your analysis. One aspect of your claim that the processed food is problematic is the creation of farmland, but you totally ignore that the very "backyard", the home of this hypothetical happy turkey, requires the very same manipulation as the farm-land. Small animals are still killed and heavy machinery is still required. Perhaps the impact of the back-yard is even more significant, considering the infrastructure required to support a home (water, power, drainage, etc.).

    I grant you that highly processed foods that require highly industrialized processes may have higher carbon footprints, which is why I consume very little of these products.

    When we decide for an animal whether it will live or die we are not respecting its life, we are elevating our utility for it over its life itself. This sets of a clear asymmetrical power relation, we humans are the ones that determine what a non-human animals life is worth. Seems to me this is not our choice to make.

  30. BidNinja says:

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  31. Yangchen says:

    A very nice topic to read. It is written well and video too. Thank you.

  32. Alex says:

    All those who call themselves spiritual or yoginis or awakened, and still eat meat ( or consume ANY animal product) are steel asleep.

    Loving kindness & compassion applies to all beings & creatures, no exception. One has not understood we are all One, until they apply this realization in real life.

  33. Jim Brain says:

    I say walk the middle path. Be neither a vegan or a carnivore. Eat what’s available. Be thankful. It”s about consciousness And PETA? Give me a break. They would rather see an animal dead then live a life they deem as unworthy.

  34. keely biggs says:

    You lost me at PETA.

  35. Justin says:

    The Lankavatar Sutra was attributed to Buddha after his time. Those aren't his true words. He allowed his monks to eat meat as long as the animal was not killed specifically for them. He called meat eating, a karma neutral act. The killing and supporting of markets that kill animals are what he deemed unwholesome.

  36. James says:

    Plants are living things, so to be vegetarian is hypocrisy. We have silicon based life forms in the deepest reaches of underwater volcanoes, to them even the rocks are alive. Throughout our existence, humans have been omnivores; eating both plant and animal sources. Rather than exclude things from your diet based off of another person's interpretation of dogma, be instead grateful and honor the animal and the plant that provides your sustenance. For you in turn, were you to follow nature's way and return to the earth instead of a man made coffin, would provide for another creature's sustenance. Thus is the cycle of life. In Amagandha Sutta it is stated by Buddha, "taking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat."

  37. Yogi Bonito says:

    Excellent post here. Interesting discussion and comments. Most of us live where we can live well without eating flesh. We should be thankful for this and truly appreciate this gift by not eating flesh of fellow sentient beings.