{short description of image}


Anagarika P. Sugatananda (Francis Story)

{short description of image}

Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1961

         In an article on evolutionary ethics, Sir John Arthur Thomsom, Regius Professor of Natural History, Aberdeen University, makes the striking observation that 'Animals may not be ethical, but they are often virtuous'.

         If this opinion had been expressed by a Buddhist writer it might have met with scepticism from those who hold 'commonsense' practical views on the nature of animals. Perhaps even more so from those whose religion teaches them to regard man as a special creation, the only being with a 'soul' and therefore the only one capable of noble and disinterested action. Scientific evidence that man differs from animals in quality, but not in essential kind, has not yet broken down the age-old religious idea of man's god-bestowed uniqueness and superiority. It is a view that is both flattering and convenient to homo sapiens, and so will die hard, if it dies at all, in the popular mind. To be quite fair to theistic religious ideas, the anthropocentric bias is quite as strong among people who are pleased to consider themselves rationalists as it is among the religiously orthodox.

         But Prof. Thomson's verdict is that of an unbiased scientific observer and student of behaviour, and most open-minded people would endorse it. Its full implication lies in the distinction between 'ethical' and 'virtuous'. Ethical conduct is that which follows a code of moral rules and is aware, to some extent of an intelligible principle underlying them. Virtue, on the other hand, is the source from which spring unpremeditated acts of kindness, self-abnegation and heroism, prompted by love or some other primal and instinctive urge. It is not an ethical sense that makes the female animal defend her young with her life, or a dog remain with its unconscious master in a burning house rather than save itself. When as Prof. Thomson points out animals 'are devoted to their offspring, sympathetic to their kindred, affectionate to their mates, self-subordinating in their community, courageous beyond praise', it is not because they are morally aware or morally trained, but because they have another quality, which can only be called virtue. To be ethical is man's prerogative because it requires a developed reasoning faculty; but since virtue of the kind found in animals takes no account of rewards or punishments it is in a certain sense a higher quality than mere morality. Moral conduct may be based on nothing more than fear of society's criticism or sanctions, or the expectation of reprisals from a punitive god. In morality there may be selfishness; in virtue there is none.

         No one is benefited by having extravagant claims made for him, and what has been said is not intended to deny that for the most part animals are rapacious and cruel. It cannot be otherwise when they live under the inexorable compulsions of the law of survival. But what of man, who has been called the most dangerous and destructive of animals? Would the majority of human beings be much better than animals, if all restraints of fear were removed? Just as there are vast differences between one man and another in nature and conduct, so there are between animals. Anyone who has taken pleasure in feeding monkeys in a wild state will have noticed that there is usually one old male who tyrannizes over the females and their young, greedily snatching more than he needs himself rather than let the weaker members share the dana. But that does not mean that all monkeys are egoistic bullies. A few years ago it was reported from India that a monkey had jumped into a swollen river and saved a human baby from drowning at great peril to its own life. The incident is noteworthy because it concerns a wild animal; such actions by domesticated animals are so frequent that they often pass unnoticed. It suggests a special relationship between animals and those human beings who live at peace with them; perhaps a rudimentary sense of gratitude or even a dim idea of the need for mutual help against the forces of nature. Monkeys are treated with kindness by the Indian villager, and all the higher animals are well able to distinguish between kindness and enmity. But now one wonders sadly whether Hanuman-ji will be able to prevail over the demand for polio vaccine.

         Prof. Thomson has something to say regarding the human-animal relationship also, and it has a special significance for Buddhists. He writes that although there is no warrant for calling animals moral agents, for the reason we have seen, 'a few highly-endowed types, such as dog and horse, which have become man's partners, may have some glimpse of the practical meaning of responsibility', and that there are cases in which possibly 'ideas are beginning to emerge'. That there is the possibility of such ideas being formed in the animal mind, and that they can be encouraged and cultivated, is nothing strange to Buddhist thought.

         Buddhism takes into full account the animal's latent capacity for affection, heroism and self-sacrifice. There is in Buddhism more sense of kinship with the animal world, a more intimate feeling of community with all that lives, than is found in Western religious thought. And this is not a matter of sentiment, but is rooted in the total Buddhist concept of life. It is an essential part of a grand and all-embracing philosophy which neglects no aspect of experience. The Buddhist does not have to ask despairingly, 'Why did God create obnoxious things like cobras, scorpions, tigers and mycobacteriuni tuberculosis?' The kitten on the lap and the possible cobra in the bed are all part of a world which, while it is not the best of all possible worlds, could not be different, since its creator is craving.

        So in the Buddhist texts animals are always treated with great sympathy and under standing. Some animals, such as the elephant, the horse and the Naga, the noble serpent, are used as personifications of great qualities, and the Buddha Himself is Sakya Siha, the Lion of the Sakyas. His Teaching is the Lion's roar,* confounding the upholders of false views.

        The stories of animals in the canonical texts and commentaries are sometimes very faithful to the nature of the beasts they deal with. Thus the noble horse Kanthaka** pined away and died when its master renounced the world to attain Buddhahood. That story has the ring of historical truth. In a later episode an elephant, Parileyyaka*** and an intelligent monkey were the Enlightened One's companions when He retired to the forest to get away from quarrelling Bhikkhus. (Here one is reminded of Walt Whitman: 'Sometimes I think that I could live with animals... ) Then there was the case of the elephant Dhanapala,**** which suffered from homesickness in captivity and refused food for love of its mother. The Buddha immortalized it in the stanza:

Dhanapalako nama kunjaro

Katukappadhebano dunnivarayo

Baddho kabalan na bhunjati.

Sumarati nagavanassa kunjaro.

  • Dhammapada, verse 324.

         Also from the Dhammapada Commentary is the tale of Ghosaka,***** the child who was laid on the ground to be trampled on successively by elephants and draught-oxen, but was saved by the compassionate beasts walking round instead of over him. The suckling of this child by a she-goat is reminiscent of other stories, such as that of Romulus and Remus, suckled by a wolf, and Orson, by a bear. These may or may not be legendary, but there have been well-attested cases in recent times of human children being nurtured and raised by animals.

        * Majjhima Nikaya, Mulapannasa Pali, 2. Sihanada-vagga, 2. Mahasihanada Sutta, p. 100, 6th Syn. Edn.

         ** Dhammapada-Atthakatha Book. II, page 128, 6th Syn. Edn.

        *** Dhammapada Atthakatha, Book 1, page 321, 6th Syn. Edn.

        **** Dhammapada-Atthakatha, Book II, page 314, 6th Syn. Ldn. Meaning of the verse: (The elephant named Dhanapalaka, which is in rut and is hard to control, being in captivity eats no morsel, but longs for the elephant-forest.)

        ***** Buddhist Legends Part 1, Burlingame, p. 256.

         The good qualities of animals is the subject of several Jataka stories, the best known being that of the hare in the moon (Sasa Jataka)* and the story of the heroic monkey-leader who saved his tribe by making his own body part of a bridge for them across the Ganges (Mahakapi** Jataka). Less well-known stories of the same kind are the Chaddanta Jataka,*** in which the Bodhisatta appears as a six tusked elephant, Saccamkira****Jataka, which contrasts the gratitude shown by a snake, a rat, a parrot which the ingratitude of a prince, and the curious tale of the Mahasuka***** Jataka, where a parrot out of gratitude to the tree that sheltered it refuses to leave the tree when Sakka causes it to wither. There is even an elephantine version of Androcles and the lion in the Alina Citta****** Jataka, where a tusker gives itself and its offspring in service to some carpenters out of gratitude for the removal of a thorn from its foot.

        * Jataka Atthakatha, Book III., page 48, 6th Syn. Edn.

        **Jataka Atthakatha, Book III., page 349, 6th Syn. Edn

        *** Jataka Atthakatha, Book V, page 37, 6th Syn. Edn. Six-tusked here means "Six-worer tusked'

        **** Jataka Atthakatha, Book 1, page 341, 6th Syn. Edn.

         ***** Jataka Pali, page 72, 6th Syn. Edn.

         ****** Jataka Pali , page 37, 6th Syn. Edn.

         Whether we choose to take these last examples literally, as events that occurred in previous would-cycles when animals had more human characteristics than now, or as folk-tales of the Pancatantra type, is immaterial. Their function is to teach moral lessons by allegory, but they are also important as illustrating the position that animals occupy side by side with men in the Buddhist world-view. By and large the Jatakas do not exalt animals unduly, for every tale of animal gratitude or affection can be balanced by another showing less worthy traits which animals and men have in common. There is at least one, however, which satirises a peculiarly human characteristic, hypocrisy. In the Vaka Jataka,* a wolf, having no food decides to observe the Uposatha fast. But on seeing a goat the pious wolf decides to keep the fast on some other occasion. If the story were not intended to be satirical it would be an injustice to wolves. Whatever other vices it may have, no animal degrades itself with sham piety, either to impress its fellows or to make spiritual capital out of an involuntary deprivation.

         Buddhism shows that both animals and human beings are the products of Ignorance conjoined with Craving, and that the differences between them are the consequences of past Kamma. In this sense, though not in any other, 'all life is one'. It is one in its origin, Ignorance-craving, and in its subjection to the universal law of causality. But every being's Kamma is separate and individual. So long as a man refuses to become submerged in the herd, so long as he resists the pressure that is constantly brought to bear upon him to make him share the mass mind and take on the identity of mass activities, he is the master of his own destiny. Whatever the Kamma of others around him may be, he need have no share in it. His Kamma is his own, distinct and individual. In this sense all life is not one, but each life is a unique current of causal determinants, from lowest to highest in the scale. The special position of the human being rests on the fact that he alone can consciously direct his own personal current of Kamma to a higher or lower destiny. All beings are their own creators; man is also his own judge and executioner. He is also his own saviour.

         Then what of the animal? Since animals are devoid of moral sense, argues the rationalist, how can they be agents of Kamma? How can they raise themselves from their low status and regain human birth?

         The answer is that Buddhism views life against the background of infinity. Samsara is without beginning, and there has never been a time when the round of rebirths did not exist. Consequently, the Kammic history of every living being extends into the infinite past, and each has an unexpected potential of Kamma, good and bad. When a human being dies, the nature of the succeeding life-continuum is determined by the morally wholesome or unwholesome mental impulse that arises in his last conscious moment,** that which follows it being his Patisandhi-vinnana, or rebirth-linking consciousness. But where no such good or bad thought-moment arises the rebirth-linking consciousness is determined by some unexpended Kamma*** from a previous existence. Animals, being without moral discrimination, are more of less passive sufferers of the results of past bad Kamma, as are morally irresponsible human beings, such as congenital idiots and imbeciles. But the fact that the animal has been unable to originate any fresh good Kamma does not exclude it from rebirth on a higher level. When the results of the Kamma which caused the animal birth are exhausted some unexpended good Kamma from a previous state of existence will have an opportunity to take over, and in this way the life-continuum is raised to the human level again.

         How this comes about can be understood only when the mind is devested of all belief in a transmigrating 'soul'. So long as there is any clinging, however disguised or unconscious, to the idea of a persisting self-entity the true nature of the rebirth process cannot be grasped. It is for this reason that many people, although they maintain that 'all life is one', fail to understand or accept the Buddhist truth that life currents oscillate between the human, the animal and many other forms. However comforting it may be to believe that beings can only ascend the spiritual ladder, and that there is no retributive fall for those who fail to make the grade, that is not the teaching of the Buddha.

         It is now necessary to introduce a qualification to the statement that the higher rebirth of animals must depend upon unexpended good Kamma. Within the limitation we have noted it is certainly possible for animals to originate good Kamma, notwithstanding their lack of moral sense. As Prof. Thomson suggests, contact with human beings can encourage and develop those qualities which we recognise as virtue in the higher animals, and even bring about in them a dawning consciousness of moral values. When the compulsions of the law of are removed, as in the case of animals which show examples of those endearing, and even noble qualities in animals which have some times put human beings to shame, and have even caused non-Buddhists to ask them selves uneasily whether man really is a special creation of God, and the only being worthy of salvation.

        * Jataka Pali, page 91, 6th Syn. Edn.

         ** This kamma is known as Acinnaka-kamma.

         *** This kamma is called aparapariyaya-vedaniya-kamma. (Kamma ripening in future births).

{short description of image}

{short description of image}


This page at Nibbana.com was last modified: