Buddhist Ethics: Compassion for All
Dr. Lisa Kemmerer
Dr. Lisa Kemmerer is a philosopher-activist dedicated to working against oppression, whether on behalf of the environment, nonhuman animals, or disempowered human beings. Her books include In Search of Consistency: Ethics and Animals; Animals and World Religions; Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice; Call to Compassion: Reflections on Animal Advocacy; Speaking Up for Animals: An Anthology of Women”s Voices; and Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy, and Sanctuary. Kemmerer has hiked, biked, kayaked, backpacked, and traveled widely, and is currently associate professor of philosophy and religions at Montana State University Billings. This article from Lisa was originally published in the 5th issue of the now retired Bodhi Journal in June 2007.
All beings tremble before danger, all fear death. (Dhammapada 54)
Buddhist scriptures encourage universal compassion. Buddhist teachings are overwhelmingly friendly toward non-human animals. While one might find the occasional Buddhist writer who believes that animals are expendable to our purposes, that the pain of other creatures does not matter spiritually, that we may eat animals and wear animals and kill animals, most Buddhists would disagree. The overwhelming majority of Buddhist writings do not support this contention.
There is no clear distinction between non-humans and humans in Buddhist philosophy. Eons of transmigration have had a predictable result: today”s duck and dog are yesterday”s human sisters and brothers. Each cow and chicken was at some point one”s parent, and to harm one”s parent is a particularly base act for Buddhists. All species are also subject to the same karmic process. Karma can no more be avoided by a Persian cat than it can by an avahi (woolly lemur). The Sutta Piṭāka notes that one”s actions determine one”s future as surely as “the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage” (Burtt 52). Karma rules the lives of animals and humans alike (Kraft 277): Lassie and the Prince of Wales are both subject to the same moral laws.
Buddhism offers a vision of radical inter-identification. A vision where all living beings are identified with all other entities. This vision does not merely teach that we are all in this together, but that we all are this, “rising and falling as one living body” (Cook 229). Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
A human being is an animal, a part of nature. But we single ourselves out from the rest of nature. We classify other animals and living beings as nature, as if we ourselves are not part of it. Then we pose the question, “How should I deal with Nature
” We should deal with nature the way we deal with ourselves! Harming nature is harming ourselves, and vice versa. (Hanh 41)
Radical Buddhist interdependence does not allow for an independent entity, action, word, or thought; all things influence all other things. Each being, each act, is critical to every other being and every other act. To cause suffering to a dog or pig is to cause suffering to oneself. The idea of radical interdependence led some Buddhists to conclude that all things are one another in their very essence.
Hua-yen Buddhism carried “co-dependent arising” to its logical extreme. Co-dependent arising means that our existence is best understood through the image of an infinitely regressing mirror that encompasses the entire universe in “simultaneous mutual identity and mutual intercausality” (Cook 214). Nothing is independent in this “vast web of interdependencies in which if one strand is disturbed, the whole web is shaken” (Cook 213).
Also in China, the influential T”ien T”ai Mahāyāna Buddhist school teaches that all things are contai…
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