Friday, September 1, 2017

Contemplating the suffering of animals

Animal realm from the Wheel of Life
Bodhisattva Vasubandhu states:

“As for the animals, they have three places, the land, the water, and the air. Their principal place is the Great Ocean; the animals that are elsewhere are the surplus of the animals”[1].

Master Genshin also explains:

“The realm of animals is divided into two parts. The chief place is in the great sea, and branches are interspersed in the realms of humans and heavenly beings” .

a) Animals living in the Great Ocean
In the Buddhist cosmology, the great ocean or sea is the immeasurable extant of salt water which surrounds the four continents inhabited by humans and the Mount Sumeru[2]. In that place there are many type of animals, some of which many times bigger than those living in our human continent of Jambudvipa. Some of them are born between the continents where there is no sunlight and where they cannot see even their own bodies. Their suffering comes mainly from eating each other, the bigger ones swallowing up the little ones, while they themselves are inhabited by tiny little creatures who feed on their flesh.

b) Animals living in different places
These are animals that live in some realms of the gods, in the human realms, and the nagas who live under the four continents or in the depths of water.
Nagas are similar to spirits but they are included in the category of animals because they have serpent-like form. Although they have some miraculous powers, they also suffer from various afflictions, which Master Genshin calls the three heats:

Then there are the various kinds of dragons (nagas) which receive day and night and without intermission the tortures of the Three Heats”.

These three heats which are sometimes named “the three torments” are: 1. their skin and flesh are burnt by a hot wind and sand-storm, 2. an evil wind strips them of their clothes and thus deprives them of any protection from the heat, and 3. they are attacked and eat by Garudas, a kind of combination of spirit-like being with miraculous powers, in the form of a giant bird[3].

The animals who live in our realm and the realm of the gods suffer from both eating one another, and from exploitation. They are hunted or raised for their meat and various products of their bodies, thus experiencing inconceivable torments and almost none of them dying a natural death. 

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna lamented the state of animals in the following verses:

“Even when in the state of an animal rebirth,
there are all sorts of sufferings:
Being slaughtered, tied up, being beaten, and so on.
For those who've had to give up [the ability for] constructive behavior
leading to [a state of] peace,
There's the extremely unbearable devouring of one another”.

Some are killed for the sake of their pearls or wool,
Or bones, meat, or pelts;
While others, being powerless, are forced into servitude,
Beaten with kicks, fists, or whips, or with hooks or with prods."[4]

The main aspects of animal realm is ignorance, fear and prevalence of instinct. Master Genshin described the cause of rebirth among the animals:

“This is the reward meted out to the ignorant and those who are without a sense of shame and who in vain receive the alms bestowed by men of faith but who do not repay such kindness.”

In accordance with Abhidharmakosabhasyam by Vasubandhu,  the lifespan of most long-lived animals is no more than an eon, while the life spans of short-lived animals is not fixed.

[1] Abhidharmakosabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p. 460
[2] Mount Sumeru is a cosmological mountain, like an axis of the world. Every samsaric world or universe has a mount Sumeru, or an axis in relation with which all the six planes of existence are described. 
[3] A Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms, by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with P.G. O’Neail, Nagata Bunshodo, Kyoto, 2003, p. 271 (Sannetsu).
[4] Verses 89 and 90 from Letter to a Friend (bShes-pa'i springs-yig, Skt. Suhrllekha) by Nagarjuna, translated by Alexander Berzin, 2006,

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