Community Discussion: Humans, Animals, and Non-Harming

 [Note: At Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis, MN, on 27 June 2013, a discussion on “Humans, Animals, and Non-Harming” took place at the invitation of the Center’s guiding teacher, Mark Nunberg. Presenters included Dr. Mark Berkson, Religious Studies Professor at Hamline University, Dr. Deane Curtin, Philosophy Professor at Gustavus Adolphus University, and Dr. Greta Gaard, an ecofeminist activist-scholar and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Below is the talk given by Greta Gaard.]

We turn to the dharma to help us end suffering for ourselves and others, so it makes sense to open our discussion by encouraging mindfulness of the facts of animal suffering, beginning with the ten billion animals who suffer and die through U.S. agribusinesses each year. We can recall the primary ways we encounter other animal species, who are

  • confined in zoos, experimented on in laboratories, slaughtered to make our clothing and furniture, confined and forced to perform for us in circuses and rodeos
  • produced as “food”—whether on factory farms, through small locavore farms, or through hunting (fishing, shooting, bow-hunting, trapping, baiting)
  • under our power as “pets” (for we control their diets, sexuality, reproduction, companions, range of movement, life and death)
  • under our power in our homes & garages, streets, skies, lakes, wildlands

What guidance can the dharma offer us in our relations with other animal species? With at least seven clear guiding principles, we can use the dharma to promote clear seeing and right relationships with other animal species.

1. Brahmaviharas

First, the Brahmaviharas (heavenly abodes) of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna(compassion) give us a clear path to happiness for ourselves and others, as stated in the Metta Sutta:

May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

How could we keep separate this beautiful wish for lovingkindness, and our current practices of human-nonhuman animal relations?

2. Kleshas

The strategy we use to maintain this separation of values from behaviors is delusion, one of the three defilements or poisons (the others are grasping and aversion) that keep sentient beings trapped in the cycle of suffering. Of these three defilements, delusion is seen as the root cause. It is our wrong understanding, or wrong view of reality; delusion is our inability to understand things just as they are, free of perceptual distortions. Influenced by delusion, we are not in harmony with ourselves, with others, or with life; we are not living in accordance with the Dharma. We do not understand the interdependent and impermanent quality of life. But there is an antidote for overcoming delusion: it involves cultivating wisdom, insight, and right understanding, experiencing reality just as it is. Practicing mindfulness in our relations with other animal species—in all the ways that we encounter them, as described above—will offer a strong foundation for choosing behaviors and practices that work to end suffering.

3. Precepts

We also have the Precepts to illuminate our relations with other species, and I draw particularly on the first two precepts. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s For a Future to be Possible, the first precept, to “refrain from killing” becomes “reverence for life.” He writes,

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life. —Thich Nhat Hanh

One question that lies behind this discussion is, of course, should Buddhists eat meat? Or, When I buy meat at a supermarket or restaurant, or eat meat that someone else has bought, am I causing someone to kill? The Dharma is very clear about the expectations for monks, who must beg for their one daily meal and who may accept what is offered if it is clear that the animal was not purposely killed to feed them. For the rest of us who are not living a monastic life of begging, we can remember the common practice of consumer boycotts, used by social and environmental justice activists as a strategy for withdrawing funding from products and practices we find unethical. When we buy animal bodies as food, we are effectively hiring and affirming the practices of those who breed, confine, medicate, mutilate, transport and slaughter these animals. If we continue to pay for the products of animal suffering, we are indeed promoting and responsible for their suffering, practices that are not in accordance with the first precept.

The consumer boycott of animal suffering leads clearly to the second precept, to “refrain from stealing,” renamed as “generosity” for Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes,

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. …I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Refraining from stealing also means not taking that which is not freely given. We can be fairly certain that mothers do not freely give their offspring to be confined, chained at the neck, deprived of nutrition and affection, dropped into plastic bags and ground up, slaughtered, or taken into reproductive slavery. We can be fairly certain that most mammal mothers want to give their milk to feed their newborns, and not have their offspring torn away from them or sold at a day-old to be confined in veal crates for four months until slaughter, while their mother’s nourishing milk is stolen to feed adults of a different species. Instead, as the Metta Sutta suggests,

…Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

The animals whose bodies we eat, wear, or sit on did not “give” their skin and flesh for us to use; it was stolen from them. Practicing the second precept leads us to let other animals live their own lives.

4. Three Qualities of Existence

This distinction of humans from animals is itself a product of delusion, and presupposes that we are not animals ourselves. It perpetuates a dualism and separation, as well as a sense of self (and attachment to selfhood) that is superior to other animal beings. Recognizing our own inter-being with other animal species and other lives, we move closer to understanding anatta (no-self), one of the three qualities of existence, the understanding of which brings peace.

But humans are put above and apart from animals in agribusiness. The suffering and death of animals and the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers go hand in hand, for it is not possible to slit the throats of up to 900 sentient beings per hour, slip on bloody floors, be kicked in the face by conscious animals dragged along a conveyor belt without being physically and psychologically harmed. According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s “Safety and Health Guide for the Meatpacking Industry” (1988), operational hazards for workers (who are often recent immigrants and non-native speakers of English) include amputations, eye injuries, fractures, cuts, falls, exposure to toxic substances, upper respiratory irritation and damage, and more. But their linked suffering is also not the only reason to adopt a vegetarian diet.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ report, Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006), the meat industry causes more global warming (through emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) than all the cars, trucks, SUVs, planes, and ships combined in the world. Environmentalists report that production of a meat-based diet requires more than ten times the water required for a totally vegetarian diet, and is responsible for deforesting 55 square feet of Amazon rainforest per single hamburger. Meat and dairy consumption have been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, various cancers, diabetes, and obesity. Then there’s the waste: farmed animals produce 130 times as much excrement as does the entire U.S. human population. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the run-off from factory farms pollutes our rivers and lakes more than all other industrial sources combined.

Can you name that dharmic principle just described here?  Yes!

5.  Dependent Origination

Clear seeing shows that our consumer demand for animal products links these phenomena: climate change, environmental degradation, human health, workplace justice, and animal suffering. Awareness of dependent origination helps the practitioner understand the co-arising of suffering and selfhood in the production of “food” animals for human consumption. At the origin of dependent origination, of course, is delusion. We have come full circle.

6. Discernment and Skillful Directions

Buddhist morality offers us excellent tools for understanding animal suffering. Instead of the terms “right/wrong,” Buddhists talk about skillful behaviors, meaning those choices and actions that move us in a direction that reduces suffering. In our lifetimes, we might not achieve a destination wherein all suffering has ended, but we can certainly make choices that more in that direction. Buddhist morality also emphasizes the difference between judgment and discernment: while judgment has a punitive flavor and creates a separation between self and other, discernment does not rely on a separate self, but rather encourages clear seeing in choosing a skillful direction.

7. Purposes of our Practice

Through mindfulness practice, we cultivate the capacity to turn toward suffering—our own suffering and the suffering of others—and not turn away through denial, delusion (being unaware of interbeing and dependent origination), or indifference (a form of aversion). Through lovingkindness, through the precepts, through mindfulness of the effects of our actions on others, and through awareness of our fundamental interbeing, our practice cultivates a soft heart.

May all beings be happy.