What does this mean in practice?

For Buddhists, guiding principles involve the first Precept, the Noble Eightfold Path and ahimsa. Buddhism encourages people to make judgements based on their beliefs and understanding of the world. Buddhists apply these beliefs to the question of animal rights in a variety of ways.

Diet and the slaughter of animals

Some Buddhists are vegetarian, eg Chinese monks and nuns. This is because the Buddha taught that compassion and loving-kindness should be given to all creatures. It is also clear that meat cannot be eaten without the violence of killing and this is against the principle of ahimsa.

Anyone who eats flesh is cutting himself off from the great seed of his own merciful and compassionate nature.Brahmajala Sutra

Other Buddhists do eat meat and the texts of the Pali canon do not specifically forbid eating meat. Instead, the Buddha is depicted there ruling that monks and nuns can only eat meat if the animal was not slaughtered specifically to feed them. In some modern Buddhist countries Buddhists who want to eat meat are happy if the animal is slaughtered by a non-Buddhist abattoir worker. Some Buddhists believe that meat should be eaten only for medicinal purposes and then only when the animal has died of natural causes.

Animal experiments

Animal experimentation did not exist at the time of the Buddha and Buddhism does not have specific rules about this. Buddhists remember the first Precept, the principle of ahimsa and the idea of Right Livelihood and use these beliefs to help them to decide what is right in animal experiments.

Plants are life forms, but are not regarded as ‘sentient’, ie they do not possess consciousness and are not capable of feeling.

If it is considered that an animal experiment is justified and there is no alternative, then Buddhists who work out the principle of ahimsa would still expect the animals involved to be treated with kindness, be harmed as little as possible and not be killed if this can be avoided.

Following their beliefs about living things, most Buddhists are opposed to:

  • injuring, teasing or killing an animal for entertainment, eg bullfighting
  • hunting animals for pleasure
  • keeping animals in zoos because it denies them the freedom that humans enjoy
  • damaging the environment and destroying habitats, leading to the extinction of some species

Life in the vihara

Buddhists have respect for all forms of life, no matter how small. This is reflected in the practices of monks:

  • Some Buddhist monks use a water strainer so that they do not, unintentionally, consume a living creature.
  • The paths in the vihara are regularly swept so that the monks do not, unintentionally, tread on and kill a small animal.
  • Some viharas look after wild, abandoned or stray animals, giving them food and shelter.

The belief in Right Intention is very important. Buddhists believe that all practical measures should be taken to avoid harming life, in accordance with the first Precept. If these practical measures have been taken but an animal is hurt accidentally and unintentionally by human actions, then this will not have been a result of wrong intention and not a bad action of harm. Instead it might be seen as a bad action of absent-mindedness or failure to think ahead.