An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues

By Peter Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Attitude to and treatment of the natural world

May all beings be happy and secure. Karan$$īya-metta Sutta, Khp. 8


HUMANITY'S PLACE IN NATURE

Buddhism does not see humans as a special creation by 'God', or as having been given either 'dominion' or 'stewardship' over animals etc. Like all other sentient beings, they wander in the limited, conditioned realm of sam$$sāra, the round of rebirths. Nevertheless, a human rebirth is seen as a very rare and fortunate one - a 'precious human rebirth' (see p. 30) – as it is the only one where the key work for enlightenment can be accomplished. Accordingly, in the Buddhist account of the types of rebirth - gods, humans, animals, ghosts and hell-beings - humans are listed in one group, while all other animals (i.e. land animals, birds, fish, worms, insects: M. III.167–9) are listed in another. That is, while all sentient beings are 'in the same boat' – sam$$sāra – humans are in a specific compartment of this. This is because they have a greater freedom and capacity for understanding than animals (and a greater motivation for spiritual progress than gods). Most moral and spiritual progress, or its opposite, is made at the human level. This is not to say that animals are all seen as amoral automatons. Buddhist Jātaka stories often attribute noble actions to such animals as monkeys and elephants, and there is also a reference to some animals keeping the five precepts (Vin. II.162). Nevertheless, animals clearly have much less of a capacity for choice than humans, and if they are virtuous, for example less greedy, or generous, this is more an expression of their existing character, or a response to an encouraging human example, than any deliberate desire for moral development (Story: 1976). Moreover, it is clear that there is a gradation among animals as regards their relative degree of freedom, or capacity for virtue (AKB. IV.97b–c). Insects would seem to have little, if any, of either.

The relatively special place of humans in the Buddhist cosmos means that they can be seen as at a 'higher level' of existence than animals. This, however, is not seen as a justification for domineering and exploiting animals. Humans are 'superior' primarily in terms of their capac

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