Furred and Feathered Friends

People can have deeply felt relationships with animals, their pets or even with animals in general. There is no particular word for the love of animals in any language. In the Buddhist scriptures the feeling and attitude we should cultivate towards animals is usually called compassion (karuṇā). However, they occasionally describe certain individuals of having love for (sinha) animals. [1] All Indian religions, but particularly Buddhism and Jainism, have long recognised that a tender kindness to animals is not just legitimate but actually a sign of a more all-inclusive love. If not actually love and compassion for animals, then at least some consideration towards them goes back a long way in human history. The Old Testament dictated that even working animals were to rest on the Sabbath. [2] A farmer was not allowed to muzzle the ox treading out his grain so as to allow it to nibble the straw as it laboured. [3] Such ideas probably had their origins in the fondness rural folk sometimes develop towards the animals that share their hardships and help sustain their lives. [4]

In India during the Buddha’s time people were generally kindly to animals. One stark exception to this were the Vedic sacrifices at which sometimes large numbers of animals were slaughtered. The scriptures record one such sacrifice at which “five hundred bulls, five hundred steers and numerous heifers, goats and rams were brought to the sacrificial post for slaughter”. [5] The Buddha repudiated the killing of animals at such religious rituals, the felling of trees to make the sacrificial posts and the threatening and beating of the slaves as they were driven to do the preparations “with tear-stained faces”. [6] In time protests from Buddhists and Jains led to animal sacrifice being phased out of Hinduism. In the West until fairly recently the welfare of animals was given little importance other than for economic reasons. Animal fights and sports such as bull and bear baiting, in which animals were abused and tormented, were popular entertainments well into the 19th century. The first advocates of laws to protect animals from such cruelty were looked upon with ridicule. Such behaviour has never been acceptable in places where Buddhism and Jainism have had an influence.

The Buddha considered animals to be inferior to humans in that they did not have the mental capacity to comprehend the Dhamma and that they exhibited only a rudimentary moral sense. Under monastic law murder is an offence entailing expulsion from the Sangha, while killing an animal has a much less drastic punishment. [7] But this does not mean that animal welfare is unimportant. On the contrary, animals’ inferior condition in such ways makes them extra worthy of sympathy and protection. They are as liable to pain as we are. The Jātakamāla highlights both of these points when it says: “Because animals are dull by nature we should therefore have sympathy for them. When it comes to desiring happiness and wishing to avoid pain, all beings are the same. Therefore, if you find something unpleasant you should not inflict it on others.” [8]

The Buddha recognised that cruelty, whether to animals or humans, sprung from the same defilements – callousness, spite, vengeance, and lack of empathy – and that it would have similar negative kammic consequences. Once he came across some children tormenting a snake. To make them stop he asked them: “My lads, are you afraid of pain? Do you dislike it?” They replied that they did and then he said to them: “If you are afraid of and dislike pain, do no evil either openly or in secret. If you are doing or intend to do evil, there will be no escape from pain by running away or fleeing.” [9] For the Buddha gentleness and kindness to all was a fundamental moral principle as well as being an essential step in an individual’s spiritual growth. The first requirement in the Buddhist code of moral discipline, the Five Precepts, is to “abstain from killing, to lay aside the stick and the sword and to live with care, empathy and kindly compassion for all living beings”. [10] Anyone who wants to be a wayfarer on the Noble Eightfold Path is asked “not to kill, encourage others to kill or approve of killing”. [11]

For the Buddha love and compassion were incomplete if they were not extended to all sentient beings. He even suggested that in certain circumstances kindness to animals might take precedence over human laws. Once a certain a monk found an animal caught in a trap and, feeling pity for it, released it. Customary law at that time considered a trapped animal to be the property of the hunter who had set the trap, and this monk was criticised by his fellows for theft. However, the Buddha exonerated him, saying that because he had acted out of compassion he had not committed any offence. [12]

While the Buddha considered animals to be on a lower spiritual plane than humans, he was observant enough to notice that they can sometimes set an example humans could do well to emulate. When a group of monks were quarrelling over some petty matter he remonstrated with them saying: “If animals can be courteous, deferential and polite towards each other, so should you be.” [13] On another occasion he observed dryly that an old jackal that was howling before sunrise had more gratitude than a particular monk he knew. [14] A young man named Pessa, an elephant trainer, once made an interesting observation on the difference between humans and animals. He said to the Buddha: “Humans are a tangle while animals are straightforward. While I am training an elephant, in the time it takes to go to Campa and back again it will try every trick, ruse, stratagem and dodge. But our slaves, messengers and servants do one thing, say another, and think something else.” [15] The Buddha agreed with this observation and one can imagine him shaking his head with sadness as he did so.

Pessa’s words are very true. While we can be very good at disguising our real feelings or faking feelings we do not really have, animals are quite open. If a dog does not like you, the curled lip that exposes his fangs leaves you in no doubt about it. If the cat has had enough of being stroked the twitching end of her tail or her low growling lets you know. Likewise, when our pets love us, they do not hold back in showing it. What could be more gratifying after coming home from a difficult day at work, your partner too busy in the kitchen to say anything more than a brief “hallo”, the kids so glued to the TV that they do not notice you, and then having the family dog rush up to you wagging his tail, jumping up on you and wanting to lick you?

This is one of the reasons some people find it easy to love their pets, sometimes as much as they love other people, because they display their affection so unreservedly, so undemandingly, and so spontaneously. Loving animals and being loved by them in return can be as healing and nourishing as loving other human beings. Research has shown that giving inmates of nursing homes and psychiatric institutions pets to look after has measurable positive effects on them. Even violent prisoners seem to lose some of their aggressiveness when they are given pets to look after.

Animals are not just passive recipients of human love and affection; some species can sense it and respond to it. Likewise, they can experience a variety of emotions towards humans. There are stories of pets who mourned for their dead owners. According to the apocryphal Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra, as word spread that the Buddha was about to pass away even animals gathered to grieve and to pay their last respects. Elephants brought lotuses in their trunks and bees brought blossoms to honour the Enlightened One. [16] Newspapers occasionally feature stories about dogs that save drowning children, cats that alert their sleeping owners to fires in the house, or dolphins that rescue floundering swimmers. Such stories are so common and widely reported that some at least have to be taken seriously. There is even some evidence that animals normally dangerous to humans can become mild if they sense that the human means them no harm or is unafraid of them.

Several incidents of this type are recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, the most famous being the story about the aggressive and unruly bull elephant Nalagiri. The Buddha’s jealous and unscrupulous cousin Devadatta schemed to have the Buddha killed by arranging for Nalagiri to be released into his path as he was out walking. Trumpeting and flapping his ears, Nalagiri charged. The Buddha radiated love towards it and, sensing this love and lack of alarm, the huge animal lost his aggressiveness and suddenly calmed down. He approached the Buddha, picked up some dust from the ground with his trunk and then sprinkled it on the Buddha’s head. [17]

Hearsay and folklore also tell us that animals are capable of gratitude towards humans. The early Buddhist scriptures contain several stories about people who helped animals that then helped the people in return. One such story is the Amba Jataka. Once, the Bodhisattva was born as a Brahman who, after he grew up, renounced the world and became the leader of a group of ascetics living in the foothills of the Himalayas. A terrible drought occurred in the mountain country so that all the water dried up and the animals suffered terribly as a result. Seeing this and moved by compassion, one ascetic cut down a tree, hollowed it into a trough and filled it with any water he could find. The animals came in droves to drink and the ascetic had to spend all his time finding water to keep the trough filled. Heedless of his own needs he toiled for the benefit of the forest creatures so much that he had no time to gather his own food. Seeing this, the animals met together and agreed amongst themselves to provide food for the ascetic and his fellows. Each time they came to drink they brought mangos, rose apples, breadfruit, and other wild fruit until it equalled to many wagon loads, enough for all the ascetics with some left over. [18] Of course the story is legendary but it almost certainly grew out of real experiences of animal gratitude.

I know from personal experience that there is some basis to stories about relationships between people and wild animals. Once I stayed for a few months in a Sri Lankan forest hermitage, the abbot of which was a noticeably kind and sage old man. Every day after breakfast he would go to a certain nearby tree and feed several dandu lena, a type of large squirrel. These animals would always come to meet the abbot, climb all over him, snuggle under his neck or in his robe and act in other clearly affectionate ways. That the squirrels’ fondness for the old abbot went beyond the food he gave them was demonstrated by the fact that for several weeks after he died, they would come when the other monks tried to feed them but take no food from them nor climb onto them. It looked very much like they felt a sense of loss at their friend’s absence.

Next to the leopard the most feared creature in the Sri Lankan jungle is the bear, a creature notorious for attacking without provocation. Once I visited the hermitage of a group of nuns, where the smiling abbess invited me into their small refectory, offered me a seat and then went into the kitchen to get me some water. As soon as she disappeared, I heard her sternly rebuking someone. Her tone contrasted so much with its benign gentleness of just moments before that I got up and peeped around the corner to see what the trouble was. There was the abbess wagging her finger at a huge bear. “I have told you before that you are not allowed to come in here,” she said in mock anger. “Now go home and come again after lunch.” She sternly pointed to the kitchen’s back door and the huge animal lumbered out and disappeared into the forest. When the abbess brought my water, I asked her about the bear. She told me the bear had been the nuns’ friend for several years and even came to show them her cubs when she had them. She occasionally raided the kitchen but this was more than compensated for by the fact that the woodsmen who used to lurk in the forest around the hermitage, and steal from it, stopped doing so. They were too frightened of the bear.

All the types of love examined so far and other types as well can be distinguished from one another by the strength of the love’s defining characteristics. Self-sacrificing love has empathy to a much greater degree than the love of strangers. The desire for intimacy in friendship love is less intense and less physical in focus than it is in romantic love. Conjugal and familial love are much more actively expressed than in stranger love simply because of the requirements of marital and family life. Furthermore, whatever love an individual does express will be moulded and shaped by their particular character. Some individuals are instinctively more caring, others less empathetic, and yet others more demonstrative or emotional. Each person loves in their own unique way.


  1. e.g. Ja.III,401. [back]
  2. Deuteronomy 22,12. [back]
  3. Idib. 23,25. [back]
  4. Christianity did little to develop these ideas. Jesus said nothing about kindness to animals and St. Paul dismissed the rule against muzzling the ox as pertaining to the welfare of humans not animals (1 Corinthians 9,9-10). Aquinas took a similar view, saying that cruelty to animals should be discouraged but only because it might encourage cruelty to humans. Of course, “official” theology did not always reflect ordinary people’s attitudes. W. E. H. Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, II, pp. 161-73 includes fascinating information about kindness to animals in the pagan West and in mediaeval Christendom. [back]
  5. A.IV,41. [back]
  6. A.II,207-8. [back]
  7. Vin.IV,124. [back]
  8. Jātakamāla 25, 25-6. [back]
  9. Ud.51. [back]
  10. D.I,4. [back]
  11. A.V,306. [back]
  12. Vin.III,62. [back]
  13. Vin.II,162. [back]
  14. S.II,272. [back]
  15. M.I,340. [back]
  16. Taisho Tripitaka Vol. XII, No. 374. [back]
  17. Vin.II,195-6. [back]
  18. Ja.I,450. [back]