By Sharon Callahan
Few religions or spiritual movements in history have had much to say about the spiritual destiny of the non-human creatures of the world. It has always seemed strange to me that these systems of theology have no place in them for those kingdoms of life that so vastly outnumber man. I suppose there are countless arguments as to why animals are not included in these philosophies, but they would have little meaning for a Buddhist.
Buddhism considers all of life to be evolving toward higher consciousness. To the Buddhist, any practice by which man sustains himself at the expense of other sentient beings is considered wrong. Buddhism considers non-human life to be Divine just as is human life. Animals are seen to be an evolving kingdom of living creatures destined in time to attain perfect enlightenment. All of life is seen to be one. According to this conviction, to harm any living thing is to do injury to the One Eternal and Divine Life. Since animals are considered to be traveling towards enlightenment just as man is, neither are they to be harmed, discouraged or hampered in their progress.
To accept the Buddhist point of view is to have a new spirit of compassion for any form of life that is weak, helpless or hurt. The Buddhist is fully aware that life itself cannot be destroyed, but to him this does not justify destroying or harming the forms through which life is presently expressing. It is believed that we have no right to injure for any reason.
Buddhists were the first to build hospitals for the care of sick and injured animals. Their purpose is to ease pain and suffering be it man's or beast's, for the same life is seen to dwell in each. Even today, many animals can be seen living in and around old temples. Tourists sometimes object to the presence of the animals, thinking they are unbecoming the spiritual surroundings. The old priests however, welcome and enjoy the company of these little creatures who are drawn to the temples for reasons not unlike their own.
There is a park in Japan called the Deer Park of Nara. It was set aside centuries ago as a sanctuary to the experience of the brotherhood of all living creatures. In this park, deer walk side by side with people in true companionship. The deer's natural qualities of graciousness, gentleness and dignity make them perfect messengers of the sacredness of life. It was in a deer park that Buddha preached his first sermon. In Buddhism, there is a mandara (sacred drawing) which depicts a deer standing on a white cloud with the Tree of Life above its head. Because the deer is considered the messenger of universal love, meditating upon this mandara is said to open one's consciousness to the mystery of infinite peace.
In a pond near the Deer Park, Japanese Buddhists purchase and release small living aquatic creatures in an ancient ceremony called "Hojo-e." The ceremony of liberating animals is an expression of atonement and piety. Small children come to the edge of the pond carrying a bowl containing a tiny goldfish. Parents and Grandparents stand by giving their blessings and encouragement as the children gently release the fish into the pond. In a flash of golden light the fish vanish. The children's faces are full of wonder, for they have given the gift of freedom as the fish swim among their companions in the natural wonder of the pond.
In the Japanese culture, association with animals is seen to be a very important experience for children because it teaches them the joy of protecting innocence. Just imagine what would happen if all the children of the world found happiness in graciously protecting life, preserving freedom, and delighting in the happiness of others. Children who are raised with such a loving and protective attitude towards animals are seldom cruel to them as adults, and thoughtfulness and kindness spill over into their interaction with all of life.
Animals are works of art more wondrous than anything man is capable of creating. How can we be gentle in the way we handle our material possessions and careless with the precious life of an animal? Animals long to have faith and trust in us, and often do have faith loyalty that far surpass anything in the human realm. Many a mistreated dog stands by his master for better or worse, and frightened or sick wild animals will often seek out the nearest human for help.
In the West, the belief that animals are evolving towards enlightenment and seek the comforts of spirituality and union with God would be considered an extreme perspective at best. It is interesting to note, however, that the birds and little creatures of the forest gathered at the feet of St. Francis of Assisi as he spoke to them of their Creator. His great mystic heart reached out to his "little brothers and sisters" as he called them, while on the other side of the world Buddhists selected the same terms to describe animals.