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I'm thinking a lot about the animal issue right now, and a question came to me. Are the five precepts universal? If so, are animals required to respect them? If not, what morals must animals follow? There is obviously a form of morality involved because, if I understand correctly, an animal can generate bad kamma and be reborn in an inferior realm.

Even if, according to this site, animals cannot generate good kamma?

(...) Animal behavior is also run by instinct, which means that animals cannot generate good karma, they are simply working off the bad. (...)

On Wikipedia, I read that :

(...) The Buddha expounded that sentient beings currently living in the animal realm have been our mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, children, friends in past rebirths. One could not, therefore, make a hard distinction between moral rules applicable to animals and those applicable to humans; ultimately humans and animals were part of a single family. They are all interconnected. (...)

So, how to understand the first precept? Does an animal like a lion, which kills another animal for food, generate bad kamma? I don't think so, because his intention is not bad. Does that mean that the first precept would only concern torture? For example, a dolphin that tortures his prey before eating it would generate bad kamma? But isn't it in the instinct of animals to do such things? A cat almost always tortures his prey before killing it.

In short, many questions, but I wondered if there were any Buddhist texts or philosophers who had spoken about the question of morality in other realms of existence, the animal realm in particular.

I read in "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics" of Peter Harvey, chap. Attitude to and treatment of the natural world, that :

(...) Buddhist Jataka 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). (...)

Would this mean that being a herbivore is a better rebirth, because it is easier to keep the precepts, where a carnivore is almost doomed to produce bad kamma and be reborn in an inferior realm?

(...) in one Jataka story, (...) the Buddha in a past life is said to have been a crane who only ate fish when he found them already dead (J. I.206–8). (...)

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If so, are animals required to respect them?

In some sense even "people" aren't "required" to respect them, but "you" are (see the Parable of the Saw).

One could not, therefore, make a hard distinction between moral rules applicable to animals and those applicable to humans

I read that as saying, "One should not kill a person and one also should not kill an animal" -- i.e. the topic is the moral rules for you to follow.

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The Buddha says little about the animal path. For example, we have:

AN1.365-367:1.1: “… the sentient beings who die as animals and are reborn as humans are few, while those who die as animals and are reborn in hell, or the animal realm, or the ghost realm are many.”

Interestingly, we ALSO have:

AN1.368-370:1.1: “… the sentient beings who die as animals and are reborn as gods are few, while those who die as animals and are reborn in hell, or the animal realm, or the ghost realm are many.”

The opportunity to practice the Noble Eightfold Path as a human is quite rare. Perhaps thinking too much about animals--one might die and end up as one. When I speak the Dhamma to my cat, she ignores me. But humans can hear and practice the Dhamma.

AN2.126:1.1: “There are two conditions for the arising of right view. What two? The words of another and proper attention.

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  • Amazing quotes! Thanks – Kalapa Apr 22 at 13:31
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(This is a strictly opinion based answer. You have been warned.)

The concept of rebirth has multiple meanings depending on person and context. It's very much prone to bring confusion.

I personally believe that rebirth only makes sense as a figure of expression regarding the process of how our intentions and actions adds to our perception of a self during a lifetime.

Therefore, i also believe that notions of animals/human realms or social status are metaphorical, and will only make sense once we see them as metaphors for the fruits of buddhist practice (or lack thereof), and not literal ontological claims.

I'll leave explanations based on the literal meaning of physical rebirth to those who believe that it's a existing phenomenon. The burden of evidence is on those who makes those claims.

Therefore, morality, or the five precepts can be understood as an affair that only concerns human beings. It should be obvious if one looks at what the precepts say.

I suppose the concept of karma for animals holds true to the extent that their actions bears consequences just like anything else in this conditioned world. However, claiming that animals has moral intent in the same vein as human beings becomes quite the stretch of imagination.

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Animals are quite cruel.

An animal of this or that kind is of the same elements as another animal of kind.

As one is cruel to another there is then also a tendency for cruelty for oneself because it is a not understanding the very same elements comprising both beings thats promts cruelty element.

It is the path of development of cruelty towards themselves and towards another that led them to be born in that bad place in the first place.

Their killing is unwholesome and further begets bad results. They can however do good things as well.

If they do good things then the good will eventually mature and they will attain a better state.

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Biological animals are not subject to the laws of kamma, as follows:

The human world is the world of intentional action. Human beings have very sophisticated levels of intention, which, in conjunction with their thought processes, allow them to achieve things which would be impossible for other animals. Although the lower animals, too, possess intention, it is limited to a nominal degree, being largely on the instinctual level.

Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto

In Buddhism, the word "animal' refers to a state of mind of people. For example, Angulimala was a 'animal' before the Buddha reformed him (see video). For example, the suttas say:

Bhikkhus, a god, a human or any other good state would not be evident from actions born of greed, hate and delusion. Yet, bhikkhus, from actions born of greed, hate and delusion a hellish being, an animal birth a ghostly birth or some other bad state would be evident. AN 6.39


Sooner, I say, would that blind turtle, coming to the surface once every hundred years, insert its neck into that yoke with a single hole than the fool who has gone once to the nether world would regain the human state. For what reason? Because here, bhikkhus, there is no conduct guided by the Dhamma, no righteous conduct, no wholesome activity, no meritorious activity. Here there prevails mutual devouring, the devouring of the weak. SN 56.47


Now on that occasion the wanderers of other persuasions had come together in a gathering and were sitting, discussing many kinds of bestial (animal) topics, making a great noise and racket. AN 10.93


Bhikkhus, these two bright principles protect the world. What are the two? Shame and fear of wrongdoing. If, bhikkhus, these two bright principles did not protect the world, there would not be discerned respect for mother or maternal aunt or maternal uncle’s wife or a teacher’s wife or the wives of other honored persons, and the world would have fallen into promiscuity, as with goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, dogs, and jackals. But as these two bright principles protect the world, there is discerned respect for mother… and the wives of other honored persons. AN 2.9

Thus the suttas also say people that behave like animals can stop doing so and realise the Four Noble Truths:

SN 56.120-123: Then the Buddha, picking up a little bit of dirt under his fingernail, addressed the monks: “What do you think, monks? Which is more: the little bit of dirt under my fingernail, or this great earth?”

“Venerable Sir, the great earth is certainly more. The little bit of dirt under your fingernail is tiny. Compared to the great earth, it cannot be reckoned or compared, it’s not even a fraction.”

“In the same way,

SN 56.120: “… the beings who fall away (cutā) from the animal state (tiracchānayoniyā) and are re-categorized (paccājāyanti) as humans are few...”

SN 56.123: “… the beings who fall away from the animal state and are re-categorized as gods are few...”

SN 56.131: "...Why is that? Because... [those former animals have]... seen the Four Noble Truths..."

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  • I think you shouldn't have deleted the word "not" in the last sentence -- the sutta SN 56.131 says "Adiṭṭhattā" -- i.e. "not seen". So I think that the suttas are saying that "most beings (e.g. animals etc.) fall away (to a lower realm) because they haven't seen the 4NT". And logically I'm not sure that should be understood as evidence that all beings (especially animals) are able to see them. – ChrisW Apr 25 at 0:12
  • What rationale do you have for your "thinking"? You appear to have neglected how the sutta applies to the "few". Why don't you ask Sujato to comment, who just made a post on the forum? Thanks – Dhammadhatu Apr 25 at 0:13
  • The way in which you choose to interpret the sutta doesn't bother me much, I've heard it from you before of course. But I thought you maybe shouldn't misquote the literal text: the sutta says "not seen". You might interpret that as meaning that "a few see" but that's not what the sutta literally says, and your formatting your interpretation as if it were a direct quote like that does bother me some. – ChrisW Apr 25 at 0:20
  • Unlike you, I am a Buddhist. I don't deliberately slander sutta nor take refuge in puthujjana scholars. My formatting & interpretation accords with the probable meaning. How many times have I shown your views to be wrong? How many? All of this time, and you are yet to taste the flavour of the soup. – Dhammadhatu Apr 25 at 0:20
  • The sutta quoted uses the same metaphor as the following sutta: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn13/sn13.001.than.html , where the larger & smaller apply to good & bad. It appears you are wrong, ChrisW, again. How long must you doubt? – Dhammadhatu Apr 25 at 0:28

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