When practitioners set foot on a spiritual path, we want to bring our whole selves—our ethics and values, our commitments to social and environmental justice, and our embodied interbeing with all animal and plant species, water-bodies and air-bodies, soil and rock. Yet when it comes to multispecies relations, a diversity of practices appear: some Buddhist communities and cultures follow a vegan or vegetarian practice, while others do not. Like every part of the dharma, exploring the multispecies sangha provides practice in releasing attachment to view (and its co-arising righteous self-identity) and committing to the precepts.
Since its founding in 1978, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) has offered a channel for dharma practitioners whose practice links social, environmental, and species justice, yet multispecies justice has not often been at the forefront of BPF. To provide that consistent focus, Buddhists Concerned for Animals formed in 1982, and grew into Dharma Voices for Animals, a robust international organization that includes well-known practitioners such as vegan author Will Tuttle, and dharma teacher Tara Brach, whose talks on “Compassion for Non-Human Animals” and “Compassion Towards All: Moving Toward a Plant-Based Diet” clearly link dharma teachings and practices with all sentient beings.
Other esteemed dharma practitioners have a different standpoint. Even the Dalai Lama is not strictly vegetarian, stating that “it is all right to have meat of dead animals, not those slaughtered or purposefully killed for meat”—a teaching attributed to the Buddha in his guidance for monastics. Interpreted for western industrial societies, this guideline might follow Peter Singer’s animal rights standpoint, which endorses eating road-killed animal bodies (i.e., deer, squirrels, racoons) but not hunting, raising, purchasing or consuming the bodies of animals raised and killed for human consumption.
Framing this diversity of dharma perspectives, Buddhist and ecofeminist philosopher Deane Curtin spent two years studying with the Dalai Lama, and continues to describe his own practice as contextual moral veganism, an ethical interspecies perspective sensitive to cultural and circumstantial contexts. “Economically well-off persons in technologically advanced countries,” along with “persons who have a choice” of “what they will count as food,” Curtin explains, are ones most responsible for using their privilege to embody nonviolence, and practice non-harming through their diets.
Entering this diversity of Buddhist perspectives, I write as a human-bodied animal for readers who are also human-bodied animals, exploring a mindful ecofeminist perspective on what I call the multispecies sangha–our spiritual and ecological community of belonging and right relationships. Ecofeminism is a lens that illuminates how the conceptual divisions between humans (whether by race, gender, class, sexuality, age, ability, or nation) are often mapped onto and reinforce divisions between privileged and the other beings who share this planet. Ecofeminists recognize that in many industrialized cultures, each human-human division reinforces other divisions: racism reinforces speciesism; sexism and classism are co-constituted; sexuality, race, and species are interlinked in devaluations of all kinds involving power, political decision-making, self-determination, and economic well-being.
Awake in the Multispecies Sangha
In Minneapolis where I live and write, our human community has awakened as never before to the vast injustices of race and class, illuminated by the murder of George Floyd, whose dying words are only the most recent of at least 70 people who have died in U.S. law enforcement custody, pleading “I can’t breathe.” In the U.S., Black people have been “treated like animals” for centuries, as Julia Feliz Brueck explains in Veganism of Color: Decentering Whiteness in Human and Nonhuman Liberation: “animalization . . . is a tactic often employed to otherize marginalized groups.” Her volume advances a “veganism of color” that “rejects all forms of oppression and supremacy,” because “all oppression is wrong and interconnected.” As a euro-american ecofeminist, I write in conversation with the larger community of antiracist, social, environmental and interspecies justice perspectives and texts such as Aph and Syl Ko’s Aphro-Ism, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, and A. Breeze Harper’s Sistah Vegan. While the focus here brings a mindful ecofeminist perspective to cultivate awareness within a multispecies sangha, that sangha emerges from mindful attention to intersectional justice within and across all species.
To begin this exploration, I suggest we bring mindful attention to the primary ways many human-animals encounter other animal species, who are
- confined in zoos, experimented on in laboratories, slaughtered to make our clothing and furniture, confined and forced to perform for us in circuses and rodeos;
- produced as “food”—whether on factory farms, through small locavore farms, or through hunting (fishing, shooting, bow-hunting, trapping, baiting);
- under our power as “pets” (for human-owners control these animals’ diets, sexuality, reproduction, companions, range of movement, life and death);
- influenced by our behaviors of transit, building, consumption and waste in our homes & garages, streets, skies, lakes, and wildlands.
What guidance can the dharma offer us in our relations with other animal species? With at least six clear guiding principles, the dharma helps promote clear seeing and right relationships.
First, the Brahmaviharas (heavenly abodes) of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion) give us a clear path to happiness for ourselves and others, as stated in the Metta Sutta:
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Being at ease is not congruent with being hunted, confined, stunned, drugged, separated from family, or slaughtered. How could we keep separate this beautiful wish for lovingkindness, and our current practices of citizen vs. undocumented, or human-nonhuman animal relations? Such dualisms are incompatible with the dharma.
In effect, the strategy we use to maintain this separation of values from behaviors is delusion, one of the three root defilements or poisons (the others are grasping and aversion) that keep sentient beings trapped in the cycle of suffering. Of these three defilements, delusion is seen as the root cause. It is our wrong understanding, or wrong view of reality, our inability to understand conditions free of perceptual distortions. The antidote for overcoming delusion involves cultivating wisdom, insight, and right understanding, experiencing reality just as it is. Practicing mindfulness in our relations with other animal species—in all the ways that we encounter them—offers the second guiding principle in our multispecies sangha, offering a strong foundation for choosing behaviors and practices that dissolve delusion, grasping, and aversion, and move us closer toward ending suffering for all beings.
A third strategy involves using the Precepts to illuminate our relations with other species, and I draw particularly on three precepts. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s For a Future to be Possible, the first precept, to refrain from killing becomes reverence for life. He writes,
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
When we buy animal bodies as food, we are effectively hiring and affirming the practices of those who breed, confine, medicate, mutilate, transport, and slaughter these animals. If we continue to pay for the products of animal suffering, we are indeed promoting and responsible for their suffering, practices that are not in accordance with the first precept. We can remember the purposes of consumer boycotts, used by social and environmental justice activists as a strategy for withdrawing funding from products and practices we find unethical. As members of a multispecies sangha, we can cultivate compassion by withdrawing funding from practices that require killing other sangha members.
A mindful consumer’s boycott of animal suffering leads clearly to the second precept, to refrain from stealing or not taking that which is not freely given, as explained by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. …I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
We can be fairly certain that mothers do not freely give their offspring to be confined, chained at the neck, deprived of nutrition and affection, dropped into plastic bags and ground up, slaughtered, or taken into reproductive slavery. We can be fairly certain that most mammal mothers want to give their milk to feed their newborns, and not have their offspring torn away from them or sold at only a day-old to be confined in veal crates for four months until slaughter, while their mother’s nourishing milk is stolen to feed adults of a different species. Instead, as the Metta Sutta suggests,
…Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world.
The animals whose bodies we eat, wear, or sit on most likely did not “give” their skin and flesh for us to use; it was stolen from them.
Practicing the second precept of not stealing includes the first-precept practice of not killing and also not stealing the lives and offspring of other species, whose artificial production via forced insemination can be seen as sexual misconduct, a third precept that Buddhist practitioners vow to refrain from practicing or supporting. As Thich Nhat Hanh describes the precept of sexual misconduct—“Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society”—this awareness easily includes our multispecies sangha.
Recognizing our own inter-being with other animal species and other lives, we move closer to understanding anatta (not-self), one of the three qualities of existence, the understanding of which brings peace. In effect, separating humans from other animals is itself a product of delusion: it suggests humans are not animals, and gives rise to a false sense of self (and attachment to selfhood) as separate and superior to other animal beings.
The suffering and death of other animals is linked with the suffering of many others, illuminating the principle of dependent origination.
For example, the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers co-arises with the slaughter of other species, for it is not possible to slit the throats of up to 900 sentient beings per hour, slip on bloody floors, be kicked in the face by conscious animals dragged along a conveyor belt without being physically and psychologically harmed. According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s “Safety and Health Guide for the Meatpacking Industry,” operational hazards for workers (who are often recent immigrants and/or non-native speakers of English) include amputations, eye injuries, fractures, cuts, falls, exposure to toxic substances, upper respiratory irritation and damage, and more. This multispecies dukkha is also linked to environmental harm.
From the United Nations’ report on Livestock’s Long Shadow (2006) to Paul Hawken’s Drawdown (2017), repeated research studies confirm that the meat industry promotes climate change (through greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide), ranking plant-rich diets at #3 of Drawdown’s top 100 solutions to climate change. Environmentalists report that production of a meat-based diet requires more than ten times the water required for a totally vegetarian diet, and is responsible for deforesting 55 square feet of Amazon rainforest per single hamburger. Meat and dairy consumption have been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, various cancers, diabetes, and obesity. Then there’s the waste: farmed animals produce 130 times as much excrement as does the entire U.S. human population. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, through run-off from factory farms, the suffering of animal-bodies spreads to water-bodies, polluting rivers and lakes more than all other industrial sources combined.
With the advent of COVID-19, we recognize how cross-species virus transmissions (“zoonosis”) can produce pandemics such as AIDS and HIV, SARS, Ebola, swine flu and bird flu–all influenced by human intrusions into wildlife habitat, and the consumption of wild or “exotic” species, hastening species extinctions and pandemics alike. Through humans’ practices of consuming other species, these linked crises of coronavirus, climate change, and species extinctions illuminate the fifth dharma principle for the multispecies sangha, dependent origination.
At the root of dependent origination is delusion, the view that our actions will somehow avoid the outcomes of actions. Instead of being guided by delusion, mindful Buddhist practitioners need a sixth dharma principle, the discerning practices of skillful behavior.
Buddhist morality offers us excellent tools for understanding animal suffering. Instead of the terms “right/wrong,” Buddhists talk about discernment and skillful behaviors, meaning those choices and actions that move us in a direction that reduces suffering. In our lifetimes, we might not achieve a destination wherein all suffering has ended, but we can certainly make choices that move in that direction. Buddhist morality also emphasizes the difference between judgment and discernment: while judgment has a punitive flavor and creates a separation within oneself, or between self and other, discernment does not rely on a separate self. Instead, it simply encourages clear seeing in choosing skillful actions.
Mindful Ecofeminism and Womanism
Ecofeminism is an ethical-political-spiritual practice that fits well with Buddhist perspectives on the Brahmaviharas, the three poisons, the precepts, dependent origination, the qualities of existence, and the practices of discernment and skillful behavior.
Instead of “ecofeminism,” Alice Walker created the term “womanist” to mean a “black feminist or feminist of color,” “committed to survival and wholeness,” who “loves the Spirit” and “loves herself. Regardless.” At the opening of her dharma talk for an African American Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock, Walker describes the toll of slavery, quoting a story about
White masters [who] raped black slave women who bore their children . . . . George Slaughter [was] a white farmer’s son by a black woman, who came to a horrible death because he “didn’t keep his place.” Ambushed by white men, including his own father, he was shot while riding his horse because the saddle horse was “too fine.” The story goes that when he was found, “the horse was drinking his blood.”
At the conclusion of her talk, Walker guides practitioners in offering a metta meditation for this multiracial, multispecies sangha: for the young man, George Slaughter; for George’s mother; for George’s father-owner; for those who rode with the father; and for the horse George was riding.
Through mindfulness, practitioners cultivate the capacity to turn toward suffering—our own suffering and the suffering of others, seeing these as linked. Through loving-kindness, through the precepts, through mindfulness of the effects of our actions on others, and through awareness of our fundamental interbeing, our practice cultivates a soft heart.
With this practice, may all beings in this multispecies sangha—all species, races, genders–be happy, peaceful, free.