The world of animals is really a slaughterhouse: they are constantly killing each other and being killed by humans. In addition, animals like cows and horses are restrained, whipped and enslaved by humans; they are completely without any independence. The suffering of animals is second only to that in the hells.
–Venerable Yin-Shun, “The Way to Buddhahood“
My daughter has a pet goldfish that we won at a Japanese festival this summer, but lately the goldfish has been ill and is swimming upside-down which is a common problem with goldfish.
We are trying to help the goldfish so I went to a local pet store here in the US to get some different food and supplies. At the pet store there were many tanks of fish. Some tanks were very crowded (others were normal). Betta fish were in very small containers (some had already died) on a shelf and the goldfish tank had too many fish in it. The goldfish were fighting with each other, and I saw some goldfish eating other goldfish that had died. The rest of the goldfish swam toward me, because they thought I would bring food to them, and when I moved to a different spot, they followed me.
Seeing all this made me feel very sad for the fish. I said a quick, quiet Buddhist-style prayer to the dead fish when no one was looking hoping they would be born in the Pure Land. It might seem silly, but I just felt bad for the fish, because their whole life had been kind of meaningless.
That evening, I thought about the quote above from Yin-Shun’s book. I haven’t read this book in years, but I still think it was one of the best (and longest) books on Buddhism I ever read.
In Buddhism, there are 6 general states of rebirth after people die: gods (devas), people, asuras (similar to gods), animals, hungry ghosts and hell. The last 3 are called the “3 evil states” because they’re the worst. Within each state, there is a lot of variety, but the basic state is the same. There are many kinds of “hell” described in Buddhism but they’re all terrible. There are many kinds of people, but some are very rich, some are very poor. Some are very smart, some are very stupid. And so on. But all of them have to work to live, and have to grow old and die.
Same with animals. There are many kinds of animals, big and small, but they all struggle to survive. Even goldfish will eat each other if hungry enough.
Yin-Shun also wrote:
One day, when Śākyamuni Buddha was the crown prince, he went to the fields to observe farming. He saw the farmers working very hard at plowing, whipping their oxen to the point of bleeding. The blood dripped to the soil where worms quickly gathered. After the field was plowed, the worms were eaten by birds. When the prince saw all the suffering, killing, and devouring among animals, he felt great compassion for sentient beings [all life]. He made his great vow to leave home and begin religious practice. Ordinary people not only have no such awareness or sympathy for sentient beings, they even eat them. How different are they from animals? (pg. 68)
Something to think about.
P.S. For the record, I am not a vegetarian, but I do think it’s something important to think about.
Update: After writing this post, my daughter’s goldfish died the following morning. 😦 We buried it in the backyard and my daughter put a little seashell over it.