The Animal Realm

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.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “The Animal Realm”

  1. Sorry to hear about your daughter’s gold fish.
    Was just watching a documentary the other night on the next-smartest animals on the planet, killer whales. Apparently, each family of killer whales only hunts a specific creature. This was used to explain why a human diver could swim in the water with killer whales hunting for stingrays with impunity. Of course, they also explained that killer whales have never been known to hunt humans. The documentary was very interesting in the way it explained killer whales’ hunting techniques. The part that bothered me the most probably was knowing that killer whales are, in fact, large dolphins and one segment showed them hunting dolphins. The equivalent was, perhaps, humans hunting small monkeys. This apparently happens among primates, as chimpanzees will hunt and kill smaller monkeys.

    The point of your story about the Buddha seeing even vegetarian meals stained by bloodshed is perhaps a criticism of vegetarians, including the Jains, who later became particular about eating only certain plant life. Rather than taking the Jain solution of only eating certain fruits, I think those of us who are not ready to give up a diet of meat & vegetables should adopt a different mindset. For me, every time I eat, that’s my bodhisattva vow. It is not enough to avoid the ending of life in order to eat for a single life time (which is almost impossible unless one adopts the near-starvation mindset of the Jains), but that I should be grateful for every life sacrificed such that I may subsist and to aspire for Buddhahood as quickly as possible in order that I may help as many others achieve escape from Samsara and (contrary to Shakyamuni Buddha in the MahaPairiNibbana Sutta, who told Ananda he would not stay in the world because Ananda did not ask him soon enough) stick around in order to liberate as many as I can.

    I’m sure your other vegetarian/vegan readers will disagree with me and I will defer to them, as I know what I am capable in this life time and that level of commitment (eating only certain fruits) is not what I am capable of (currently).


    1. Hi Eric,

      Sorry for the late reply. I think the point of the Buddha story is to make a best-effort as much as possible. Knowing that life is still killed, even when you grow eat/grow vegetables is definitely humbling, or when someone cooks for you you certainly don’t want to refuse. But, with that said, i still try to eat vegetarian where possible as a gesture of respect. Especially after seeing the poor fish in the tank, I kind of moved me.

      Thanks for the condolences.


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