While some other popular doctrines not just encourage but require animal sacrifice, Buddhism goes out of its way to promote love and respect towards all living creatures. Making no reference to a creator or any hierarchical system between man and beast, it instead encourages people to attempt to create a world in which humans can coexist harmoniously with animals.
It doesn’t try to pretend that animals don’t feed off each other or that there’s not a huge amount of purposeless suffering within the animal kingdom. But, as a human philosophy, it reaches out to the rationale and the ability to reason of each person to make a conscious decision to lessen that suffering for all beings wherever possible.
Animals in Buddhism are not seen as being inferior to mankind. While human beings have a much more developed intellect, Buddhism makes a conscious effort to draw attention to the skills that animals have that humans don’t. It reminds us that, in many aspects, we are inferior to way may seem even the simplest animals, including common household pets – for instance, a dog’s sense of smell is far more developed than that of any person.
That is a popular example because humans have connected so closely with dogs and so it can demonstrated even in people’s own homes, but parallels can be drawn with almost any animal. While the application of man’s intellect has made human beings dominant in most habitats, placed in an unfamiliar environment very few people would last especially long.
While Buddhism doesn’t give its lay followers specific orders to stick by, Buddhist monks often exist on strict vegetarian – sometimes even vegan – diets. This comes from the level of respect Buddhists show the creatures with which we share our world.
Using an animal for its milk or fur or skills can be seen as a great disrespect if that animal is treated unfairly. Keeping hens in cages or repeatedly impregnating cows or spoiling the genetic development of dogs would all cause animals the kind of harm that Buddhists steer clear of.
Living harmoniously with animals, however, in a situation that benefits both does justify the use of animal products. Of course, this does not make it acceptable in Buddhist terms to harm or abuse animals or to obtain their resources in any way that is cruel or hurtful to them. That means that elephant ivory would be considered hugely immoral. It harms the animal cruelly and doesn’t serve any real purpose beyond decoration. But the use of wool for clothing, for instance, if you care for and offer comfort and shelter to the animal from which you get it, would not be considered so great an injustice.
Because Buddhism allows its followers a fair amount of flexibility, eating meat can be considered morally justifiable in specific circumstances. When the animal is treated kindly and does not suffer, when other food sources are scarce. Its relatively allows people to make their own judgements in their own situations.
Its overall teachings, however, remain clear.
Killing or harming for fun or enjoyment is never okay. The same way as you would not consider it ethical to hurt another person for your own entertainment, ‘sports’ like fox hunting that have the suffering of an animal as its primary goal would fall well beyond the limits of Buddhist morality.
Treating animals with respect, dignity and above all love is always of the utmost importance.
Love towards all beings is at the heart of Buddhism and the understand that, like every one of us, animals too have the right to a life as free of suffering as this world can offer.