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The Animal Realm

Part 1: Existence Has Many Forms

Sentient beings manifest as animals by the billions.  They range in size from microscopic bacteria to gigantic sea creatures, and like other forms of existence, they have the potential for Enlightenment.  

As the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, Greece (460-377 BCE) recognized, "The soul is the same in all living creatures; only the body is different."  

  • Relatively unchanged for 11,000,000 years, learn about the Laotian Rock Rat at

  • Menu of the various animals.

Can an Animal Be a Bodhisattva?

Like all beings, Buddha Shakyamuni experienced existence in many different forms before he attained his Awakened state. Motivated by compassion, he recounts these lives in Jataka Tales in order to teach on many different themes. Although many of his former lives were as a nobleman, he also experienced the animal realm from the perspective of both predator and prey.

Many of the animal tales in the Buddhist tradition are derived from even earlier folktales and fables that became "framed" as Jatakas.  Several speak of a time long past when animals did not live in fear and could observe the 5 precepts of right behaviour. 

Beings of the upper realms can derive direct benefit from the teachings of a teacher, either in person or through his or her writings, but for the others -- ghosts, hell beings and animals -- it is a different matter.  So, unless a being has the opportunity to come in contact with, or benefit from Buddha-dharma in other ways, it is likely that the conditions for samsara will continue for him or her (or it.)

Fortunately, there are enlightened beings who have undertaken to work on the behalf of every one until all realms of samsara have been emptied. These include the great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas such as Tara and Avalokiteshvara (Caring Lord of the World; Chenrezi, in Tibetan.)  For example, as the Noble Horse-lord, Chenrezi, Bodhisattva of Compassion, assumes the form of a marvelous beast.

Extraordinary people such as the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama are considered emanations of Chenrezi.  In fact, it was the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa who, in order to benefit the beings of this world, was the first person to give accurate indications of his subsequent rebirth.  He did this so that his students would be able to find him, and thus instituted the custom of the tulku in Himalayan Buddhism.

  • The 13th Karmapa (18th C.) was known for his ability to teach animals.  He is depicted with his rabbit (or, hare?) listening attentively to a teaching [zoom in at rt.]

Enlightened Animal?

In Gems of Dharma, Jewels of Freedom, Gampopa spoke of Eight Unfavorable States: 

"To be in a hell-state, to be a deprived spirit, an animal, a savage, a long-living god, to be someone with fixed aberrant views, one born in a time without buddhas, or to be a person with a severe understanding impediment." Regarding potential for enlightenment in animal forms, he explains that "animals are subject to a predominant and wide-ranging confusion." 

And they are easily misled, for example, 

A wild dog with honey rubbed on its nose 
Madly devours whatever it sees; 
Give the Lama's secret to a worldly fool 
And his mind and the lineage burn out. 
For a responsive man with knowledge of unborn reality 
A mere glimpse of the Lama's vision of pure light-form, 
Destroys mental fiction like an elephant berserk 
Rampaging through hostile ranks with a sword lashed to its trunk.

~ Intro. to Keith Dowman's "Life of Luipa" in Buddhist Masters of Enchantment.

So, though it is not impossible for them, Awakening or Enlightenment is much less likely for an animal than for a human being. 

Surf ’n Turf

Many Buddhists are vegetarian. Those who are not can be mindful and limit their consumption of meat of all kinds. To a person who understands existence from the perspective of the Wheel of Rebirth, there is no hierarchy of animal forms. A shrimp or a steer are each the embodiment of a consciousness with the potential for Enlightenment. Therefore, many Tibetans will not eat a meal of a multitude of creatures when they can manage with part of a single one.

When, on a restaurant outing that included a Tibetan monk, one lady remarked that she preferred not to eat meat.  She ordered a shrimp dish instead.  The monk, regarding her neat plate, said softly, "So many lives!"

Not to take a life is the fundamental Buddhist precept.  Those whose cultural context or circumstances includes the eating of flesh are enjoined to avoid occupations that include the slaughter of animals. They must also not cause any animal to be killed for their own benefit, either. Hence, the food must come to them at least third-hand.

We can all say prayers dedicating our food to the benefit of others, and those of us who eat animals can also say Om Mani Padme Hum, the Mantra of Compassion for the welfare of those whose bodies nourish us.

Animal Symbolism

At the hub of the Wheel of Rebirth (or, the Wheel of Existence) are the 3 Poisons in the form of symbolic animals. The boar (wild pig,) which will eat almost anything and is reputed to derive extended pleasure from the sex act, stands for desire; the serpent, which can be unpredictably deadly, stands for anger, and the cock, which will crow even at a bright moon and runs even with its head removed, is characteristic of ignorance or delusion.

Specific animals have been used in all cultures to stand for the various aspects of human nature. The great Buddhist teacher, Shantideva (fl. 700 CE) for example, says:

If this elephant of mind is bound on all sides by the cord of mindfulness, all fears disappear and complete happiness comes. All [those] enemies - all the tigers, lions, elephants, bears, serpents [resident in our mind as the various emotions] and all the keepers of hell; the demons and the horrors - all of these are bound by the mastery of your mind. And by the taming of that one mind, all are subdued because from the mind are derived all fears and immeasurable sorrows.

There is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist chart of progress in the stages of "Taming the Mind". Other descriptions of meditation technique compare the mind’s erratic behaviour to a monkey or a hare. 

When is an animal not an animal?

In the mythology of the world, descriptions of gods and goddesses with animal characteristics serve to remind us of the common character of all beings while emphasizing the essential activity of the specific deity.

Animal Heads

There are animal-headed figures carved in Saharan rocks that date from at least 9,000 years Before the Present.  For example, in the Libyan desert a dog-headed figure was found not far from the mummified body of a child.

We know that this symbolic short-hand that is referred to as zoo-cephalic was later used in pharaonic Egypt to represent the deities.  At the immediate left we see Hathor* (shown with a cow's head,) a cobra-headed deity, and a third figure that seems to have the head of a hare. 

This convention is also prevalent in other cultural contexts.

The ancient Egyptians used four special containers for the inner organs of a mummified body.  Except for the human-headed one, these canopic jars have lids in the form of the heads of a baboon, a hawk and a jackal.  They represent respectively: Thoth, god of wisdom, Horus, god of renewal, and Anubis, lord of the dead. 

Vishnu, the Hindu deity, has a Lion-headed avatar*.  This form appears in the cosmic vision that is revealed by Krishna to the hero Arjuna, in the Indian epic, Mahabharata.

The 8 Tibetan Buddhist female deities of the after-death bardo also appear in zoöcephalic forms.  Also, animal heads are characteristic of some of the protector deities of Tibetan Buddhism, such as bull-headed Yamantaka, a form of Manjushri, and Hayagriva, the Horse-Headed Lord, a semi-wrathful form of Chenrezi (Avalokiteshvara.)

One version of the founding of Tibet concerns Chenrezi who takes the form of a monkey in order to consort with a terrifying ogress (some say she was Tara in disguise,) whose specific domain was that high plateau. Eventually, they had 9 children, "red-faced flesh-eaters," who are depicted as animal-headed humans -- the 9 Masang brothers.

In Newari (Nepalese Buddhist) culture, there is a set of four of these animal-faced deities: Hayashya the horse face, Sukarasya the sow face, Svanasya the dog face and Simbasya with a lion face. Each one rules a cardinal direction in the mandala that is the city of Katmandu. Hayashya guards the eastern gate, Sukarasya the south, Svanasya protects the west and Simbasya is at the northern gate. They are fierce in appearance, dancing on corpses in the nude but for their ornaments that include garlands of severed heads. Each one carries a katri [ritual flaying knife] in her right hand and a kapala [skull bowl] in the left.

Ganapati or Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant is an Indian deity that also appears  in Himalayan Buddhism.  

Part 2: Animals Associated with Buddha

Three quadrupeds are especially associated with stages in the life of the "historical Buddha." They are, the elephant, the horse and the deer. The elephant plays a role in the earthly conception of the Buddha. The horse reminds us of his renunciation of his royal estate and worldly aspirations. The deer symbolizes his first sermon which took place in a royal deer park.


In the oldest Egyptian myth, a hawk is the Creator.  On the Pacific northwest coast of North America, Raven fulfills that role. This focus on birds may remind you of Noah who sends his bird-messengers out to see if there is any evidence of dry land. And that may make you think of other Old Testament myths such as the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a "whale."

To buy an accurate English translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew "Old Testament") where the two different stories about Noah and the Ark can clearly be distinguished, and many other familiar tales appear.  You will also be able to compare this text with the translations that are in more general use.

The Hindu god, Vishnu, once took the form of a giant Fish. The Boar is another one of his avatars. This kind of manifestation has a related but essentially distinctive function in the form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet.

Virtue, benevolence and generosity can also manifest in animal form. To the aboriginal people of the North American plains appeared White Buffalo [Bison] Calf Woman, one of the forms of the Pale Shining One.


The unpredictability that is the essence of deity may find expression as a wily animal, both in mythology and in literature. And the animal form is also used as a metaphor for certain less praiseworthy qualities of the human character. In literature, this finds expression in short poems or stories that focus on motivation and behaviour known as fables, like those of Aesop (The Fox and the Grapes) or Lafontaine’s The Grasshopper and the Ants.

In the Indian context, Hindu and Buddhist, there is a collection of folktales called the Panchatantra (meaning, Five Books.) Many are more profound than fables though, and a number of these stories have become part of the European "fairy tale" tradition.

The more than 800-year old European cycle of Reynard the Fox may derive from ancient totemic stories. Those are the traditional tales about a clan's sacred animal ancestor, benefactor -- the totem. (Often, when an animal is specifically forbidden as food, this reflects an ancient totemic relationship.)

Creators in the world's many mythologies are often Tricksters, which considering the uncertain nature of existence, is certainly not surprising. Besides the raven, and the fox, they can appear as a coyote, a spider, a hare, or any other animal whose behaviour is especially puzzling or devious.

The Easter Bunny plays a small role today, but the lively and prolific hare has long been a symbol of rebirth and fertility. It was integrated into Euro-American culture from the lunar Hare associated with the Saxon (European) goddess, Estra, whose name gives us the word for the female hormone, estrogen.

Where cultures mix, the social situation can be revealed in animal tales. It is significant that in Joel Chandler Harris' Tales from Uncle Remus that consists of West African tales retold in North America, the Northern trickster generally loses out to the Southern one:  Br'er Rabbit bests Br'er Fox by means of patience and cunning. The Looney Tunes cartoon character, Bugs Bunny, is his direct descendent.

The Specialists

Animals are also thought to exemplify a kind of primordial wisdom, and are often offered as examples for humans to follow.  For example, the renowned teacher Atisha, saying that it is not possible for one person in a lifetime to learn everything, uses the example of the skillful water-duck.   In that part of the world, the water-duck is believed to have such a refined ability with its bill that it can even strain the milk from a mixture with water.  Choose one thing, therefore, and master that, said the great teacher.

Animals and Ethics

It is often said that a culture or a nation may be judged by how it treats its helpless or dependent members.  Animals fall into this class.  The quality of treatment that members of the animal realm receive serves as a moral litmus test of a culture.  This always poses a problem since we need animals for food and to help in our work.

In the West our attitude derives from scripture. The Old Testament tells how Adam is given the honor of naming the animals, which places him firmly in distinction from them. In The New Testament, though Luke’s account of Jesus' nativity tells of the devotion of the ox and the ass, Christian doctrine generally holds that animals do not possess "an immortal soul."

The Far East, on the other hand, has a 12-year calendar system in which each year is named for an animal:  rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog and pig.  The twelve are said to be those which came to attend Buddha when he passed into Nirvana.  

  Tiger, monkey, rooster, hare & rat

"The ox, rabbit, rat, and tiger traveled together to the mountains and when it was too cold the ox carried the rabbit and rat on its back through the mountains and down to the sea. The tiger and the rabbit decided to walk around the sea and faced many dangers and hardships. But with the luck of the rabbit and the strength of the tiger, they reached the Jade City finishing fourth and third."

  • In a Tang dynasty (China, 618-906 CE) tomb, the 12 are depicted as animal-headed people.

  • The twelve animals that "rule" the years of the eastern 60-year cycle are also depicted that way in the Tibetan cosmic chart, where each one bears a leafy branch in its right, and a ripe fruit in its left, hand. 

The Four Friends

In one of the Buddha's previous lifetimes, in the forest of Kashika, there lived four noble beings: a bird, a monkey, a rabbit, and an elephant. The four, who drank at the same spring, soon became friends.

One day they decided that it would be proper to show the greatest deference to the eldest among them. To determine their respective ages, each one recalled the height of a nearby nyagrodha (ficus bengalensis) tree when he had first seen it.

The elephant said, "I must be the oldest. I remember that when I was born the shadow of the tree fell across my body."

The monkey said, "I must be older than the elephant. When I was born the tree was the same size as me."

The rabbit said, "I must be older than either of you. When I was born, the seed of the tree was just sprouting; I took a young leaf and ate it."

The bird said, "I must be older than any of you. When I was born I ate the fruit of a tree south of this spring. The seed of the nyagrodha tree passed through my body as waste, so I planted it."

The four then showed each other respect accordingly: The elephant placed the bird on the crown of his head, the rabbit on his neck, and the monkey on his back. Then the bird said, "Now we must keep the five basic disciplines throughout our lives." 

This they did, and to insure that all other beings did the same, the bird initiated all those with wings, the elephant initiated all those with fangs, the rabbit initiated all those with paws, and the monkey initiated all those with fur.

The peace that then pervaded the kingdom was so great that the king and his ministers felt its effects and began congratulating themselves. The king thought that it was his wise Dharma rule which was causing the kingdom to prosper. The queen thought that good fortune was due to the royal couple's lack of sexual misconduct. And the princes thought it was due to the respect they showed their parents; while the subjects thought that it was due to their obedience to the king.  

Now, because each attributed the kingdom's prosperity to a different factor, a great dispute ensued.

The king therefore summoned a great far-seeing adept who said, "The kingdom's prosperity is due to none of your efforts.

In the Kashika forest live four great beings who keep the five disciplines and initiated their families into these disciplines. Through their efforts, prosperity resulted. Because the king and his subjects have also kept these precepts, the kingdom has reaped the benefits of this practice of the Dharma. Any animals who have died have been reborn in the 33 states of the realm of the gods."

Indra, king of the god realm, expressed his amazement with the following praise: "With respect and courteousness, enduring the hardship of the forests, through the moral behavior of the birds, all sentient beings of the world are firmly established [on the path.]"

The Buddha then revealed that he was the bird in a previous life, while his attendant Ananda was the elephant, Shariputra was the rabbit and Maudgalyana was the monkey.

From this tale known as The Four Friends derive the animal symbols for 3 of the Buddha's closest disciples, or it may be that it is their distinctive personal characteristics that have been recorded for us here.

(The 4 Friends image is from Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland.  You can purchase a postcard of it from them.)

  • In Vajrayana initiation, 4 different animals represent the inner offerings with associated seed syllables: the elephant, horse, bull and dog. (Link to a tsogli  by Andy Weber.)

Conversion of Animals

The Buddha is considered The Teacher because he gave instruction to beings of all the realms, including the animals. These beings, by listening to the Doctrine, had the seeds of enlightenment firmly planted so that in a second or third existence they would enter the Paths.

The frog who became a god is an example:

As tradition relates, The Blessed One was teaching the Doctrine to the inhabitants of the town of Champa, on the banks of Lake Gaggara; and a certain frog, at the sound of The Blessed One's voice, obtained the mental reflex. And a certain cowherd, as he stood leaning on his staff, pinned him down fast by the head. The frog straightway died, and like a person awaking from sleep, he was reborn in the Heaven of the Thirty-three, in a golden palace twelve leagues in length. And when he beheld himself surrounded by throngs of houris, he began to consider: "To think that I should be born here! I wonder what ever I did to bring me here."

And he could perceive nothing else than that he had obtained the mental reflex at the sound of the voice of The Blessed One. And straightway he came with his palace, and worshiped at the feet of The Blessed One. And The Blessed One asked him:

Who is it worships at my feet
And flames with glorious, magic power,
And in such sweet and winning guise,
Lights up the quarters all around?
"A frog was I in former times
And wandered in the waters free,
And while I listened to thy Law
A cowherd crushed me, and I died."

Then The Blessed One taught him the Doctrine, and the conversion of eighty-four thousand living beings took place. And the frog, who had become a god, became established in the fruit of conversion, and with a pleased smile on his face departed.

~ trans. Henry Clarke Warren. (Probable source Basic Buddhism. Toronto: Templegate, Novalis, 1987.) 

Animal Merit

It is a common devotional act for Buddhists, Hindus and the members of other belief systems, to perform circumambulation or kora (the Tibetan word.) That is, to walk round and round a stupa (Tib. chörten,) a temple or other shrine, usually in a clockwise direction.

Ribur Rinpoche relates:

Before the old house-holder Pelgye took ordination from Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha checked if he had the merit to take ordination* and saw that once, when this old man was born as a pig, a dog chased him around a stupa. The pig went around the stupa to save his dearly cherished life, not having any faith, but with this merit he was able to take ordination.

Khenpo Chokey Gyaltsen of Pullahari, Nepal adds that the animal even went around the wrong way, in a counter-clockwise direction. The point is that Buddhists consider that there is merit whether it is the result of conscious intent or not.  Such an act by an animal can lay the foundation for a future link with the Dharma.

He added that the 12 or so dogs living at the Jamgon Kongtrul Monastery daily perform koras. And he added incidently, that there was no need to feel distress at the fact that my own dog had eaten a copy of Milarepa: Yogi of Tibet.  Perhaps the animal was somehow moved to try and internalize the lessons that were in it.  In other words, in his view some animals can have the inclination to connect with dharma.

Animals and Our Merit

Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (Essence of Benefit and Joy,) following the Buddha's example, taught that 

"The most beneficial of all composite roots of virtue is the protection and ransoming of the lives of sentient beings. A variety of that is saving the lives of livestock, which frees those animals from present danger to their lives. Through the blessing of their being offered to the three jewels, and of their hearing names and dharanis, they will be ultimately freed from inferior births. Through the power of that, and as the result concordant with the cause, the practitioners themselves will undoubtedly receive benefits, such as an increased lifespan. If this is done in a ritual context it is more powerful."

Therefore Buddhists often liberate captive animals as a way to celebrate momentous events.  The 16th Karmapa Rigpe Dorje liberated small fish in a pond in upstate New York to help establish this practice in the "New World."

Among the pilgrims who attended the 2003 Kalachakra, were 30, 000 from Bhutan.  Kuensel Online (Jan. 24, 2003) reported:

In the true Buddhist practise of Tshethar or saving lives, pilgrims also spend a good amount of money buying live fishes from fishmongers and releasing them in the lake near the Bodhi temple. “I have released about 50 fishes as “tshedhar,”since my arrival two weeks ago,” said Dawa Dem from Thimphu. 

In Asia, animals destined for butchery or sacrifice are often purchased for this reason.  We may tend to pay more attention to attractive animals such as those we keep as pets, but since all sentient beings possess the same fundamental nature, then numbers are significant, too.  Bait worms, minnows and other small creatures also benefit from being liberated and are relatively inexpensive.

On auspicious days, mantras are said over the small beings but they must be put with care into the appropriate environment (do some research or ask the vendor) where they have a good chance for survival and also, will not upset the ecology. Then we can dedicate the merit to every being, but we may also mention someone in particular.

Natural History

Readers may find it interesting to know some scientific facts about the topics, including the animals, in the symbolism menu. Here, are some details regarding the domestication of some of the species upon which human beings rely.

Carbon-14 testing of animal and plant remains yields the following dates of domestication for:

Sheep at 9, 000 BCE in northern Iraq
Cattle at 6, 000 BCE in northeastern Iran
Goats at 8, 000 BCE in central Iran
Pigs at 8, 000 BCE in Thailand and 7, 000 BCE in Thessaly
Asses (donkeys) at 7, 000 BCE in Iraq, and
Horses at 4, 350 BCE in Ukraine
        ~   Bio-Tech's History of Agriculture.

Animals and Devotion, Some Anecdotes

The following items are from a popular Buddhist email list:

"Our cat Sage is allowed to go out the bedroom window and run around on our  roof. He frequently brings in leaves and puts them at the foot of the shrine. He brings the leaf offerings in his mouth. We have a large maple outside our  room, and he snags those leaves. Also, he brings in pine needles in his mouth, too."

"We make a big deal of ooh- ing and ah- ing over the leaves, and pick him up as we add them to our offerings on the shrine. Because he has repeated this behavior so many times, I can't help but believe that he is consciously trying to make offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas. May our offerings purify our minds and bring liberation to all beings in the 6 realms!  ~ Jen

When, in careful scepticism, the comment came that the oohing may have served as reinforcement for this type of behaviour, the response from r. e. was:

"It's probably not the oohing, as our cat (one of eight) brought in an unharmed moth offering during a meditation class held at our house led by Chogkhan Thubten Tandhar, a lama who was lecturing [nearby.]

"Our cats are the next thing to wild, and are not cozy, inside cats, but burly tiny tree-leaping leopards. Also they usually avoid humans totally, and we only see them at feeding time. However on this night they not only came into the meditation room, but walked through tons of frightening humans to do it."

David Lourie's Dharma the Cat: Philosophy With Fur.



The soul: The doctrine of the Buddha teaches that there is no eternal soul migrating unchanged form one body to another. Although the Greek term psyche is often rendered into English as soul, it is doubtful that the Greeks thought of it in terms of eternity.  Terms such as "mind stream" or "continuum" have been used in Buddhism for transmigratory consciousness. 

*ordination: This is not a Buddhist term.  The word is frequently used because it is familiar to people who know about monasticism within a Christian (Catholic or Anglican) context.  In Buddhism, one becomes a renunciate (Skt: shramanera.)  He or she renounces the activities of "family life"  beginning with the observation of some fundamental precepts. Later, if one chooses and is able to do so, one vows (as a bhikku / bhikshuni) to keep all the commitments of renunciation.  

*Thoth, Hathor: The th is pronounced as soft 't' and not as in booth.  However, it is true we cannot really know how any ancient people pronounced their language.

*avatar: The activity of a deity that manifests as a particular form. Vishnu  can appear as a giant Fish,  as a Boar,   a Dwarf with human form,  as Krishna the Trickster-child or Krishna the Lover,  Rama the Warrior King and,  his devotees believe,  also as the Buddha.


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