Attending to Animals

October 29, 2019
Gyatso and cat
Professor Janet Gyatso with cat friend Mamaki

What would it look like if we didn’t put human beings at the center of creation?

That’s the question that Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies Janet Gyatso explores with her students in “Knowing Animals” and “Forms of Life,” two HDS courses that interrogate the ethical treatment of animals. One of the country’s leading scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and intellectual history, Gyatso’s work has explored sex and gender in Buddhist monasticism; visionary revelation; lineage, memory, and authorship; the philosophy of experience; and autobiographical writing in Tibet. Her most recent book, Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet, looked at the relationship between science and religion in Tibetan medicine from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century.

Gyatso’s new project draws on her lifelong study of Buddhism to consider our ethics toward animals from a “post-human” perspective. She shared her thoughts on this work and a wide range of contemporary issues, including factory farming, climate change, and whether genetic engineers ought to turn tigers into vegetarians.

HDS: You’ve spent your life studying Buddhism. Why take on the subject of the ethical treatment of animals now?

Janet Gyatso: It’s true that this project is outside of my traditional discipline. I decided to do it because I’m at a point in my career where I realize, number one, that the issue is something that I really care deeply about, and number two, I can afford to take risks or do something different.

HDS: One of the courses you teach is called “Forms of Life: Buddhist Ethics for a Post-Human World.” What do you mean by “post-human”?

Janet Gyatso: We live in the Anthropocene era. For the first time in the earth’s four-and-a-half-billion-year history, human beings are the primary force shaping the planet’s climate and environment. That’s a pretty dramatic development, and it’s the result at least in part of a belief that humans are superior to all other species and deserve to control the planet. That’s a deeply held view in pretty much all the world’s major religions, including Buddhism.

Today, the prospect of catastrophic climate change not only threatens nearly every other species on earth, but also humanity itself. A lot of people see the climate crisis as a result of the failure of humans to appreciate the danger of their desire to control the planet, and see the importance of their relationship with nature and other species. And so, post-human studies are about how to get beyond that, to stop placing human needs above all else, for one thing, because we’re digging our own graves, but even beyond that, it’s just wrong.

HDS: Wrong how?

Janet Gyatso: The degree of suffering, the misery that we put animals through is wrong, whether we’re talking about factory farming or scientific experimentation or the way that some people mistreat their pets or farm animals—which is every bit as wrong as mistreating humans, in my opinion. This is where this work does touch on my study of Buddhism. Compassion for all other sentient beings—really caring for them, wanting them to be happy, and not wanting them to suffer—that’s a straight Buddhist idea.

There is also the Buddhist notion that you can only truly be happy if you have a realistic sense of your place on the planet and an understanding of who you are in a way that’s free of ideology and other kinds of stories that we tell ourselves. And so, if we overuse our resources and if we blot out all the life around us, we’re not in sync with the material reality of where we are, and ultimately, we can’t be happy. That’s an idea that a lot of religions, in some way or another, try to get at.

HDS: Does the classical Buddhist idea of compassion extend to animals or is it just human beings?

Janet Gyatso: In classical Buddhist cosmology, humans are superior to animals. We’re supposed to have compassion for animals, but they are seen as inferior beings. I don’t know if I agree with that, but my project is not primarily a Buddhist project per se.

It’s about the ethics of perception—how we interpret what we’re seeing, and what we look at, and what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention, and the speed of our attention, and how good we are at interpreting what we’re seeing, and so on and so forth. These are all philosophical questions.

The class I taught was a lot about training our vision to see more fully the value of animals. I think most people care about animals, but often they are not willing to make any sacrifice for their welfare if it impacts their own human desires. So, in the class, we try to recognize the suffering that we’re inflicting, to see things from the animal’s perspective, to start to get better at recognizing how others are feeling. Then there’s the question of how we act on that understanding. That’s a lot more complex, given the way our world is organized. Meat eating, for example, has skyrocketed in the world. So has farming animals for their skins, and scientific experimentation.

HDS: Do you live with animals?

Janet Gyatso: Yes, I have two cats.

HDS: So, they’re beautiful, right? Soft and warm. They purr. We think of them as our little fur babies. But they’re also killers with claws and fangs. As we acknowledge the importance of treating animals more ethically, do we run the risk of anthropomorphizing them—thinking of them in human terms rather than their own?

Janet Gyatso: There are two problems there: anthropomorphizing and speciesism. With anthropomorphizing, we project our humanity onto animals. “They’re just like us.” But we also have this idea that we’re totally different, that we can’t possibly know anything about them, and that anything we think we know is merely anthropomorphizing. I think both of those extremes are wrong. We share a lot in common with animals and we can understand a lot more than we think we can. There’s a difference between understanding them and anthropomorphizing them. The trick is to be simultaneously aware of difference and of sameness, which is actually a good way of describing what we try and teach students throughout the HDS curriculum.

Then you mention the issue of predation. There are people who want to see research developed to change the genetic structure of tigers and other predators so that they won’t be meat eaters anymore. I think that’s messed up. It’s dangerous and ill-conceived. You can’t have a tiger who doesn’t hunt. It wouldn’t be a tiger any more.

I feed my cats meat; cats can’t survive without it. I put a little bell on them to try and stop them from killing wildlife, particularly birds, but the bottom line is that we have to accept life and death. Whether it’s a tiger or a house cat, they will kill prey and the prey will suffer. But I don’t think prey in the wild suffer anywhere near as much as cows and pigs and chickens and even fish do with factory farming. Factory animals live their lives in incredible misery.

It’s really important for us to accept that the way of this planet is that everybody eats everybody else. I don’t know of any other animal or species who has even the faintest idea of not eating something for ethical reasons. I myself am very much in favor of veganism, but that’s a uniquely human idea. We can’t foist that on animals. We have to put our anthropomorphic values aside.

HDS: Right, but if you assert that it’s wrong to kill—at least most of the time—and wrong to make animals suffer, and then acknowledge that some animals kill and make their prey suffer, while humans at least have the ability to act compassionately, doesn’t that imply superiority?

Janet Gyatso: In human terms we might consider it superior, but a lot of things go along with such a decision. It’s true—and here’s where Buddhists certainly agree—that humans have the capacity to reflect and to think ethically in ways that animals don’t. Now actually, I’m not completely sure about that. We know, for instance, that animals who are traditionally predator and prey, if raised together, will not harm each other. Do a YouTube search and you can find videos of cats who live with a parrot or a parakeet. The cat plays with the bird, but holds its claws in. But exactly why that happens and if there is anything in it that we would consider compassion, I think the scientific jury is still out on that one.

Furthermore, would it be appropriate for a lion to feel compassion for the zebra baby that it kills? If the lion had those feelings and couldn’t hunt, it would die. Some Indian religious traditions said that the most evolved person will willingly starve to death so as not to inflict harm on any other living being. Frankly, I don’t think that’s right either.

There is also the question that, if to hunt and kill in order to survive is wrong, how far down the food chain do we go? Plants are living beings too. It’s not possible to live without consuming some other form of life. Again, I myself am all for veganism, but it’s complicated to figure out how that relates to the rest of the issues on how we treat animals.

HDS: How about the indigenous people of the Great Plains? The buffalo they hunted weren’t just used for food; they were shelter, clothing, tools. The buffalo was also central to their religion. Could you imagine going to people like that and saying, “Look, you guys have got it all wrong”?

Janet Gyatso: I’m not sure they did have it wrong. At least they weren’t wiping out the buffalo population like the Europeans did when they got there. I am actually far more worried about the life of the animal on the factory farm before it dies than the fact that it’s killed.

I can imagine a decent world in which animals are some-times hunted or killed to feed others. An animal that can live more or less freely and then is quickly and humanely slaughtered is far less of a travesty than, say, chickens suffering in cages day after day, year after year.

HDS: So, at the core of your thinking is a rejection of binaries, of absolutes, of the notion that one should always do, or one should never do. It seems like that, in itself, is as much of a problem to you as anything.

Janet Gyatso: Yes, and that’s why some of what I’m saying is a little bit transgressive. My approach isn’t just post-human, it’s a little bit post-religion. I’m really interested in getting us back into the material realities and building out from there, which for me means moving away from religious beliefs that are about salvation or about enlightenment. I’m not sure I believe in enlightenment—at least not in the sense of perfectibility.

Early Buddhists were concerned with transcending life and death, transcending suffering. I don’t think that we can. Later Buddhists talked about staying right here in the world, accepting life and death and the realities of human imperfection, but they often still hold out an ideal of enlightenment. In the end, this project takes a lot from Buddhism, but it’s not, strictly-speaking, Buddhist. I do think that there is a kind of self-cultivation through which people can attain a very high degree of realization, but I don’t think that anything ever gets perfect. Even the Buddha died, you know?