Bohemian Buddhist Review

Buddhist Ethics: Animals and the Environment

I decided to break up BoBu's review of Oxford University Press' "Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction," by Damien Keown, into the various chapter headings, because the contents of each are pretty juicy and deserve attention unto themselves.
With Chapter 3, Animals and the Environment, we delve into the relationship between our personal ethics and our earthly surroundings, including other beings. Keown starts off by stipulating that Buddhism is "often seen as an eco-friendly religion with an expanded moral horizon encompassing not just human beings but also animals and the environment."
While this is largely true, there are caveats. 
"[Buddhism] is generally thought," Keown continues, "to have a more 'enlightened' attitude to nature than Christianity, which has traditionally taught that mankind is the divinely appointed steward of creation holding authority over the natural order."
There are more than a few contemporary thinkers who cite the Biblical passage about man having dominion over nature (some say a mistranslation of the word steward) as one of the possible causes of our ecological crises. On the other hand, Buddhist eco-activists are not seen in overwhelming numbers.
A big difference between Buddhism and Christianity are the former's teachings that human beings can be reborn as animals. This naturally engenders "a much closer kinship between species whereby different forms of life are interrelated in a profound way." Thus, in Buddhism, Right Action prohibits killing of any life, and Right Livelihood forbids certain professions, such as trading in flesh and weapons.
Keown posits that Buddhist environmental values start with anthropocentrism. However, concern for the environment, if not brought squarely home to the individual, leaves us exactly where we are now, i.e., people professing they care but not seeing the connection between their actions and the damage done to the planet, i.e., jetting around the world and paying no attention to individual carbon footprints. (And i'm not castigating those of us who need to use airplanes.)
There has been criticism of Buddhism for its supposed lack of insight into the nature of animals -- or the sentience of plants. To my mind, however, the teachings aren't about denigrating any form of life but rather enjoining practitioners to attain spiritual prowess while in forms more conducive to doing so, such as a "precious human rebirth," because the chances of obtaining such are quite rare. This may be considered anthropocentric in ecological terms, but then the ecological movement isn't concerned with Buddhist enlightenment. (Ironically, of course, if humans were more enlightened, we wouldn't have man-made environmental crises in the first place.)
Chapter 3 also brings up the hot topic of vegetarianism. Some Buddhist schools espouse it, others, such as Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, do not and indeed could not in practical terms, given the growing conditions in Tibet. One teacher of mine even pointed out that many more individual creatures were killed in a vegetable garden than in the act of slaughtering one large animal for food. And this counts in Buddhism, since all creatures great and small are capable of becoming buddhas.
So I think this is one area, among many, in which people have to find their own personal comfort zone. Even the Dalai Lama has been advised to consume some animal protein, for instance. 
"On a strict interpretation of Buddhist principles," Keown writes, "it appears as if all killing is forbidden, but at the same time practices that cause harm to non-human life may be defensible when there is no non-violent alternative and primary intent is not to destroy life" but simply, say, to keep insects or vermin from infesting a dwelling.
Intention is everything in Buddhism. Murderous thoughts may be more harmful karmically than accidentally killing an animal.
"When all is said and done, the aim of Buddhism is not to redeem samsara by restoring its ecological balance but to attain nirvana."
The attainment of Buddhahood should be seen to be of inestimable value, no matter the state of the environment, because of the immense reduction of suffering of all beings that would ensue. Put another way, as Tsoknyi Rinpoche teaches, "outer pollution is caused by inner pollution." Are we likely to solve ecological problems without first at least partially transforming our own consciousness and seeing the inter-connectedness of all life?
Buddhism will not have the answer to each and every question we have about contemporary life. We are supposed to remember the precepts and apply critical thinking and wise, compassionate discernment to our problems in order to find the most skillful means to deal with them.  And hey, nobody said realization was easy.
-- Paki S. Wright, Ed., Bohemian Buddhist Review