Recently Pope Francis raised eyebrows when he suggested that animals can go to heaven. During a public appearance while talking to a young boy distraught over the recent death of his dog, the Pope told the boy that “paradise is open to all God’s creatures”. While it would seem fairly clear, to me at least, that he was only trying to console and comfort the boy, conservative Catholics were quick to “clarify” the Pope’s statement and explain that as animals do not have a soul and cannot “literally go to heaven”. Others, pet lovers and animal rights groups, were ecstatic at the possibility of spending eternity with Spotty or Rex, Mr. Tabby or Blackie. Given that Christian orthodoxy is clear that salvation is only available to those who have faith in Jesus, (and according to some, do good works as well) it is very difficult to imagine that the Pope was announcing a new dogma that would contradict orthodoxy.
Whatever the case, the idea is an interesting one. What would Buddhism say about the possibility of animals in heaven? Interestingly, the question was raised and discussed during the Third Council (cira 250 BCE). Those who believed that this was possible pointed out that Erāvana, the mount of the god Indra, was an elephant. The Theravadins countered this by saying that if this was taken literally it would require that there also be stables, fodder, animal trainers, grooms, etc. in heaven, something that was considered to be clearly ridiculous (Kathavatthu v.20,4). The question “Are there animals in heaven?” assumes various theistic concepts that do not apply to the Buddhist understanding of reality. According to the Buddha, beings can be reborn in a variety of realms, one of them being heaven and another the animal realm. The primary thing that distinguishes one realm from another is the experience of the beings there, and perhaps to a lesser degree the bodily form in each. As a human one would have one kind of body, as an animal another, and as a deva yet another. If an animal died and was reborn in heaven it would have a heavenly body, not an animal one, thus it would no longer be an animal, and thus the question “Are there animals in heaven?” does not really apply. Given this, the question needs to be re-phrased as “Can animals be reborn in heaven?” According to the Buddha once reborn as an animal it is difficult to rise to a higher rebirth. Difficult but not impossible. Books such as The Emotional Life of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter and Jeffrey Masson’s wonderful When Elephants Weep demonstrate that animals have much richer and more complex minds than what was understood until recently, and what was known to the Buddha and his contemporaries. Given this I think it is likely that some higher animals have at least some rudimentary moral sense and thus could take a heavenly rebirth. However, it should not be forgotten that the animal world is dominated by “eating each other and preying off the weak” as the Buddha very realistically put it (M.III,169). Perhaps another thing worth mentioning is this. It is important to try to distinguish between our desires and reality. Many people love their pets and would be very happy to have them with them in heaven. But wishes and hopes are one thing, reality is another.
Should you be interested, I have written something on the love of animals from a Buddhist perspective. You can read it here