Saturday, December 13, 2014

Can Animals Go To Heaven?

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 


alimin said...

But Bhante, what are dragons? Sometimes they are considered devas, sometimes animals. Heavenly animals?

Ben said...

Bhante: With respect, the current pope made no comments about pets going to heaven. This was misquoted in an Italian newspaper.

GiDo said...
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GiDo said...

"The animal world is dominated by “eating each other and preying off the weak” as the Buddha very realistically put it."

But there are animals who are vegetarians. They neither eat each other, some of them are not even eaten by others, nor do they prey off the weak. So the Buddha did obviously not understand the world of animals well enough. Why then quote him or take him as a measure in this respect? Why not see that he sometimes was wrong?

The point is that to define the skandha as oneself one has to be human, obviously animals cannot do that. Thus it is also ridiculous to assume that they are of some lesser order or should have to climb up the ladder. What for? To be delusional like us and then go a long way to get rid of that? There is a logic flaw in Shakyamuni's arguments here.

And with respect to the Bible, of course the Pope meant what he said, animals will go to heaven. It is already in Isaiah 11,6-8: "The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat, ... The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest."

Obviously, some Bible writers were as pissed off by animal's cruelty as were those of the Palikanon.

Ecclesiastes 3,19 tells us that men and animals have the same fate.

brahmavihara said...

I guess the old showbiz adage about never performing with animals and children springs to mind when thinking of the Buddhist equivalent of, discussing Karma and rebirth. That's never discouraged me, however. What gets born into a heaven world is the manifestation of that particular conditioned being's,( Man, Woman and Animal) previous resultant Karma, vipaka, and (defined by and commensurate with)or formed by that location. For a longer or shorter period. That which was an animal on this earth could be reborn as a human being, or a being of the fine material or non material round of existence, all things being equal. Any conditioned being will attain to say, a heaven world, but not necessarily from the immediately previous existence(birth and lifetime) but from perhaps the one before that or even one from a very distant past. Hence the discouragement of any obsessive discussion of these particular types of karma Vipaka. But don't take my word for it!

Russell said...

Islam says they can