Can Animals Understand the Dharma?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 24, 2017

Dharma Dogs: Can Animals Understand the Dharma? Textual and Ethnographic Considerations

James Stewart
University of Tasmania

Pāli textual sources occasionally mention the existence of unusual animals with an aptitude for the Buddha’s dharma. In the Jātaka, clever animals do good deeds and are thus reborn in better circumstances. In the Vinaya, the Buddha declares to a serpent that he should observe Buddhist holy days so he can achieve a human rebirth. But can animals develop spiritually? Can they move towards enlightenment? In this article I will be examining textual and ethnographic accounts of whether animals can hear and understand the dharma. Using ethnographic research conducted in Sri Lanka, I will show that although animals are thought to passively benefit from being in proximity to dharma institutions, there seems to be agreement amongst the monks interviewed that animals cannot truly understand the dharma and therefore cannot practice it. Animals are therefore severely hampered in their spiritual advancement. However, these ethnographic and textual findings do indicate that passively listening to dharma preaching, whether it is understood or not, has spiritually productive consequences.

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One thought on “Can Animals Understand the Dharma?”

  1. Nice article! Although is it not proved in detail, nāgās do not necessarily count as animals here and the forbidding in this rule counts “a-monussa” non-human. It is said, and one could actually observe and investigate by oneself, that animals, especially in monasteries, have often been monks or people living on alms who have not seriously stuck to their precepts. It’s good to observe animals and its good to realize how poor and longlasting such existences one after another can be, since there is no chance to make merit.

    As for the positive impact, is like for dull humans, ones with mohā caritaṃ: a habit and inclination out of associating with the wise (here through the attachment to sound pleasure) would be an opening for the case they might meet a more lucky existence, once again would tend to certain habits and rituals even this is rooted in desire. There are also other Vinaya rules which might be good to bring into the topic, such as the forbidding of living with an animal under one roof (since one easy adopts the habits of others) and also the sharing of food or keeping animals.

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