The next freedom is the freedom to practice the holy Dharma through not being born in the animal realm: an animal, bird, fish, insect and so forth
Unlike the hell or hungry ghost realms, we can see beings in the animal realm and investigate their reality for ourselves. There are many, many kinds of animals, fish, birds and insects, but the suffering common to each is being dumb and foolish, with a mind incapable of understanding anything other than survival, although there are many other sufferings besides. The main cause of being born in the animal realm, ignorance, traps them in a life without choice. Those who must kill to survive do so without choice; their victims are powerless not to be killed by them. Tiny creatures are devoured by bigger ones, who in turn are hunted by yet bigger ones. No matter who they are, there is always an enemy ready to take their life in order to eat their flesh. Others are slaves of human beings.
If we were to suddenly find ourselves in the body of an animal, we’d be terrified. No matter how hard our life as a human is, it is a pure land existence compared with that of an animal. Imagine you are a slug in the middle of the road after a heavy rain or a goat being chased down the street in a village in India by the local butcher. What would it be like? If we look below the surface of the life of any animal to see what it is really like, we will find unimaginable suffering. If you investigate how animals live, you will see that this is true. Overwhelmed by stupidity and dullness, they have no capacity to free themselves from the suffering they must face every day. And, of course, they have no ability to understand and practice Dharma.
Some animals live much longer than humans but that does not mean they can develop any wisdom. There’s a turtle in Hong Kong that is said to be thousands of years old. I was invited to meet it but somehow that never happened. Even if I had, I don’t think I could have taught it anything. Could I have explained the cause of happiness to it? Even an elephant, which can live for a very long time, wouldn’t understand one word.
Our pampered dog or cat might seem to have a leisurely life, sleeping all day and eating better than we do, but if we think it is fortunate we’re judging only its external appearance. If we could understand our pets’ minds we would see how ignorant they really are. For example, when they are sick from having eaten bad food, they can’t tell us about it so that we can find the right medicine.
Our cat can live with us its whole life and we can try to teach it mantras every day but it won’t be able to utter one syllable. This is because it has the body of a suffering transmigratory being and a mind that is incapable of that sort of understanding.
We can explain emptiness to pigs for years and they would be none the wiser. We can scream bodhicitta in the ears of those pitiful sheep or goats all day and there is no way they could understand. We can teach chickens that compassion is the true path to happiness but this won’t stop them eating insects in the ground.
Once while teaching at Stanford University in California, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “You should not be like an animal,” meaning we should not accept everything at face value without question. Here he was talking about conventional and ultimate truth, how we suffer because we thoughtlessly accept the appearance of things, which seem to be truly existent, and as a result are overwhelmed by negative emotions. In that, we are like animals.
Animals simply do not have the capacity to understand how to get out of the suffering they are in, and so, whereas they may be quite cunning in other ways, in this most fundamental and important way, they are stupid. Seeing this will make us glad we are not an animal.
But in fact, this is what we could well be by this time tomorrow. We simply do not know when we will die or what our next rebirth will be. We could soon be living in a glass tank full of water in a restaurant, a tasty lobster or a fat fish, waiting for a customer to choose us for her meal. We could soon be a fish struggling on the end of a line with a hook in our mouth or a worm being eaten alive by thousands of ants. We just don’t know. If we did know, we would then really value this most precious of things, the human life.
Would you want to be born as any animal? Even a pet. Would you want to have hair all over your body and have to fight the other dogs or cats in the neighborhood and always rely on your human owners for every bit of food that you get? We have been born as dogs and cats countless times. We have had infinite lives, so there’s not one animal that we haven’t been. We have been monkeys and tigers, cows and zebras, cockroaches and mosquitoes, many, many times. Even the Buddha’s omniscient mind cannot see how many times we have been a cockroach or a mosquito. That is life in samsara, endlessly cycling from one suffering body to another.
As centipedes, we have been stepped on while crossing the road. As moths, we have been squashed against a wall. Perhaps we went straight from being the squashed centipede to the life of the moth, only to be squashed again. Poor us! Whenever we see an insect trapped in a spider web or a small animal run over by a car, they are telling us that we have been saved from such a terrible end by being human and we had better practice Dharma and do nothing but practice Dharma or we ourselves might well be destined for a spider’s web or the wheel of a car.
Thinking on the suffering of animals we can start to appreciate how there is no escape as long as we are in samsara. It really is unbearable and terrifying and we need to do whatever we can to be free from it.
Only the practice of virtue can free us. This is something no animal can understand. But we are not an animal; we are human and we have the capacity to understand this. This is an amazing freedom. Therefore we should think, “How fortunate that I am not an animal. I have found this perfect human body, qualified with eight freedoms and ten richnesses, and have the freedom to practice Dharma.” We should feel this deeply from our heart, but we should also feel that there is no certainty that it will last—it might even finish today—therefore we need to make the most of this most precious opportunity.
My root guru, His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche,1 used to say that if we could fully understand the suffering of the lower realms and how many times we have been there, we would be so terrified that we would never want to sleep or eat; food would be of no interest to us. All we would want to do would be to meditate and practice Dharma in order to create as much merit as possible every moment. Therefore it is vital that we study the teachings on the four noble truths, especially the truth of suffering, and the lower realms and karma if we are to truly appreciate our perfect human rebirth.
How amazing, how wonderful that we have the freedom and ability to study such great teachings and to live our lives according to them.
1 His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche (1901–81) was the junior tutor to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and root guru of both Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He edited Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand.