Buddhist Symbolism

What do Animals Mean in Buddhism?

Learn the meaning of Animals in Buddhism.


Animals in Buddhism are important because it helps illuminate a Buddhists relation to nature, kindness, humanistic ideas, and to further show the relationship between Buddhist theory and practice.

Learn more about Animals in Buddhism by clicking here.

Are cats enlightened beings? Read more about Cats and Buddhism in my article here!

Buddhists see animals as sentient beings (just like humans), but intellectually not on the same level.  This does not mean, however, that animals suffer any less than humans.

In Mahayana Buddhism, animals posses “Buddha Nature”, just like humans.

Immediately following the Buddha’s awakening, he made the following proclamation:

“Marvelous, marvelous!  All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s* wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.”

(* Tathagata is another name for the Buddha, and the one he most frequently used when talking about himself)

Here are a few of the different stories in Buddhism which include animals in them (not meant to be all inclusive):

  • The Golden Monkey:  The Buddha went into the wilderness of Parileyya forest to bring peace to quarreling disciples.  During this time, a monkey and an elephant fed the Buddha (the elephant brought fruit, and the monkey brought a honeycomb).  As the story goes, the monkey was overjoyed that the Buddha accepted his gift of the honeycomb, and began jumping from tree to tree until he fell to his death, only to be reborn immediately (sounds like a plot twist you would find in a summer movie blockbuster).
  • Buddha Subdues a Raging Elephant:  Devadatta, a disciple of the Buddha who turned against him, let an elephant attempt to kill the Buddha.  However, the story goes that due to the loving kindness of the Buddha, the elephant knelt down in front of the him instead of killing him.
  • The Jataka Tales:  The Jataka tales often featured animals to help explain Buddhist concepts.  For some Buddhists, they take this as literal truth that the Buddha had previous lives as actual animals that he recalled.  My personal opinion is that these are teaching aids (known as upaya, or “expedient means”, which helps laypersons understand complex concepts more easily and quickly).  You can see some of the Jataka tales here on Buddhanet:  http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/budtale1.htm.  These stories are not part of the canonical Buddhist scripture, yet they are very popular.

Featured Image: CC0 photo via Pixabay
Copyright © Alan Peto. All Rights Reserved.

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