Late last year there was quite a stir when it was reported that Pope Francis had told a young boy that animals have souls which go to heaven. The story grabbed the headlines because it was the opposite of the previous Papal position. Within 24 hours the story had been repeated so often that it was an assumed fact – until denied by senior Vatican observers. According to the authoritative Catholic Herald, Pope Francis never said any such thing.
Or did he?
I was brought up as a Presbyterian and the ambiguity of the Christian view of animals was a cause of concern to me. My parents and kindly church minister assured me that the souls of my dearly-loved pets would be looked after by God when they died. These assurances could not be backed up with scriptural reference, however, and I always suspected a fudge. I would have been more reassured by a definitive, Biblical quote, ideally from Jesus himself or, at a pinch, St Paul.
One of the many attractions of Buddhism to me is its common sense approach to this subject. For starters, there is no notion of a soul. Instead, Buddhism talks about mind or consciousness. As conscious beings, we are aware that animals are conscious too. The Tibetan Buddhist phrase for sentient beings is “sem chen” or “mind haver.” Whether a being is a cat, human or cockroach, it has mind.
All sentient beings share three self-evident qualities. The first is that the most precious thing in the world to us is our own life. We are fearful of whatever threatens it and will go to any lengths to preserve it. When my wife removed a snail from the step of the gym she attends, early one morning before the doors were opened, one of her fellow class goers wrinkled her nose in disgust. ‘The snail’s life is as important to the snail as your life is to you,’ she explained to her fellow cyclist. The latter clearly thought she was mad. But several months later she confessed to my wife that she’d given a lot of thought to what she had said and couldn’t fault the logic. She no longer put down snail bait around her roses, she added – now she removed snails and dropped them over the garden wall!
The second quality we all share is that we wish for happiness and constantly seek out what we see as the sources of happiness. Interestingly, even these are very similar whether human or non-human. Readers familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will note that most lower-order needs – food, shelter, security, social – are identical whether human, pig or bird.
The third quality is that we all wish to avoid suffering – and again, notions of suffering are more similar across human and non-human “sem chens” than many people ever consider. In most cases, people actively avoid considering them so as not to confront the cognitive dissonance involved, say, in eating bacon given our understanding of the proven intelligence and sensitivity of pigs.
While the mental capacity of human beings is unique and, for this reason, Buddhists sometimes refer to the human form as being like a vase containing a great treasure, nevertheless, at the most basic level, we all possess consciousness. What happens to this when we die?
Whether human or other beings, the end result of the death process is that very subtle consciousness moves onto new experiences propelled by the conditioning of previous ones. As pet lovers we have the opportunity, even the responsibility, to help our pets have conditions where they can avoid harmful behaviour, and have their mental continuum imprinted with positive, peaceful experiences. A very useful practice is to murmur mantras to your pet when he or she is relaxed and peaceful, thereby creating an association between the mantra and a positive state of being. Repeating this mantra at the time of the pet’s death may hopefully help him or her die in a more positive way.
Buddhists sometimes use the phrase ‘mother sentient beings.’ This is to make explicit the notion that, since beginningless time we have had any number of relationships with every other living being, including them having been our mother. Realising this simple notion revolutionises our attitude to animals.
In summary, the Buddhist view is that animals have minds; they seek happiness and the avoidance of suffering; and it is their subtle consciousness propelled by conditioning that has brought them to their current experience of reality – just like us. They may have been our mother, lover or best friend in a previous lifetime. If they share their lives with us, as pets do, there is an extremely strong connection between us. Their capacity for self-development in this lifetime is limited, but we have the power to help them, in particular to imprint their mental continuum with the causes for future exposure to virtue and positive influences.
In recent years, I have discovered the existence of esoteric Christianity, where ideas about the nature of consciousness, including animal consciousness seem close to those of Buddhism. The Franciscan order, named after St Francis, the friend of animals also seem on a parallel meditative path. And it’s interesting that the current Pope chose ‘Francis’ for his Papal name.
So, who knows what really happened between the boy and the Pope. But I hope you may find new food for thought in Buddhism for Pet Lovers, which explores consciousness among all sentient beings!
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