Ra Lotsawa is famous primarily for his willingness to use ritual violence against those who opposed him. Less well known is his opposition to violence against animals. But The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat—Ralo’s biography, recently translated by Bryan Cuevas—recounts numerous instances where Ralo either personally ransoms the lives of animals, or induces his disciples to do so. (p. 140, 299) On other occasions, Ralo induces villagers to give up hunting and fishing, often giving them enough resources that they were able to establish themselves in less sinful occupations. (p. 43)
More remarkably, The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat recalls an episode in which Ra Lotsawa moves beyond easing animal’s physical suffering, and actually teaches them the dharma:
Likewise, Ralo established many dogs and mice in meditation, and did the same also for the flocks of sheep that belonged to al the landowners in the area. He established in meditation about six hundred young female and male sheep… Then a religious scholar names Geshé Yönten Drakpa approached Ralo to dispute him. He said, “To be established in meditation you first have to obtain a body as support with human freedoms and advantages. Animals are in a miserable state, and so it’s impossible to establish them in meditation. Saying you’ve done so is a lie!” The Great Lama Ra responded, “Yes, generally, I admit that’s true, but in some particular cases nothing is certain. …” (p. 108)
Animals are, according to pretty much all Tibetan religious leaders, dumber than humans. They are so dumb, in fact, that they are simply incapable of learning the dharma. If you want to help them, all you can really do is ease their physical suffering (ie: stop eating them), and pray that they will achieve a better birth next time around. But here’s Ralo, teaching a bunch of sheep to meditate. Moreover, he’s actually successful! The remarkableness of this passage is underscored by the presence of his geshé critic, embodying the standard assumptions about animals along with a healthy skepticism towards Ralo generally. And Ralo does accept his critique, at least in most circumstances. Most people can’t teach sheep, only someone with Ralo’s level of mastery.
Still, despite this (admittedly large) caveat, this passage opens up the possibility that animals could, under the right circumstances, learn to actively practice Buddhism. And that possibility represents a striking anomaly in Tibetan narratives about animals. Perhaps, Ralo seems to suggest, the distinction between animals and humans is not quite as hard and fast as most Tibetans assumed. Perhaps it is not that animals are too stupid to learn dharma, but that most humans lack the skills to teach them. And this is a point worth considering in our modern world, as science continues to reveal that animals are, in fact, much more intelligent and emotionally complex than we have often assumed.