Teaching Animals to Meditate

RaloRa 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.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Animals to Meditate

  1. Nice post. As far as opening up the possibility of praticing Buddhism to animals, I find this curious to think about it because it brings up issues of audience and reception of the hagiography. Who does it open up the possibility for? Do lay people who hear/heard this story think differently of animals and their capacities? How about a geshe who might read the text?

    In my mind, a good deal of what makes the passage noteworthy is how it’s at odds with doctrinal teachings and cultural assumptions. I read it as showing that Ralo is so incredible, he can even transcend doctrinal teachings about the incapacities of lower beings. In some sense, this episode needs the assumption that animals are spiritually inept in order to pack a punch. As a result, I have trouble reading it as posing much of a challenge to doctrinal teachings and cultural attitudes towards animals, but I could definitely be wrong. I haven’t studied Tibetan attitudes towards animals too much. I have just read some of the Ralo pecha and Cuevas’ translation. One can’t help but notice how it is one massive homage to Ralo. I think the level of devotion to the saint and the showcasing of his supernatural (I might say ‘super-doctrinal’) abilities are outstanding even when compared with other Tibetan hagiographies.

    1. You raise a good point, and are presumably correct that the author had no intent to comment on the abilities of animals at all, much less to overtly challenge doctrinal norms on this issue. He was (again presumably, and like most namtar authors) trying to make Ralo look good. As you suggest, Ralo’s ability to teach animals to meditate runs counter to doctrinal norms. Ergo Ralo must be really great.

      What’s interesting to me, however, is not wether the author was trying to make a point about animals, but the assumptions that underly his story. He assumes that, under normal circumstances, animals are too dumb to learn to practice. No big surprises there. But he also seems to assume that under the right circumstances (in this case, in the presence of a fully enlightened master like Ralo), animals can be successfully taught to practice. To my mind, interested as I am in the moral standing of animals in Tibetan culture, that remains a striking assumption for the author to have. So while the author of this text was (presumably) simply trying to present Ralo in as positive a light as possible, and was not intending to challenge doctrinal orthodoxy, the passage nonetheless reveals a crack in the otherwise rigid separation between humans and animals.

      (I should also point out that I’m not at all convinced that this blurring of lines is truly extraordinary. When we look carefully at the role of animals in Tibetan literature, I think we’re likely to find that the human / animal distinction was often assumed to be more flexible than doctrinal positions would suggest. But that is an argument for another day.)

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