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Buddhistdoor View: Revisiting Buddhist Views on Animal Welfare after Thailand’s Chatuchak Market Fire

From bbc.com

This week, a devastating fire at Thailand’s famous Chatuchak Market led to the tragic deaths of at least a thousand animals. No humans died in the blaze. While shop-owners were understandably distraught at their business losses, our thoughts must also turn to the terrifying final moments for the many animals who were trapped in cramped cages as they were overtaken by heat, smoke, and flames.

The US animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argued that the fire “underscores the urgent need for action” to reform the way animals are treated in the market. PETA vice-president, Jason Baker, continued: “Animals are not ours to use for our entertainment. . . . PETA urges the Thai government to ensure that this facility, where captive animals suffer, never reopens.” (BBC News)

As Buddhists, this incident serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for a re-evaluation of how we treat our fellow sentient beings. Such events can be understood through the lenses of karma, compassion, and ethical living. These considerations do not exhaust the ways we might think about Buddhist ethics toward animals, and the tradition has varied over time among thinkers and traditions. Nonetheless, Dr. Bronwyn Finnigan of Australian National University offers a thorough account of the topic in a 2017 article titled “Buddhism and Animal Ethics.”

Bronwyn Finnigan. From bronwynfinnigan.com

By reviewing the Buddhist approach to animal ethics, we can pave the way for greater animal welfare and prevent such tragedies in the future.

The Chatuchak Market fire is not merely a tragic accident but a symptom of the broader ethical issue regarding how animals are treated in modern society. The market, well known for its vibrant trade in exotic animals, has long been controversial. The conditions in which these animals are kept often fail to meet basic welfare standards, leading to unnecessary suffering. The recent fire highlights the vulnerabilities these animals face and underscores the need for systemic change. The fact that people in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist society, have long turned a blind eye to the suffering in front of them should bring pause.

In Buddhism, the concept of karma plays a crucial role in understanding suffering and ethical behavior. Karma refers to actions driven by intention, which lead to future consequences. The suffering of animals in the fire can be viewed as a result of collective karma—human actions that have led to the exploitation and harm of animals. Even before the fire, what kind of lives were these animals leading? How much suffering went on unseen?

The cycle of samsara, or continuous rebirth, teaches that all beings are interconnected and subject to the same cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. This understanding can foster a sense of empathy and compassion toward all living beings as we recognize that each being has, at some point, been a mother, father, and friend in past lives. Recognizing this interconnectedness calls for an urgent compassionate approach toward animals, advocating for their protection and welfare.

At the same time, we must acknowledge the complexity of this web of interconnection. Without compensating the shop-owners, we would cause harm if we simply banned all future operations of the market. And without campaigns to educate people on the harms of trading in animals, we would only divert the demand for caged animals to other places, trading a centralized place of suffering for many decentralized ones.

In such an educational campaign, non-harm must be at the center. This is one of the fundamental precepts in Buddhism. This principle extends to all living beings, emphasizing the importance of not causing harm through actions, words, or thoughts. The practice of ahimsa (Skt., non-violence) advocates for the protection of animals from suffering and exploitation. By adhering to this precept, individuals and societies can cultivate a more compassionate and ethical approach to animal welfare.

A second prong of an educational campaign should encompass a positive attitude toward all beings. Buddhism teaches the cultivation of compassion (Skt: karuna) and loving-kindness (Skt: maitri) toward all creatures. These qualities encourage individuals to act in ways that alleviate suffering and promote the well-being of others. The tragic deaths of hundreds of animals at Chatuchak Market calls for a response rooted in the restraint of ahimsa and compassion—recognizing their suffering and taking steps to prevent future harm.

Historical Buddhist texts provide numerous references to the ethical treatment of animals. For instance, the Jataka tales, which recount the previous lives of the Buddha, often feature animals as central characters, who demonstrate virtues such as kindness, wisdom, and self-sacrifice. These stories highlight the moral imperative to treat animals with respect and compassion. And while the Buddha did not forbid the eating of meat by his monastics, he did put restrictions on it.

In modern times, Buddhist leaders and communities have continued to advocate for animal welfare. Buddhist figures such as the Dalai Lama have spoken out against animal cruelty and promoted vegetarianism as a means to reduce harm. Buddhist organizations worldwide engage in rescue and rehabilitation efforts for animals, reflecting the enduring commitment to compassionate living. BDG columnist Sarah C. Beasley has written extensively about developing wisdom and compassion toward animals here and in her book, Kindness for All Creatures (Shambhala 2019).

A Buddhist approach to animal ethics goes beyond reactive measures, seeking to address the root causes of suffering. This involves rethinking our relationship with animals, recognizing their intrinsic value, and rejecting practices that exploit or harm them. By shifting toward a more ethical and compassionate mindset, we can prevent tragedies like the Chatuchak Market fire.

No one action can prevent future tragedies such as this, but here are some suggestions in the direction of a more engaged Buddhist approach:

  1. 1. Advocating for stronger animal-welfare laws that ensure humane treatment and prevent exploitation.
  2. 2. Promoting awareness about the ethical treatment of animals through educational programs and public campaigns.
  3. 3. Encouraging vegetarianism or reduced meat consumption to minimize harm to animals.
  4. 4. Providing resources and support for animal rescue and sanctuary initiatives.

The story of the Chatuchak Market fire can serve as a catalyst for change. Just as the Buddha’s teachings transformed the lives of countless humans, so too can they inspire a transformation in how we treat non-human animals. By deepening our understanding of the principles of karma, ahimsa, and compassion toward all beings, we can create a society that values and protects all creatures.

Consider the story of Angulimala, a notorious bandit who, on encountering the Buddha, experienced a profound transformation and became a compassionate monk. This story illustrates the potential for change within each individual. Similarly, society can transform its approach to animal welfare, moving from exploitation to compassion.

References

Finnigan, Bronwyn. 2017. “Buddhism and Animal Ethics.” Philosophy Compass 12 (7). 1–12. See: https://philpapers.org/archive/FINBAA-2.pdf

See more

Fire at famous Bangkok market kills 1,000 animals (BBC News)
Fire at Notorious Bangkok Market Kills 1,000 Caged Animals (Time)
Fire at popular Bangkok pet market kills hundreds of caged animals (Yahoo! News)
Thai market fire consumes hundreds of caged animals (Al Jazeera)

Related features from BDG

Engaging the Six Paramitas to Care for Animals, Part Two: Diligence, Concentration, and Wisdom
An Interview with Ron Epstein on Responsible Living: Explorations in Applied Buddhist Ethics—Animals, Environment, GMOs, Digital Media
Childhood Pets, Animals, and Kindness
The Honey-offering Festival: Commemorating the Service of Animals to the Buddha
“Animals and World Religions” is a work of scholarly eloquence and moral power

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No One Important
No One Important
28 days ago

Well done article.

A very unfortunate incident. In a world of dualism this will happen. May it awaken people to the sufferings of all sentient beings.