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A Buddhist look at pets, food and funerals in Japan

4 Comments
By Wilburn Hansen

Pets in rich countries are increasingly pampered and treated as prized family members. On the streets of Japan, this contemporary phenomenon manifests daily in the form of people pushing a stroller occupied by one or more furry family members wearing warm sweaters and perhaps even diapers.

This almost human treatment has progressed so far that pets are being afforded funeral rites previously limited to human beings within the last couple of decades.

Is there not something within the doctrines of the native religion Shinto, or else the imported but more dominant religion Buddhism, that might explain this more “humane” treatment?

Shinto and animals

iStock-Eloi_Omella-deer-shinto-nara.jpg
In Shinto, deer are sacred messengers of the gods. Photo: iStock/ Eloi_Omella

Some of the earliest Japanese myths introduce the kami of hunting and fishing. There is also a kami that protects humans from animals. Occasionally animals appear as messengers of the kami. In short, in Shinto, animals are either food, foe or they work for you.

Even today, there are literally tens of thousands of shrines dedicated to the worship of these animal controlling deities. If you have ever visited a Suwa Shrine, you have contributed to the upkeep of the kami of hunting. Most foreign visitors have seen the seven gods of good fortune and noticed that one, Ebisu, has a big fish slung over his shoulder.

Maybe you have stopped at Ebisu in Tokyo and toasted your good fortune with his eponymous beer. In short, according to early native Shinto mythology, animals are not friends. They certainly don’t rate human treatment. So if there is a Japanese religious reason to offer pets funerals, it doesn’t come from the Shinto tradition.

Buddhist Animal Stories

Sometime in the sixth century, Buddhist practitioners started trickling into Japan from the Asian continent. Over a thousand years earlier in India, religious ideas about the sanctity of the lives of all sentient beings started to spread and eventually traveled through what is now China and Korea, then into Japan. Some of these religious teachings came in the form of tale literature. That is, Indian Buddhist monks would tell simple stories to the public who in return fed them hoping to gain merit that would lead to better future reincarnations.

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As a translator of many of the Buddhist stories about animals, I was quite interested in this. In one, a warrior is ordered to go deer hunting but is reluctant to obey, as he has dreamt of his mother, who tells him that she has been reborn as a deer to expiate her sins and that he may wind up killing her. That is indeed what happens…Note that it is taken for granted that it’s better to be a human being than an animal. A lot of modern sentimentalists, with more money than common sense, think otherwise.

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Jataka tales were Buddhist in origin because it is believed that they were expounded by the Buddha himself who was able to remember all his past lives in animal forms.

But some of the Jataka tales are also common with Panchtantra, and Panchtantra fables were neither Hindu nor Buddhist in origin and are considered to be even older than Jataka tales.

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the doctrine of karma that suggests that stroller–driven, sweater-clad, darling Pochi–chan could be the karmic penance of poor Jun ojisan, who died in a drunk driving accident exactly 49 days before Pochi–chan was conceived.

As Khuniri notes, it’s interesting that it’s generally accepted that being human is better than being an animal.

Poor Jun ojisan may have earned himself a lifetime as a coddled pet due to drunk driving, but the other side of the coin is surely that sweet little Pochi may have been such a Good Boy that he earned himself reincarnation as a film star, pop idol, prime minister or celebrity chef. Who knows.

The instigator of the Special Military Operation will of course be reincarnated as a bear, hopefully a gummy one, sticky and covered in fluff at the bottom of someone’s pocket.

Or maybe a slug.

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it’s interesting that it’s generally accepted that being human is better than being an animal.

In Buddhism it’s considered better to be born a human than being an animal because humans can make efforts to attain enlightenment while animals, even though they also have the capacity to attain enlightenment, can not understand the point of it and therefore are unable to even make efforts towards that end.

Of course in modern times it’s not always the case that being born a human is better than being born an animal. My pet dog probably lives a better life than many humans.

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