Lisa Kemmerer – Animals and Buddhism


About Lisa Kemmerer 

Lisa Kemmerer professor of philosophy and religions at Montana State University Billings, is a philosopher – activist working on behalf of nonhuman animals, the environment, and disempowered human beings. Graduate of Reed, Harvard, and Glasgow University (Scotland), Kemmerer has written/ edited nine books. 


1 . Interviewer Zélia Bora – Could you tell us how did you develop your interest in Buddhism and why the Buddhist ethics is ideal to lead us to think about the relationship between humans and non humans?

Interview Lisa Kemmerer –  have been interested in religion and faith since my earliest years.  Buddhism fascinated me from the first whisperings that I heard on the topic. By the time I was old enough to go to college, my eagerness to learn could not be satisfied in a conventional classroom—and I wanted to visit countries where I could see Eastern religions in action, especially Buddhism.  I worked long and hard to earn enough money to travel to Asia. 

Of course travels only heightened my interest in Buddhism: The more I saw, the more I wanted to know.  At some point, I lived and studied in a Buddhist community in Dharamsala, India. I also worked with Thai Buddhists in Alaska.  What wonderful people!

I am never willing to say that any religion is ideal—all religions are beautiful.  It is only how religions are practiced that causes problems in our world.  Where anymals are concerned, it is true that the religions of India are particularly strong in teachings that work against exploitation and oppression.  But again I note that all religions teach compassion, service for the needy, and simplicity that would leave room on the planet for all species and plenty of nature.

India developed the remarkable idea of reincarnation.  Religions all attempt to answer “unanswerable” questions—Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why do we suffer?—and reincarnation sems a particularly beautiful answer to the question of where we come from and where we are going—as reincarnation would have it, explaining what happens to us between lives.  What is helpful about this answer, is that reincarnation casts us all as relatives.  There is no living being who does not hold a soul we once loved, once knew deeply, one would have protected with our own life.  Clearly, this encourages us to treat all living beings as relatives—because they are our relatives.

There are other powerfully animal friendly teachings in the Buddhist tradition, including the ideas of Buddha Nature, which holds that every living being is perfect in itself.  Compassion is central to the role of bodhisattvas— ahimsa, metta, and karuna, which encourage lovingkindness and compassion, lie at the center of Buddhist ethics.  Anatta reminds us that, in light of constant change, there is no self, balancing tendencies toward selfishness. And finally, the first Buddhist precept is not to kill. It is not softened or restricted—the dictate is clear and conclusive.


“We are the ones who have the power to change our consumer habits.  We are the ones who either put our money down for their lives, or boycott animal products.” ( Introduction to Speaking Up for Animals)


2. Z. How did you move across cultures to adopt Buddhist ethics of an “interconnected web of inter relationship”

L. I think anyone who is deeply spiritual will hold the values of compassion, simplicity, and service at their core.  What Buddhism provides is a fresh view of these core religious principles—a different rational, and different motivation, and a different expression.  For example, all religions teach compassion, but is one compassionate because based on God’s law, because all beings hold the soul of Brahmin, or because it is a core teaching of the founder?  Is one compassionate in light of karma, for the sake of eternal salvation, or because you see God/Buddha Nature in another being?  I am a scholar, and rarely talk about my myself personally, but I can say that studying religions has provided me with a rich understanding of possible reasons why compassion is morally important.

The interconnected web is similar—all religions provide some sense of interconnections, whether through the hand of the creator (Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions), or via recycling of matter (early Daoism), or via an ever changing universe where action and reaction are viewed on a spiritual plane, as in Buddhism. What I love about Buddhist traditions, is that this sense of an interconnected universe remains vibrantly alive.  This idea of interconnectedness is not just a philosophical possibility, but a reality in the eyes and hearts and minds of most Buddhists. (As with most Hindus and Jains.)

3. Z. As a professor of Philosophy and Religion could you explain the concept of Oneness or Unity present in all religions?

L. The concept of Oneness and Unity is central to all religions.  In Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, oneness arises from recognizing that all stems from the hand of one Creator who brought about a vegan world and who remains invested in all of creation.  Asian religious traditions have tended to offer a less theistic and more philosophical approach to unity and oneness.  For example, the Hindu idea of Atman = Brahman, which is expressed in the greeting, “Namaste”—“I greet God in you,”teaches that the soul of Brahmin (which most easily translates as God) dwells in every living being, and that the soul of every living being dwells in Brahmin. In Daoist traditions, the Dao resides in all and dictates all, and when we perish, our parts become the parts of other beings: We are literally, physically united and interconnected.  Confucian tradition teaches that all minds stem from one source so that the minds of all beings are one.  Reincarnation provides an understanding of unity and oneness: All beings are kin.  The mouse who skitters across the floor and the chicken chewed by omnivores was once my mother, my brother, my best friend.

The conception of oneness is spiritually important because religion has, since its beginnings, been a community commitment. The underlying meaning of religion stems from a term that means “to bind”—religions bind people together.  And in the process of reminding people that they are part of a larger community, religions have also reminded people that we are part of a larger community of beings.  Many indigenous traditions have carried this idea from the foggy and distant past to the present day, including stories of a Great Peace that came before the days of predation, when all species lived together as one community.  The Quechua of the Andies speak of the ayllu, which is their extended, interspecies community, including plants, anymals, and the land itself. All members of this extended community are recognized as important and as fundamentally equal.  This is another vision of unity and oneness where the larger world is recognized, literally, as community.



“If we stand within one of the world’ s great religions, and if we have integrity in our religious commitments, we can and must reject animal exploitation in all of its insidious forms.” (Animal and World Religions) 


4. Z. In your article: “Buddhist Ethics: compassion for all animals”, you say that “Buddhism offers a vision of radical inter-identification”. Can you explain how this concept can lead us to respect, nature and the animals, and how these concepts can help us to become better human beings?

L. The idea of radical interidentification that was developed in Mahayana Buddhism in China, particularly in the Huayen school of Buddhism, is nothing short of magical when the brain grasps the deeper meanings.  When we understand that a tripod can only stand with three legs, and that this therefore leads to the understanding that every leg of the tripod is the tripod (because the tripod would not exist without each leg), then we begin to see radical inter-identification.  When we see that a tripod cannot exist without each leg, we can then understand that nothing can be as it is without all things as they are.  When you remove a leg, you no longer have the tripod. In the same way, when you remove a species, you no longer have the same world, and when you remove a small frog from the edge of a pond, you have lost the frog and the ecosystem and when expanded outward, you see that the universe is changed by this loss.  Just as I am not the same person without one of my toes, so the Earth is not the same without one of its frogs.

Another image of radical interidentification stems from the Jewel Net of Indra, another beautiful concept out of India, whereby diamonds at each intersection in the webbing of a vast net, which stretches across the universe, reflects every other diamond in an infinite regress.  This shows the interdependence of every diamond on every other diamond, and ultimately the emptiness of any individual existence. We can envision this in scientific terms through such concepts as evolution—we are only here through the process of billions of years of beings and time.  We can also envision this in microcosms, whereby there are billions of beings that live within us, and we consist of atoms that are mostly air, and our bodies turn over completely every seven years—where then is the individual? We are a whole for many parts, and we are one of many parts in a larger whole. 

These teachings have a very practical element in reshaping our sense of self in the larger world.  The rattle snake is also a whole for many parts, and also one small part of the larger whole—alongside us and every other species.  We see ourselves in context. We see ourselves as context.  We recognize how we are, along with the many other anymals, a temporary form with a very short lifetime, and the question of how to live is placed in a humble context, an integrated context. But our role is also elevated.  We infinitely reflect all other things even as we are infinitely reflected.  We are not the ultimate, but only a portion—but we have our portion in this integrated universe.

Human arrogance harms anymals and nature. Arrogance arises when we fail to see who we are—vulnerable nearly hairless apes dependent on all other beings and dependent on Earth. 


“[We] have extended ethics outward from self to family to community to all of humanity. We are now called to extend moral consideration to other species.”  ( In Search of Consistency)


Montana, November 08, 2018.

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