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Buddhadharma : Winter 2017
review | roger jackson 115 Ohnuma, one of our finest scholars of Indian Buddhism, admits that she is less interested in animals per se than in how “animals are represented within the world of Buddhist texts, and how, in particular, these representations are used to comment upon human beings, the nature of human- ity, and the project of being human.” In that sense, Unfortunate Destiny is not a treatise on animal ethics, like Matthieu Ricard’s recent A Plea for the Animals (Shambhala 2016), but rather a study of how early Indian Buddhist writers— those living before the sixth century CE— depicted animals so as to comment on the cosmos, human society, and religion. In the process, Ohnuma shows us the complexity of early Buddhists’ feelings about animals, feelings that are shaped by both spiritual aspiration and moral ambivalence. Drawing on a wide range of Pali and Sanskrit materials, most of them narrative, as well as Western writings on animals, Ohnuma divides her discussion into three sections that cover, respectively, the gener- ally lamentable state of animals as seen by early Buddhists; the role and importance of animals in the Jatakas, the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives; and animals that play a significant part in accounts of the Buddha’s “final” life. Ohnuma begins by detailing the ways in which an animal rebirth is included among the lower realms of samsara: a miserable, pitiable existence that both results from negative karma in a previous life and entails the performance of further evil deeds that will assure future bad rebirths. According to Ohnuma, early Buddhist cosmology is in fact straightforwardly “speciesist,” establishing an impermeable boundary between the human and the animal. The boundary is absolute because animals, unlike humans, lack speech, intelligence, and proper social constructs, resulting in “a lack of moral agency and an inability to engage in spiritual cultivation.” In Buddhist literature, it often seems that the only worthwhile realm of samsara is the human realm, since it typically is said that only humans can attain nirvana. Having painted this bleak portrait of the animal realm, however, Ohnuma goes on to add nuance to the picture by examin- ing stories in which animals—a bull saved from slaughter, a talking parrot, a flock of geese, a black snake, and a buffalo— happen to catch sight of the Buddha and spontaneously generate prasada, or faith, a virtuous attitude that, after death, leads to rebirth in a god realm, where they can actually grasp the dharma and eventually proceed to a human birth and liberation. Ohnuma is careful to note that these sto- ries (which may lie behind such Mahayana Buddhist practices as exposing animals to sacred objects and sounds or purchasing and freeing them on festival days) do not exalt the animal realm or the spiritual potential of its denizens, since real prog- ress is only possible outside its confines. Indeed, these fortunate few creatures are exceptions that prove the rule that animal existence is unremittingly awful. In the section titled “When Animals Speak,” Ohnuma mines the Pali Jatakas for examples of animals that think, feel, and speak like human beings. She finds many: fully 40 percent of the stories have a main character that is an animal, often the Bodhisattva—the future Buddha—him- self, who variously is born as a monkey, deer, goose, lion, parrot, elephant, lizard, mouse, frog, pig, dog, jackal, and nearly twenty other species. These stories, which are vital to Buddhist moral instruction throughout Asia but underappreciated in the West, not only use animal voices and