(by Ninja) Enlightenment, the full realization of the self as non-separate from the ever-present, perfect light of eternal awareness is rarely seen in this world. In Buddhism, we recognize enlightened souls and celebrate their existence regardless of the religious or organizational structures that may have developed around them or around their memory. We think of the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Padmasambhava, Milarepa, Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and our teacher Rama of course. There are many others who were perhaps less well known, but their very existence among us provides a guiding light and gives us hope – they too were human beings once with limitations but overcame them and reached liberation, so maybe we can too!
What is missing from this spiritual pantheon are enlightened beings from other dimensions, other worlds, and other cycles of existence who we might come to appreciate either directly in meditation or through scriptures.
But what about animals? Can they be enlightened? In Vasistha’s Yoga, a text believed to have been written by a great Indian rishi, an enlightened sage instructs Rama, his enlightened pupil as follows, “There are thousands of others, O Rama, who exist in the universe and who are liberated. Some of them are sages, others are kings, others shine as stars and planets, others are divinities and others are demons. O Rama, there are liberated beings even among worms and insects; and there are stupid fools among the gods. The self is in all; it exists as the all everywhere at all times and in all ways. The self alone is the Lord and all the divinities.”
Enlightened worms and insects? That puts a whole new spin on our modern society’s insatiable need to squash out every “lower” form of life that might sully the sterility of our environment.
But perhaps easier to grasp is the idea that a fellow mammal such as a cow or a dog, or a whale or a dolphin, could reach the highest ideal of spiritual achievement. Ramana Maharshi was recorded to have said, from the book Day by Day with Bhagavan, “It is not true that birth as a man is necessarily the highest, and that one must attain realization only from being a man. Even an animal can attain Self-realization.” Maharshi famously had a disciple named Lakshmi who was a cow that lived most of her life at his ashram and spent time daily with the master who she would often seek out in the meditation hall. At the time of her death, she entered into Nirvana, the stateless state beyond time and space.
Our teacher Rama was deeply bonded to his dog Vayu, a black Scottish terrier who accompanied Rama constantly, whether at work or at play. Rama never talked too much about Vayu but did intimate on several occasions that his dog was an evolved soul that he had known in many other lives. Some of Rama’s students became enamored of Scottish terriers as a result, (myself included!), and many Scottish terrier puppies were adopted by happy Buddhist monks in the 1990s, which Rama laughingly blamed on Vayu. In my own case, I lived alongside my Scotty for almost 14 years, and I say without reservation that he was the best friend I ever had. We had many memorable experiences together, mostly out tromping around in the woods. He passed away, but our spiritual bond is forever.
So, considering that animals can evolve and become enlightened and that our bond to them can be so profound, this naturally raises the question of what is the correct way to treat our animals on this planet?
Most Buddhists answer this question simply by following the Buddha’s exhortation, “May all that have life be delivered from suffering.” They endeavor to refrain from all activities that cause any form of animal or human suffering, and in this light will in most cases adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. But there are also Buddhists who are not vegetarians, and in Rama’s teaching cycle, there was a transition over time from a strict vegetarian recommendation to a less strict approach where meat could be incorporated into one’s lifestyle if it were done for the right reasons.
What is the Dharma, or truth for one person is not necessarily the Dharma or truth for another person. If eating meat is done to simply satisfy a desire or a craving, this is clearly not following the Dharma for a spiritual person, but if it is done because one has intuited that this action will lead to better physical, mental, or spiritual health then it is probably in line with the truth. In other words, it is a very individual matter and there is no one right answer for everyone.