From A Plea For The Animals by Matthieu Ricard
Some people are born with a natural tendency to be compassionate. From an early age, they show spontaneous kindness toward those around them, including animals. This was not the case for me. I was born into a Breton family, and until I was fourteen years old I often used to go fishing. I also remember when I was very young my friends from the local school and I once grilled ants by focusing the sun’s rays on them with a magnifying glass. Looking back, I am ashamed of this, but it upsets me even more that such behavior struck me as normal. When I was five, my father took me to see the bullfights in Mexico. It was a celebration. The music was exciting. Everybody seemed to feel this was a great occasion, that all of this was wonderful. Why didn’t I leave in tears? Was it a lack of compassion, of education, of imagination?
It never occurred to me to put myself in the place of the fish, the ant, or the bull. Was I just a hard-hearted guy? Or was it simply that I had never thought about these matters, that my eyes had yet to be opened?
It took me some time to come to a kind of awakening. I lived for a few years with one of my grandmothers, who had all the qualities one could wish for in a grandmother. Like a lot of people I knew who in other ways were good parents and good children, she was very fond of fishing. When we were on vacation, she often spent her afternoons fishing on the shores of a lake or in the harbor at Le Croisic in the company of elderly Breton ladies who still wore the traditional white lace Bigouden headdress. How could these people possibly have wanted to inflict pain on anything or anybody? Hooked at the end of the line, the little wriggling fish being pulled out of the water glittered in the light. Of course, there was the painful moment when they suffocated in the wicker basket and their eyes glazed over, but I looked the other way.
A few years later, when I was fourteen, a girlfriend asked me point-blank: “Really? You go fishing!?” Her tone of voice and the look she gave me—stunned and disapproving at the same time—were eloquent enough.
“You go fishing?” Suddenly I saw that whole scene in a different light: a fish pulled from its vital element by an iron hook stuck through its mouth, then suffocating in the air the way we drown in water. In order to lure the fish to the hook, did I not also skewer a worm as living bait, thus sacrificing one life to destroy another? How could I have let my mind block out this reality of suffering for such a long time? Sickened to the heart by these thoughts, I gave up fishing on the spot.
No doubt, when compared to the drastic events that wreck the lives of so many human beings in the world, my preoccupation with those little fish might seem ludicrous. But for me this was a turning point.
At the age of twenty I had the great good fortune of meeting Tibetan spiritual masters, who from that time on have inspired every moment of my existence. The central point of their teachings has been the royal way of love and universal compassion.
It is far from my intention, as you will have gathered, to rebuke people who in one way or another cause animals to suffer. They often do it without thinking, as I myself used to do. It truly is difficult to make the connection between the latest consumer items, including food and medicines that sometimes save our lives, and the suffering that is usually involved in their fabrication. Cultural traditions also play a major role in our perceptions of animals, our companions on this planet. Some societies have developed collective patterns of thought that encourage the view that animals exist to serve humans, but the outlook of other traditions has long been that every being, human or nonhuman, must be respected.
This book is a logical and necessary follow-up to my book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Its purpose is clearly to demonstrate the justifications and the moral imperative for extending our altruism to all sentient beings, without any quantitative or qualitative limitations. Certainly there is so much suffering among human beings throughout the world, one could spend one’s whole life just alleviating a tiny fraction of it. Despite that, however, concern for the fate of the 7.7 million other species of animals that inhabit this planet is neither unrealistic nor misguided, because most of the time there is no need to choose between the well-being of humans and the well-being of animals. We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being, of whatever kind, is intimately linked to that of all the others. So what we are suggesting here is not concern for animals only but concern for animals also.
This book is a plea and an exhortation to change our relationship with animals. This plea is not just moral finger-pointing but is based on evidence, the work of evolutionists, ethologists, and philosophers who are respected throughout the world. Some of the studies we call on in this book bring to light the intellectual and emotional richness, too often ignored, that a great proportion of animal species are endowed with. These studies also show the continuum that links all of the animal species, including us, and makes it possible to retrace the evolutionary history of the species that populate the planet today. Starting with the era of the ancestors we share with other animal species, little by little, by a long series of steps and minimal changes, we arrived at the stage of Homo sapiens. In the course of this slow evolution there was no “magical moment” that would justify our conferring on ourselves a special nature that makes us fundamentally different from the many species of hominids that preceded us. Nothing occurred in the evolutionary process that would justify our claim to a right of total supremacy over the animals.
The most striking quality that humans and animals have in common is the capacity to experience suffering. Why do we still blind ourselves, now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to the immeasurable suffering that we inflict on animals, knowing that a great part of the pain that we cause them is neither necessary nor unavoidable? Certainly we should know that there is no moral justification for inflicting needless pain and death on any being.