Animal Rights in Bhutan

By Dr. Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison

Following are excerpts from the article. Read the full article here.

Flowers in BhutanThe non-violence corollaries of Bhutan’s Buddhist legacy at first glance would appear unambiguous. The very founder of Bhutan’s dominant Drupka Kagyupa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism was the Venerable Jigten Sumgon (1143 -1217) a vegetarian like so many of the great teachers from Tibet, including Marpa, Milarepa and Padmasambhava. Buddhism commends complete abstinence from the consumption of flesh, or from being party to any form of harm to other life forms. In the Buddha’sMahaparinirvana Sutra, the Shakyamuni Buddha conveys to his Bodhisattva disciple, Kasyapa, “Oh Kasyapa! From now on, tell my disciples to refrain from eating any kind of meat.”4 Tibetan Buddhists largely refrain from any non-vegetarian consumption during the month of Buddha’s Birth and of his Enlightenment.5 In Bhutan, contemporary monastic tradition has, in some instances, also translated into a highly pro-active, if discrete stance with respect to saving animals from slaughter.

Ahimsa, the Jain principle of non-violence that was embraced by Mahatma Gandhi himself, derived from Buddha’s elder contemporary, Lord Mahavira, the 24th Jain Tirthankara. Gandhi recognized that while non-violence was one of the most important ideals worthy of human aspiration, he also believed that absolute nonviolence was not easily achieved. Nonetheless, one of Gandhi’s most powerful thoughts is encapsulated in his decree, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.6 In a similar vein, Albert Einstein wrote, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Leonardo da Vinci had weighed in with the thought, “I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.”

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Person with Dog in BhutanJust as Tibetan Buddhists try to refrain from any involvement in the destruction of animals during Holy periods, so too, do the Bhutanese. Discussions as to whether the consumption of meat is “un-Buddhist” constitute a very serious, ongoing debate within the country, but there is no escaping the reality that Bhutan, by conservative estimates, is no more than 15% vegetarian.

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Bhutan, as with some other nations, including Suriname, Germany, New Zealand and Canada, has engendered large amounts of protected area proportionate to their land base. Bhutan has also inspired other nations to institute their own versions of Gross National Happiness. For example, Mongolia, Costa Rica, Iceland and the Netherlands have each established “well-being indicators.” But, no country other than Bhutan has enshrined such an all-encompassing primary forest canopy policy in terms of constitutionally protecting a sizeable portion of its in situ forest biodiversity. That, in and of itself, places Bhutan in an animal rights league of its own considering the suite of taxa, compounded by the global average of 3 million individuals per species, dwelling within such a canopy. That, most assuredly, represents animal protection at a spectacular level. Suriname and Canada each have more hectares of “avoided deforestation” to date. And, the nearly 100 million vegetarians in India (or roughly 9% of the entire nation, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) obviously constitute the world’s largest non-violent footprint. But Bhutan’s Buddhist values and conservation moral compass are suggestive, at the policy and judicial levels, of a powerful combination of sophisticated understatement, restraint, and pragmatic, heartfelt strategy.

4. See “Nirvana Sutra”, Chapter 7, in Lord Buddha’s On the Four Aspects.
6. See Mahatma Gandhi’s speech, “The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism”, The London Vegetarian Society, November 20, 1931.