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Are all animals a result of negative karma in past lives and how can they leave this realm and achieve a more favorable rebirth?
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means action. In Buddhism, it refers to the natural law of cause and result as it pertains to a living beings’ consciousness. The law of karma—the law of cause and result—has many facets, and it takes much study and reflection to fully appreciate it. I will give a simple explanation here in order to respond to your question. If this piques your interest, you can browse the many teachings in the Karma and Rebirth section of my teacher’s website, ThubtenChodron.org.
Cause & Result
The law of cause and result isn’t some exotic, alien force that only Buddhists follow. We all live with it every day without thinking much about it. For example, workers pursue professional training hoping the cause will bring a specific result—a better job and bigger paycheck. We know that putting a kettle of water on a hot burner will result in boiling water.
The law of karma and its effects is the law of cause and result when it is applied to the ethical dimension of our actions. Here we see that our actions of body, speech, and mind influence our future experiences. We create actions—karma—as causes in this life that result in future life experiences.
Buddha didn’t create the law of karma; he simply described it as a fundamental law that shapes our experience. This teaching shows that our actions have an ethical dimension and that we are the sole creators of our happiness and suffering.
Here’s how it works: In essence, whenever we engage in an action of body, speech, or mind, it leaves a subtle imprint that acts like a seed with the potential to ripen in a future experience. Virtuous actions done with virtuous motivations—like love, consideration for others, generosity and so forth—result in pleasurable experiences. Nonvirtuous actions of body speech, or mind, motivated by nonvirtuous minds—like confusion, anger, or greed—bring about unpleasant experiences. Ethically neutral actions result in neutral experiences.
These karmic “seeds” ripened during our lives, bringing their results—the events we encounter and the pleasurable, painful or neutral feelings we experience. When they ripen at the moment of death, they influence what our next rebirth will be. In general, the seed of a virtuous action brings a fortunate rebirth, which includes being born as a human. The seed of a nonvirtuous action causes an unfortunate rebirth, which can include birth as an animal of any type—mammal, bird, reptile, or insect. From this you can see that it’s not difficult for a human to be reborn as an animal.
So yes, you can say that rebirth as an animal comes as a result of a past negative action, but many other past actions also come into play. For example, at Sravasti Abbey where I live, we have four cats. They are well loved and well fed. They have “summer homes”—roomy outdoor cages that let them nap in the sun, hide out in the shade, and experience the great outdoors without having the chance to continue their habit of killing mice and gophers. So while an action of faulty ethics ripened at the end of their previous lives and led to their taking birth as cats in this life, their past virtuous karma—motivated by generosity, for example, or loving kindness—helped to bring about their cushy living conditions.
Helping Your Pets
It’s not easy for an animal to create virtue that can lead to an upper rebirth, but it’s definitely possible. Caring humans can help their animal friends.
Pet owners can put imprints of good karma into their pets’ minds by exposing them to holy objects and virtuous aspirations. For example, at the Abbey, we often walk our cats on a leash around a Buddha statue in the center of the garden. The cats also attend the Buddhist teachings held in the building where the cats live.
Many Buddhist practitioners share their daily practices with their animals allowing their dogs or cats to lie nearby as they meditate. They also chant or read texts out loud so the animals can hear them. Although your pets can’t understand the words, the imprints of those sounds are in their minds and contribute to their store of seeds of virtue. It’s especially good to chant mantra as your pets are dying to help create conditions for their virtuous actions—created when they were human in the past—to ripen at the time of their death, propelling them to a more fortunate rebirth.