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A Buddhist Look Behind Pets, Food and Funerals in Japan

Why are some animals in Japan eaten while some pets receive funeral services led by religious officials and are then enshrined within Buddhist altars within the home?

By 5 min read

Pets in rich countries are increasingly pampered and treated as prized family members. On the streets of Japan, this contemporary phenomenon manifests daily in the form of people pushing a stroller occupied by one or more furry family members wearing warm sweaters and perhaps even diapers.

This almost human treatment has progressed so far that pets are being afforded funeral rites previously limited to human beings within the last couple of decades.

Is there not something within the doctrines of the native religion Shinto, or else the imported but more dominant religion Buddhism, that might explain this more “humane” treatment?

Shinto and animals

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In Shinto, deer are sacred messengers of the gods.

Some of the earliest Japanese myths introduce the kami of hunting and fishing. There is also a kami that protects humans from animals. Occasionally animals appear as messengers of the kami. In short, in Shinto, animals are either food, foe or they work for you.

Even today, there are literally tens of thousands of shrines dedicated to the worship of these animal controlling deities. If you have ever visited a Suwa Shrine, you have contributed to the upkeep of the kami of hunting. Most foreign visitors have seen the seven gods of good fortune and noticed that one, Ebisu, has a big fish slung over his shoulder.

Maybe you have stopped at Ebisu in Tokyo and toasted your good fortune with his eponymous beer. In short, according to early native Shinto mythology, animals are not friends. They certainly don’t rate human treatment. So if there is a Japanese religious reason to offer pets funerals, it doesn’t come from the Shinto tradition.

Buddhist Animal Stories

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The entrance gate to the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko.

Sometime in the sixth century, Buddhist practitioners started trickling into Japan from the Asian continent. Over a thousand years earlier in India, religious ideas about the sanctity of the lives of all sentient beings started to spread and eventually traveled through what is now China and Korea, then into Japan. Some of these religious teachings came in the form of tale literature. That is, Indian Buddhist monks would tell simple stories to the public who in return fed them hoping to gain merit that would lead to better future reincarnations.

These tales conveyed the idea that the accumulation of good karma through meritorious action would guarantee humans a promotion in their next incarnation, just as bad karma that resulted from injurious action or indifference toward other sentient beings would guarantee a demotion from their current human status. Some tales described the lives that the Buddha himself lived as an animal.

Buddhist priests have become increasingly willing to offer prayers for deceased pets.

For example, once as a rabbit the future Buddha jumped into a starving man’s fire to offer his body as food. In another story, Buddha was a monkey king who sacrificed himself in order to save his monkey troupe from hunters.

These stories came to Japan with the Buddhist monks, who passed them on to the illiterate Japanese public. Some Japanese monks were inspired to create their own collections of Buddhist tales to be used as didactic tools to explain everyday actions that created both good and bad karma.

One medieval sect of Buddhism promoted its preferred practice of reciting a long prayer called the Lotus Sutra through a collection of stories glorifying its power. In one story, two monkeys in a tree hear a monk reciting the sutra beneath them. The monkeys die, but years later, the monk is visited by two young monks who reveal that they have been the monkeys. Just hearing the sutra had moved them along immediately into a better existence.

Buddhist Rituals for Animals

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Teach us, wise master.

Buddhist temples have historically performed rituals to rescue animals. Many temples still hold yearly ceremonies wherein they release captive animals. Most Buddhist sects over the centuries have at least attempted to enforce a diet regimen that does not include animals. A particularly popular Japanese restaurant course of vegetarian cuisine is based on the Zen-inspired meal called shojin ryori.

Accordingly, a traditional way to point out the hypocrisy in a monk is to call him namagusa (smelling like bloody meat). Certainly, there has been some historical backsliding among lay Buddhists who refrain only from eating four-legged animals. The backsliders included factions of the public who categorized rabbits as edible two-legged birds. After all, rabbits almost fly, and their ears are like wings, making them fair game and acceptable table fare.

According to Japanese Buddhist doctrine and past practice, there is no reason a dog or cat should receive better treatment than a rabbit, monkey, cow, pig or fish. Yet they do.

Traditionally in charge of funeral prayers for humans, Buddhist priests have become increasingly willing to offer prayers for deceased pets. The 49th day death anniversary prayers are essential for the dead’s reincarnation, which by doctrine is said to occur on that day. On top of that, Buddhist funeral accessory stores now have special sections for pet goods. Pet cemeteries for cremated bone storage are rapidly growing in number.

Religious practice for secular success

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Wooden prayer plaques, with the lucky Shiba Inu dogs at Kiyomizu-Dera Temple.

If the reason for an animal receiving a funeral from a Buddhist priest is not due to doctrine, then where should we look? Certainly, the cynical will point out a profit motive, but sincere priests also have to eat. Therein lies the rub. Religions do now and always have had to exist in a world that requires patronage.

As secular as this might sound, religions must survive in a market economy. Is it not rational to think that assisting a religion to survive is a valid and sincere religious reason for action? If there is a demand for Pochi and Tama to have funerals, someone will supply that demand.

Supplying your pet a funeral doesn’t contradict the doctrine of karma that suggests that stroller–driven, sweater-clad, darling Pochi–chan could be the karmic penance of poor Jun ojisan, who died in a drunk driving accident exactly 49 days before Pochi–chan was conceived.

This new practice also doesn’t preclude the chance that sweet Pochi-chan will hear the Lotus Sutra one day, and both he and careless Jun ojisan will enter the path to nirvana. Furthermore, by Japanese Pure Land Buddhist doctrine, Amida Buddha’s Pure Land Paradise is already populated by beautiful and pleasant–sounding animals. But unfortunately, the doctrine does not explain how they got there.

What do you think about animals in Japan? Is veganism becoming more popular? Tell us in the comments below!

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