Contradiction of Buddhism on the value of human and non-human suffering?


Unlike some religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Buddhism does not believe that human suffering is more unacceptable than the suffering of other living beings. In other words, Buddhism is not anthropocentric, and puts the suffering of human beings on an equal footing with the suffering of other beings (deities, animals, starving beings, hellish beings, etc.).

However, by the simple fact of living, Buddhist monks kill (unintentionally) a lot of lives. For example, while walking in the forest or working the land, the monk will regularly intentionally crush or mow down living beings, even while being careful. However, the monk could very well kill far fewer living beings if he decided to commit suicide. But the Buddha did not encourage monks to commit mass suicide in the name of the reduction of suffering that this would create. So, finally, isn’t there a contradiction in Buddhism? Indeed, how can one consider that human suffering has an equal value to animal suffering AND not encourage the massive suicide of monks (and other humans) killing living beings?

I wonder how Buddhists resolve this.

Thanks in advance

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Will not those of the above who are not enlightened suffer if they decide to end their lives? :thinking:

Possibly the above may be true but if the enlightened monks end their lives, will not people suffer more because they have no monks to teach them how to reduce &/or end suffering?

Also, while enlightened monks may unintentionally stomp on insects & creatures, are not enlightened monks helping to reduce other potential forms of killing, such as discouraging war or encouraging less consumption of meat?

My impression is Buddhism explains suffering happens when there ‘attachment (upadana)’ towards the five aggregates. Attachment means to regard things are “I”, “me” & “mine”. SN 22.1 is a sutta with a very simple explanation of attachment to the five aggregates as “self” being suffering.

While the attitude of not-killing all life forms (such as mosquitoes, gadflies, ants, worms, etc) can make people more compassionate, sensitive & fearless, are you sure the ants & other creatures monks may unintentionally stomp on & crush are actually “suffering”? Do ants, for example, have minds that generate “attachment” (“upadana”)? For example, a mosquito or gadfly will keep returning to attempt to suck the blood of a person even after the person has attempted many times to kill the insect. Surely, if a mosquito or gadfly had a sense of “I”, “me” & “mine” they would realize they are in danger & desist. But they do not. The impression is these insects are programmed by pure instinct rather than any sense of “self”. For example, I have witnessed cows behave like people when one of their cow community is in danger. But I have never seen ants, mosquitoes or gadflies mourn for their dead kin. What do you think about this? Thanks :thinking:


By not regarding the present life as the only life.

Non-arahant monks who commit suicide will be reborn and in subsequent lives will meet with further occasions where they accidentally trample on bugs. Or even deliberately trample on them, for if they are still worldlings there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to practise the same kind of moral restraint in future lives.

Non-arahant monks who abstain from suicide may arrive at arahantship. In that event there’ll be no more rebirth and no more opportunity to trample on bugs.

Therefore their refraining from suicide can be defended on proportionalist grounds as the lesser evil.

But there is still the further question: why don’t all monks kill themselves immediately after attaining arahantship, so as to ensure that there’ll be no further trampling on bugs prior to the dissolution of their last body?

Here too I believe the decision to remain alive can be defended on proportionalist grounds, for the merit that humans and devas obtain by giving gifts to such “incomparable fields of merit” outweighs the evil of a few accidentally squashed bugs, etc.

See also the simile of the pregnant woman in the Pāyāsi Sutta DN23.


Thank you !

1/ Yes, suicide causes suffering against oneself and against others. But the suffering produced by suicide is certainly less than the suffering produced by non-suicide.

Secondly, suicide may not bring anything to the one who commits suicide, but it brings less suffering to many other beings.

2/ Yes, suicide does not get us out of the hellish loop of samsara, and so one could say that non-suicide is justified by the fact that one has to train oneself to reach enlightenment and then to help other beings to reach enlightenment.

However, this idea also implies that at a given moment, one prioritizes suffering. Indeed, to say that “it is better that the monk does not commit suicide, because it allows him to reach awakening and then to help beings”, is like saying that “it is better that the monk crushes and mows down countless beings rather than dying/suffering, because it allows him to reach awakening”. In other words, it means that the suffering of the human being is more unacceptable than the suffering of the non-human beings, because to save the beings, it is necessary to preserve the human (at the expense of the non-human).
So even if the idea remains very altruistic (since the goal is to save ALL the living beings in the universe), this altruistic idea implies a hierarchy of sufferings.

3/ In my opinion, ants still have an attachment to life, a thirst to go on living, and therefore a certain sense of an “I”, or rather of an “I live”.

Sounds like unsubstantiated conjecture. :saluting_face: :thinking: I already offered some reasonably logical suggestions why ants, mosquitoes, gadflies, etc, may have no sense of “I”.

You seem to be suggesting an ant that is crushed in a moment suffers more than a person who must plan & then perform their own suicide for the sake of ants who may be crushed. I have my doubts about your theory.

Its like when the Russians were advancing upon Berlin at the end of WW2. Surely those Germans fearing death & rape by those Soviets suffered much more than those Japanese who unknowingly to them were instantly incinerated by the atomic bombs they had no idea would fall upon them.


Maybe the ants are sad for their community. I don’t see why not.

Besides, even if they wouldn’t be sad about it, that doesn’t stop them from having an “I” feeling.

I’ve never seen ants conducting funerals. :open_mouth: There are all sorts of ants living around me (because property is like a mini-jungle). :deciduous_tree:

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I didn’t find the argument convincing. Though an insect’s ability to sense danger and evade it may be less sophisticated than a mammal’s, nevertheless, when it does sense danger it does seek to evade it, demonstrating that it holds its life dear (as indeed do all beings according to the Dhammapada).

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Reasonable statement in reply however my inclination is to disagree. If it held its life dear, it would run away. My sense there is too much reckless greed to hold life dear. It is simply motivated by lust. Its evasion seems for the sake of its lust rather than due to self-preservation instinct.

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Yes; this means that even if the goal is the end of suffering for ALL beings, there is still a hierarchy of sufferings (some are more acceptable than others).

The above sounds like Mahayana. The EBTs actually seem to explicitly say in a few places (Dhp 174; AN 10.95; SN 56.120-122) the above is not the goal of the Buddha’s Teaching.

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Interesting, thank you

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But that is what they do. Mosquitoes fly off when they sense the shadow of a hand that might be about to swat them. Beetles scurry off when they see a finger sliding towards them.

Sure, but isn’t that exactly what “holding one’s life dear” means? Due to the power of bhavatanhā one wants to go on existing.


Thankfully, there are nuns too.


This is nonsense and ultimately the whole problem of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. It os simply not possible to know the consequences of actions or the quantities of the suffering of others.

This is a point made pretty effectively by the movie “its a wonderful life” which i highly recommend you watch if you havent seen it.

You have absolutely no way of knowing how much an ant suffers mental anguish in any of its circumstances.

You dont even really know how much another human suffers.

For example, 2 people get punched in the stomach, one of them grunts and gets on with thier lives, the other falls to the ground and wails and crys for 15 minutes solid. You (quite reasonably) think that the one who cried suffered the greater injury. Later when ypur putting them both to bed it turns out that the “grunter” who insists thier ok has a nasty bruise that is clearly discomforting him, while the other brother doesnt have a mark on them and has completely forgotten about the incident. Now you think “grunty suffered more”. Next morning you discuss the incident over breakfast to discover that “grunty” is perfectly content to leave it at that but “wailer” has had nightmares about the incident and realised that they still feel deeply aggrieved about the fight. Now it appears again that it is wailer who suffers the most.

These things happen ALL THE TIME.

if one cant be certain about the amount of mental anguish in our own children how on earth can we know “for certain” that we should kill ouselves to save ants?


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Or forego saving a drowning child in order to reduce meat consumption. Yep, a former colleague of Peter Singer has actually argued this (hopefully tongue in cheek).


What? How so? In what world does killing cause less suffering? This is certainly not the Buddhist position.

Idk… I’d be pretty sad if I heard that you had killed yourself, @DeadBuddha !


That logic about extreme non-harming is what lead to Jainism, sitting still and not breathing until death.

Buddhism don’t do things like that.

Here’s my understanding. The idea is, we are all suffering in samsara and will still be reborn for countless lives more. Today I step on you, next time maybe you will step on me. It doesn’t really matter if today I refrain from walking, the cycle doesn’t break.

The only thing that can break the cycle is to attain enlightenment. Can enlightenment be attained by staying still, not breathing and not bathing, not eating and not drinking? Nope, that is false view held by unenlightened ascetics.
Enlightenment is attained through cultivating wisdom, and to do that we live our lives just normally, keeping precepts as reasonable as we can, developing concentration, and insight.

This undertaking must be done by oneself, nobody can do it for us. No deity can grant us knowledge, vision, or purity.
The idea is that as long as one take care of oneself, if everyone doing the same thing, then everyone is taken care of.

Another parable: We are in samsara together, drowning en masse.
It is better that I learn how to swim myself, and then I can float. After that I can maybe teach someone drowning next to me about how to float. Trying to pick someone else will just result in us drowning together.

The idea of not killing ants by walking etc, is equivalent as worrying whether my attempt to learn to float will cause waves that will affect other drowning people nearby. There are many waves already, and you got your priority wrong.

Even if you want to save all other drowning people, the correct and best thing to do is to save yourself first. Try to float by ourself first. This is a very practical thing. You cant do anything if you are drowning yourself.

So you say about the hierarchy of suffering? I think, “my suffering” is more unacceptable. While I am a human, this make it seems that for me, human suffering is more unacceptable.
Well, you need to resolve part of your suffering first before you can see others’ suffering.

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There’s something like Entire Universes inside of our complex bodies, even just our brains. So don’t consider killing oneself a way to save someone you might step on by accident. You are worth more than many insects.

You need the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, following the Middle-Way, not rejecting any part of the Dhamma for a long life of Peace and Spiritual Success.

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It’s not easy to practice the dhamma in other realms. The gods may attain to enlightenment when Buddhas give talks to them.

As a human is the best chance to get out of the rounds of suffering forever. I think that’s why the lay people are so willing to support the monastics to do this work. It’s like the lay people think: “let’s support less suffering in the world by supporting these monastics, they get out (of samsara), we also happy, hopefully can get out like them too.”

Imagine a room where all the doors lead to a maze of cube rooms, linking back to the same room. People in it suffers and also have temporary happiness. They go explore the place up and down and sideways cannot find a way out. Until a Buddha emerges and show them that one can get out via this and that way. Not everyone is capable of the full training yet, so they support those who would devote their lives to it.

If one thinks the ultimate most good for most people, this is the ultimate answer: reduce the total amount of “sentient beings” in samsara, one eliminates potential infinite future sufferings for that one person, reducing infinite lives of sufferings. It just happens that this way out of samsara is to be done by each individual, for themselves, and best done in human realm, when the dhamma is still here in the world. So rare, so hard to get these conditions of being reborn as a human of having a Buddha in the world, of having the dhamma being taught. Why waste this so rare a chance to end infinite sufferings in the future?

Living arahants can help guide the others or just as an example that it can be done.