The vastness of the Buddha’s moral concern is reflected in his repeated use of the words sabbe sattā. Cutting through allegiance to tribe, gender, caste, or even species, the Buddha recognized that moral value derives from the experience of suffering. Every sentient being has a worth, and the fact that every sentient being experiences suffering means that they can potentially realize awakening. The philosophical term for this kind of view is sentiocentrism.
The Buddha therefore left no room for an anthropocentric morality. The significance of humans is as agents of morality, not as the special subjects of moral concern. Even in this, however, we need be cautious, for it is not that moral agency is restricted to the human realm. All sentient beings move through the various realms where they act as moral agents and experience the karmic consequences of their choices. Indeed, the Buddhist texts describe heavenly beings of various realms as capable of moral choice. And anyone who has paid close attention to the lives of animals cannot help but see that kindness, altruism, even love are not restricted to the human realm. In the 1960s in my home of Sydney, a female German shepherd named Rexie lived near some spectacular cliffs named The Gap, which was a notorious suicide spot. If someone was about to jump, she would start barking and run to the edge of the cliffs. In this way she saved over 30 lives.
We humans are fortunate enough to be reborn in a state where we are capable of reflecting on our deeds and improving our choices. It’s tempting to fall into conceit, to imagine that our capacity for reason endows us with a superior moral worth. But if we start to interrogate this, it becomes problematic very quickly. Consider the ethical arguments of serial killers, religiously fanatical terrorists, or fascists. Repugnant as their ethics are, I don’t know that their moral consciousness is less reflective than that of most people. A moral philosopher or, say, a tortured artist may intensively reflect on their morality, but does that make them more valuable as people? They may be more cruel and self-serving than a kind and innocent child, or a simple but good-hearted adult, who has never really reflected on their ethics.
While Buddhists are clear that all sentient beings have an intrinsic moral value, it is not easy to establish a scale of values. It is clear enough that human life is, on average, valued more than that of animals. Within the animal realm, there is no clear-cut line between sentient or non-sentient, or easy way to evaluate the relative worth of different animals. Very roughly, we might relate moral value to the degree of consciousness as approximately correlated with brain size. Understanding moral value through this kind of sliding scale is known as “gradualist sentiocentrism”.
But such moral equations are too cut and dried to be very useful in the real world. The radical, fundamental precept of Buddhist ethics is that one should try to avoid harming even a single creature.
The explicit moral value of all sentient beings has deeper implications for the whole of the ecosystem. An anthropocentric morality can easily slip into the idea that nature is separate from us, and that the worth of nature is to serve us. Once we see precious life in every creature, it becomes much harder to disentangle sentient life from non-sentient life. Conventionally, we consider plant life to lack sentience, although as always when you press the distinctions they start to break down. Indeed, the distinction between life and not-life is also less clear than we might think.
The critical thing, though, is that sentient life is deeply and fundamentally embedded in every crevice of our planet. Nature is a whole, and the system supports all life. Thus the moral value of sentient life is not distinguishable from the moral value of all life.
Buddhist teachings go beyond this, though, as they see invisible beings throughout all creation. The trees, the skies, the oceans, even the grasses, are believed to be the homes of deities. These spirits, invisible to most people, are born in such domains due to their good deeds in past lives. While occupying a humble position in the heavenly hierarchy, they are nevertheless greatly revered within Buddhist traditions. The Buddha did not say in so many words that nature is sacred; that was not his way. But what more explicit and clear indication of holiness could there be than to see the whole natural world as full of divine beings?
Such beliefs connect Buddhist traditions directly with the beliefs of countless other peoples of the world. In Australia, for example, an indigenous elder once described to me his meditation. He said they did not meditate like we do. But from time to time he would walk into the bush, sit under a tree, and let his mind go out. He would feel the spirits and the life around him, and listen to what it told him.
We moderns have failed to confirm the reality of such beings with our science. It is hardly a coincidence that that same science has enabled us to so rapidly annihilate the same natural world that indigenous people have looked after for tens of millennia.
Whether we think of such beings as literally existing or as metaphors for the sacredness of life is perhaps not the most important thing. What is important is that we find a way to recognize the moral worth of nature and to shape our lives accordingly.