They are such good natured animals, always in a good mood, nothing disturbs them. Regardless what the weather ... heavy rain, a snow storm, or howling wind ... they are out there doing their thing, although they are smart and take shelter more often when the weather is bad. Even when they have had a scary brush with nature in the form of a hawk or other predator, while they may be very cautious that day, by the next they are back to their usual routine.
But they are ever watchful ... one could say aware ... for they have learned from their experience. For example, when they sense danger, they will stop what they are doing, sometimes making a low-pitched sound, until the danger has passed and then continue going about their business.
If ever there was a sentient being that was at one with all things, that experienced everything without the intervention of thought, that accepted things as being the way they are, it is my free-range chickens, and indeed all wild animals. Animals in nature, as opposed to those controlled by humans, are perfect examples of the wisdom of the Buddha dharma.
Of course the reason why my chickens and other wild animals have this grace is because they are not capable of thought. They have brains, they experience pain and other sensations, but they do not have man’s ability to think. An animal could not say, “I think, therefore I am.”
The ability of man to think is thus both a blessing and a curse. If you think about it, man has not made much of the blessing aspect of thought. Although from a technology and intellectual standpoint, man has made tremendous advances using his capacity to think, most of that capacity has been used to increase his power over all aspects of nature, those elements of mankind who are less advanced, and those in his own circle, be it family, peers, or countries who he has viewed as either weaker or threatening. He has not used his brain to free himself from the violence found in nature; he has not used his brain to create a peaceful world.
At his core, man thus continues to pursue the same patterns of behavior ... survival of the fittest ... as his wild relatives or the earliest cavemen. But the power that he can bring to bear has increased exponentially. Plus, man’s ability to think has given him the hubris to think that he is made in the image of God and therefore has the destiny and the right to control all other element of nature or “lesser” [weaker] beings. He is not like the king of beasts, the lion, who kills what he must to survive but otherwise coexists with the rest of the animal kingdom peaceably. Instead, all elements of nature and all lesser people can and must be made to serve his interests.
Now it is true that animals will become neurotic if they are treated badly habitually. One sees this occasionally in the wild. But it is only when animals come under the control of man, whether in factory farms or pets in their homes, that neurotic behavior becomes a frequent condition. Animals may not have the capacity to think, but they are sentient beings and if mistreated habitually, they will exhibit neurotic behavior.
In man, the treating of other men badly habitually ... whether within the family, the workplace, or in society ... has become endemic. The tricks and games that man has at its disposal to exert pressure and control over others and thus compensate for his inner insecurity is the curse of modern man’s ability to think. The result is a world filled with neurotic people and countries. Forget about all the advances that have made our life “better,” this is the most universal impact of man’s ability to think.
The phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man,” is unfortunately more reflective therefore of the norm of human behavior not the exception. For it is not only the gross inhumanity that we need to be concerned with, it is with the small unkind acts that occur on a daily basis between most people. Acts that are not in keeping with the Five Precepts, or indeed with the core teachings of any of the great religions of the world, and thus cause endless and needless universal suffering in man and everything that he touches. This is the curse of man’s ability to think.
So animals in nature are really our most abundant example of Buddha nature. Why is it then that in the scheme of rebirth, being reborn as an animal/beast (whether in that form or human form) as opposed to a human, is seen as an example of bad karma? (Note: being reborn as a hungry ghost or a depraved man is lower than being reborn as an animal.)
Because animals were thought to suffer more than humans, both in their natural setting because of the misfortunes they were subject to, and certainly when they came into contact with man. It wasn't because they were considered lesser sentient beings; the Buddha those living in the animal realm have been our mothers and fathers, et al.
For me, I don’t believe in reincarnation or rebirth. But if I did, I would rather be reborn as an animal in the wild, or one of my free-range chickens, than as a man or woman sentenced to live in a cruel, neurotic world of man’s own making.
Another lesson in practical Buddhism.