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Abstract

Buddhism is often romanticized for promoting great kindness toward nonhuman animals, but while the tradition grants animals a degree of subjecthood and does not categorically deny them reason, morality, or the potential for salvation, there are also ambiguities and contradictions, even outright anthropocentrism. This overview of recent research on animals in premodern Japanese Buddhism demonstrates that animals shared with humans their status as sentient, living beings and were often attributed with superhuman, if not divine, powers; and yet as beasts, they also had a subhuman status. Because of their simultaneous kinship with and persistent otherness from humans, nonhuman animals were anthropomorphized for didactic purposes, delineating unwholesome and meritorious human conduct and its karmic effects and expressing tensions between competing ritual and religious systems. As spiritually hindered and potentially volatile beings, animals received ritual attention, but the objectives of such rituals often did not consist of bettering the lives of animals in the here and now. Instead, these rituals were often motivated by propitiatory and soteriological concerns and sometimes even served to condone violence against animals despite the persistent antisacrificial rhetoric in Buddhist discourse.