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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Killing Plants


Question

Derek, some of the people who study the Tao are vegetarians and some are not. When I ask those who are about their dietary practice, they tell me they prefer to avoid killing. I respect that, but I also think they contradict themselves, because eating plants is killing, too. You are taking life every time you eat something, whether it is meats or plants, so what's the difference? If you say the difference is suffering, well there are experiments that demonstrate plants also feel pain. Doesn't this prove that life is just life, and in the Tao there really is no distinction whatsoever?

Answer

This idea, that there is no difference, has become a popular meme. It is likely to come up whenever people discuss vegetarianism, whether online or in person.

The authentic Tao is not so much about mystical vagueness as it is about practical, everyday reality, so the first point to consider is whether the idea can survive the real-world test. Compare using a machete to hack away at vines versus puppies. Is it really the same to kill a plant as it is to kill an animal? Can you really convince yourself that there is no difference between the two?

Another angle is to ask if little kids can tell the difference. Children have not yet learned the many methods of rationalization that sophisticated adults employ on a regular basis. If they can tell the difference between killing plants and killing animals while we cannot, then chances are pretty good that we may be using philosophical sophistry to fool ourselves.

Yet another angle is to test the implications of an assertion. If there is no difference between eating plants and animals, then what about the difference between eating animals and humans? We are animals too, so whatever makes us different from cattle would be nothing compared to the difference between beef and broccoli. If everything really is the same, then can you honestly support eating meat but not give cannibalism the same enthusiastic support? Why apply different standards if life is just life and there is no distinction whatsoever?

Also, take a look at the consumption of fruits. Plants use fruits to recruit animal assistance in the hopes of spreading their seeds more widely. Can one really claim that the eating fruits hurts fruit trees? Where is the killing there, exactly? And what about the consumption of leaves?

Lastly, let us address the assertion that plants feel pain. What the experiments actually show is that plants have reactions to external stimuli that are imperceptible to our senses but can be measured by our instruments. Thus, we cannot say that the plants are completely oblivious to being cut down just because we don't hear any screaming. At the same time, we also cannot say that the reactions of plants are the same as the physical pain of animals. It is a stretch to equate the two, and the more one understands the central nervous system and the lack thereof in plants, the more of a stretch it becomes.

The foundation of the Tao paradigm is learning from the patterns we observe. Therefore, we should be wary of accepting assertions blindly, no matter how commonplace such assertions may be. Instead, we should engage the mind in making our own observations, extracting wisdom from the lessons we learn, and remaining truthful to ourselves in the Tao.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sage Has No Goals?


Question

Derek, I love the line in the Tao Te Ching that says, "Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." Can you expand on this wisdom, and give us some thoughts on how we can let go of goals?

Answer

Many people express a liking for this idea, and talk about how it is radically different from the Western mindset of endless goal-setting and tiresome to-do lists. However, the truth is that this line is a mistranslation that bears little resemblance to the original Chinese. The idea agrees with how people imagine Eastern philosophy to be, but not what it actually is.

The line comes from a popular translation of chapter 22, and is the last of four lines describing a Tao sage:

Because he doesn't display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn't know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

They are supposed to match the following four lines from the original Chinese:

不自見故明
不自是故彰
不自伐故有功
不自矜故長

The abovementioned English version shifts the order around and moves the fourth line to the second position, but even when you take this into account, the translation still fails. The first translated line corresponds with the original, but the other three do not. The original does not speak of goals, success, trust, recognition, or knowing oneself at all. Instead, all four lines describe how a sages does not show off or brag, and therefore becomes well known and enjoys an excellent reputation. Here is what they actually say:

Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting

The line that says "Without praising themselves – and so have merit" is the one that has been mistranslated as "Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." The translator, knowing virtually no Chinese, mistakenly uses "goal" for "praise" and "success" for "merit." The result is a sentence that is not even close to the original in meaning, but by a quirk of fate has become embraced by some Western readers.

The larger, more important issue here is that there are no teachings in the Tao tradition that speak against setting goals. Quite the opposite. For instance, Lao Tzu's journey of a thousand miles and tower of nine levels are both metaphors for great goals that require long, sustained work. Chuang Tzu's flight of the giant Peng bird is also a metaphor for an ambitious, awe-inspiring goal. These sages not only want us to have goals, but also encourage us to think big.

If asked about letting go of goals, they would probably point out the paradox that the goal of letting go of goals is itself a goal. Goal-setting is just another tool that we can use to get what we want from life, neither positive nor negative by itself, so there is not much more to it than using the tool in a skillful way. Goals need not be the annoying burdens or traps as some seem to believe... so there is nothing we have to do to "free" ourselves from them.