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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.