Tao practitioners often say that the Tao is everywhere. One can learn from just about anything in one’s environment if one is observant. Sometimes all it takes is a slightly different way to look at things, and sudden clarity jumps you without warning.
I find this sort of understanding in the most bizarre places. One such source is a work of fiction from British author Douglas Adams. In the 80’s Mr. Adams wrote a radio play, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that became a cult favorite. The play was a science fiction satire, featuring a befuddled earthling, Arthur Dent, who narrowly escaped Earth’s destruction by an alien construction fleet and then roamed the galaxy from one hilarious misadventure to another. The show became so popular that it eventually became a novel and a TV series.
In one episode, Arthur traveled with his friends to Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. His friends, although human-like in appearance, were not all from Earth and tended to be much more worldly than he was. Compared to their sophistication, Arthur was but a country bumpkin, easily bewildered by futuristic sights and sounds.
So, in his usual state of wide-eye wonderment Arthur took in the restaurant, which was rather like an Earth restaurant with a nice view, except in this case the view was neither cityscape nor a body of water, but the final moments of the universe – literally the ultimate spectacle!
How would the diners survive their meal, if everything was coming to an end? Here the clever author explained that an instant before the absolute end of the universe, the entire restaurant would be transported back in time with time travel technology, to begin another business day of meal preparations and reservation bookings. Up until that moment, patrons could enjoy sips of champagne and bites of entrees while looking out at the annihilation of the cosmos. With a live band and comedian MC, to boot!
Arthur and his friends found their table, and the waiter came by to ask them if they would like to “meet the Dish of the Day.” Arthur had no idea what this meant, but his companion Zaphod was enthused. “That’s cool,” he said, “we’ll meet the meat.”
Arthur was unprepared for what happened next. This half-ox, half-man creature came out to greet them and proceeded to recommend various parts of his body. He told them he had been force-feeding himself and exercising diligently to offer the most flavorful flesh for their consumption.
Is this bizarre or what? It turned out that advanced technology had made it possible to breed cattle that actually wanted to be eaten and were capable of saying so in no uncertain terms. This horrified Arthur, but his companions seemed rather nonchalant about it.
Finally, Arthur could contain himself no longer, and exclaimed how revolting he thought the whole thing was. This surprised his friends. They turned around to look at him and ask him what he would prefer instead. Surely not to eat an animal that didn’t want to be eaten? Wouldn’t that be too barbaric for words?
You have to marvel at this piece of audacious and outrageous imagination. True, the author’s intention in penning the above was probably to mine the situation for humor and nothing more, but in doing so he also provided us with much, uh, food for thought. I mean, imagine yourself in Arthur’s position. How would you feel about eating this creature who tells you how much he’s looking forward to filling your stomach? Would you not feel at least a little queasy?
It would be quite natural for you to be repulsed, just like Arthur. In fact, this situation feels almost like cannibalism. Why is that?
In general, most of us have an aversion against eating anything that is capable of communicating with us. That communication doesn’t have to be human speech either — a look, a touch — just about any kind of communication will do. That’s why we can’t bear the thought of eating our own pets. Having spent time with them, cared for them and felt the affection they return, we see them more as part of the family than a source of protein.
And yet, how can one argue against the logic of Douglas Adams? Given the choice between eating something that does not want to be eaten and something that does, how can one reasonably justify choosing the former for consumption?
For those of you who dismiss the above as an impossible absurdity, let me relate an experience of my own that is in some ways similar but involved no time travel or genetic engineering.
This goes back to the last time I had lobster, quite a while ago. I felt a craving for seafood, and hadn’t had lobster for years, so I decided to splurge. I went to a Chinese restaurant specializing in seafood to satisfy the urge, because true connoisseurs knew that the Chinese were the absolute best at preparing seafood, unsurpassed in terms of taste and value for the dollar.
I placed my order, sat back and waited. After a while my waiter approached holding a plastic bucket. That’s when the realization hit me. I hadn’t been to this type of restaurant for so long, I had forgotten that they always showed the customer the live creature first, to demonstrate freshness and to get the customer’s nod of approval. It was like a mini-ritual.
The waiter showed me the bottom of the bucket. Lying there was a live lobster, its claws rubber-banded together, moving feebly, no doubt uncomfortable out of water, yet unaware that its existence was about to come to an end. I nodded quickly and the waiter took it back into the kitchen.
About half an hour later, the same waiter placed a plate of steaming lobster parts on my table. A curious thing happened: I couldn’t get rid of the image of the live lobster in my head. In my mind I saw it still moving slightly, being placed on the chopping block and expertly hacked apart by the supremely experienced Chinese chef, then thrown into a boiling cauldron.
I had been raised to waste nothing and to finish my plate of food completely, so I ate and finished the lobster. But even before I took the first bite I realized that my craving had all but vanished. Sudden clarity descended upon me without warning…
I had met the meat.
Verily, the Tao is everywhere. One can learn from just about anything in one’s environment if one is observant. Sometimes all it takes is a slightly different way to look at things, and I find it in the most bizarre places. In this case, I found it… at the bottom of a plastic bucket, moving feebly.