Why do we cultivate the Tao? There are so many spiritual paths out there, how does the Tao differ from the rest? If differences exist, are they significant or superficial?
“All forms of spiritualities are the same — they all teach people to be good.” I come across this sentiment quite frequently in recent years. Some Tao practitioners say it so much, the expression has all but become a platitude. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but wonder if they truly realize what a special treasure the Tao is.
We say that the greatness of Tao comes from its transcendence beyond ordinary teachings, but do we really understand what that means?
Tao cultivation is a journey of constant discovery. At any time during this quest for wisdom, we may realize that a particular belief, previously unquestioned, is in fact incomplete. Because we recognize that the Tao is the ultimate principle we seek, rather than an absolute truth we already possess, we are free to look beyond for a more complete concept. As Tao cultivators, we have the liberty — indeed the mandate — to rise above the limits of any particular school of thought.
We can see an example of this process at work in a common teaching of many Eastern traditions. This teaching holds that all life is sacred, so one must never kill. Killing takes away the priceless gift of life, and therefore must always be wrong.
It is easy for us to identify with this concept initially. Who can argue against the statement that life is beyond price and killing is immoral? Note, however, that the teaching applies literally to all life. In its most traditional, undiluted form, even the killing of insects is frowned upon.
In fact, one can argue that the killing of weaker, relatively insignificant creatures is a greater wrong. Unlike lions and tigers, small creatures have no ability to defend themselves, so we need to be even more compassionate toward them.
This is one of the themes in the movie “The Next Karate Kid,” starring Hilary Swank as Julie-san, Mr. Miyagi’s latest student. There’s a scene where Julie and Mr. Miyagi sit down for lunch with a group of Japanese monks. Julie is about to dig into her bowl of rice when she notices a cockroach on the table. She grabs a shoe and gets ready to smash it.
Just before her shoe slams down, the monk sitting across from her sweeps the cockroach into his hand with lightning quickness, saving it from a messy death. He lets it go with a loving and gentle expression while Julie stares bewildered. She doesn’t get it. She keeps asking, “What? What?” as all the monks get up and walk away.
Mr. Miyagi explains that the monks have an absolute reverence for life. They refrain from taking any life, even the life of a cockroach. He then adds that even though he himself does not live in a temple, he too respects all life.
I find this scene troubling for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s a veiled criticism of the West — Julie represents the “ignorant” Westerner who has a difficult time grasping the sanctity of life. My experience tells me this is an unfair stereotype. The second problem I have with the scene is that the philosophy it dramatizes is in fact outdated and leads to all sorts of ludicrous conclusions.
You may find it surprising that I would question such a familiar doctrine that’s been around for as long as anyone can remember. Isn’t it precisely because we refrain from taking life that we encourage vegetarianism? If this absolute compassion for all life is flawed, then what’s the basis for our position against eating meat?
There is an answer to the above, and we will get to it later. For now, let’s think about this: Do you agree with the monks and Mr. Miyagi? If so, how do you react when you find a spider in your house? Do you kill it?
We want to be consistent in our thoughts and actions. We want to practice what we preach, so if we agree with the absolute reverence for life, we must let the spider live. When I posed this question to a Tao practitioner, she said that she would use a piece of paper to catch the spider without harming it, and then take it outside.
She was being consistent in her belief, but her answer did not resolve the underlying quandary. The insect does not have to be a spider, which is relatively easy to capture. It can be a fly, for example, so that a harmless capture is difficult or impossible. How do you react then?
There’s more. What if it is not a single insect, but a swarm of insects? For instance, what will you do if your kitchen is crawling with ants? What will you do if your house is infested with termites?
The same thing applies to settings other than one’s home. What if you’re a farmer facing a plague of locusts? Will you try to kill as many as you can in order to minimize their damage? If so, how can you claim to believe in the absolute sanctity of all life?
One traditional study of Tao poses a similar question this way: If you are holding your baby and you see a mosquito landing on his arm, will you kill it? Suppose the mosquito is the probable carrier of a deadly disease fatal to infants. You have only a split second to act. How can you not kill it?
Throughout the centuries, people have come up with all kinds of added complexities to answer questions like the above. For instance, some advocate saying a prayer before killing an insect, to speed it on its way to reincarnation. This practice has never caught on in a big way, because it creates more questions than it answers. How exactly can prayers dilute the absolute sanctity of life? If prayers make killing insects okay, then how about killing animals? How about humans?
Another thing to consider is that this respect-for-life doctrine was formulated a long time ago, when people didn’t know about microorganisms. Now that we know they exist, do we extend the doctrine to cover them? Clearly, that would be absurd. Every time you wash your hands or gargle mouthwash, lots of microscopic deaths occur. Does our reverence for all life mean we should never keep ourselves sanitary?
On the flip side, if it is okay to kill germs and bacteria, then why not insects? They’re all little bugs, alive and wriggling, aren’t they?
Come to think of it, reverence for all life isn’t a great basis for vegetarianism either. When you consume the fruits or leaves of a plant, it continues to live, but when you eat the root of a vegetable (potato, for instance) you have in effect terminated its existence. How can that be reconciled with absolute respect for all life, no matter how insignificant?
Suppose a vegetarian is stranded on an island like Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away,” and there are no edible plants anywhere. Should he temporarily abandon his vegetarian ideals in order to survive? If so, wouldn’t he be violating the sanctity of life just to save his own skin?
The bottom line is that if we really think about the doctrine espoused by Mr. Miyagi and monks, we’ll find that we can tie it up in knots with no effort at all. This is not a teaching we can use as part of the modern Tao.
Again, since we are Taoists, we have the freedom and the mandate to find a way closer to the truth. So we ask ourselves: What can possibly be beyond the reverence for all life? What might be a principle that applies equally well in all situations and does not bind itself to all sorts of ridiculous scenarios?
Such a principle does exist. There are several elements to it, but at its core it is not at all complex. Simply stated, the principle teaches that what we revere is nature itself, not individual life forms. Our specialized term for this is Lao Mu – the nurturing, creative force of life in the universe.
Have you ever taken a walk through a forest and felt the abundance of life in all its kaleidoscopic variations? Have you ever sensed the interlocking relationships among all the components of that environment, working harmoniously together? Have you ever been taken by the beauty and power of living, breathing nature and felt yourself a part of it, and not apart from it?
If you can answer yes to any of the above, then you have a gut-level feeling for this principle we’re trying to describe. You will probably recognize it as the most natural thing imaginable. Nature is something you want to embrace, not exploit.
When your personal connection with nature is such that you can relate to various animals on a personal level, an unavoidable consequence is that your desire to kill them and eat their flesh will diminish naturally. You find yourself not wishing to consume an animal who clearly doesn’t want to die.
Our reverence for nature extends to every aspect of it, including its cycles of life and death, the concept of natural balance, and the idea that each living thing has its own habitat and ecological niche.
This means that when nature is out of balance in the local vicinity, it isn’t wrong for you to take the appropriate action to restore the balance. This restoration may be difficult, but the point here is that it is not intrinsically evil. The action you take may involve the preservation of life in some instances, and the taking of life in others. Extremes (too much or too little) are bad; moderation (just right) is good.
One manifestation of imbalance is an endangered species. It goes without saying that, if extinction becomes even a remote possibility for a species, we’ll want to do everything we can to increase its total population.
The other side of this coin is when you have too much of some living thing to the point of an impending ecological disaster. To head off such a disaster you need to decrease the number of the animal or insect. That will involve killing, either directly or indirectly.
If you’re a farmer and there is a plague of locusts, you know something has gone horribly wrong in your region. You certainly should do something about it, if you can. That something may well result in the death of thousands of grasshoppers. This makes you a taker of life in the old school, but a restorer of balance in the modern Taoist perspective. Which viewpoint makes more intuitive sense?
Likewise, if your house is infested with termites, you have a mini-disaster on your hands. I say you should feel no compunction whatsoever about exterminating them. Termites are hardly an endangered species. You are not exactly striking a blow against nature by eradicating the ones living off your dwelling. You are merely removing them from an environment (the timber of your house) where they do not belong.
One important thing to note is that, as Taoists, we do not delight or take pleasure in the killing of these insects. We simply take effective action to do something that must be done, no more and no less. There is no guilt and no celebration. In fact there should be minimal emotional attachment. If we must kill them, we do so dispassionately.
In nature, killing is always done in this manner. A predator that hunts down and kills its prey does so to satiate its hunger, not for sport, self-glorification, hatred, loathing, vengeance, or other unsavory human deviations. Killing in nature is a pure act undertaken with neither elation nor remorse.
When we must perform such an act, we follow nature’s lead and proceed with untainted intentions. Just as the everyday occurrence of killing in the animal kingdom can never make animals any less a part of nature, this does not alter our personal connection with nature one iota. Our reverence for nature is uplifted, not lowered. Our compassion for innocent, butchered cattle is strengthened, not weakened.
Little kids who don’t know any better often toy with or torture insects. They focus a magnifying glass on an ant, or clip the wings of a flying insect, or cut off a bug’s legs. Our respect for nature is such that we cannot condone this type of cruel and immature behavior.
The final element of this modernized principle has to do with human choice. In nature, human beings are unique from all other creatures in having a highly developed brain with which to think. Animals do not have the ability to reason and choose as we do. Having this power of choice means we should exercise it with care.
Living in modern civilization, we always have a choice in what we eat. Choosing a vegetarian diet means you refrain from contributing to the overall demand that drives the meat industry. There is honor in that choice. It is a stance against massive cruelty and environmental damage, both of which are affronts against nature.
On the other hand, if you find yourself far from civilization, in a situation where your survival is at stake, and the only food available is meat, then I would say you don’t really have the choice. Someone who eats meat in order to survive when no other option is available has not done something wrong.
Thus, our individual, personal choice is a key to this overall puzzle. We all have the right to choose for ourselves. Chances are those of us who choose to reduce our meat intake will enjoy the health benefits resulting from that choice. Medical science offers a mountain of evidence all pointing to the improved health and increased energy of the appropriate vegetarian lifestyle. That’s a clue to us that it is the right choice and the natural choice.
The flip side of this coin is that we do not have the right to impose our personal choice on other thinking, independent individuals. The choice is meaningless unless it is made willingly, in accordance with one’s own volition.
So there you have it: a logical, consistent and modern framework that covers all situations. This framework incorporates the “respect for all life” teaching, resolves its problems, and then takes it a step beyond.
This principle can be simply stated, but its simplicity contains profound ramifications. It is an advocate of vegetarianism without the fanatical zeal. It recognizes the crucial role of free will, and does not engage in useless condemnation of those who are not yet ready to make the natural choice. The reasoning behind this principle is built from sound structures that will never lead you to illogical extremes.
This demonstrates for us that the essence of Tao is the opposite of dogma. To be dogmatic is to hold certain beliefs (for instance, the Earth being the center of the universe) as absolutely true and therefore beyond questioning. The study of Tao, in contrast, is a quest for enlightenment where we continuously deepen our understanding of spiritual truths.
This quest begins with the realization that we are not limited to any one set of teachings. We are not bound by arbitrary rules. We can draw from any resource – intellectual or intuitive, religious or scientific — to increase our wisdom.
Our goal is to approach oneness with the principle underlying all existence. To engage in this process is to recognize that we do not possess the full truth at this time. Nor shall we ever claim monopoly on any proprietary truths in the future. Our attitude will always be one of humility, and readiness to learn.
The Tao stands revealed as the paradigm of ultimate dynamism. It is the paradigm that reinvents itself. This is how the Tao transcends ordinary teachings. This is what makes it unique and precious.
And that, my friends, is why we cultivate the Tao!