Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

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Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby cooran » Sat Apr 18, 2009 10:31 am

Hello all,

An interesting article on how plants were regarded by early buddhists:

Borderline beings: plant possibilities in early Buddhism
Journal of the American Oriental Society, The , April-June, 2002 by Ellison Banks Findly


EXTRACT:
THE QUESTION OF WHETHER PLANTS are considered living and sentient beings in Pali Buddhism is brought to the fore by early Buddhist teachings on non-violence. In discussions of the Patimokkha, the Vinaya makes clear that monks and nuns are not to cut down trees (rukkha) in the course of repairing their lodgings, because in so doing they will cause injury to one-facultied living beings. (1) Likewise, they are not to cut down young palmyra palms to wear as shoes, and are also cautioned against trampling down crops and grasses as they walk among alms-donors during the rainy season, as they may injure one-facultied living beings. (2) This monastic prohibition is then echoed in the Majjhima Nikaya as a virtuous monk celebrates his practiced restraint from destroying seed- and vegetable-growth. (3)
If plants and seeds--including grasses, creepers, bushes, and trees--are, as one of the objects of the ethic of non-violence, not to be injured, then it would make sense that they would be included among those designated as living, sentient beings. And if they are designated as living, sentient beings, then they should, concomitantly, be a part of the samsaric world and in some way subject to the laws of kamma. The texts of the early Pali canon are, however, as Lambert Schmithausen has carefully shown, relatively silent about the place of plants in the scheme of samsaric life. While later Buddhist texts are clearer about plants being not counted as sentient beings, earlier texts have "no explicit statement declaring plants or even earth and water to be living, sentient beings," nor do they seem to have "an explicit... statement denying them the status of sentient beings." Thus, "plants... in Earliest Buddhism [are] a kind of borderline case." (4)
Pro-life prescriptions on plants in the Patimokkha refer, most likely, to prevailing social views rather than to those of the renunciants themselves. "This code' Schmithausen argues, "is not concerned with spiritual practice nor even with morality proper ... but, mainly, with regulating how monks and nuns had to behave in society." (5) Many local householders of the time still retain their old belief in plants as sentient beings, and, although they themselves cannot consistently practice an impractical standard like ahimsa, especially with regard to plants, they think it unfit for ascetics of the time to practice anything but plant ahimsa. The Patimokkha proscription on killing plants, then, is not "an element of moral, or ethically motivated, conduct in the strict sense but ... rather a matter of ascetic decorum." (6) Thus, Buddhist practice is influenced by renunciant desire to please the local people--or, as I have shown elsewhere, the donors to the Sangha (7)--by, on the one hand, practicing plant ahimsa themselves and, on the other, by allowing householder donors to freely use plants and plant products in their daily lives. This latter Buddhism does by, at first, being silent about plants as living things and, later, actively excluding them as objects of a non-violent ethic.
Schmithausen further suggest that "originally also the monks themselves, and even the Buddha, [may] still somehow [have] held the view that plants and seeds were living beings." Early on, however, there is a "shifting emphasis from the ahimsa aspect towards matters of ascetic decorum"--already evident in discussion of the Patimokkha rule--and the exclusion of plants from the ahimsa rule then becomes, more or less, standard practice. "My personal feeling," he concludes concerning early Buddhist monastic sentiment, is that plants "are certainly not sentient in the same way as men or so-called higher animals. But they may not be entirely insentient either, and they are certainly alive. We simply do not know what it means for a plant itself to live or to be injured or killed." (8)

Scroll down to April-June 2002 at this link:
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_go2081/

Thoughts?

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Fede » Sat Apr 18, 2009 1:07 pm

The old chestnut "then what are we supposed to eat?" might arise, but I personally feel this may be taken in the context, with regard to modern interpretation or thought, as having suitable respect and reverence for the planet we live on: the exploitation of certain crops, the decimation of forests and the danger to the native wildlife in the destruction of their habitat: the imbalance created by adding too much human desire and too little natural harmony.
These may certainly be factors to consider in light of attempts to reconcile one's self with the above.

Just thinking tangentially.....
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Jechbi » Sat Apr 18, 2009 4:14 pm

One thought: The way we treat a plant may be a reflection of our own inner perspectives. Sometimes I'll notice that a plant is a beautiful, living thing. If I see a sapling snapped through its young trunk, I might think, what a shame, it could have grown into a great tree.

In a sense, this is probably a kind of attachment to self-view, extended out to regard it as a shame if some other kind of life is damaged, because after all I am alive and I don't want to be damaged or killed. But in another sense, for those who care about the well-being of plants, it might be regarded as a kind of compassion. Who knows whether plants are sentient, and who cares? Let's treat them and all beings with lovingkindness.

Either way (and most likely in many other ways) our actions with regard to plants become a mirror for how we relate to ourselves and others. If we decide that plants are mere insentient objects (possibly true), and we treat them with complete disregard, that says something about ourselves.

We're in samsara, so we eat, that's inevitable. We're still consuming fuel. Even for vegetarians, that process of food production will involve harm to animals. So if we believe that by eating a plant we're eating the flesh of a potentially sentient being, it might help us to understand the core unsatisfactoriness of samsara.

I don't know if plants are borderline beings or not. I've heard some folks talk about how even rocks and the Earth itself are "alive," but that's even more far-fetched. At the same time, I can easily recognize that plants are living things. It seems to me that the Dhamma is more about how we relate to ourselves and others than it is about arriving at a correct cosmological understanding of where the line is drawn between "sentient" and "not."

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby pink_trike » Sat Apr 18, 2009 7:11 pm

Fede wrote:The old chestnut "then what are we supposed to eat?" might arise, but I personally feel this may be taken in the context, with regard to modern interpretation or thought, as having suitable respect and reverence for the planet we live on: the exploitation of certain crops, the decimation of forests and the danger to the native wildlife in the destruction of their habitat: the imbalance created by adding too much human desire and too little natural harmony.
These may certainly be factors to consider in light of attempts to reconcile one's self with the above.

Just thinking tangentially.....

Well said.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby cooran » Sat Apr 18, 2009 7:45 pm

Hello Fede, Jechbi, Pink, all,

I think you can rely initially on the references in the article - the qualifications and awards of the author, Ellison Banks Findly, are detailed here:
http://72.14.235.132/search?q=cache:m3N ... lr=lang_en

I'm wondering if there ought not to be a division between eating "whole plants" and only eating "the products" of plants .... not eating a Cabbage but eating a tomato, grape, orange, apple and things like grains, potatoes, pumpkins etc. ~ after the natural death of the plant etc.

I'm also wondering where this places the expression of māna one often gets from vegetarians "we are better than .... (those who buy meat products)"?

māna - 'conceit', pride, is one of the 10 fetters binding to existence (s. samyojana). It vanishes completely only at the entrance to Arahatship, or Holiness (cf. asmi-māna). It is further one of the proclivities (s. anusaya) and defilements (s. kilesa). "
The (equality-) conceit (māna), the inferiority-conceit (omāna) and the superiority-conceit (atimāna): this threefold conceit should be overcome. For, after overcoming this threefold conceit, the monk, through the full penetration of conceit, is said to have put an end suffering" (A. VI, 49).
"Those ascetics and brahman priests who, relying on this impermanent, miserable and transitory nature of corporeality, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, fancy: 'Better am I', or 'Equal am I', or 'Worse am I', all these imagine thus through not understanding reality" (S. XXII, 49).
In reality no ego-entity is to be found. Cf. anattā.http://www.palikanon.com/english/wtb/g_m/maana.htm

It would seem that Vegans, at least, in not "taking what is not given" - in not misusing animals and insects by eating honey, eggs, or consuming animal milk products (milk, butter etc.) are living closer to the way the Buddha intended?

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Ben » Sat Apr 18, 2009 9:53 pm

Nice thread Chris

Perhaps it was somewhere in my readings or maybe it was my teacher himself who alluded to plants being 'borderline' beings when he mentioned the vinaya rule for bhikkhus who were forbidden from cultivation. Interestingly, during vipassana courses, meditators are instructed not to pick flowers or plants. I think it had more to do with plants being sub-sentient and the sila of ending their lives than it did with breaking the sila of not taking what is not given.

I'm also wondering whether engaging in gardening activities is a form of wrong livelihood or a breach of sila?

I'm not sure that I agree with your comment that vegans may live closer to the way Buddha intended. As we know, the Buddha did not refuse anything unless it was expressly killed for his consumption. My experience of many vegans is that the vast majority of them their vegan-self identity borders on the pathological. Whereas the rules regarding food in the vinaya seem to be designed to disolve the ego.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby BlackBird » Sat Apr 18, 2009 10:41 pm

Hello everyone.
I'm not really sure if this is relavent to what you are discussing, but just in case:

"A certain Āḷavī bhikkhu was chopping down a tree. The devatā living in the tree said to the bhikkhu, 'Venerable sir, do not chop down my home to build a home for yourself.' The bhikkhu, disregarding her, kept right on chopping and injured the arm of the devatā's child. The devatā thought: 'What if I were to kill this bhikkhu right here?' Then another thought occurred to her: 'But no, that wouldn't be proper... What if I were to tell the Blessed One of what has happened?' So she went to the Blessed One and... told him of what had happened.

"'Very good, devatā, very good. It's very good that you didn't kill the bhikkhu. If you had killed him today, you would have produced much demerit for yourself. Now go, devatā. Over there is a vacant tree. Go into it.' (The Commentary adds here that the tree, being in Jeta's Grove, was a definite move up for the devatā. She had a front-row seat for overhearing the Buddha's teachings well into the night; unlike other lesser devas she wasn't pushed out to the far reaches of the galaxy when large groups of major devas met with the Buddha; and when the Four Great Kings came to attend to the Buddha, they always made a point of visiting her before leaving.) However:

"People criticized and complained and spread it about, 'How can these Sakyan-son monks cut down trees and have them cut down? They are mistreating one-facultied life.'" - Buddhist Monastic Code 1 Ch. 8.2

Also, an exert from:
Lily De Silvas - The Buddhist attitude towards nature

"Buddhism expresses a gentle non-violent attitude towards the vegetable kingdom as well. It is said that one should not even break the branch of a tree that has given one shelter. Plants are so helpful to us in providing us with all necessities of life that we are expected not to adopt a callous attitude towards them. The more strict monastic rules prevent the monks from injuring plant life.

Prior to the rise of Buddhism people regarded natural phenomena such as mountains, forests, groves, and trees with a sense of awe and reverence. They considered them as the abode of powerful non-human beings who could assist human beings at times of need. Though Buddhism gave man a far superior Triple Refuge (tisarana) in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, these places continued to enjoy public patronage at a popular level, as the acceptance of terrestrial non-human beings such as devatas and yakkhas did not violate the belief system of Buddhism. Therefore among the Buddhists there is a reverential attitude towards specially long-standing gigantic trees. They are vanaspati in Pali, meaning "lords of the forests."

- Available to view here.

Hope this might contribute something
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Apr 19, 2009 4:09 am

Chris wrote:An interesting article on how plants were regarded by early buddhists:

EXTRACT:

While later Buddhist texts are clearer about plants being not counted as sentient beings, earlier texts have "no explicit statement declaring plants or even earth and water to be living, sentient beings," nor do they seem to have "an explicit... statement denying them the status of sentient beings." Thus, "plants... in Earliest Buddhism [are] a kind of borderline case." (4)

The article admits that "later" texts do not place plants as sentient beings. And this seems consistent with modern science / biology. Many biologists count 5 major kingdoms of life, each separate and may have even evolved under completely different circumstances:

1. Animal Kingdom (includes humans, animals, insects, fish, birds)
2. Plant Kingdom
3. Algae Kingdom
4. Bacterium Kingdom
5. Fungi Kingdom

There are some different versions of the above, but all place a complete separation between the Animal Kingdom and the Plant Kingdom.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Apr 19, 2009 4:18 am

Chris wrote:It would seem that Vegans, at least, in not "taking what is not given" - in not misusing animals and insects by [not] eating honey, eggs, or consuming animal milk products (milk, butter etc.) are living closer to the way the Buddha intended?

Probably right. That would seem to cause the least amount of suffering to animals in the long run, with the causal relationship between purchasing and the slaughterhouse and as you say, not taking what is not given.

The Jains at least attempt to follow what you have described. The strict Jains eat only fruit or vegetables that are 'trimmed' off the source plant. That way they are not 'killing' the plant by simply trimming the tops of the plant. To me that sounds a bit extreme and I sometimes quote the strict Jain diet to show that lacto-ovo vegetarianism is not 'so extreme' as some think.

Māna, conceit can come with any view; vegetarians who feel they are superior with a more "non-violent" diet and non-vegetarians who feel they are not "attached" to a view (of vegetarianism) and claiming that it is only vegetarians who are "attached" to a view. But of course, in both cases, there is māna.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Ngawang Drolma. » Sun Apr 19, 2009 7:15 pm

This may be tangential, but the first thought that comes to mind for me is that the Buddha said at some point that we shouldn't just destroy plant-life willy nilly. Those are my own words (obviously), and I don't have a sutta reference. Maybe someone can back this post up with a sutta.

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby cooran » Sun Apr 19, 2009 10:28 pm

Hello all,

Thought I'd posted this a while ago, but can't see it:

PLANT IN THERAVADA BUDDHISM Asst.Prof.Dr.Manop Nakkarnrian
http://src.ac.th/web/index.php?option=c ... iew&id=627

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Individual » Mon Apr 20, 2009 2:51 am

TheDhamma wrote:The article admits that "later" texts do not place plants as sentient beings. And this seems consistent with modern science / biology. Many biologists count 5 major kingdoms of life, each separate and may have even evolved under completely different circumstances:

1. Animal Kingdom (includes humans, animals, insects, fish, birds)
2. Plant Kingdom
3. Algae Kingdom
4. Bacterium Kingdom
5. Fungi Kingdom

There are some different versions of the above, but all place a complete separation between the Animal Kingdom and the Plant Kingdom.

Those creatures which are neither plants nor animals are also an ambiguous case, because they too are not described by the Buddhist texts.

I think the important thing is the intent. Nobody does anything wrong by mindfully walking across grass, but then there are also people, especially children, who sadistically rip up grass and tear up flowers, as if they were animals, merely for the sadistic pleasure. I don't know what kind of behavior that is for a householder, but it's good to avoid and reasonable to forbid monks from doing it.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Mexicali » Sat Apr 25, 2009 11:13 pm

Plants are an odd case, as they're obviously alive, but don't seem to possess the requisite awareness to experience pain. The line between life and death is also much blurrier than with animal life; a lot of plants can regrow from a small, damaged cutting, and a lot of plants produce food for various other organisms as a survival strategy. In day to day life, I tend to put people above animals and animals above plants, fungi, etc., but I think it's good to treat all beings with respect (still working on this one).

I remember hearing a story related once that the Buddha, as a youth, saw a worm cut in two by a farmer's plow and knew that as all beings have to cause death to survive, he would have to make his life worthwhile and beneficial to justify that sacrifice. Does anyone know where this is from/how authentic it might be?

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby pink_trike » Sat Apr 25, 2009 11:33 pm

Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Mexicali » Sat Apr 25, 2009 11:41 pm

Well, plants do respond to various stimuli, but I'd argue that lacking a central nervous system, there's nowhere for them to "feel" pain. Additionally, animals (including humans) evolved a pain reaction as a way to avoid harm. A plant can't usually take any direct action to avoid that harm, so the pain reaction wouldn't function the same way. I think the 'distress' plants feel is more just something that primes them to deal with later damage, etc; not pain in the way we experience it, at least not meaningfully. Admittedly, I could be dead wrong here; I haven't gotten the impression that there's a consensus one way or another.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby clw_uk » Sat Apr 25, 2009 11:45 pm

Greetings

Well, plants do respond to various stimuli, but I'd argue that lacking a central nervous system, there's nowhere for them to "feel" pain.


What about Jellyfish?
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Mexicali » Sat Apr 25, 2009 11:48 pm

clw_uk wrote:Greetings

Well, plants do respond to various stimuli, but I'd argue that lacking a central nervous system, there's nowhere for them to "feel" pain.


What about Jellyfish?


I don't know enough about them to even speculate. My experience with jellyfish extends to eating them in China and being stung by them at the beach in California.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby pink_trike » Sun Apr 26, 2009 1:39 am

As late as the 1960s in the United States, surgery was routinely performed on infants without anesthesia - in the mistaken belief that infants didn't feel pain - it was believed that infants only had "instinctual responses to stimuli". Same with animals. I wonder if we are just as ignorant now regarding plants and pain. Many premodern, pre-agrarian people prayed for forgiveness when harvesting plants. Imo, we should err on the side of caution, given our deep estrangement from the natural world and our collective, consensually-shared psychosis that goes largely unnoticed.
Vision is Mind
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Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby Jechbi » Sun Apr 26, 2009 3:00 am

How about a scoby?
Rain soddens what is kept wrapped up,
But never soddens what is open;
Uncover, then, what is concealed,
Lest it be soddened by the rain.
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Re: Plants ~ Borderline Beings?

Postby pink_trike » Sun Apr 26, 2009 3:44 am

Jechbi wrote:How about a scoby?

Who knows? There are whole worlds right here on Earth and within our body that we know nothing about - which doesn't stop us from pretending that we do. Premodern people believed that all life is sacred, and that great care should be taken in order to disturb the totality of worlds as little as possible. It would be awful convenient for humans if only one tiny slice of those worlds (human, and begrudgingly, animal) felt pain and all the others don't.
Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

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