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Plant Nature


"Beings are numberless," says the Bodhisattva. "I vow to save them all." The Bodhisattva precepts enjoin practitioners to "in no case take the life of a living being." But what, exactly, are "beings"? As I become rooted more and more strongly in my garden as practice, I feel that plants are beings worthy of this respect.

William LaFleur describes in "Sattva: Enlightenment for Plants and Trees" (In Dharma Gaia, edited by Allan Hunt Badiner) how Buddhists have been wrestling with this question for some time. "Chi-t'sang, a master of the Madhyamika in China, seems to have been the first to use the phrase 'Buddhahood attained by plants and trees. ... Then in the eighth century, Chan-jan, a thinker of the T'ien-t'ai school, ...wrote:

'In the great Assembly of the Lotus all are present without divisions. Grass, trees, the soil on which these grow-- all have the same kinds of atoms. Some are barely in motion while others make haste along the Path, but they will all in time reach the precious land of Nirvana... ' (p.137)"

LaFleur goes on, "Later Zen masters were to pick up the point, writing cryptically of mountains moving through many kalpas of time and even of giving birth.

"Was it just hyperbole? The pathetic fallacy pushed to pathetic conclusions? Or was it something else, a perspective by the eye of the mind coursing through many kalpas, guessing by intuition or observation that the mountains have, in fact, already 'walked' here and there... in interaction with seas and glaciers? Useless distinctions were reduced to absurdity so that there might be an affirmation of the wholeness and complex interdependence of the world. Now even stone and dirt had to be included in buddhahood. In Japan, Saicho wrote of the enlightenment of rocks and Dogen composed 'The Mountains and Rivers Sutra' . " (p. 138)

He continues with more quotes, and ends by contrasting this line of thinking in the East with the prevalence of an androcentric attitude in the West: "A kind of nadir was reached by Descartes and Malebranche who thought it impossible... to be cruel to animals, since animals are incapable of feeling."

Feeling / Sentience

Sometimes Buddhist language talks about "sentient beings." The word means, basically, "having senses." There is no question that plants have sense perception, and that they suffer when conditions are bad for them. Their modes of sensation differ from those of animals, but it seems to me arrogant to assume that therefore they somehow are less important than animal life.

Similarly, about the senses of mountains and rivers, who are we to deny them? Ursula LeGuin has a marvelous piece of short fiction on the subject, called " 'The Author of the Acacia Seeds' and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics." (In both The Compass Rose and Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences.) One of the best examples I know of the ability of fiction, like poetry, to reach beneath our rational thinking, and speak to something more fundamental in us.

In "The Sentient Garden," Jim Nollman speaks of a paradigm shift from an androcentric worldview to a biocentric one. This shift is one of the most encouraging developments I see in our culture. One branch of it is the Deep Ecology movement. In Asia, Theravadin monks have been engaging in activism to save endangered forests by ordaining trees. Much (but not all) of the rest of Badiner's book is composed of modern writers on the issue of the issue of our interconnectedness with the earth — and many of them Westerners. One of the best is Joanna Macy, who talks there about "The Greening of the Self," as she does also in her own book World as Lover, World as Self (the same book that taught me about paticca samuppada).

In a discussion on this subject on an email list sangha, Kuya Minogue commented:

"The essential mistake is to see the plant as separate ... as if there is the plant out there along with rocks and mountains and water and dirt and lichen and oxygen and so on ... and then, somehow apart from all that, there is me and my dog. Once the illusion of separation is dissolved, the question of whether a plant has buddha nature "leads not to edification." Every atom that sits in Indra's net, contains every other atom in as many universes as there would be if, each grain of sand in Ganges river contained a million more universes. The plant is you is me is my dog is the air I breathe. Does a Buddha have plant nature?"

©Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark. Last modified 7 June 2001