Saturday, April 24, 2010

Complicating Liberation Narratives

Richard over at My Buddha is Pink rightly took me to task for a post I made earlier this week about liberating fish. In his current post, he goes into detail about the many unskillful ways in which people try and "liberate" animals. I'm in total agreement with him, even though I still think there are ways to go about freeing trapped, endangered animals without creating more damage than was already occurring.

The beginning of Richard's post introduces his response to mine, and then takes up the fish liberation that was described on Tsem Tulku Rinpoche's blog. He writes:

The gist of the situation is live fish are kept at a market to be sold as food. A group purchases the fish, then takes the fish to a freshwater lake (the fish are freshwater fish) where the fish are released into that lake. The group’s presumption is that it has liberated the fish, alleviating suffering for those fish, and that the fish appreciate this action. Everyone feels good, take pictures, then goes home.

In his lesson to Rahula at Mango Stone, the Buddha told his son that a skillful person is fully aware of the potential consequences of his or her actions. This awareness is achieved through constant reflection on one’s actions prior to their commission, during their commission, and after they have been committed. The Buddha instructs that, while it may appear that an intended act is skillful prior to its occurrence, circumstances may arise during that action in which it becomes clear that the act is in reality unskillful, that it brings harm to self, to others, or to both self and others. Nonetheless, while completing the act, red flags may not be observed, and the act continues to appear skillful. But we must not stop there, as the Buddha guides us to evaluate our actions post commission and observe the consequences. Because it may be later revealed that there were unforeseen harmful consequences and what was initially believed to be skillful action was, in fact, unskillful and should not be committed again.

In the relevant situation, freshwater fish are being released into a freshwater lake. However, the presumption that this is suitable is a huge leap of logic that may ultimately be found to be incorrect. Does the lake have a suitable food source for the fish? Does the lake already play home to the same species of fish? Can the lake’s ecosystem sustain the sudden introduction of more individuals into that environment? Because the lake has a limited food supply, and yet a greater number of individuals dependent on that food supply are suddenly introduced into that environment, what’s the impact? And are their other species in that lake that prior to this release activity had no predator to worry about? Is the new fish introduced into the lake a predator the other life form previously did not need to worry about? Maybe the fish that were released are “happy” and liberated, but what about the other life forms in that lake? Has this action created suffering that previously did not exist?

As a gardener in a region filled with buckthorn, it's been interesting to watch the evolution of my own thinking. I remember years ago, when I was first learning about herbalism, thinking that buckthorn was beneficial because it had medicinal qualities. I didn't want to remove the tough, sharp bushes from my garden, nor did I feel compelled to help others do the same. It felt too much like the way people foolishly treat dandelions, which are both a beneficial medicine and simply beautiful. Sure, they are also everywhere, and in need of some control, but certainly not to the extent of the carpet bombing and hatred many respond to them today.

Interestingly enough though, both dandelions and buckthorn were brought into North America by European settlers. And like those settlers, both of these have taken over, and in the case of buckthorn, taken over in a decidedly oppressive way. There are so many parallels between the destruction of indigenous cultures and the ecological changes that came to the American land; maybe I'll write a whole post on that sometime. Anyway, here are several reasons why buckthorn, which was introduced to the Minnesota landscape innocently enough in the mid to late 19th century, is trouble:

* Out-competes native plants for nutrients, light, and moisture
* Degrades wildlife habitat
* Threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies, and other natural habitats
* Contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor
* Serves as host to other pests, such as crown rust fungus and soybean aphid
* Forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation
* Lacks "natural controls" like insects or disease that would curb its growth

Certainly, none of this was on the minds of those people who brought this sharp-toothed bush to the state. These people had no thought of all the hours I and countless others would later spend digging up deep-seated roots and getting spiked by lanky branches; they just wanted a nice hedge around their yards. The same can be said of people who free animals into unsuitable environments, creating more misery than was present beforehand. They want to do the right thing, but the situation is more complicated than they realized.

Part of the reason I felt compelled to make the original post in support of the efforts of Rinpoche's group is that I think, too often, we get caught up in all the messy details of our complicated lives, and fail to act at all until it's too late. I'm certainly guilty of over-thinking, and over-analyzing things, wanting to understand all possible angles. It's easy to see how the desire to liberate animals or plants could be completely sidetracked by analysis and meta-analysis of every last possible impact such actions might have in the future. This is why, sometimes, I simply applaud people who are "just doing something," and try not to analyze too much.

Sitting here now, what I'm seeing from both the action done by Rinpoche's group, as well as the comments made by Richard, is a call for balance. We have to reflect on the possible consequences of our actions, or else we simply end up creating more misery. And sometimes we must act, knowing that we'll never have all the answers. Leaning to heavily towards either action or analysis is simply hanging out in a comfort zone, and failing to be fully engaged in your life.


Richard Harrold said...

Excellent post Nathan! I also feel there is a skillful way to "liberate" animals. But the skillful way takes a bit of time and investigation. Reminds me of an incident when a man tried to remove a huge growth of poison ivy from his property by burning it out. That act nearly killed him because the smoke got into his lungs, delivering the the plant's toxin directly into his lungs. A simple Google search would have prevented that.

Nathan said...

Oh, man, poison ivy. My father, who reads this blog regularly probably is having a little chuckle about now. When I was a teenager, I accidentally took the weed-wacker to a patch of poison ivy in his field and spent the next few weeks in scratchy misery. Can only imagine how awful that guy felt after burning his ivy patch.