A Prayer for "Plants and Trees, Countries and Lands, All Become Buddhas"
A Philosophy of Plants
The philosopher Tomonobu Imamichi (1922–2012) pointed out that most Japanese family crests are based on plant designs, indicating that, compared with cultures that employ dragons and eagles, or lions and tigers in their heraldry, Japanese cultural patterns show a strong tendency toward adaptability and harmony. Plants survive not as individuals but by species adaptation. This means that they grow where their seed randomly falls, existing within a pattern of dramatic change as their branches and leaves grow. Imamichi wrote, "In the very workings of their life, plants are a reiteration of elegant beauty as they bud, bloom, fall, proliferate, fruit, and change color, all within an intense yet inconspicuous struggle for life" (Tōyō no bigaku [Aesthetics of the East], TBS Britannica, 1980). Plants take root in that space where their seed falls and form a community with other plants. They maintain harmony with their surroundings and continually transform themselves, adapting to changes in their environment. As Imamichi stated, the workings of their life are inconspicuous, but there is no doubt a severity of struggle to survive and flourish.
Are Plants and Trees Nonsentient?
Mahayana Buddhism in general does not consider trees and plants to be capable of sensation and, with the exception of the Lotus and Śūraṅgama sutras, does not hesitate to place them on a par with tiles and stones. For example, the Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra (Sutra of the Great Accumulation of Treasures) says, "Plants and trees, tiles and stones, like shadows, are not sentient" (Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra, 78, Discourse to Pūrṇa, 17.2.4). Why is this so?
The geographer Yutaka Sakaguchi reports that recent research has shown that from the middle of the third century to around the sixth or seventh century the world experienced severe climate change in the form of cooling, drier conditions (see "Kako ichiman sanzennen no kikō no henka to jinrui no rekishi" [Climate change and the history of human beings during the past thirteen thousand years], Kōza, bunmei to kankyō, 6: Rekishi to kikō [Lecture series, 6, Civilization and the environment: History and climate] [Asakura Shoten, 1995 (revised edition, 2008)], 1–11). The Mahayana sutras, with their prohibition of meat eating, were compiled at this time. Why this prohibition was added to the small simple meals demanded by asceticism can thus be explained in ecoreligious terms. In all probability, the acceptance of ascetic behavior in relation to food and the rejection of meat by religious practitioners and the societies that supported them derived from severe and long-term food shortages. At such a time, rather than rearing pigs and other animals on plant food and then eating their meat, many more human lives could be sustained by a considerably lesser volume by eating vegetable foodstuffs directly. "Hence, in order to keep both monks and lay followers free from what was deemed unnecessary inconvenience and qualms, the sentience of plants was, by and large, ignored [in the precept against the taking of life]" (Lambert Schmithausen, Buddhism and Nature: The Lecture Delivered on the Occasion of the EXPO 1990 [International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1991], 7).
Plants and the Lotus SutraChapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra, "The Parable of the Herbs," likens the teachings of the Buddha benefiting all beings equally to the rain that falls on all trees, shrubs, herbs, and grasses, enabling them to grow and blossom, producing fruits. This chapter was to have an important influence on the Chinese Tiantai and Japanese Tendai schools of Buddhism. Whereas the Chinese Huayan school held that plants are not sentient and cannot achieve enlightenment, in commentaries such as Fazang's (643–712) Huayanjing tanxuanji (Records of the search for the profundities of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra), Tiantai scholars advocated plants' capability of attaining buddhahood. This must have been because of the image presented in "The Parable of the Herbs." (Read the entire article here)
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