Verse 18 of the Tao begins with this sentence:
When the great Tao is forgotten / Kindness and morality arise.
(Translation by Gia Fu Feng & Jane English)
This passage came to my mind the minute I read the news that Bolivia is about to grant rights to “mother nature.” The story is all over the internet – you can Google it and find a million articles – but this paragraph from the Guardian (UK) sums it up pretty well:
[Bolivia] …will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.
The primary impetus for this new law, called The Law of Mother Earth, is a resurgence of an “indigenous Andean spiritual world view which places the environment and the earth deity known as the Pachamama at the centre of all life. Humans are considered equal to all other entities.”
It’s a bold statement if nothing else. It’s also revolutionary, possibly unprecedented, and guaranteed to inspire hope in all but the most hope-less environmental and animal-rights activists. I am, in fact, one of those terribly jaded activists. It’s very hard to make me hopeful. The best have tried, and very few have succeeded, even for a moment. I have learned how to live, love, and work while having absolutely no hope that our species will get our act together. Yet this announcement stirred something in me that almost — not quite, but almost — felt like hope.
I can’t help but ask, though, who the hell we are to think we can grant rights to everyone else.
Leaving aside for the moment how this law will play out, how other nations will regard Bolivia’s (ideally) transformed role on the world stage (the US and UK have already blasted Bolivia’s demands that we drastically reduce our carbon emissions), and the actual impact this law will have on the creatures, waters, land masses, and plants who occupy the nation, let’s consider for a moment the inherent contradiction of one species proclaiming itself equal to all other entities on the one hand, and declaring it will grant rights to everyone else on the other.
And that brings me to the Tao.
When I first read the above passage many years ago, I was aghast. I’ve been an ethics-driven person pretty much my entire life. I have always been willing to shift my ethical stances, and have done so many times, but only because new information no longer supported my previous ethical stances. The Tao, up to verse 18, had, to me, been one of the few “spiritual” tracts that specifically spoke to my ethical personality. So when I read that, I wondered why Lao Tzu had betrayed me.
It took me some time and quite a bit of thought to fully understand what he meant. The Tao is what we have – we meaning all of us, humans and non-humans, animals and plants – when we live in balance. In “nature.” When we immerse ourselves in the business of living. Once, the many different species of humans did just that. In fact, we did that for millions of years. However, a few tens of thousands of years ago, we decided to allow our version of consciousness to abstract us farther and farther away from the business of living. We no longer flow with the currents of life, taking no more than we need for survival, giving back that which we do not need, intermingling in the incomprehensible dance of existence that this planet, for whatever reasons, has enabled. We left that behind when we grew our big old brains (to be taken with a big old grain of salt since it’s of course far more complicated than that).
So, we forgot Tao. And when we do not live in Tao – when the great Tao is forgotten – then all we have are kindness and morality. In other words, we must make rules to govern our conduct and ensure proper respect for others when we no longer instinctively know how to act right.
This realization called to mind an insight I’d had many years earlier when I was still immersed in so-called neo-pagan spiritualities. It seemed to me that the genesis of what came to be religion rested in the moment when humans realized we had taken one too many steps away from life (from Tao). Once we stepped outside the circle of life, we most likely knew the greatest loneliness – the greatest alienation – our species has ever experienced. And we knew we had to do something to clutch onto a feeling of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Because we no longer had access to an intuitive, almost automatic, ability to participate in the dance of life, that “something greater” led to the creation of deity. That thing – life, Tao, call it what you will – started out as mother earth and ended up as father god, through a long series of events that I won’t go into here.
All I will say is, it wasn’t a good thing. But here we are now, and there ain’t no going back.
And that’s the point about Bolivia. That’s what keeps even my extraordinarily critical, jaded, hopeless mind from rolling my eyes at The Law of Mother Nature. If we can’t go back, which is literally true unless we devolve ourselves, then all we HAVE are kindness and morality (under whose umbrella I place law). It might be contradictory, but we have nothing else. And if that’s all we have, then we might as well give it a shot. Certainly, let’s give it a shot.