“Zero-sum” is when one’s needs cancel out another’s needs. I learned the meaning of this violent doctrine as a Russian kid playing “nozhichki.” Nozhichki (“little knives”) is a game of divide-and-conquer. First, with the point of your pocketknife you draw a sizable circle on hard ground. Then, you divide it in half – one side for you, the other side is for your playing opponent. Then you take turns flinging the knife into your opponent’s turf: if the knife “stands” (i.e. if the blade jams into the ground), then, following the line of the blade, you carve out a piece of your enemy’s territory and add it to your own domain. And you continue the onslaught like this until you win over the entire circle or your knife falls flat, in which case it’s your enemy’s turn. Either my pocketknife needed a better blade or my throwing hand wasn’t good or the ground in the Arbat neighborhood of Moscow (just a block away from the Spaso-House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to U.S.S.R.) was too hard, but the games would often find me on the losing side.
Of course, you always had a choice to surrender but then, as now, I enjoyed this strange challenge: with practically no footprint to call my own, with barely enough Russian soil underneath a single tippy toe, I’d have to stabilize my balance and then fling a knife into my opponent’s turf. That’s right: you had to be grounded on your own turf to play and as your life-space diminished, it’d be harder and harder to balance yourself to play. But that wasn’t the end of the challenge: even if you managed to balance yourself on your tiny bit of turf, and even if you managed to “stand” the knife, you still had to be able to reach over well into the enemy territory to carefully carve out the turf you won (from wherever the knife “stands” to the edge of the circle) – all without ever stepping onto your opponent’s turf until it has officially became yours. Bottom-line: you had to make sure not to over-reach with your throws. If, in desperation to win back, you over-reached and “stood” your knife too far for you to reach, you got penalized by a loss of turn.
“Nozhichki” taught me that satisfaction of our needs has a cost to others (“zero-sum”), the importance of balancing appetite, and not to wear sandals. Speaking of appetite and zero-sum …
Ahimsa, a Sanskrit term that means “avoidance of violence,” is an ancient doctrine of compassion, a pre-Christian “thou shall not kill” commandment that dates back to Vedic teachings and applies to all living beings. Ahimsa is not a do-no-harm philosophy; there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free breath. If you have a lung, if you are living, you are consuming resources, consuming other life. Ahimsa is a harm-reduction philosophy that aims to minimize your footprint in the ecosystem to a bare minimum.
In Jain tradition, an Indian worldview that predates Buddhism, the doctrine of ahimsa took the form of vegetarianism and veganism. Ahimsa-eating is ethical eating, a way of eating that doesn’t monopolize the circle of life. Jains quite rationally reasoned that to eat is to take life, i.e. to kill, i.e. to start a chain of karmic vendetta, a cause-and-effect boomerang.
In formulating their life-stance, Jains drew arguably an arbitrary line of division: they looked around and basically decided not to eat anything that looks like them or, rather, looks at them. A simple way to draw a visual line of distinction between flora and fauna is whether you have eyes or not. I know I am oversimplifying (but it’s a blog, after all, not a dissertation): Jains basically decided not to eat what they can identify with, not to kill-to-eat animals or insects, their bio-kin, and went vegetarian and/or vegan. They figured that since a banana, doesn’t look/yell back at you in pain when torn off the stem, then it must not hurt and, therefore, it must not be all that karmically bad to consume it. This makes sense. Compassion is, indeed, based on identification: the more you can identify with, the more you can forgive; if you can’t identify with something, it’s easier to be violent with it. Bottom-line is that Jains voted against eating animals both out of compassion for animals and in a self-serving attempt to minimize their own karmic/moral footprint. So, they stopped playing “nozhichki” with their kin, put away their hunting swords and switched to farming sickles.
So, ahimsa-style eating, non-violent eating, has come to be synonymous with vegetarianism and veganism, i.e. with what you eat and don’t eat. Unfortunately, I think this misses the point: the point of conscious moderation. Ahimsa-style eating – as I understand it – isn’t about what you eat and don’t eat but about how you eat. If you eat mindlessly, you over-consume, no matter what you eat. Whether your eating kills more cows then necessary or mows down more rice fields than necessary, mindless eating is violent overconsumption. Mindful eating, on the other hand, allows you to curb your over-consumption and, consequently, to minimize your zero-sum footprint to a functional minimum.
I’ve been eating vegetarian for the last ten years, with at least five (not necessarily consecutive) of these years, eating vegan. I’ve also had a few sticks of beef jerky while motoring up and down on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on a couple of occasions. I don’t care how you conceptualize my eating style nor do I care what you yourself eat, as long as you consciously balance your footprint to a co-existing minimum. To over-eat is to over-consume, i.e. to trespass on the life-turf you really don’t need to carve up and conquer, i.e. to engage in unnecessary violence. You don’t have to be a vegetarian or a vegan to eat with compassion, you just have to be mindful. So, unless you find a way to sustain yourself on blue packets of synthetic Equal, recognize that anything that moves and breathes underneath the azure sky is equally alive. Reconsider moderation as compassion. Enough said lest I over-kill the point.
Four Footnote Knife-Throws re: Jaina System into the Informational Circle of Your Mind
“The Jainas were the first to make ahimsa, non-violence, into a rule of life.”
“Its scheme of the universe is said to be grounded in logic and experience. Its central features are its realistic classification of being, its theory of knowledge with its celebrated doctrines of syadvada and saptabhangi, and its ascetic ethics.”
“Jainism holds that all knowledge is only probable or partial. It gives us a “somehow,” or a “perhaps,” or a “maybe” (syad). This is the doctrine of syadvada.”
“Consciousness is the essence of the self (or soul).”
Indian Philosophy, S. Radhakrishnan & C. Moore, pp. 250-251.
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011