THICH NHAT HANH
In 2014, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) approached Thich Nhat Hanh as an international faith leader, to request a brief statement about climate change and our relationship to one another and to the Earth.
This statement was published on the UNFCCC website, ahead of the Paris Climate Summit in September 2015.
This beautiful, bounteous, life-giving planet we call Earth has given birth to each one of us, and each one of us carries the Earth within every cell of our body.
The Earth is our mother, nourishing and protecting us in every moment–giving us air to breathe, fresh water to drink, food to eat and healing herbs to cure us when we are sick. Every breath we inhale contains our planet’s nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and trace elements. When we breathe with mindfulness, we can experience our interbeing with the Earth’s delicate atmosphere, with all the plants, and even with the sun, whose light makes possible the miracle of photosynthesis. With every breath we can experience communion. With every breath we can savor the wonders of life.
We need to change our way of thinking and seeing things. We need to realise that the Earth is not just our environment. The Earth is not something outside of us. Breathing with mindfulness and contemplating your body, you realise that you are the Earth. You realise that your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth. Look around you–what you see is not your environment, it is you.
Whatever nationality or culture we belong to, whatever religion we follow, whether we’re Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, we can all see that the Earth is not inert matter. She is a great being, who has herself given birth to many other great beings–including buddhas and bodhisattvas, prophets and saints, sons and daughters of God and humankind. The Earth is a loving mother, nurturing and protecting all peoples and all species without discrimination.
When you realize the Earth is so much more than simply your environment, you’ll be moved to protect her in the same way as you would yourself. This is the kind of awareness, the kind of awakening that we need, and the future of the planet depends on whether we’re able to cultivate this insight or not. The Earth and all species on Earth are in real danger. Yet if we can develop a deep relationship with the Earth, we’ll have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change our way of life.
We can all experience a feeling of deep admiration and love when we see the great harmony, elegance and beauty of the Earth. A simple branch of cherry blossom, the shell of a snail or the wing of a bat – all bear witness to the Earth’s masterful creativity. Every advance in our scientific understanding deepens our admiration and love for this wondrous planet. When we can truly see and understand the Earth, love is born in our hearts. We feel connected. That is the meaning of love: to be at one.
Only when we’ve truly fallen back in love with the Earth will our actions spring from reverence and the insight of our interconnectedness. Yet many of us have become alienated from the Earth. We are lost, isolated and lonely. We work too hard, our lives are too busy, and we are restless and distracted, losing ourselves in consumption. But the Earth is always there for us, offering us everything we need for our nourishment and healing: the miraculous grain of corn, the refreshing stream, the fragrant forest, the majestic snow-capped mountain peak, and the joyful birdsong at dawn.
Many of us think we need more money, more power or more status before we can be happy. We’re so busy spending our lives chasing after money, power and status that we ignore all the conditions for happiness already available. At the same time, we lose ourselves in buying and consuming things we don’t need, putting a heavy strain on both our bodies and the planet. Yet much of what we drink, eat, watch, read or listen to, is toxic, polluting our bodies and minds with violence, anger, fear and despair.
As well as the carbon dioxide pollution of our physical environment, we can speak of the spiritual pollution of our human environment: the toxic and destructive atmosphere we’re creating with our way of consuming. We need to consume in such a way that truly sustains our peace and happiness. Only when we’re sustainable as humans will our civilization become sustainable. It is possible to be happy in the here and the now.
We don’t need to consume a lot to be happy; in fact we can live very simply. With mindfulness, any moment can become a happy moment. Savoring one simple breath, taking a moment to stop and contemplate the bright blue sky, or to fully enjoy the presence of a loved one, can be more than enough to make us happy. Each one of us needs to come back to reconnect with ourselves, with our loved ones and with the Earth. It’s not money, power or consuming that can make us happy, but having love and understanding in our heart.
We need to consume in such a way that keeps our compassion alive. And yet many of us consume in a way that is very violent. Forests are cut down to raise cattle for beef, or to grow grain for liquor, while millions in the world are dying of starvation. Reducing the amount of meat we eat and alcohol we consume by 50% is a true act of love for ourselves, for the Earth and for one another. Eating with compassion can already help transform the situation our planet is facing, and restore balance to ourselves and the Earth.
There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with Earth. We’ve been homo sapiens for a long time. Now it’s time to become homo conscius. Our love and admiration for the Earth has the power to unite us and remove all boundaries, separation and discrimination. Centuries of individualism and competition have brought about tremendous destruction and alienation. We need to re-establish true communication–true communion–with ourselves, with the Earth, and with one another as children of the same mother. We need more than new technology to protect the planet. We need real community and co-operation.
All civilisations are impermanent and must come to an end one day. But if we continue on our current course, there’s no doubt that our civilisation will be destroyed sooner than we think. The Earth may need millions of years to heal, to retrieve her balance and restore her beauty. She will be able to recover, but we humans and many other species will disappear, until the Earth can generate conditions to bring us forth again in new forms. Once we can accept the impermanence of our civilization with peace, we will be liberated from our fear. Only then will we have the strength, awakening and love we need to bring us together. Cherishing our precious Earth–falling in love with the Earth–is not an obligation. It is a matter of personal and collective happiness and survival.
Our Community’s Commitment and Prayer on New Year’s Eve 2021
Dear Beloved Ancestors, Dear Beloved Mother Earth,
Over the past two years, uncertainty, anxiety, and loss arising from the COVID-19 pandemic have raised levels of fear, anger, and violence in our human family. Contemplating the possibility for such suffering and violence to continue, and to proliferate on an even larger scale, we commit anew to cultivating peace in ourselves and in the world. Following the spirit of the Buddha’s insight into the Noble Truth of suffering, we aspire to practice the following mindfulness training for peace on Earth.
Aware of the suffering caused by the potential for our human family to destroy itself and – through unmindful or reckless actions – extinguish all life on Earth, we are determined to nurture a culture of honouring the sacred web of life that sustains us. This we shall do by committing collectively to practicing mindfulness and leading lives of non-violence and peace, based on our insight into the interconnectedness, interdependency and interbeing of all forms of life on Earth.
We shall practice collectively (as well as individually) in ways that stop all acts and behaviours contributing to the destruction of our human family, other species from the animal and plant kingdoms, and our planet. These destructive actions include the development and production of arms such as nuclear and biochemical weapons, and advanced technologies for waging war in cyberspace and space. The destructive actions we seek to end also include the misuse of social media and other media to manipulate human minds and emotions in ways that generate confusion, mistrust, anger, hatred, and violence within our human family, and cruelty to other species from the animal and plant kingdoms.
We shall channel humanity’s collective energy, material wealth and spiritual resources towards positive, wholesome actions that help people learn about, understand, and trust each other; that nourish our existence as one human family among many species, and that protect our sacred Mother Earth.
With openness and humility, we shall learn to embrace each other culturally, politically, socially, and equitably. We shall respect diversity of ethnicity, gender, age, and religious or other beliefs so we may build and nurture on Earth a human family that is at peace with itself, with all living beings and with the planet.
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Although we human beings are animals, a part of nature, we single ourselves out from nature, thinking of other animals and living beings as “nature” and acting as if we are not a part of it. Then we ask ourselves, “How should we deal with nature?” The answer is we should deal with it the way we should deal with ourselves. We shouldn’t harm ourselves, and we should not harm nature. In fact, to harm nature is to harm ourselves.
We humans think we are smart, but an orchid, for example, knows how to produce noble, symmetrical flowers, and a snail knows how to make a beautiful, well-proportioned shell. Compared with their knowledge, ours is not worth much at all. We should bow deeply before the orchid and the snail and join our palms reverently before the monarch butterfly and the magnolia tree. The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves.
If you are a mountain climber or someone who enjoys the countryside or the forest, you know that forests are our lungs outside of our bodies. Yet we have been acting in a way that has allowed two million square miles of land to be deforested, and we have also destroyed the air, the rivers, and parts of the ozone layer. We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of some comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self.
If we want to change the situation, we must begin by being our true selves. To be our true selves means we have to be the forest, be the river, and be the ozone layer. If we visualize ourselves as the forest, we will experience the hopes and fears of the trees. If we don’t do this, the forests will die and we will lose our chance for peace. When we understand that we inter-are with the trees, we will know that it is up to us to make an effort to keep the trees alive. In the last twenty years, our automobiles and factories have created acid rain that has destroyed so many trees. Because we inter-are with the trees, we know that if they do not live, we too will disappear very soon.
An oak tree is an oak tree. That is all an oak tree needs to do. If an oak tree is less than an oak tree, we will all be in trouble. Therefore, we can say that the oak trees are preaching the Dharma. In our former lives, we were rocks, clouds, and trees. We may have been an oak tree ourselves. This is not just Buddhist; it is scientific. We humans are a very young species – we appeared on the Earth only recently. We were plants, we were trees, and now we have become humans. We have to remember our past existences and be humble. We can learn the Dharma from an oak tree. In fact, each pebble, each leaf, and each flower is preaching the Saddharma Pundarika Lotus Sutra.
When we look at green vegetables, we should know that it is the sun that is green and not just the vegetables. The green color in the leaves of the vegetables is due to the presence of the sun. Without the sun, no species of living being could survive. Leaves absorb sunlight as it reflects on their surfaces, and they retain the energy of the sun, extracting carbon from the atmosphere to manufacture nutritive matter for the plant. Without sun, water, air, and soil, there would be no vegetables. The vegetables are the coming-together of many conditions near and far.
Everything is in transformation. All life is impermanent. We are all children of the Earth, and, at some time, she will take us back to her again. We are continually arising from Mother Earth, being nurtured by her, and then returning to the Earth. Like us, plants are born, live for a while, and then return to the Earth. When they decompose, they fertilize our gardens. Living vegetables and decomposing vegetables are part of the same reality. Without one, the other cannot be. After six months, compost becomes fresh vegetables again. Plants and the Earth rely on each other. Whether the Earth is fresh, beautiful, and green, or arid and parched depends on the plants.
It also depends on us. Our way of walking on the Earth has a great influence on animals and plants. We have killed so many animals and plants and destroyed their environment. Many are now extinct. In turn, our environment is now harming all of us. Polluted water and air are taking their toll. We are like sleepwalkers, not knowing what we are doing or where we are heading. Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps.
In Heaven, the songs of the celestial birds teach us the ultimate reality. On Earth, too, the songs of the birds reveal to us our true nature. Birds’ songs express joy, beauty, and purity, and evoke in us vitality and love. So many beings in the universe love us unconditionally. The trees, the water, and the air don’t ask anything of us; they just love us. Even though we need this kind of love, we continue to destroy them. By destroying the animals, the air, and the trees, we are destroying ourselves. We must learn to practice unconditional love for all beings so that the animals, the air, and the trees can continue to be themselves.
Our ecology should be a deep ecology—not only deep, but universal. There is pollution in our consciousness. Television, films, and newspapers are forms of pollution for us and our children. They sow seeds of violence and anxiety in us and pollute our consciousness, just as we destroy our environment by fanning with chemicals, clear-cutting the trees, and polluting the water. We need to protect the ecology of the Earth and the ecology of the mind, or this kind of violence and recklessness will spill over into even more areas of life.
If the Earth were your body, you would be able to feel many areas where she is suffering. Many people are aware of the world’s suffering, and their hearts are filled with compassion. They know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they become discouraged, because they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace. The best way to take care of the environment is to take care of the environmentalist.
Our Earth, our green beautiful Earth is in danger, and all of us know it. We act as if our daily lives have nothing to do with the situation of the world, but if we can change our daily lives—the way we think, the way we speak, the way we act we can change the world.
These writings were gathered by Duncan Williams of Harvard Divinity School for his Master’s Thesis on Buddhism and Ecology.
In the spirit of love and wanting to offer something positive to the many crises that we face.
Two studies were published recently, one in The Lancet and one in the journal Science, which asked young people from all over the world their feelings about the climate crisis. And the results are shocking: 75 percent of young people are living with a constant feeling of anxiety about the climate situation. And 50 percent feel that society is already doomed. Many of them have already decided not to bring children into this world. It’s alarming. And it’s everywhere: all around the world, all kinds of people, all different situations.
So the question I feel we have to ask ourselves as practitioners is, ‘How can we help?’ What does it mean to be a practitioner now, in this time of crisis?
Thay used to say: ‘A good practitioner should know how to generate a feeling of joy or a feeling of happiness, and how to take care of a painful feeling.’ He wasn’t saying, ‘If you don’t know how to do this, you’re a bad practitioner.’ He was saying, ‘It’s easy; don’t make it so complicated.’
If we know what we can do, then we have an antidote to the feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and sense of being overwhelmed by the crisis, which come from the sense that there’s nothing we can do, or that whatever we can do is not enough.
So what can we do?
I would like to take Thay’s statement about being a good practitioner and modify it a little.
Do you know how to generate a feeling of joy? Do you know how to handle a feeling of pain? If I ask myself those questions, the answer is partly yes, partly no. We can also ask ourselves, ‘How often do I remember that I can generate a feeling of joy? Could I do it more? In what situations?’
If you’re with a group of friends and everybody’s in a good mood and something lovely is happening, it’s not difficult to generate joy. So the real question is, ‘Do I know how to generate a feeling of joy when things are difficult or neutral? When I’m feeling restless or distracted?’ These are practices that we have to look into.
Another question is: ‘Do I know how to do it when I’m on my own? And do I know how to do it collectively?’ Do you know how to recognize when you are avoiding a painful feeling?
This has something to do with knowing how to handle a painful feeling – because we can’t transform it until we recognize it. That must be the first step: recognizing.
And a final question: ‘Do I know how to recognize when I’m underestimating the power of a feeling of joy?’
In my approach to the practice, I focused on suffering for many years. I didn’t understand that generating a feeling of joy and being in touch with the wonders of life is a way of handling suffering. So I need to recognize that I may be underestimating how powerful well-being, joy, and simple happiness can be as a response to the situation we are in globally and collectively.
It may seem like generating a feeling of joy is a spiritual bypass; something false: ‘You can’t just be happy; you have to know how bad things are. Happiness alone is naive, unrealistic, and maybe even foolish.’ So we need to be attentive to that tendency, and to understand the connection between our capacity to generate feelings of joy and our ability to stand tall in the face of suffering, to not be afraid, to be able to welcome it and embrace it. And generating the feeling of joy comes first.
In the 16 exercises of mindful breathing, the Buddha was very clear: generate a feeling of joy and happiness before getting in touch with a feeling of pain. That way, we create an environment where the feeling of pain can be held and embraced, and where it doesn’t overwhelm us.
So what is the connection between this and our global situation?
Firstly, we know that we must reduce our emissions. We know we must stop degrading the biosphere. We must stop polluting the waters, the land, and the air. We must stop cutting down trees and filling the oceans with plastic and toxic waste. This, taken together, we call mitigation; mitigating the harm that we are causing. This is an essential component of getting through the current situation.
The second part of the solution is adaptation. As the climate becomes more unstable, there will be more extreme weather events: greater extremes of temperature; unaccustomed heat waves that we’re not ready for; and extreme storms, wind, and rain that our infrastructure is not designed to handle. So adaptation of infrastructure is necessary to make our houses, cities, and modes of transportation able to withstand a more unstable climate.
These are the keys: mitigation and adaptation.
But, as practitioners, there is a feeling that there’s not much that we can do about these things, because they have to happen on a very large scale.
But both mitigation and adaptation are going to be carried out by human beings.
We know quite a lot about our nervous system: when we feel threatened, overwhelmed, or powerless, we tend to freeze. We may first try to fight or to run – the fight-or-flight reflex – but very quickly, we freeze and shut down. This psychological paralysis, a feeling of ‘I can’t do anything’, can very quickly become, ‘I don’t want to think about it.’ It can become denial: ‘It’s not that bad; if it was that bad, we would have stopped already.’ That’s what happens when we procrastinate. And we are in a moment of collective procrastination; we are carrying on business as usual.
What transformation there is, isn’t happening fast enough – which may be because of the emotions that we are experiencing but don’t know how to cope with. That’s where the sangha can act, because we already have a lot of experience dealing with feelings of pain and happiness. As practitioners, whatever experience we have gained about dealing with suffering during our personal journeys is immediately relevant to our global situation: how to transform our suffering, accept it, face it, meet it, not run from it, not deny it, be gentle with it, embrace it, and create a foundation of joy and well-being so that it can soften and transform. This experience is the answer. It is what we can do. And it is desperately needed right now.
Think of those overwhelmed young people. Who is going to help them learn to handle their feelings of pain? To generate the feelings of joy that they need so much? To stop denying the pain and allow it to be? To not underestimate the power of joy and of well-being?
We have to do that. That, I believe, is our task.
And it’s so wonderful, because we already know what to do; we already have so much experience. We hear that, ‘We have the technology already; we know what to do.’ So do we: we have the spiritual technology.
When I get in touch with these feelings of being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, by the immensity of the suffering that we already face and that is likely coming, I try to remind myself that the moment for me to act is now, with that feeling. That’s where I have to do the work. That’s where I can engage. I don’t have to wait to go to a protest or to vote. Of course, I have to do those things as well, but I can already act now, in this moment, with this feeling. And it’s immediately connected to the global situation because we know that we are the Earth. The Earth is not outside of us.
As practitioners, we perhaps feel that we see with the eyes of interbeing and don’t behave as victims. But what happens when we think of the giant corporations that have caused so much harm? The oil companies that have lied and covered up scientific evidence of climate change, and paid millions or billions on lobbying to delay the changes that we need to make. If we see them as the enemy, as the ones who are to blame, then we become victims.
And Thay said something very challenging: ‘As a practitioner, you do not have the right to be a victim.’
To notice when we slip into that mode of thinking, we must be very attentive. Similarly, whenever we feel helpless in the face of this crisis, we are being victims. So we have to recognize that and know how to handle it, because being a victim is a feeling of pain.
So, as a good practitioner, what do we do? We know how to handle a feeling of pain, we know how to handle being a victim and how to transform it. We may contemplate our interbeing with the beautiful, noble, and majestic trees. But how often do we contemplate our interbeing with those who cut the trees down? How often do we contemplate our interbeing with those who pollute the oceans and rivers? How often do we see that they are in us and we are in them; that we are part of the same system of extraction and exploitation, and that we have benefited from it?
Because we have profited from it. I don’t say that to make us feel bad or guilty. On the contrary: if they are in us and we are in them, then when we transform, they transform.
That is our power. That is our agency. That is why we are not powerless. That is why we can do something.
Do we really think that our feelings are our feelings are ours alone? Do you think your feelings stay within, that they don’t leak out?
I once did an exercise with a group of friends: I asked them to pair up and one of each pair had to share with the other the most inspiring, wonderful, joyful thing that had happened to them in the past week. And the listener had to remain completely indifferent; feel nothing while the other person shared an amazing thing that had happened to them.
And the result is clear: it’s impossible.
When somebody starts sharing their joy, inspiration, and passion, you feel it. Because that feeling is not only theirs; it doesn’t end at their skin. So when we generate a feeling of joy, it is not just for us: it has no no boundary; it transforms the world. It is not something small, it is not trivial, and it is not a spiritual bypass.
To generate a feeling of joy is a powerful, courageous act; an act of resistance. We need to do that, both individually and collectively, share with each other, and learn and find new ways to inspire each other.
In Edinburgh at the TED Countdown, with climate activists, scientists, and people from the worlds of business and politics, they could feel it. They would come up to us and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but please keep doing it because every time I see you, I feel better.’ Well, we’re looking around mindfully, taking care of our feelings, taking care when we feel overwhelmed, supporting each other as a mini sangha. And in fact, maybe because of our presence in Edinburgh, we have been invited to COP26. So we will be there; sangha will be there.
So, in terms of of interbeing, we are just the tip of the branch and rely on the tree and the roots – which is all of us. And that’s true for everyone.
It’s wonderful to be a leaf, but don’t just be the leaf. Be the branch, the tree, the roots – and don’t just be the tree. Be the forest. And don’t just be the forest; be the Earth.
If you feel powerless, overwhelmed, or disconnected, you have to light up the interbeing in our hearts. You have to activate it again and again and again. This gives us a vast space to hold our pain with tenderness, with the love of Mother Earth; hold it and transform it. And we can expand in time as well as space: we become the Earth, but we also become the whole lineage of our ancestors. And it doesn’t make us less ourselves; it makes us more ourselves, because that’s what we really are: we are vast and we contain multitudes.
Part of the art of handling a feeling of pain and generating a feeling of joy, is noticing what kind of story we are telling in our mind about that suffering.
Are we telling a story that puts us into the role of a victim? Are we telling a story that makes somebody else the culprit? Are we telling a story of ‘It’s too late’? Of ‘We’re doomed’? I want to propose another way to tell the story of the young people: twenty five percent of young people are not feeling overwhelmed, do not feel that we are doomed.
Now, maybe 25 percent doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be surprised. A lot of studies on social change and transformation tell us that the critical mass needed for collective social transformation is between five and 25 percent. So 25 percent of young people is already more than enough.
We stay with the old story and we keep falling back into it. So we need to have the courage to recognize the good in us and in the world, and to recognize the change that is already happening. And we need to tell those stories: that’s how we transform suffering. That’s how we generate a feeling of joy.
Every single step that we can take and remember to be aware of is an immediate and direct contribution to the planetary crisis. We face it every time we remember to be aware of our breath entering or exiting our body; by doing that, we are increasing our degree of freedom in the face of our own suffering. We are increasing our capacity to see what is going on in our minds, and the capacity to remember to generate joy – and that is directly linked to the situation that we face.
What is this practice? It is trauma therapy. This is what you have to do when you’re overwhelmed, when you’re frozen, when your nervous system is overwhelmed by pain. This is what we have to learn to do, and we have to do it at scale because everybody is only going to need it more.
And the amazing thing about our practice is that, no matter what happens, it is always the appropriate response: generating mindfulness; cultivating the freedom to recognize and embrace our feelings; skillfully generating a feeling of happiness. It’s amazing. It’s transferable to every kind of suffering; in every situation, we are equipped to respond, to act, to help, and to serve. But we need to make sure: ‘Do we have something to offer? Have we mastered it? Can we learn from each other? Can we stay inspired?’
These four questions are also about the practice of right diligence – one of the elements of the noble eightfold path. When a positive mental formation is not present, what do you do? Bring it up. What’s generating a feeling of joy? Joy could be compassion, peace, stillness, generosity, or kindness when a positive mental formation is absent. We know how to bring it up. We bring it up. When a negative mental formation is present, what do we do? We help it to go back to sleep. We take care of it.
When we have more well-being, then we don’t need as much; we can live with less because we’re already happy and satisfied. So this is crucial for this path of moderation that we want to demonstrate and share with the world.
My sense is that we need a peaceful army with no weapons: an army of practitioners. We can all train and will all be called to stand. We are all called to help to serve every time we meet a feeling of pain in ourselves. You are being called upon every time you meet a feeling of pain in somebody else.
And our collective capacity to do these things, to handle the pain, to generate the joy: these are the conditions for us to be able to do what we have to do, as a whole society, to face the challenge that we are encountering. We will not mitigate or adapt if we are frozen, paralyzed, or overwhelmed. So we have something to do. And the wonderful thing is that it’s easy. We were already doing it. And yet we will be there in Glasgow, channeling mindfulness, joy, love, and the inside of the whole sangha.
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