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.