Journalist Jo Confino interviews Thích Nhất Hạnh on how we can practice with and relate to insights arising from contemplating the Earth as our Mother.
By Thich Nhat Hanh, Jo Confino on
Jo Confino (JC): Dear Thầy, in the last two weeks in your Dharma talks you’ve talked about the importance of seeing Mother Earth, the cosmos, and humanity as one, completely interwoven, and you said our nature is her nature. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by that and why it’s such an important insight?
Thích Nhất Hạnh (TNH): This insight, this teaching, can be found in the scriptures. In Mahayana Buddhism, we are taught that everything has Buddha nature, so the nature of enlightenment is immanent in everything. In the koans of Zen Buddhism they ask whether a dog has Buddha nature. In the Lotus Sutra and in many other Mahayana sutras it is confirmed that there are a multitude of Buddhas in the cosmos. So, before mankind appeared on Earth, there had been Buddhas, not in the form of a person but in other forms. In the Pali scriptures they speak of Buddhas as many as the grains of sand in the Ganges River. If we look into the Milky Way, we see that there are millions of stars and each star can be a Buddha. The Sun above us is a real Buddha: a Buddha that can provide a lot of light and warmth, a Buddha that can offer life. We can conceive of Buddha not only as a person but also in other forms. What is offered today as a teaching and practice is not something new, but the continuation of what has been said and practiced. It is clear that the Buddha Shakyamuni is a child of the Earth, and he has expressed his intention to take care of this Earth as if it is a Pure Land. Therefore we who follow the teachings of the Buddha also want to accept this Earth as our Pure Land. You don't need to look for a kingdom of Buddhas elsewhere. If we have enough mindfulness and concentration that brings us insight: the Pure Land is available right in the here and the now. The insight is that the kingdom of God is on Earth. The kingdom of heaven is on Earth. Air France has produced a beautiful sentence: ‘Faire du ciel le plus bel endroit de la terre’ (to make the sky the most beautiful spot of the Earth). We’d like to change a little bit and say that the Earth is the most beautiful spot of the sky. If you look deeply, you realize there isn’t anything as beautiful as our planet Earth. That is why we should not try to abandon this beautiful planet, searching for something far away, whether that is called Pure Land, Kingdom of God, or anything else. If we have that insight, we see that the Earth is not only the environment. The Earth is us, and taking care of the Earth is taking care of ourselves. Many people get sick today because they are alienated from Mother Earth, they forget that they are on Earth, and that they have a body given by Mother Earth. The practice of mindfulness helps us to go back to our body, to touch Mother Earth inside our body, and to touch the Earth outside our body. That practice can help heal people. The healing of people should go together with the healing of the Earth. That is the teaching, the insight. This is possible for everyone to practice.
JC: Why is it important for you to be talking about this now? Is it because you feel that the Earth is in danger now and that we need to go back to that real deep connection that we have lost?
TNH: In the Buddhist tradition we believe that the teaching should be appropriate to our time, to our place. So whatever teaching can respond to the real need of the people of the time will be good teaching. And that is why this has come to the foreground. That does not mean that this is the only teaching, but that it is the kind of teaching we need most in our time. So many have already spoken about the dangers we encounter. As I mentioned, many of us in the human family are getting sick, and our sickness is the sickness of Mother Earth. In Buddhism, we speak of meditation as an act of awakening. To awaken is to be awake to something. We need to be awake to the fact that the Earth is in danger, and that living species on Earth are also in danger. We need this collective awakening to have enough strength to create change.
JC: How do you think we can bring about that collective awakening? Because most people live very busy lives. They’re living in cities, and often have major problems in their families. How do you think people can come back to this core understanding when their minds are so far away from it?
TNH: I think the best way would be to help them to be in touch with the suffering that they undergo now. Many people suffer deeply, and they don’t know that they suffer. They try to cover up their suffering by being busy. So anything you can do to help them realize that suffering is there, and that there is a way to take care of the suffering, this will help them. If you are skillful enough, you can help them take the time to go back and take care of themselves and at the same time take care of the Earth. You journalists can help other people do that by sharing your insight, your experience.
Breathing in, I am aware that I have a body.
Breathing out, I smile to my body, which is a wonder...
In Plum Village, we do that in our own way. We organize retreats and Days of Mindfulness. We organize the practice of mindful walking and mindful breathing, so that we can touch the suffering inside of us and around us. We realize that transforming suffering is the most important thing—not getting more money, fame, power, sex, etc.
JC: You’ve talked about the fact that often people get stuck in their suffering and don’t see a way out of it. You suggest the path of mindfulness and concentration brings insight. For a lot of people that seems very simplistic. A lot of people say, “Well, that’s not a way; that’s not an answer for me. I’ve got too many problems, I’ve got no time.” What would you say to people who ask: “How is this going to help me?”
TNH: Everyone wants to have a good life; a life that is pleasant, not burdened by worries.. But they don’t know how to lay down their worries, fears, and anger in order to enjoy their daily life. We can offer them a way of living so they can improve the quality of their life right away, today.
Suppose you ask: Do you remember that you have a body? To have a body is wonderful. You have spent a lot of time with your computer, but you forget that you have a body. When you are not with the body, you are not alive. If you breathe in mindfully, practicing mindfulness with one in-breath, you can go home to your body and get the insight that you have a body. The body is a wonder, and when you are with the body, spirit, and mind together, you touch insight in your life. You are here on Earth, and you can get in touch with many wonders of life available to you, in you, and around you. You can practice like: “Breathing in, I am aware that I have a body. Breathing out, I smile to my body, which is a wonder,” and enjoy having a body. “With my body, I can walk on Earth and enjoy the beauty of the Earth.” Mindfulness, concentration, and insight should be presented like this, and then the practice of mindful breathing and walking can help you to be present to get in touch with the refreshing and healing wonders of life. The practice of mindfulness also helps you to recognize that suffering is there, so that you know how to take care of and transform suffering. These are very concrete things. We are not offering philosophy ideas but real ways of practice, so that they can suffer less. They can begin to enjoy more of life, beginning with their breath and then their body, their eyes. Suppose you ask: “Do you know that you have eyes in good condition? It is a good thing.” You practice: “Breathing in, I am aware that my eyes are still in good condition.” If I open my eyes, I am able to touch the paradise of forms and colors around me, and that will bring me happiness. When I’m more mindful, I enjoy my tea more. When I drink my tea, I'm fully present in the here and the now; I’m not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past, or the future. I am available to life, and life is available to me in the way I hold a cup of tea. I look with mindfulness and I see that there is a cloud in my tea. The cloud was in the sky yesterday; today it is in my tea. The cloud is a wonder, the tea is also a wonder, and I am also a wonder. When I drink tea, this is a marvelous moment and happiness is possible. You don’t need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you be happy right in the here and the now. Every moment of our daily life can be a happy moment. If you teach like that and if you know how to do it, you set an example and you can help people to do the same. It does not take many years to experiment and see the truth, it takes a few minutes.
JC: In an earlier talk you said our Mother Earth is not the same as the environment, and we need to go beyond environmentalism and beyond just being environmental activists. Can you tell us a bit about what you mean by that?
TNH: The Earth is a bodhisattva, and she has many virtues we can recognize. First of all, a real bodhisattva should have the capacity to endure, the virtue of perseverance. A bodhisattva should have the capacity to be solid, to be stable, as the Earth is solid, is stable. A bodhisattva should have the virtue of being creative, and the Earth is very creative. She gives life to many species. A bodhisattva should have the spirit of non-discrimination, and the Earth does not discriminate. She embraces everyone, everything. She never gets angry at us, even if we do silly things.
When you wake up and see that the Earth is not just the environment, the Earth is in you, you are the Earth, and you touch the nature of interbeing, at that moment you can have real communication with the Earth.
So, a bodhisattva does not need to be a human person; a bodhisattva can be a star, a river, a mountain, or a planet. That is why when we look at our planet Earth, we should see her as a bodhisattva. We should transcend the notion that the Earth is something inhabited by a spirit and that a bodhisattva is a spirit inhabiting the Earth. We should transcend that idea. We do not worship a spirit that stays behind the Earth, because we are not caught in the idea that there are two things: the Earth, which is a material thing, and the spirit of the Earth, which is a non-material thing that inhabits the Earth. Our notions of mind and matter are just notions, and we should be able to transcend both notions. When we can realize that the Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or of mind, when we recognize the virtues, the talent, and the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, some kind of love is born.
We admire, we love, we want to be connected. That is the meaning of love. To love means to be one with, to admire, to adore. That is the kind of sentiment born from your contact with the Earth. When we love someone, we want to say, “I need you. I take refuge in you.” That is a kind of praying, and that is not superstition. You love the Earth, and Earth loves you. You do anything for the well-being of the Earth, and the Earth will do anything for your well-being. That is the outcome of that kind of relationship. It begins with mindfulness. You are here as a child of the Earth, you carry Mother Earth within you. Mother Earth is not outside of you, she is inside you. Mother Earth is not just your environment: you are part of Mother Earth. That kind of insight of non-discrimination helps you to be truly in communion with the Earth. In the Buddhist tradition, every time we bow to the Buddha we say: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to, they are both by nature empty of a separate existence. Dear Buddha, you are empty of a separate existence and I am also empty of a separate existence.” It means that you are in me and I am in you. You are made of non-you elements, including the element “me.” And I am made of non-me elements, including “you.” In that insight of interbeing, communication becomes truly possible. If you are only you, and I am only me, and we are two different entities, how can communication be possible?
When you wake up and see that the Earth is not just the environment, the Earth is in you, you are the Earth, and you touch the nature of interbeing, at that moment you can have real communication with the Earth. That is the highest form of prayer. The one who prays and the one who is prayed to are not two. In that kind of relationship we have enough love, strength, and awakening to change our life. Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we have to have Right View. Right View transcends all notions, including the notions of being and non-being. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing. Only when you have Right View, Right Insight, is discrimination no longer there. There will be deep communion with your understanding, and every good thing will come from it. Discrimination brings about fear, separation, hate, anger, and the root is the wrong view that you and the Earth are two separate entities. The Earth is only the environment. You are in the center. And you want to do something for the Earth so that you survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing. But to breathe in and to be aware of your body, and to look deeply into your body, and to realize that you are the Earth, and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth: that consciousness can be liberated from wrong views. You are doing what Mother Earth expects you to do to get enlightened, to become a Buddha, and to help other living beings, not only on Earth but on other planets. So we should not think of the environment as something apart from ourselves. Not to cut the tree, not to pollute the water—that is not enough.
JC: One of the key messages you have is about Applied Buddhism: that it is not okay just to sit and meditate, you need to address injustice and exploitation. So what would you say to social activists who call themselves environmentalists and are fighting to save the planet and the species? You’ve also said that you are not much help if you are angry yourself. What would your advice be to people who really want to make a difference to the world?
TNH: In Buddhism we speak of individual action and collective action. Sometimes, something wrong is going on in the world, and we think that it is other people who are doing it, not us. But looking deeply, you see that you are part of the wrongdoing in the way you live your life. That is why it’s good to meditate on collective action. In a human relationship, when you suffer you tend to blame the other person as the cause of your suffering. But if that relationship has become difficult, it’s partly because of you. If you are able to see that not only you suffer but the other person also suffers, that is already an insight. When you see the suffering of the other person, you no longer want to punish, to blame. Maybe you want to do something to help that person to suffer less. But if you are burdened with anger, fear, and ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person not to suffer. That is why you need to do something so you will suffer less. That is crucial. If you suffer less, you are lighter, you smile more, you are pleasant to be with, and you are in a position to more easily help others to suffer less.
The same thing is true for activists. If you are angry, if you only blame other people for doing wrong things, you might make the situation worse. Therefore, if you change your mind and remove wrong view, you suffer less already. You have not done anything yet, just removed wrong view so you can see that people are victims and you cannot condemn victims, you can only help them. So already that is making you feel lighter, freer; you suffer less. There are a lot of things you can do so you suffer less. I think all activists need a spiritual practice to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness in them, and to handle the suffering in them so that they will be effective in time to help the world and the people. With anger and frustration, you cannot do much. You might make the situation worse.
JC: I want to move on to the subject of science. Next summer you’re doing a twenty-one-day retreat on science and Buddhism. How did your personal interest in science come about, and what have you personally learned from it?
TNH: Scientists are motivated by a desire to understand more, and Buddhist practitioners are also motivated by that desire. But in Buddhism we keep in mind that understanding will help us suffer less. Any kind of true understanding will help us suffer less. The Buddhist tradition has elaborated ways of practice that help people suffer less, and in this process they found out many things about themselves and the world. They don’t really use the scientific method, but through experience they get a lot of insight. I think they can share this insight with many other people, including scientists. The scientists suffer also, and they may make use of some of the Buddhist practices to suffer less, to enjoy life more. Many of them have done that.
We in the Buddhist tradition have found that science helps us. Personally, I think that archaeology and philology has helped me a lot—thanks to this kind of science, we are able to identify Buddhist texts and know when these texts were produced, and so on. So I have a better knowledge about the evolution of Buddhist thought. Chemistry and physics have also helped us. Many scientific findings have confirmed the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, no-self, no birth, and no death. It’s like when Lavoisier said that nothing is born, and nothing dies. This goes perfectly with the Buddhist teaching. When you look into a cloud deeply, even without sophisticated scientific instruments, you can touch the nature of no birth and no death of the cloud. The cloud has not come from the realm of nonbeing into the realm of being. That insight can be had by anyone. You can help non-scientists to see that. You can tell them that before the cloud appears in the form of a cloud, it did not belong to the realm of nonbeing—it was the steam, the water vapor, the hot sunshine. The cloud is only a continuation of these forms. There’s no birth, there is only a new manifestation, a new continuation. When the cloud dies, you don’t see it anymore, but it has not passed from the realm of being into nonbeing. It’s impossible for a cloud to die. The cloud can become snow, rain, or other things, but cannot become nothing. In this way it is possible for non-scientists to touch the truth of no birth and no death in a cloud. We can understand that scientists are saying the same thing. And that helps people to understand the teaching of the Buddha more easily.
When scientists talk about the law of conservation of matter and energy, they confirm that no matter or energy can be created and that you cannot destroy matter, you cannot destroy energy. This confirms the truth of no birth and no death. If you accept the truth of no birth and no death, you accept the truth of no being, no nonbeing, because birth means from nonbeing, you become being. To die means that from the realm of being, you pass into the realm of nonbeing. If you transcend the notions of birth and death, you are able to transcend the notions of being and nonbeing. You know that to be or not to be is no longer the question. Findings like these help us very much to confirm the teachings of the Buddha and of our own experience. Science is another way of helping people to see the truth and to touch the truth. In Buddhism the understanding of no birth and no death, no being and no nonbeing, is not for the sake of speculating. We meditate on it to transcend our fear, our anger, and our discrimination so we suffer less. That is why if scientists make good use of their findings and apply them to their daily lives, they will suffer less and will succeed more in their scientific work. That is why a retreat for yogis and scientists is good: both support each other.
JC: In ancient times there was a reverence for the Earth and the Sun, but from a very Paganistic perspective. One of the things that science has done is to give us an understanding of the cosmos and the interrelationships of planets and the solar system. Would you talk about where science has helped or can help in this understanding of interbeing and our connection to Mother Earth and the Sun?
TNH: I think science has been able to demonstrate the truth of no-self, of interbeing. But scientists have not been able to apply that insight to organizing our daily life or our society. So far, the insights of science have been applied in technology. Sometimes that can be helpful, but sometimes not. When scientists work with yogis, they may change this. They may try to apply science to our daily lives to handle our suffering and our happiness. There are those of us who agree on the truth of impermanence but still behave as if things are permanent. That is common for scientists and nonscientists. We hope, therefore, that one day scientists will be able to apply the findings of nonself, of no birth and no death, into our daily lives.
We need time to meditate, and to apply this insight into our daily lives. Like in the Buddhist tradition, we need to have time together to do walking meditation, to do sitting meditation, to have Dharma sharing, in order to deepen our understanding and to apply insight to our daily lives so we can transform our fear, our anger, and our discrimination. This is not technology, but it is very crucial to our happiness.
One day, scientists will participate in the work of applied ethics. Every insight can be applied in ethics. To say science does not pay attention to the matter of morality and ethics is not true. Any scientific finding should have an impact on the way you live. Einstein said that he could not believe God to be an old man sitting in the sky and deciding things on Earth. That attitude came from his understanding of the world, of the cosmos, and it had an impact on his personal life and the lives of other people. There are theologians who have been influenced by him, like Paul Tillich.
JC: There’s a movement amongst businesses and politicians saying that trying to reconnect people to nature is not working and so what you have to do is put a monetary value on everything. So, before you cut down a forest you have to consider how much the forest is worth in terms of the soil erosion it prevents, how much value is lost when people cannot walk in the forest, etc. So, today they’re trying to take nature down, to put dollar signs on it because they say that the system we are in only values money, and therefore, to work within the system, you have to actually work with a monetary value to nature. Do you think that’s a practical thing that we have to do, or do you think there is a risk that it might move people away from really connecting to the majesty of nature and to seeing themselves within the Earth?
TNH: Even if we can set up laws like that, there will be people who try to get around them. I don’t think it could work. I think we need a real awakening. We have to change our way of thinking and speaking. This is possible. We have not really tried this yet. Every one of us, whether we are school teachers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, or journalists, we have to do it in our own way. We have to produce awakening, enlightenment, and bring Right View into the mind of people. Right View will bring happiness. Bringing Right View will release suffering in a very concrete way. We need to sit down and find concrete ways to help. There are plenty of us who are activists who are eager to do something. We should begin with ourselves. We should begin with removing our wrong views so that we suffer less. When we suffer less, we can be more helpful. We can help people to change.
JC: You’ve talked about the possibility that the human species will be devastated or annihilated if we don’t change our ways of thinking and acting. How do we deal with the possibility that if people don’t change, the human species may be devastated? How do you respond to that and feel about that?
TNH: We know that many civilizations in the past have vanished. This civilization of ours can vanish also. We know it will take a million years to recreate another civilization. It is not the Earth’s problem—she has enough patience and endurance. She can wait. But we human beings do not have that kind of endurance and insight and courage; we can lose our hope, and we can drown in a sea of despair. When we are victims of despair, we cannot do anything. We can make the situation worse. That is why we have to take care of our insight, our thinking, and our mind first. That is why meditation is very important. To meditate does not mean that you get away from life, it means you take time to look deeply into the situation. To allow yourself to have time to sit, to walk, not doing anything, just looking deeply. Look into our mind and find ways to take care, to deal with the anger, the fear, and the despair in us. If we do not do that, other things we do will not bring any results. To meditate is the most basic, crucial thing to do. You have to get out of despair. You have to get the insight of nonfear. You have to preserve your compassion to be a real instrument of Mother Earth, to help other species. Our century should be a century of spirituality. Whether we can survive or not depends on it. We have to go home and look deeply. That is the work of the spirit, and that is why every one of us on Earth should bring a spiritual dimension to our daily life so we will not be carried away. We need to know how to handle our suffering and our happiness.
Any question from the Sangha? We should allow the Sangha to ask a few questions.
Q: Perhaps a cosmic religion already exists. Perhaps the way we understand our Mother Earth and the Sun, together with the tradition of Buddhist teachings and the discoveries of science, already represents this cosmic religion. Could Thầy help us understand that more deeply?
TNH: We need to build a religion that is not based on dogmas and belief in things we cannot verify. It is possible to have a spiritual practice based on evidence. When we say the great Earth is a beautiful bodhisattva, we are not creating anything from our mind. Everyone can experience that the great Earth is a real bodhisattva, the most beautiful bodhisattva we have ever seen. We don’t need a belief. It is reality that the Earth is giving life, that she’s very beautiful. When you look around you don’t see any Buddhas or bodhisattvas as beautiful as our planet. So when people say, “Let us abandon this realm of suffering in order to look for a spot that is more beautiful,” you shouldn’t agree, because we already touch the truth. When I say that this bodhisattva has the talents and the virtues of endurance, of stability, and of solidity, that is the truth. This bodhisattva has the virtue of nondiscrimination, that is the truth. She can embrace everyone, everything. She never discriminates. That is the truth, and this bodhisattva is a beautiful manifestation—like many other manifestations. The Milky Way, the Sun, these are also beautiful manifestations. The Earth has given life, has produced many Buddhas and bodhisattvas and saints, and that is the truth. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Virgin Mary, they are all children of the Earth, and that is the truth. We don’t need to believe in anything abstract. That is the truth. I believe it is possible for the Earth to offer life because she has non-Earth elements in her. If she did not have the Sun up there, how could she offer or create life? The Sun is on the Earth. We know that many stars have sent us their contributions—mankind is made of stars. The dust we are made of comes from many stars. So we can see that the one contains the whole. The Earth is not only the Earth. The Earth is the whole cosmos. It’s like we human beings, we are not separate from the Earth. A human being has the Earth inside of him or her.
The Earth has a beautiful manifestation. She contains a whole cosmos in her, and if we go back to the Earth deeply, we touch the whole cosmos in the Earth, and we transcend the dualistic view that Earth is only Earth, and that the cosmos is bigger, or something like that. Then, if we get in touch deeply with the historical dimension, with the phenomenal realm, we begin to touch the ultimate dimension, to touch the dimension of no birth and no death, no being and no nonbeing. Science is trying to unlock the door of no birth and no death. They have found the truth of no birth and no death, of true nature. When we touch the truth, our true nature of no birth and no death, fear can end. That is a kind of religion that is not based on dogmas; it is based on evidence, and on our own experience. That kind of religion can be built, can be formed, can be realized simultaneously by the existent religions, philosophies, histories, and science. Hopefully in the twenty-first century we can come together and afford ourselves with the kind of religion that will unite people. That will end all separation and discrimination, because dogmatism has been the cause of separation and war. If each tradition makes an effort to go in that direction, you will soon have the kind of religion that is not based on myths, beliefs, and dogmas but based on evidence. That would be a giant step for mankind.
This is an excerpt from journalist Jo Confino’s (then working for The Guardian) interview with Thích Nhất Hạnh in front of the Sangha in December 2011. You can watch the interview on the Plum Village YouTube channel. You can also read Jo’s published interview “Beyond environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth.”