By Sister Annabel Laity in March 2021
Lower Hamlet, Plum Village
September 22, 2019
The rain is falling o so softly
Washing every leaf of every tree
Washing every care
The rain is falling o so strongly
Reaching every root of every tree
Reaching every root of affliction
The rain is falling o so loudly
Playing the music of joy
For ten thousands of beings
In the song we just sang, we can see that the climate outside us and the emotions and mental formations inside us are not two separate things. When we see the rain wash the leaf of the tree, we also feel that our worries are washed away. We are children of the Earth—we are the Earth—so whatever happens to the Earth happens to us. People have had that insight for a long time, way before we became aware of the effects of climate change. But we had forgotten that we were the Earth, and therefore we didn’t take care of the Earth, and at the same time we didn’t take care of ourselves.
Now we have the opportunity to see that we are the Earth. That means every time we take care of our self, we take care of the Earth; and every time we take care of the Earth, we take care of our self. When I say our self, I really mean ourselves, because we are not separate from each other. If I take care of myself, I’m taking care of you, my fellow human being. And I’m taking care of you—animal species, plant species, and the mineral species.
We are very lucky to be living in this time, because it’s a time of urgency and it forces us to look deeply at our relationship with the Earth and our relationship with each other. If we did not have the threat that we might not be here very long as a species, we might be lazy and not make that effort. One human characteristic is that we can be a little bit lazy. The Buddha said that we are fortunate to be born a human being, because if we were born a god, then maybe we would feel happy and think that everything’s okay, and we wouldn’t be motivated to practice. But when we’re a human being, things are not okay and there’s quite a bit of suffering, which motivates us to practice.
Today we have to talk about the bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is sometimes translated as the mind of love, sometimes translated as the mind of awakening. We have the same word, bodhi, in the word bodhisattva. Citta means our mind, and bodhi means awakening. It’s the same root as the word for Buddha. If you are Russian, you know that the word for “wake up” is from the same root, будить.
We need to wake up. Homo sapiens needs to wake up and to become Homo—I can’t remember the Latin word for being one who is awake, vigilator . . . vigilatus. We need to become man awake, rather than Homo sapiens, a name we gave to ourselves. I don’t know whether it is our correct name. Sapiens means wise, but I don’t know if we are all so wise.
But enough of this kind of wisdom. We need to go forward and become awake. We are lucky, because we have the teachings of mindfulness. Mindfulness is what helps us awaken and keeps us awake. Bodhisattva means a being who is waking up, or a being who is helping other beings to wake up. Now as a species we have an opportunity to practice waking up. Every generation, every era that the human species has been here on the planet Earth, there have been things that we’ve needed to wake up to. Now we need to wake up to the reality that we’ve done a lot of damage—and we’re still doing a lot of damage. Geologists call our age the Anthropocene, the age that is made by the geology made by humans.
It’s not made by natural processes in the Earth anymore. If you take a look at the Earth, you will find many chicken bones in it. And those bones come from human beings—too many chickens! So as human beings, we are making Mother Earth what she is becoming. We are children of Mother Earth.
We want to wake up to the fact that we are connected with everything on the Earth. And what better opportunity than when you are eating a meal, eating in mindfulness, relating to the food that you are eating.
When I was in my early twenties, I suffered from something called anorexia nervosa. This means that I didn’t eat. I didn’t want to eat anything. It was very damaging for my body and also damaging for my mind. It planted seeds in my body and my mind, which harmed me. Now I realize I was also harming Mother Earth, as well as my genetic mother and father who worried about me. But at the time I was not aware of what I was doing. I did not have the bodhicitta, the mind that was awake. I was not the waking-up bodhisattva. It took me some time to realize what I was doing. Eating in mindfulness restored my right relationship with what I am eating. I am very grateful for the practice of mindful eating.
When I put a spoonful of millet in my mouth, I feel closely connected to the whole universe. I feel connected to the sun, to the stars, to the earth under my feet and to the atmosphere around me, which contains the clouds and the rain. I feel all these things coming together to nourish me. My heart is filled with gratitude, and I know that as a child of the Earth, I’m being nourished by the Earth. As I eat in mindfulness, I’m also aware of where the food comes from. I have to be aware of how far away the food has come from and how the food was transported to me. There is still some carbon footprint in what I eat, but that does not take away my joy of eating. Although I want to minimize the carbon footprint of what I eat, at the same time I know the most important thing is my relationship to Mother Earth, the atmosphere. When I feel that deep gratitude in me, and that deep aspiration to take care of the Earth as I take care of myself, I know that I am doing the very best I can.
Bodhicitta means literally the mind of awakening, but Thay has translated this as the mind of love, as if awakening and love are not two separate things.
When I sit and eat a meal, I am aware of my brothers and sisters who are eating with me, and I know they also are children of the Earth. If I cannot understand them and love them, then I cannot understand and love the Earth. A mealtime includes being grateful for the food, feeling love for Mother Earth and the universe that has produced the food, and feeling grateful for our brothers and sisters who are with us, and feeling love for them.
During the day, I keep alive my awareness of Mother Earth with my mindfulness and with the use of the gathas. When I wash my hands, I intend that all may have hands blessed to save this planet Earth. When I wash my hands, I want to be a hundred percent in touch with the water. Water is such a precious gift of the earth and the sky. We know that sources of clean water in the Earth are drying up, the aquifers are drying up—those underground rivers that used to be there are no longer there. Clean water is a precious, precious gift. I want to do my best not to waste it, even though it’s difficult sometimes to adjust the tap so that too much water doesn’t come out. It is a joy for me to be able to adjust it so that just the amount of water I need comes out. And I can catch that water in a bowl—I don’t have to let it keep flowing—and then I can take the water from the bowl and wash my face.
It doesn’t take an effort to do that. I don’t have to force myself to do this. I am the Earth, and the Earth is me. When I take care of the Earth, when I take care of the water, I’m taking care of me.
There are so many things we do during the day that can keep us in right relationship with the Earth. The most important one is walking on the earth. On Friday, some of us had an opportunity to walk on the earth for two hours, and I really had to concentrate because there was a lot of noise. I had to use the gatha:
I am home, I have arrived in the here and the now. I am solid, I am free. In the ultimate, the realm of no-birth, no-death, I dwell.
I practiced that solidly. The next morning when I woke up, I was still practicing it! Two hours is a long time to practice one gatha, but this gatha is very important for us, who are taking care of the Earth. First of all, we see the Earth as our home. And secondly, we see that we have arrived where we are. This is a teaching of Plum Village, the three times inter-are: the past, the present, and the future. They are not three separate realities. Some schools of Buddhism say that the past, the present, and the future exist as separate realities. Some say there is only the present moment. Thay in Plum Village has told us that the three times inter-are.
When I have arrived in the present moment, it does not mean that the past is not there, and that the future is not there. The best way I can take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. And the present moment is what it is, because of the past moment.
“I have arrived” is important. It’s important to keep myself in the present moment in order to take care of the future. That doesn’t mean that I close my eyes, that I’m not awake to what could happen in the future. The reason that I know what could happen in the future is because I know what’s happening in the present. Of course, we care very much about living and consuming in such a way that the temperature on Earth does not rise more than 1.5 degrees centigrade, and we know the way to do this. We’re aware of all that, but we have to practice to keep ourselves solid, to keep ourselves free in the present moment. Otherwise we will burn out. We will not be able to do what we need to do to get everyone to help the Earth.
It is said that when you become a monk or a nun it is because of the bodhicitta—the mind of awakening, the mind of love—which is there in the store consciousness of all of us. When you shave your head the first time and every time after, you say a poem:
Shedding my hair completely I make the great vow today That all people will transform their afflictions And all species will go to the other shore.
That is a very strong vow. When you shave your head and make that vow, you are realizing that you are not separate from all species, you are not separate from human beings, and your suffering and their suffering are not two separate things. You come into the monastery to transform your own afflictions, and then you see that transforming your own afflictions helps other people to transform theirs. You don’t have to make an effort to help other people transform their afflictions. When you transform your own, you naturally will be helping others. That is the bodhicitta.
The other gatha that you will need is when you receive your robe:
How beautiful is the robe of a monk or a nun! It is a field of all good seeds. I bow my head to receive it today, and vow to wear it life after life.
I used to think: now I’m seventy, I don’t think I will live much longer, so maybe I will avoid climate change! But then I saw that’s wrong thinking, it’s wrong view. It’s the view of annihilation—that I will cease to exist, I won’t have to go through climate change.
Yesterday I saw a poster that said, “You will die from old age, but we will die from climate change.” That was written by a young person. I used to think like that too, but I don’t think like that anymore. I know that I will continue. I know that I will be there, in a different form, to go through climate change. I vow to wear my robe life after life because I know my solid practice will be needed in future lifetimes. So these two gathas in a way represent bodhicitta.
I remember when I was young—I was a layperson—I wanted to do something to help the world, and that is bodhicitta. We don’t think about our own comfort; we think about doing something to really help. I wanted there to be peace in the world. I didn’t want there to be nuclear armaments. One morning I got up and I told myself I’m not going to sleep in the house anymore, I’m going to sleep outside. So that night I slept outside, and it was freezing. The temperature was below zero, but I slept in my sleeping bag and it wasn’t too bad. In my sleeping bag it was above freezing. And then, with my sleeping bag and a pair of rubber boots, I said I’m going to go to Greenham Common. And I felt so free. I felt like a bird being let out of its cage. And I walked and I walked, until my feet couldn’t walk anymore. I felt that wonderful sense of freedom. You have the whole world for you, and you have the aspiration to do something for the world, because the world is you. When you do something for the world, you do it for yourself. [She sings:]
Breathe and you know that you are alive. Breathe and you know that all is helping you. Breathe and you know that you are the world. Breathe and you know that the flower is breathing too. Breathe for yourself and you breathe for the world. Breathe in compassion and breathe out joy.
One of the wrong views in Buddhism is “I am the world and the world is me.” That wrong view is a little bit in that song, but when I say that “I am the world,” I mean that I inter-am with the world. The world is not a separate self-entity. I am not a separate self-entity.
So becoming a nun is a little like that. It’s having a deep aspiration to do something for the world. You just get up and do it, and you don’t worry too much about your comfort.
Two Kinds of Impermanence
Such awareness of impermanence is also an important contribution to our bodhicitta. We know that there are two kinds of impermanence. There’s the kind of impermanence that is happening every second, every instant. You are not the same person now as when you came into this hall. Cells have died in your body and new cells have been born, and the feelings you had when you came in are different from the feelings you have now. Your perceptions are different. Your mental formations are different. Your consciousness is different. So the impermanence happening at every instant, is one kind of impermanence.
And then there’s the impermanence when some major change happens in your life. You are no longer a child, you’re a teenager. You are no longer middle-aged, you’re old. Your death certificate is signed. Those kinds of things we call cyclical impermanence. Maybe sixty-five million years ago—we don’t know quite why—but maybe a meteorite hit our dear Mother Earth, then 75 percent of species on earth became extinct. That was a cyclical impermanence.
Now we are also facing a cyclical impermanence—perhaps the end of the human species. It could be the end of life on Earth, until Earth recovers enough to be able to support life again. The sun will be there for billions of years more to support life on Earth, so even if we destroy everything now, maybe there will be a rebirth in the future.
This cyclical impermanence—this awareness of impermanence—is so important. We have this gatha that we use when angry:
Being angry, I know I am angry in the historical dimension. I close my eyes—
It’s very important to close your eyes. Don’t look at the person who is making you angry; it will only water the seed of anger in you.
I close my eyes and look deeply. Three hundred years from now, where will you be, and where shall I be?
We remind ourselves that I am impermanent; I’m not going to be here much longer. You’re impermanent; you’re not going to be here much longer. If we can remind ourselves of that, all we want to do is take the other person in our arms and say, “We’re so grateful that you’re still here.”
One time when I was staying in Israel and in Palestine, the people there told me, “Every day when my partner goes to work, I don’t know if I will see him or her in the evening. So we relish each moment of having breakfast together, and we hug each other before going to work. We know that it may be the last time.” It’s a very deep hug.
When you hug somebody deeply and you breathe in and you breathe out, just following your breathing, you will recognize how wonderful it is that this person is warm, this person is alive. You also recognize it won’t always be like that. I won’t always be warm and alive, nor will the other.
When you recognize this, you see how important this moment is. This moment is the most important moment of our life, and you enjoy it deeply and fully. You may do as [William] Blake did, and see eternity in an hour, eternity in a second, in a minute.
It’s the same when I contemplate the impermanence of Mother Earth. It makes me want to enjoy every moment on Mother Earth, all the beauties of nature, because I don’t know how long it will be there. In a way, I’m grateful to that not-knowing. I think the dinosaurs didn’t know that a meteorite was going to hit the planet and they were going to become extinct, so they didn’t have the chance to enjoy every moment. But we have a bit of time, we’re in a bit of a different situation than the dinosaurs, which means that we can enjoy every moment—enjoying our relationship with the Earth, enjoying what is beautiful on the Earth. We don’t have to make an effort to conserve it. We just do it out of love.
In his book Love Letters to the Earth, Thay tells us that he is in love with the Earth. Every time before Thay goes outside for a walk, he tells himself, “Oh, I’m going to meet my loved one! I’m going to see all those beautiful and wonderful things!” Thay said, “If we can have a relationship of falling in love with the Earth, that is the best thing that we can do to take care of the Earth.” If we don’t have that relationship, it is possible that we will not be able to take care of the Earth.
Some of us become burnt out trying to take care of the Earth. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do things. But we forget to take care of ourselves, we forget that we are a child of the Earth. Just to be able to do nothing is also a way of taking care of the Earth: to sit peacefully on the Earth, restoring yourself, resting and doing nothing. You may think you are doing nothing to take care of the Earth, but you are. With every breath you breathe that restores you, you are helping the Earth.
When we talk about bodhicitta, I think it might not be right to talk about my bodhicitta, because bodhicitta is a seed in the collective consciousness—not just in my consciousness. It’s been handed down from my ancestors: my mother, my father. Even though they might not have known it, they also have the bodhicitta. When you practice the meditation on your mother and father as five-year-old children, you don’t see only that your mother and father suffered as five-year-old children—it’s important to see that, so you can develop compassion for your mother and father—but you also see that your mother and your father as five-year-old children have the bodhicitta, have the mind of love. And therefore, they have the capacity to transform their suffering. They handed that capacity on to you.
When you observe children, you see that intuitively they know how to offer love to others. In Christianity, it says that you have to be a child in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Every day we want to walk on the earth as if we are walking in the Kingdom of God, as if we are walking in the Pure Land. I used to think that the Earth was not a perfect place—there must be somewhere better, somewhere you could go to when you die. But then I recognized that everything I need is here on Earth, and when I die, I just want to go back to the earth. If I am not able to go back to the earth when I’m alive, it will be very difficult to go back to the earth when I die. So every day I want to practice going back to the earth and seeing the Earth as paradise, seeing the earth as the Kingdom of God. It’s said that the Pure Land is not something outside of you. The Pure Land arises in our mind.
I feel very grateful to people who risk being arrested by demonstrating and practicing nonviolent resistance. I see that their bodhicitta is strong, but I also feel concerned. I think Mahatma Gandhi knew very well how to take care of himself. He could keep the mind of love alive. If we have love and compassion in our heart, this protects us most of all. Even when we’ve been arrested, we can feel compassion, we can feel love. If someone puts themselves at risk trying to do something good for the world, but they don’t feel love in their heart, they don’t feel compassion, then they’re not doing the thing most helpful for the world.
The best way I can take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.
The Four Reassurances
[Writes on the whiteboard: 4 Reassurances]
The Buddha taught a famous discourse called Kesaputtiya Sutta; some people call it the Kalama Sutta because the Buddha taught this sutra to young people of the Kalama tribe. Many Śramanas, religious teachers, liked to go to this town of Kesaputtiya, so the Kalamas had a chance to listen to many Dharma talks. Maybe they got as many Dharma talks as we do here, but here mostly we Dharma teachers agree with each other. If every week we said the opposite of what the person had said before us, then you would be in the same kind of confusion as the Kalamas were.
Some people would come and say, “Whether you do a good thing or whether you do a bad thing, it doesn’t matter, because there’s no such thing as karmic retribution.” Karmic retribution means that if you do something good, you will enjoy some kind of merit. And if you do something bad, you have demerit and you will suffer.
Then other teachers would come along and they would say if you do something bad, then when you die you will go to hell. If you do something good, when you die you’ll be reborn as a human.
So the Kalamas were very confused, and they said, “Oh, the Buddha is coming! The Buddha is enlightened, the Buddha can remove our confusion.” When the Buddha came they asked him, “So many teachers come and they all tell us that they are teaching the truth! But they contradict each other. We’re very confused. Can you help?”
The Buddha said, “You’re right to be confused, I understand that. Before you believe something, you have to experience it for yourself. If you do something and you feel well, and you see that others around you feel well, then you know that it is beneficial. If you do something and you don’t feel good and others don’t, you know that it’s not beneficial. But that’s not quite enough.”
As I said, when I was young I had anorexia nervosa. It wasn’t good for me and it wasn’t good for other people, but at the time I wasn’t aware of that. I needed some good, kind spiritual friend to come along to try and help me see the root of this behavior, and try to help me transform it.
In this sutra the Buddha also says, “Is this something the Wise Ones would approve of? That your good spiritual friends would approve of?” It’s a question you have to ask yourself.
Then the Buddha told the Kalamas, “You can develop the mind of love, the bodhicitta. If your heart has no enmity in it, then you can be sure that you have peace and joy in the present moment.”
[Writes on board:] Where there is the mind of love, there is happiness here and now.
If there is such a thing as merit, then there will be happiness from that deed in the future. The Buddha didn’t want to say that you will be happy in the future, that you will have merit and that will make you happy in the future. Because if the Buddha taught like that, it would mean there is a separate self—there is a separate me who is doing good now, and that same separate me will have happiness in the future. That is not the teaching of the Buddha. It is the teaching of eternalism—the opposite of annihilation.
We know that when there is the mind of love, there is happiness here and now. If we understand and we have seen for ourselves that the future inter-is with the present, then we can say that based on this mind of love now, there is mind of love in the future. You don’t have to say, “My mind of love will bring me happiness in the future.”
So when we are allowing ourselves to be arrested, or when we are protesting and maybe living outside—like at Greenham Common—with no tent, is it the mind of love that is inspiring us, or are we always fighting, are we always thinking about the enemy, and seeing ourselves as separate from the guards who are guarding the missiles, thinking that’s our enemy?
One time I was in a local Sangha somewhere—I went to do a retreat—and I said, “Oh, I was in Greenham Common in 1980 or 1981.” And someone said, “Oh, I was, too.” But he said, “I was on the other side! I was one of the soldiers on the other side!” And then we both found ourselves in the same Sangha.
We need to keep this mind of love alive. If we feel that our mind of love is no longer alive, it’s understandable. Sometimes the situation is so hard that it’s difficult to keep the mind of love alive. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s natural. The important thing is to recognize that when the mind of love is not there I need to withdraw, I need to do something different than just resisting all the time. I have to do something which will nurture me, like planting trees to help the mind of love to come back. Sometimes I see a little bit of danger for people who for decades are in some kind of resistance. I’m very grateful to them, but we have to remember the mind of love.
So that is the first reassurance. We know that with the mind of love there is peace and happiness here and now. The second reassurance comes when we see that the three times inter-are, and we can also see that peace and happiness in the future. The third reassurance is when we feel enmity we suffer here and now. The fourth reassurance comes when we see that the three times inter-are and we can also see that suffering in the future.
The Buddha said that the understanding that the three times inter-are is something you have to experience, not something you believe. If you don’t have that experience and you think you can forget about the future, all the same you can know that these are the most important things: number one and number three.
Don’t think that suffering is something bad. Don’t think that we need to get rid of suffering. In the Buddhist teachings of the Mahayana, it says clearly that the afflictions, the kleśas, the suffering, is the bodhi. [Writes on board: kleśa = bodhi]. The awakening is the afflictions, is the suffering. The enmity you feel can be the ground for the bodhi, for the awakening. In Buddhism we don’t want to make two camps; we don’t want to make a camp of the good, a camp of the evil.
In the past, Thay said, “Do not make man your enemy. Your enemy is greed, hatred, confusion.” But one day Thay did not want to say that anymore. Greed, hatred, and confusion are no longer your enemy; they are the mud out of which the lotus can bloom.
We have enough mud already, so we don’t want to make any more. We have enough suffering for us to give rise to awakening. We want to avoid making more suffering, if we can. We want to use the suffering that’s already here to help us to wake up, to awaken.
I don’t know if you can think of a name for the species that we want to become. Thay suggested we talk about Homo conscius: the aware human. If we can talk about the interbeing human, I think it would be nice.
In Buddhism, we have the Vajracchedika Sutra, the Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. That sutra talks about four kinds of wrong perception, which are linked to the awakening that we need to have now. The first wrong perception is that I am a separate self. The second wrong perception is that the human species is separate from the other species. The third wrong perception is that the living species—those of us who can move around—are separate from the non-living species. The animals are different from the plants, and the minerals are separate. The last wrong perception is that we have a lifespan: our life is limited. We have a birthday and a death day, and we only live between our birthday and our death day.
You only need to go into the forest and look at the leaves under your feet, and you’ll know there’s no such thing as birth separate from death. Everything is in a wonderful cycle of transformation. The leaf doesn’t go anywhere when it falls from the tree; it goes back to the earth, and it becomes the nourishment for the young leaf that is born on the tree. And actually, while the leaf was on the tree, it was already nourishing the tree. So the leaf has gone into the tree while it was alive, and when the leaf is on the ground, it also goes into the tree. The leaf has no beginning and no end.
If we can see ourselves as leaves, nourishing the earth while we are alive on the earth, and going back to the earth when we have our death certificate, in order to nourish new life on the earth, then we have no more fear. As someone who has no more fear, we are able to be useful and beneficial to the world.
Part of the bodhicitta is that deep desire that we all have to realize the truth of no-birth and no-death that can take us beyond fear. That is not just something for a monk or a nun to do; it is something that all of us, the fourfold Sangha, need to have the time to do. As a monk or a nun, we can be busy, we can have many projects, things we want to do to help the world—they may sound very good, but we are busy, and we don’t have the time to come back to ourselves and stop and look deeply. A layperson is the same. You can be very busy, going to work and bringing up your family; you don’t have the time to stop and look deeply into the matter of no-birth and no-death.
But as a monk or a nun, a layman or a laywoman, we can organize life so that we have time to look deeply into impermanence. To look deeply into impermanence doesn’t mean to be caught in impermanence, because impermanence can become a view that you are caught in, and then you think that impermanence is something bad. But in fact, impermanence doesn’t mean there isn’t a continuation. Things change their form into a different form, and there’s always continuation. The rain we listen to now is the continuation of the cloud.
In Buddhism in China, they used to say there are two kinds of awakening. There’s the sudden enlightenment, and there’s the gradual enlightenment. I don’t understand the Plum Village teachings in that way. We can have little enlightenments every day that come to us when we practice mindful walking and mindful breathing. We can become enlightened a little bit every day. We don’t have to wait for a sudden enlightenment, and we don’t have to think that at the end of a long, gradual enlightenment we will become enlightened. Because the bodhi, the enlightenment, is present in each of us. With our own practice of dwelling in the present moment, mindful of walking, mindful of breathing, insight can always come up. With mindfulness and concentration, there can always be insight.
We should not miss the opportunity of guided meditation, of walking meditation. That is our aspiration: always to remain fresh, not to grow tired of the practice, not to find the practice boring. That feeling of boredom, of being tired of the practice, comes from our own mind. We need to open our mind a little bit more to give ourselves the opportunity to use the Dharma rain that’s being given to us to help us have insight. That insight will bring us encouragement and help us to continue a long time on the path.
We can always renew our practice. We can always have new ideas about how to practice. We need to be creative in our practice. If you use a knife cutting carrots every day, it will get blunt after a while. You need to sharpen it. If you just keep using the blunt knife, it’s like you just keep the outer form, but you don’t have the content anymore. As long as the practice has the content, it’s not just the outer form. It will always nourish you and nourish others as well.
So dear friends, thank you for listening.