A couple of years ago, my wife Enid and I participated in a five-day program at the University of British Columbia with the renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
“As activists we want to do something to help the world to suffer less,” Thich Nhat Hanh said, but when we’re not peaceful, when we don’t have enough compassion in us, we are unable to do much to help the world. “Peace, love, and happiness must always begin in us, with ourselves first. There is suffering, fear, and anger inside of us, and when we take care of it, we are taking care of the world.”
Thich Nhat Hanh used the example of a pine tree and suggested, what if that tree asked us what it could do to help the world? Our answer would be very clear: “You should be a beautiful, healthy pine tree. You help the world by being your best.” That is true for humans also. The most basic thing we can do to help the world is to be healthy, solid, loving, and gentle to ourselves. Then when people look at us, they will gain confidence and say, If he or she can do that, I can too. So anything you do for yourself, you do for the world, he said. “Don’t think that you and the world are two separate things. When you breathe in mindfully and gently, when you feel the wonder of being alive, remember that you’re also doing this for the world. Practicing with that kind of insight, you will succeed in helping the world. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow. You can do it right now.”
During the retreat, lectures invariably touched on the subject of anger, and I listened as he encouraged me to examine the anger I felt toward special interests that mislead the public about the environmental challenges we face. One day Thich Nhat Hanh told us Buddha’s story of the second arrow: When an arrow strikes you there is pain, but if a second arrow drives into the same spot, the pain is excruciating, much worse. The Buddha advised when you have pain in your body or your mind, breathe in and out and recognize the significance of the pain but don’t exaggerate its importance. If you are full of anger, worry and fear over the pain you magnify the suffering. This is the second arrow — and it is directed from within.
The Buddha proposed many ways to practice reducing pain in our bodies and in our emotions, to become reconciled within ourselves. Pain increases as tension increases, and it can be reduced when we release the tension. The monk said that this can be done while lying, sitting or walking. “Walk like a free person …The skill we need is how to lay down our burden in order to be light. The Buddha said that you shouldn’t amplify your pain by exaggerating the situation … So when you experience pain, whether physical or mental, you have to recognize it just as it is and not exaggerate it … When you can make peace with it, you won’t suffer as much.” When we get angry and revolt against something, when we worry too much and imagine we are going to die soon, our pain is multiplied 100 times. “That is the second arrow.”
If we want to help the environment suffer less, we have to reduce the suffering in ourselves, Thich Nhat Hanh explained simply. “Be loving, and gentle to yourself.” Avoid the second arrow. He talked about a heart of understanding that is beyond intellect, that is discovered by looking so deeply we touch the seed of understanding and compassion within. Compassion can neutralize anger and hate, and meditation can burn away afflictions such as fear, despair and delusion. “Deep meditation helps us transcend the notion of being and non-being. Nirvana is not a place we will arrive at in the future, but the nature of reality.”
“There is suffering, fear, and anger inside of us, and when we take care of it, we are taking care of the world.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
He suggested we should listen more deeply, and allow others to speak as this helps to reduce their suffering. “Water the seeds of compassion; don’t water the seeds of anger and hatred.” Use non-accusatory language so it is easier for others to hear our message. Effective listening does not involve hearing something and comparing that information with our own views. We learn nothing from such an exchange.
Grassroots success is effective and possible only if activists and leaders first deal with their own anger and fear. Spiritual practice is needed to transform society and give courage to leaders so they will speak out. He said a mother would die for her children because of her great love, and similarly, if a person has great compassion they will not fear being ostracized or ridiculed if they decide to challenge the status quo.
I had been asked to moderate a conversation between David Suzuki and Thich Nhat Hanh. The day of our taped interview, following the five-day course at UBC, started with an extraordinary experience. Thich Nhat Hanh arrived at the pre-arranged location while David Suzuki and I were in another part of the building, so someone quickly found us and explained that the famous monk had gone for a walk in the garden. We rushed to catch up with his small group and strolled about 20 paces behind. Walking in this peaceful space, he touched some of the flowers with great tenderness, and as I watched, the garden became intensely green. As the monk was appreciating each flower, petal and leaf, Suzuki leaned over and said softly, “Do you know what I see? I see photosynthesis: the sun pouring down, creating energy, turning it into all this green, all these plants that allow us to breathe.”
The conversation began when I asked for Thich Nhat Hanh’s reaction to a 1930 statement made by a Wall Street banker: “People need to be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old things have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
I was expecting an answer about consumerism and the destructiveness of clinging, but he gently turned the conversation in an unexpected direction by saying how the desire for more can be a deep and noble desire in each human being. “Like the desire to love, to protect, to help, to serve, the desire to be loved, to understand, to learn. These are very deep desires in each human being, in every one of us, and you cannot set a limit on that kind of desire … You can continue to learn, to understand more about yourself, about the world outside you. You can continue to develop your love into the infinite. In Buddhism we say that love is something that has no frontiers.”
I asked how we can bring about the collective awakening needed to stop destroying our planet, and Thich Nhat Hanh told the story of a similar longing for change in a five- or six-year-old child who stood up in front of a large audience in Plum Village (the spiritual community he founded in France) and asked why his father continued to smoke, knowing it was not good for him. “That [wanting change] is a theme, a subject of meditation, and I think if we can answer that question we will have a lot of insight about how to handle the situation of our planet. It’s very difficult to offer an answer to the child if you do not have the time to look deeply into the situation.” But Thich Nhat Hanh told the child that in order to stop smoking the father must feel his child’s love: “Your love will be an important force in order to help him to stop.”
During our UBC interview, Thich Nhat Hanh said we must build communities that model how to live sustainably, and that requires inspirational, confident leadership. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said it was a compelling concept, but the challenge is how to reach consensus for a higher-level commitment in a city that is a very culturally and politically diverse community. He added that politicians are often criticized for trying to set big goals, such as ending homelessness or becoming the greenest city in the world. Robertson said many citizens are disillusioned with issues of climate change and poverty.
The monk explained that people should remind each other that this is the way of life that guarantees a future. Senior members of the community — the mayor, city council, people in government — should set an example and show people “that they are abiding by the spirit and the way. I think it’s very important.” He said citizens should vote only for those who adopt the kind of lifestyle that sets an example to inspire hope and confidence. Leaders should be people who not only have the talent to run the country’s business but also represent our global ethics.
Feelings of despair must be dealt with, because they overwhelm and paralyze people, said Thich Nhat Hanh; he added that this is a key reason why people do not respond to the threat of global warming, despite mounting and devastating evidence. They cannot raise themselves out of the pit of despair, let alone save the world. “Despair is growing in our society, and because of that we feel helpless. We don’t believe that we can do anything to reverse the situation. Again, I think community building is very important, to show people that living simply and happily is possible.” When we understand the interconnectedness of all life, when we recognize we are not separate, we can expand our compassion and ourselves so that we embrace Earth and protect it.
The monk said that people are deluded into thinking fame, power, wealth or sex will bring them happiness, and these become refuges from the truth and challenges facing Mother Earth. Today’s addiction to consumerism and a frantic lifestyle is a mask behind which people hide their emotional and spiritual wounds. It provides only a temporary respite from fear and unhappiness: “They suffer deeply even if they have a lot of these kinds of things. Many of them commit suicide.” Without love, brotherhood and sisterhood, people destroy themselves, and Thich Nhat Hanh urged people to step onto the path of love and understanding if they want to find the strength to let go of the mask and awaken to reality.
A life of consumerism is not life. “We have to help people learn how to live again. We just sit down and breathe and enjoy each other.” He said this is one of the best moments of a retreat: when people don’t consume anything, don’t have music, don’t have sound, don’t have alcohol, don’t have anything but a chance to sit and enjoy each others’ presence. He said everyone knows how to breathe, to appreciate they are alive on this beautiful planet, and that can bring joy. “So we have to educate our citizens to see that happiness does not lie in consumption but lies in the fact that you are free enough: You have enough time to enjoy yourself, to enjoy each other, to enjoy the environment.”
The simple acts of life are treasures, and we should savor them, knowing everything we need to be happy is right here, right now. “In the Buddhist tradition we have a practice like a tea ceremony. We just have one cup of tea but we spend one hour and a half together. Why do we need one hour and a half in order to enjoy a cup of tea? Because the tea ceremony is an art. If you know how to sit, how to breathe, how to look, how to listen and how to be together, that ceremony can bring a lot of joy. And you don’t consume much, one cup only. We have lost our capacity of being happy, because we are so busy. And busy in what? Busy trying to cover up the suffering inside.”
I mentioned that there are climate scientists and political leaders who want to do something positive about climate change but have a difficult time because so many people stir up mischief about these issues. When the public is misinformed and unaware that a problem exists, it’s very difficult for leaders to lead, I said, and while I understood what he said about community building and agreed that is a the solution, I explained I still worry about taking our eyes off the people who are up to mischief on larger levels.
This took us directly back to the issue of despair, and Thich Nhat Hanh said if we don’t deal with despair the situation will get worse. “We have to accept this civilization can be destroyed, not by something outside, but by ourselves. Many civilizations have been destroyed in the past, and to accept that can only be helpful, and it may give us a sense of peace so we can become a better worker for the environment.” He said that many people know what is happening but do nothing because they are just trying to survive. “If you help them to sort out the inside, you can help them to have hope, to have peace in themselves and suddenly they have the strength to come back to themselves … and that person could be an instrument for the protection of the environment.”
During our interview David Suzuki asked if accepting the reality that this could all end disastrously means we retreat into passivity.
Thich Nhat Hanh said a century or two is nothing in geological terms. “This civilization might be destroyed, and it may take a billion years more in order to have another civilization. That already happened in the past. We have to accept reality, and acceptance like that can bring us peace. And with that kind of peace, we have force and it can flow, and it can reverse the situation. Meditation plays a role.” He said that to meditate means to look deeply, and by looking deeply we have insight, which frees us from despair and anger. This allows us to become a better worker for the environment.
Suzuki added that he understood the cycles of extinction of species, as a natural part of evolution. Species become extinct as conditions change, and new species evolve, “but many of us have children and grandchildren who are precious, and when we see the approaching calamity it is difficult to accept.” Again Thich Nhat Hanh stressed the importance of building community and living in a way that can become a model for others. “If everyone can live like that, truly there will be a future for our children. Our society needs a lot of healing and this is not possible without a good environment. That’s why, when building a community, you build also an environment where you can see hope, brotherhood, sisterhood and a future.”
He said we should bring a spiritual dimension to the work of protecting the environment. “The role of meditation, the role of community building, the role of healing and transforming in our daily life is crucial for the environment. You cannot just have projects and initiatives without taking care of the suffering inside.” At the end of our interview I was worried that Thich Nhat Hanh had been saying that we should simply withdraw and meditate, so I mentioned that one of his monks had told me his Bay Nha monastery in the central highlands of Vietnam had placed pictures on its website of bad police who were abusing monks and nuns. I pointed out that this seemed like the strategy of activists. Was he saying we should not be activists?
He looked at me in a quiet, piercing way that stopped my breath, and said slowly: “Speak the truth, but not to punish.” It took me some time to realize that I had been given a Zen koan by one of the most important Zen masters of our generation. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It was the most profound moment of this entire three-year journey of research and writing, the seminal moment, because it gathered together the deepest voices and most profound threads of this long book into one elegant sentence.
Understanding this koan is a work in progress for me but the more I ponder it, the more it seems to be about balance, speaking up against injustice with courage and passion but with greater awareness of the dangers in becoming overly adversarial and treating those who disagree as foes.
It is important to educate the public about the PR campaigns, but it is equally important to ensure, as Rabbi Hillel encouraged, that our argument is for the sake of heaven. We must be willing to stand in the shoes of others if we are to debate controversial issues with equanimity and avoid gridlock.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s koan brought me back to his advice to hold our anger with an energy of mindfulness, like the sun shining upon a flower, penetrating deeply until the petals open. Anger can give us the mettle to speak with courage and conviction, but also the venom that blinds us to the views of others.
Reprinted with permission from I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up by James Hoggan with Grania Litwin and published by New Society, 2016.