Buddha Nature and Our Relationship With Mother Earth
Love Letter to the Earth (Parallax Press, 2013), is Thich Nhat Hanh’s passionate appeal for ecological mindfulness and the strengthening of our relationship to the Earth. While many experts point to the enormous complexity in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thich Nhat Hanh identifies one key issue as having the potential to create a tipping point. He believes that we need to move beyond the concept of the “environment,” as it leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet only in terms of what it can do for them. Rejecting the conventional economic approach, Nhat Hanh shows that mindfulness and a spiritual revolution are needed to protect nature and limit climate change. The excerpt below, from chapter 1, “We Are the Earth,” discusses our shared Buddha nature.
At this very moment, the Earth is above you, below you, all around you, and even inside you. The Earth is everywhere. You may be used to thinking of the Earth as only the ground beneath your feet. But the water, the sea, the sky, and everything around us comes from the Earth. Everything outside us and everything inside us comes from the Earth. We often forget that the planet we are living on has given us all the elements that make up our bodies. The water in our flesh, our bones, and all the microscopic cells inside our bodies all come from the Earth and are part of the Earth. The Earth is not just the environment we live in. We are the Earth and we are always carrying her within us.
Realizing this, we can see that the Earth is truly alive. We are a living, breathing manifestation of this beautiful and generous planet. Knowing this, we can begin to transform our relationship to the Earth. We can begin to walk differently and to care for her differently. We will fall completely in love with the Earth. When we are in love with someone or something, there is no separation between ourselves and the person or thing we love. We do whatever we can for them and this brings us great joy and nourishment. That is the relationship each of us can have with the Earth. That is the relationship each of us must have with the Earth if the Earth is to survive, and if we are to survive as well.
The Earth Contains the Whole Cosmos
If we think about the Earth as just the environment around us, we experience ourselves and the Earth as separate entities. We may see the planet only in terms of what it can do for us. We need to recognize that the planet and the people on it are ultimately one and the same. When we look deeply at the Earth, we see that she is a formation made up of non-Earth elements: the sun, the stars, and the whole universe. Certain elements, such as carbon, silicon, and iron, formed long ago in the heart of far-off supernovas. Distant stars contributed their light.
When we look into a flower, we can see that it’s made of many different elements, so we also call it a formation. A flower is made of many non-flower elements. The entire universe can be seen in a flower. If we look deeply into the flower, we can see the sun, the soil, the rain, and the gardener. Similarly, when we look deeply into the Earth, we can see the presence of the whole cosmos.
A lot of our fear, hatred, anger, and feelings of separation and alienation come from the idea that we are separate from the planet. We see ourselves as the center of the universe and are concerned primarily with our own personal survival. If we care about the health and well-being of the planet, we do so for our own sake. We want the air to be clean enough for us to breathe. We want the water to be clear enough so that we have something to drink. But we need to do more than use recycled products or donate money to environmental groups. We have to change our whole relationship with the Earth.
We tend to think of the Earth as inanimate matter because we’ve become alienated from it. We are even alienated from our own bodies. We spend many hours every day forgetting that we even have a body. We get so caught up in our work and our problems that we forget that we are more than just our minds. Many of us are sick because we forget to pay attention to our bodies. We’ve also forgotten the Earth—that she is part of us and that we are part of her. Because we’re not taking care of the Earth, we have both become sick.
When we look deeply at a blade of grass or at a tree, we can see that it’s not mere matter. It has its own kind of intelligence. For example, a seed knows how to grow into a plant with roots, leaves, flowers, and fruit. A pine tree is not just matter; it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter; each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
This understanding of the deeper nondualistic nature of things is called advaya jñana in Sanskrit. This means the wisdom of nondiscrimination. This is a way of seeing that goes beyond concepts. Classical science is based on the belief that there is an objective reality that exists even if the mind does not. But in the Buddhist tradition, we say there is mind and there are objects of mind, and that they manifest at the same time. We can’t separate them. Objects of mind are created by the mind itself. The way we perceive the world around us depends entirely on our way of looking at it.
If we understand the Earth as a living, breathing organism, we can heal ourselves and heal the Earth as well. When our physical body is sick, we need to stop, rest, and pay attention to it. We have to stop our thinking, return to our in-breath and out-breath, and come home to our body. If we can see our body as a wonder, we also have the opportunity to see the Earth as a wonder, and healing can begin for the body of the Earth. When we go home and take care of ourselves, we heal not only our own bodies and minds, but we help the Earth as well.
The Earth is a beautiful planet; it has a multitude of life forms, vegetation, sounds, and colors. In the sky we can see the light of Venus and faraway stars. Looking at ourselves we see that we, too, are beautiful. Our mind is the consciousness of the cosmos. The cosmos has given rise to the beautiful human species. With powerful telescopes, people have been able to observe the cosmos in all its splendor. We have had glimpses of faraway galaxies. We have seen stars whose images take hundreds of millions of years to reach the Earth. The radiant and elegant cosmos that we can observe is in fact our own consciousness itself and not something outside of it.
The Earth is a Wonder
When you contemplate the planet Earth, you see that she has many virtues. The first virtue is stability. She is steadfast when faced with challenges and continues to offer perseverance, equanimity, and forbearance in the face of many human-created calamities.
The second virtue is that of creativity. The Earth is an inexhaustible source of creativity. She has given birth to so many beautiful species, including humans. Although there are many talented musicians and composers among us, the most wonderful music of all is composed by the Earth herself. There are those of us who are excellent artists and painters. But the Earth has created the most beautiful landscapes. If we look deeply, we can discover a multitude of the infinite wonders that appear on the Earth. Even the best scientist can’t match the beautiful petal of a cherry blossom or the delicateness of an orchid.
The third virtue is nondiscrimination. Nondiscrimination means that the Earth does not judge. We humans have done many careless things that have harmed the Earth and yet she does not punish us. She brings us to life and she welcomes us back to her when we die.
If you look deeply and feel this connection to the Earth, you will also begin to feel admiration, love, and respect. When you realize the Earth is so much more than simply the environment, you will be moved to protect her as you would yourself. There is no difference between you and her. In that kind of communion, you no longer feel alienated.
Our Living, Breathing Mother
In his book, The Lives of a Cell, biologist Thomas Lewis describes our planet as a living organism. After some reflection, he arrives at the insight that the whole planet is like a giant living cell whose parts are all linked in symbiosis. He describes the miraculous achievement of the atmosphere as the world’s biggest membrane. Lewis finds it so astonishing that the Earth is alive. He is struck by the amazing beauty and exuberance of the Earth in contrast to the barren, cratered moon and other planets. He likens the Earth to an organized, self-contained being, a “live creature, full of information and marvelously skilled in handling the sun.”
We too can see that the Earth is a living being and not an inanimate object. She is not inert matter. We often call our planet Mother Earth. Seeing the Earth as our mother helps us to realize her true nature. The Earth is not a person, yet she is indeed a mother who has given birth to millions of different species, including the human species.
Our Mother Earth has brought us to life and provided all the conditions for our survival. Over the eons, she has developed an environment from which humans can manifest and thrive. She created a protective atmosphere, with air we can breathe, abundant food for us to eat, and clear water for us to drink. She is constantly nourishing and protecting us. We can see that she is our mother and the mother of all beings.
We are a child of the Earth and our planet is a very generous mother who embraces us and provides us with everything we need. And when one day we cease to exist in this form, we will go back to the Earth, our mother, only to be transformed so that we may manifest again in a different form in the future.
But don’t think that Mother Earth is outside of you. Looking deeply you can find Mother Earth within you, just as your biological mother who gave birth to you is also within you. She is in each of your cells.
If the Earth is our true mother, then the sun is also our true parent. Together they make life on Earth possible. The sun’s energy enables life forms to exist on our planet. The sun offers light and warmth for plants to grow. Without the sun, there would be no life at all.
Countless civilizations have paid homage to the sun. In the Buddhist tradition, there are many who praise Amitabha, the Buddha of Limitless Light, and they believe his Pure Land lies to the west. We can call this Buddha Mahavairocana Tathagatha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. We can say that the sun is a true Buddha, because he shines his light upon the Earth, providing warmth, light, energy, and life every minute of the day to all species on the planet. The sun is not only to be found in the sky; the sun is on Earth and in each one of us. Each of us has the sunshine within us. Without the sun, life on Earth wouldn’t be possible; living beings couldn’t exist. We can think of the sun and the Earth as our true parents, and as the true parents of our biological father and mother, and of all our ancestors. The Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and all our wonderful teachers are children of this planet. We are all children of the Earth and the sun. Just as we carry the DNA of our biological mother and father within us, we carry the sun and the Earth in each of our cells.
The Highest Form of Prayer
We can feel a tremendous sense of awe and wonder at the immense energy of the universe, and we may be tempted to believe it was created by a human-like God. Impressed by the powerful forces of nature, we often imagine there is a god behind the raging storms, a god of thunder, a god of rain, or a god controlling the rise and fall of the tides. It’s easy to think that this highly creative force could have a human form.
However, I don’t think God is an old man with a white beard sitting in the sky. God is not outside of creation. I think God is on Earth, inside every living being. What we call “the divine,” is none other than the energy of awakening, of peace, of understanding, and of love, which is to be found not only in every human being, but in every species on Earth. In Buddhism, we say every sentient being has the ability to be awakened, and to understand deeply. We call this Buddha nature. The deer, the dog, the cat, the squirrel, and the bird all have Buddha nature. But what about inanimate species: the pine tree in our front yard, the grass, or the flowers? As part of our living Mother Earth, these species also have Buddha nature. This is a very powerful awareness which can bring us so much joy. Every blade of grass, every tree, every plant, every creature large or small are children of the planet Earth and have Buddha nature. The Earth herself has Buddha nature, therefore all her children must have Buddha nature, too. As we are all endowed with Buddha nature, everyone has the capacity to live happily and with a sense of responsibility toward our mother, the Earth.
In the Bible, Jesus said, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (John 14:11). The Buddha also taught that we are all part of each other. We aren’t separate entities. The father and son aren’t entirely the same but they aren’t completely different either. One is in the other. When we look into our own bodily formation, we see Mother Earth inside us, and so the whole universe is inside us, too. Once we have this insight of interbeing, we can have real communication with the Earth. This is the highest possible form of prayer.
To worship the Earth is not to deify her or believe she is any more sacred than ourselves. To worship the Earth is to love her, to take care of her, and to take refuge in her. When we suffer, the Earth embraces us, accepts us, and restores our energy, making us strong and stable again. The relief that we seek is right under our feet and all around us. Much of our suffering can be healed if we realize this. If we understand our deep connection and relationship with the Earth, we will have enough love, strength, and awakening so that we both can thrive.
When we suffer we need love and understanding. We ourselves don’t have enough of these qualities, so when we suffer we try to find them outside ourselves. This is very natural. We hope someone else or something else can give us the love and understanding we need. Someone with love and understanding embodies goodness, truth, and beauty. We know that we possess some goodness, truth, and beauty, but maybe not enough to bring us happiness. We don’t know how to help these virtues grow in order to gain true insight and wisdom.
The Earth has all the virtues we seek, including strength, stability, patience, and compassion. She embraces everyone. We don’t need blind faith to see this. We don’t need to address our prayers or express our gratitude to a remote or abstract deity with whom it may be difficult or impossible to be in touch. We can address our prayers and express our gratitude directly to the Earth. The Earth is right here. She supports us in very concrete and tangible ways. No one can deny that the water that sustains us, the air that we breathe, and the food that nourishes us are gifts of the Earth.
Reprinted with permission from Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh and published by Parallax Press, 2013.
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