It must have something to do with reaching midlife. The beat of elders moving on out of this lifetime has picked up for me, and it’s so hard to let them go, knowing that as each life ends, those of us remaining are called ever more strongly to step into their shoes and become the elders leading our society.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Few people alive today could step easily into the humble, powerful shoes of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like the Dalai Lama, he is a Buddhist monk who has been so generous and warm in inviting others into his orbit. Whether or not you practice Buddhism, whether or not you follow any religious tradition at all, there is so much wisdom and guidance in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, so much to learn and gain from listening to him.
I regret that I never had the chance to be physically in his presence, but as with so many of the other great leaders I admire, I know him through the writings he has shared and through his public persona and the good works he has accomplished.
At 88 years old, Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage from which he may still recover. He is still with us today but even after he is gone, I know his spirit will be showering us with the lovingkindness he knows we need to overcome the negativity that besets so many of us as individuals and as societies.
Today, in homage to Thay (as his students call him lovingly), I want to quote at some length from one of his last books, the beautiful Love Letter to the Earth. I urge you to buy a copy of this small bright gem of a book, and use it as a guide and inspiration—maybe you will be moved to write some love letters of your own to our dear battered planet.
“Dear Mother Earth,
“The human species is but one of your many children. Unfortunately, many of us have been blinded by greed, pride, and delusion, and only a few of us have been able to recognize you as our Mother. Not realizing this, we have done you great harm, compromising both your health and your beauty. Our deluded minds push us to exploit you and create more and more discord, putting you and all your forms of life under stress and strain. Looking deeply, we also recognize that you have enough patience, endurance and energy to embrace and transform all the damage we have caused, even if it takes you hundreds of millions of years.
“When greed and pride overtake our basic survival needs, the result is always violence and unnecessary devastation. We know that whenever one species develops too rapidly, exceeding its natural limit, there is great loss and damage, and the lives of other species are endangered. For equilibrium to be restored, causes and conditions naturally arise to bring about the destruction and annihilation of that species. Often these causes and conditions originate from within the destructive species itself. We have learned that when we perpetrate violence toward our own and other species, we are violent toward ourselves. When we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.
“We understand that all things are impermanent and without a separate self-nature. You and Father Sun, like everything else in the cosmos, are constantly changing, and you are only made of non-you elements. That is why we know that, in the ultimate dimension, you transcend birth and death, being and nonbeing. Nonetheless, we need to protect you and restore balance, so that you can continue for a long time in this beautiful and precious form, not just for our children and their children but for five hundred million years and beyond. We want to protect you so you can remain a glorious jewel within our solar system for eons to come.
Northern lights, photographed from space
We know that you want us to live in such a way that in each moment of our daily lives we can cherish life and generate the energies of mindfulness, peace, solidity, compassion and love. We vow to fulfill your wish and respond to your love. We have the deep conviction that generating these wholesome energies, we will help reduce the suffering on Earth and contribute to alleviating the suffering caused by violence, war, hunger and illness. In alleviating our suffering, we alleviate yours.
“Dear Mother, there have been times when we suffered greatly as a result of natural disasters. We know that whenever we suffer, you suffer through us. The floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t punishments or manifestations of your anger, but are phenomena that must occur on occasion, so that balance can be restored. The same is true of a shooting star. For balance in nature to be achieved, at times some species have to endure loss. In those moments, we have turned to you, dear Mother, and asked whether or not we could count on you, on your stability and compassion. You didn’t answer us right away. Then, beholding us with great compassion, you replied, “Yes, of course you can count on your Mother. I will always be here for you.” But then you said, “Dear children, you must ask yourselves, can your Mother Earth count on you?”
“Dear Mother, today we offer you our solemn reply, “Yes, Mother, you can count on us.””
Love Letter to the Earth concludes on a vision of a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of religion, founded on the Buddhist principle of interbeing—which, like deep ecology, understands that every form of life on earth, and indeed every element of our planetary biosphere is profoundly interconnected and interdependent, not in a hierarchy but in a rhizomatic web. Every strand in that web must be honored and tended, and this is the work that human beings, especially, are called upon to take up.
If Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a new religion for the 21st century could be realized, what a wonderful world it could be. Listen:
“We can build a deep spiritual practice based not on dogmas or beliefs in things we can’t verify, but entirely on evidence. To say that the Earth is a great being is not just an idea; each of us can see this for ourselves. Each of us can see that the Earth has the qualities of endurance, stability and inclusiveness. We can observe the Earth embracing everyone and everything without discrimination. When we say that the Earth has given birth to many great beings, including buddhas, bodhisattvas and saints, we are not exaggerating. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Moses and Mohammed are all children of the Earth. How can we describe the Earth as mere matter when she has given birth to so many great beings?
“When we say the Earth has created life, we know it’s only possible because she contains within herself the whole cosmos. Just as the Earth is not only the Earth, so too are we not only humans. We have the Earth and the whole cosmos within us. We are made of the sun. We are made of stars. Touching the true nature of reality, we can transcend the dualistic view that the cosmos is something greater than ourselves or different from ourselves. Getting deeply in touch with the phenomenal realm, the historical dimension, we can realize our true nature of no-birth and no-death. We can transcend all fear and touch eternity.
“Every advance in our understanding of ourselves, our nature and our place in the cosmos deepens our reverence and love. To understand and to love are fundamental desires. Understanding has some kind of connection with love. Understanding can take us in the direction of love. When we understand and become aware of the great harmony, elegance and beauty of the cosmos, we may feel great admiration and love. This is the most basic kind of religious feeling: it is based on evidence and our own experience. Humanity needs a kind of spirituality that we can all practice together.
“Dogmatism and fanaticism have been the cause of great separation and war. Misunderstanding and irreverence have been the cause of enormous injustice and destruction. In the twenty-first century it should be possible for us to come together and offer ourselves the kind of religion that can help unite all peoples and all nations, and remove all separation and discrimination. If existing religions and philosophies, as well as science, can make an effort to go in this direction, it will be possible to establish a cosmic religion based not on myth, belief or dogma, but on evidence and the insights of interbeing. And that would be a giant leap for humankind.”
Amen, Thay. Go lightly. We will carry on.
Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth
Parallax Press, 2013