Envisioning a Cosmic Religion, Rooted in Mother Earth: Homage to Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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.

Orionid-shooting-star

“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

Call to Action in Dark Times

This time of year in New England is cold and dark: short days and long, starry nights.  As the planet wheels towards the winter solstice, human beings, for thousands of years, have huddled around fires and turned to storytelling as a bridge back to warmth and the coming of springtime.

It’s no different now, except that now most of us burn oil for our heat, and hang up strings of electric lights to symbolize the return to light.  We watch movies, read books or play video games instead of listening to clan storytellers.

In America, as in much of the world, the dominant religious stories of this time of year have to do with keeping hope and faith alive in dark times.  Jews remember, with the lighting of the Menorah candles, the preservation of their faith in the 2nd century BCE, after the destruction of the Second Temple; Christians celebrate miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer who would bring the word of God to the people.

All of the traditional religious stories document a continuing human saga of light against dark, with light representing life and good energy, while dark represents death and possible danger.

More contemporary mystics also point to human life as a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

Rudolf Steiner, for example, the influential psychic who reported many out-of-body experiences where he made direct contact with metaphysical beings, routinely talks about angels and demons in his copious writings, with angels representing the good forces of light and life, and demons being the dark forces of destruction.  Freud too, in a more secular register, described Eros and Thanatos as primal human drives that align along the same lines: light/life/love, dark/death/hatred.

Is there something to all this?

In a scientific age, it’s hard to write with a straight face about angels and demons.  We are trained to see them as figures of speech, metaphors for empirically definable natural phenomena.  To whit: Human beings tell stories about angels and miraculous births at the darkest time of year as a metaphorical way of talking about the winter solstice and the return to light.

Yes.  But there have always been persistent voices telling us that this is not just metaphorical.  That there really are forces of dark that are destructive and forces of light that represent goodness, and that human beings, as the most self-aware sentient beings on the planet, are able to recognize the grand struggle between Good and Evil playing out in our psyches, and on our battlefields.

For instance, take Derrick Jensen‘s latest book, Dreams, in which he talks about his growing belief that there are metaphysical realms that human beings access in dreams, and that in the dream world there are “sides”: the side of life and the side of death and destruction.  As humans, we have a choice, Jensen says; we can choose which gods to worship, those who represent the life-giving energies of the planet, or those who represent the blood-sucking zombies that are leading us down the capitalist/imperialist road to doom.

Even further out along the spectrum of contemporary metaphysical thinkers is Alex Kochkin, who has been sending out dispatches through email and Web for some time now, warning that the end times are coming.  One could mistake Kochkin for an Armageddon-spouting Christian fundamentalist, except that, like Jensen and Steiner, he has no religious scaffolding framing his ideas.

All of these thinkers agree with indigenous shamans the world over that there is much more to human beings than our physical bodies, and that we can interact with higher powers through individual psychic work–paying attention to our dreams, meditating, being open to the realms of human consciousness where, they say, we can connect with what Steiner called “higher worlds.”

Alex Kochkin: “”You” are the result of a portion of your larger being extending something of itself into this level of density. In this case, it is a human bio-vehicle that comes equipped with basic firmware and an operating system. Flawed as the whole package may be, it is still a viable and valuable way for individuations of The All of Creation to reach into its own deepest recesses, even those that have become overwhelmed by the disease of the Dark.”

Derrick Jensen gives the “disease of the Dark” more concrete names: capitalism, imperialism, and the science that justifies and extends the reach of these destructive ideologies that have, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, been rapidly reducing bio-diversity and inexorably altering our eco-system.

Jensen recalls the Aztec sacrifices to their gods, and speculates that we too are unthinkingly making sacrifices to our contemporary gods of Science and Capitalism.

This is an idea that one of my mentors, Rigoberta Menchu, suggested years ago, talking about how destructive the Euramerican ideologies and technologies have been to the natural world and indigenous peoples: “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods when they never mention how many sons of this America, Abia Yala, have been sacrificed over five hundred years to the god Capital,” Menchu said in her second testimonial, Crossing Borders.

Whether or not there are “higher powers” involved in the life-and-death battles we are seeing played out at ever-accelerating speed in these dark times, it is true that we human beings are the ones with the power to change the course of events we have set in motion.  The fish and the birds and the great bears cannot change what is happening to their environments because of human short-sightedness and greed.  The ancient forests that have stood for thousands of years cannot withstand the bulldozer and the chain saw.  The river that has flowed for eons cannot resist the concrete dam.

Only we have the power of reversing the “disease of the Dark.”  If there are higher powers involved, they are not going to do it for us–they will only work through us.

Which stories are we listening to now as we huddle around our mechanical fires?  The old stories of dominion and destruction, “manifest destiny” and technological prowess leading to “progress” have held sway long enough.  It’s time to listen to stories that are older and wiser than the Judeo-Christian myths, stories that remind us of our deep connection to the natural world that sustains us.

Let every candle lit this solstice season be a call to action on behalf of the life energies of this planet.  And then, let us act, before it’s too late.

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