Dear Still Water Friends,
This week we continue our study of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology.
I have really enjoyed the book and especially the two chapters we read for this week (5 & 6). Thay approaches environmental issues from the inside. He sees that how we engage environmental problems is intimately connected with any results we may bring about. Indeed, he suggests that ways we live our lives in general—how we think, speak and act—fundamentally shape our ability to address environmental harm.
To me, this message is both a relief and inspiration. It is a relief in that invites me to let go of the fruits of my actions. It says, as I understand it, that we can invest ourselves fully in working on behalf of environmental well-being but not get hung up on the outcome of our efforts. For too long I have focused on the ends of actions as the measure of their worth. I’ve often wanted to know exactly how my labors would matter before I was willing to undertake them. This didn’t stop me from carrying out small measures—e.g., reducing my personal ecological footprint—but I frequently had to justify such actions as a matter of moral gesturing rather than genuine environmental protection.
Thay’s orientation provides a deeper meaning to such actions. He seems to be saying that environmental engagement—from the smallest personal efforts to the broadest political ones—are not simply seeds sowed in the service of environmental protection but are the very essence of environmental well-being. That is, the environment is not something “out there” that needs to be fixed but something “in here” that invites us to live our lives animated by the energy of love, compassion, understanding and beauty. It is as if an inner ecology is at the heart of the outer ecology of which we are apart.
I find this message inspiring because it suggests that our environmental work is not a professional vocation, social obligation or casual concern but rather the work of our lives. How we place our feet on the ground, the ways we open or close our hearts, the extent of our generosity and the sense of connection we feel toward the whole of life: these are the essential building blocks of environmental engagement. This means to me that we need not be experts in ecological science, engineering, environmental ethics, technological design or nature literature to be ecological stewards. Rather, our environmental work begins and ends with stepping into our lives with all the mindfulness we can and taking that mindfulness seriously.
When I am most deeply mindful, I feel the connection with my ancestors and progeny and almost spontaneously work to protect life as a way of honoring my forebears and loving my children. When I am most deeply mindful, I viscerally experience ecological interdependence and almost instinctively treat the more-than-human world with respect, love and concern.
The challenge, of course and yet again, is cultivating such mindfulness and letting it rip through us in a sustained way that honors the insight. Too often my awareness drifts; too often I forget. Too often, then, my environmental actions ebb in the haste of my occupations.
In chapter six, Thay offers some help in staying awake. He reminds us that our day-to-day thoughts, words and actions are not simply animations that spill out of us with little consequence but rather represent the means by which we place our signature on our lives and enable that signature to enhance love, goodness and care throughout the world. He calls this “a beautiful continuation.” The continuation he talks about transcends our lifetimes and it is this, almost infinite, context that underlines the preciousness and significance of each moment.
I look forward to reflecting together on our beautiful continuation and what this means for environmental stewardship.
From Chapter Five , Overcoming Fear
The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent; that nothing is an absolute entity that remains the same. When we keep that insight in mind, we can see more deeply into the nature of reality, and we won’t be trapped in the notion that we’re only this body or this life span.
The life of a civilization is like the life of a human being There is birth and there is death. And this civilization of ours will have to end one day. But we have a huge role to play in determining when it ends and how quickly. If the human race continues on its present course, the end of our civilization is coming sooner than we think. The way we drive our cars, the way we consume, and the way we exploit and destroy the planet’s natural resources are speeding up the end of our civilization. Global warming may be an early symptom of that death. If we continue consuming in the way we have, the majority of the planet’s human beings may die and our ecosystem will be damaged to such an extent that it will be difficult to support human life as we know it. The world has known many other civilizations before ours, and many civilizations have already perished. Everything is impermanent.
From Chapter Six , A Beautiful Continuation
When we look at an orange tree we see that season after season it spends its life producing beautiful green leaves, fragrant blossoms, and sweet oranges. These are the best things an orange tree can create and offer to the world. Human beings also make offerings to the world every moment of our daily lives, in the form of our thoughts, our speech and our actions. We may want to offer the world the best kinds of thought, speech, and action that we can—because they are our continuation, whether we want it to be so or not. We can use our time wisely, generate the energies of love, compassion, and understanding, say beautiful things, inspire, forgive, and act to protect and help the Earth and each other. In this way, we can ensure a beautiful continuation.