Life and Environment

I’ve always had mixed feelings about nuclear energy. I think now my mind is made up. I know that there are new technologies that make nuclear energy much safer, but I just don’t know if it’s worth it. Maybe it is entirely a gut or emotional reaction, but that’s how I feel.

I know for sure that it’s nuts to build six reactors next to each other and on top of that, store nuclear waste right beside them. I also know that we must get away from coal and oil. I think more conservation, less consumption is the key for the short run.

One thing Buddhists and spiritually minded people can do is examine our own attitudes about energy and the environment. We can ask ourselves if we understand deeply the relationship between our individual life and the environment, and how our daily actions reflect that understanding, and how they do not.

Buddhism is based on the idea that everything is interconnected. Everything is basically one.

Here’s an interesting comment I heard on CNN last night. It’s from Petra Nemcova, a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, and although it’s directed at another aspect of the tragedy in Japan, it has significance overall:

And one thing which when I look at all the images and videos, what I see is a reminder of how connected we are. The world is like our body. And when a finger is hurt, the rest of the body is influenced.

Today I think it universally accepted in psychology and medicine that body and mind are interrelated. Buddhism has maintained this for a long time. Here’s what Dogen has to say about shinjin ichinyo, the oneness of body-mind in 1231:

You should know that the Buddha Dharma for the first preaches that body and mind are not two . . . this is equally known in India and China, and there can be no doubt about it . . . You should give this deep deliberation; the Buddha Dharma has always maintained the oneness of body and mind.

This concept is also known as shiki shin funi or “body and mind are two but not two.” It doesn’t stop there, for an individual’s life and the environment are also one, or esho funi – “self and environment are two but not two.”

In the West, we have inherited a sense of separation between our life and the life of our planet. It may go back to the Bible and the phrase about man having dominion over the earth. But from the standpoint of interdependency there is no separation, no duality, and the world is like our body, a living organism.

I recently learned about microvesicles, which are fragments of plasma membrane that play a crucial role in intercellular communication. A study conducted last year at Rhode Island Hospital showed that during times of cellular injury or stress, and when certain diseases like cancer, infections and cardiovascular disease are present, microvesicles are discarded and then taken up by other cells in the body. The genetic information and protein in these particles help to reprogram the accepting cell to behave more like the cell from which the particle was shed.

Not only is the rest of the body influenced when a finger is hurt, but the cells in the body work together to heal each other. They take on the suffering of other cells. They transform themselves and others. They act as we should act, for each of us is only a cell in the body of the world.

There are many practical things we can do to heal ourselves and the planet (and help the people of Japan), however I think it begins with a profound understanding of our inter-connectedness, our oneness. Even if we think we know, we should take Dogen’s advice and engage in “deep deliberation” so that we know it from the depths of our life.

Our thoughts are like radio waves, which travel at the speed of light and cover the earth, and when directed away from the earth, they go out into space seemingly forever.  We may think that all our thoughts stay contained within our skull, but they permeate our environment. We know that how we think about ourselves has an effect our body, and likewise, how we think of others has effects on them, and vice versa. In this way, our mind and the minds of others are two but not two. So, as we raise our own consciousness, we help to raise the consciousness of others. The world is like our mind.

The more positive thoughts that we can give rise to and “send” to others has influence, and I don’t mean this in some sort of mystical way, but in the way of the collective consciousness/unconsciousness. Which is why I think it is very important for us to keep the people who are suffering all over the world in our minds and send them warm thoughts of loving-kindness. And it helps to engrave inter-connectedness, the oneness of life and environment upon our lives.

When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it.  We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it in order to really understand it.  If we want to understand a person, we have to feel his feelings, suffer his sufferings, and enjoy his joy.  The word “comprehend” is made up of the Latin roots com, which means “with”, and prehendere, which means “to grasp it or pick it up”.  To comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it.  There is no other way to understand something.  In Buddhism we call this kind of understanding ‘non-duality’.  Not two.

– Thich Nhat Hanh


2 thoughts on “Life and Environment

  1. Great post! Thank you. Stay with that “gut feeling.” I see so many people experiencing that right now, but I have seen how often it happens that others talk them out of it, or the urgency to investigate deeper fades. We all need to investigate deeper, especially this relationship to the planet we are made from.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nathan.

      We all, myself included, need to remind ourselves from time to time of what we know or think we know. Of course, we may find out that we didn’t know anything at all or what we thought was wrong, but as long as we are doing something and not complacent about our thoughts and feelings, that’s the main thing. It’s a necessary step that leads to extending our convictions beyond our individual life and into the environment.

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