We are the Earth

Earth Day.  I remember the first Earth Day in 1970.  I was a senior in high school.  We had an assembly out on the football field and listened to a couple of speakers.  Not a big deal.

Forty-seven years later, it is a very big deal.  This year, there are plenty of interesting events to participate in, including a March for Science to take place today in more than 500 cities around the world.  According to the organizers, 13,500 people have signed up to attend the San Francisco march and science fair alone, while an additional 17,000 have expressed interest in the events via social media channels.

The President of the United States says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, a truly irresponsible stance driven in all probability by a dislike of regulations rather than any philosophical outlook, for I suspect this man has few core beliefs outside of those about his own greatness.

In the U.S., climate change denial is wrapped up with religion.  The SF Chronicle reports, “Many evangelical Christians believe that stewardship of the Earth and taking care of the poor and sick are core to their faith.”  8 in 10 evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, and what I find interesting is that many of these Christians believe that God gave humans dominion over the earth, yet few of them believe that human action has much of an effect on the environment.

Buddhism and Taoism are more sympathetic to the idea of climate change, because these religious philosophies, as they have been practiced in China and Japan, view nature as a partner in the quest for spiritual development, as opposed to a thing to exert dominion over.

Lao Tsu, in the Tao Te Ching, says

Humanity follows Earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

“Heaven” signifies a natural order or organizing principle of the Universe, the “way of heaven.”  The way of Tao is to be in harmony with the way of nature.  The ancient Taoists saw this as not only our nature but also, our duty.

Buddhism teaches the oneness of self and the environment (esho funi).  If there is something wrong with the environment, then it is only a reflection of a “wrongness” within ourselves.  Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other.  We are not in harmony with nature.  We must continue to change our concept of the environment, appreciating the interconnectedness of nature and all things.

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh published a book titled Love Letter to the Earth.  In Chapter 1 “We are the earth,” he writes

“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…

The Earth is not just the environment we live in.  We are the Earth and we are always carrying her within us.”

We are the Earth.

We are nature.

We are the environment.

The key to the problem of climate change is to change people’s minds.  The survival of the planet is too important to allow people to be in denial about climate change or to ascribe the coming catastrophe to a ludicrous conspiracy theory.

“Thus when we say that all sentient beings have within them the Buddha-essence or the Buddha-nature we mean that all sentient beings have minds which can change and become Buddha’s minds.”

– Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations

In this case, having a Buddha mind means being a bodhisattva of the earth, that is, a steward of the earth, taking on the planet’s sufferings, vowing to liberate all things in nature.

I know that I am not doing enough.  If I want to change the environmental crisis, I must first change my mind.  If I want to see pure air and water, I must first purify my mind.  I must go to that place within where I know without doubt, without denial, that I am the Earth.


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