September 2008

Barbara J. King

features

Satiric or Soulful? Responses to Thich Nhat Hanh Writing on Earth’s Ecological Crisis

We were plants, we were trees, and now we have become humans.

We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread!

A cloud can never die.

Our notion of death is just a notion.

It’s easy to read these words of Thich Nhat Hanh in his new mini-book, The World We Have, and think, “to satirize this is to die for.” Anyone reared on Monty Python and on Saturday Night Live and its weanlings, please join me in casting John Cleese and Tina Fey, then imagining them riff on evolving from pine trees, gazing lovingly at Wonder Bread, and breaking the bonds of death in order to become one with an eternal cloud.

But let us look beneath the surface. I’m compelled to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and taking a little time to reflect upon their depth, I learn real wisdom. A Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam, Hanh now lives and writes at a monastery and meditation center called Plum Village in France. Famous for books like The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and The Miracle of Mindfulness, he now takes up our planet’s environmental crisis. In so doing, that man of the Buddha makes this person of science think long, and hard, and differently.    

I’ll venture into science for a moment. It’s September, time to send a new crop of anthropology students straight to Darwin. For the first time this year, it’s via Darwin Online, the University of Cambridge project that makes free to the world Darwin’s entire corpus, right down to a sketch of his cabin on the Galapagos-bound ship The Beagle. My students know that it takes some work to grasp Darwin in the original. Darwin wrote in Victorian England’s flowery language, and as revolutionary, insightful, and beautiful are his observations about nature and natural selection, they came about in a time before genes were part of our vocabulary.

We need to read Hanh’s words in context too. Let’s start with the quotes I opened with. What unites them is a sense of the connectedness and eternalness of all life, a Buddhist sense of timeless continuity. With a heart open to these ideas, the meaning flows, and in some ways meshes with conclusions from science. Read the quartet of opening sentences again, then think science:

We humans have evolved from other animals, and the earliest life evolved on Earth in an environment graced with, and shaped by, rocks and trees.

In bread, we may see the workings of the sun- as well as the work of many human beings.

Clouds become ice, or snow, or rain; they don’t just disappear.

All living beings are shot through with non-living matter (the famed “star-stuff-is-in-us” realization), and our bodies recycle into the Earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s goal in The World We Have is to move people to action. Meat-eating is a favorite target. To become vegetarian is to become compassionate to animals, and may also be “one of the most effective ways to fight world hunger and global warming.” A huge proportion of the grain produced by humans goes to feed the cattle we raise for meat, for instance. Too, “the practice of raising animals for food has created some of the worst environmental damage on the planet and is responsible for one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent to other species, to our own bodies, and to the Earth.”  

Hanh writes simply but not simplistically. “With each meal,” he notes, “we make choices that help or harm Mother Earth. ‘What shall I eat today?’ is a very deep question.” Thankfully, Hanh is no judgmental absolutist; he takes care to embrace everyone’s possible: “If you’re not able to entirely stop eating meat, you can still decide to make an effort to cut back. By cutting meat out of your diet ten or even five days a month, you will already be performing a miracle- a miracle that will help solve the problem of hunger in the developing world and dramatically reduce greenhouse gases.” He urges everyone to cut meat consumption by at least half.    

This call for dietary mindfulness reads like typical eco-fare. But Buddhist Hanh isn’t a run-of-the-mill environmental activist. He stresses a need to change ourselves as a prerequisite to changing the Earth’s health: “The world is sick, and adapting to an unwell environment cannot bring real health. Many people who need psychotherapy are really victims of modern life which separates us from each other and from the rest of the human family.” (And in other places, he notes, from all of nature.) The bottom line is this: “Our mental health requires that the effort for us to recover our humanness should be given priority.” To do this, we may breathe in and out as a tool for calming ourselves; we may meditate. We should try to shed old angers and hurts. On a larger scale, we may move to a rural area to grow our own food “and live simply, sharing the same life as that of millions of peasants around the world.” 

For Hanh, it’s imperative that we tackle our fears and anxieties about impermanence. Sure, it’s human to fear death, or perhaps even more, to fear the loss of those whose love makes our lives joyful. But Hanh says, “Looking deeply, we see that impermanence is neither negative nor positive. It is just impermanence. Without impermanence, life wouldn’t be possible. Without impermanence, how could we hope to transform our suffering and the suffering of our loved ones into happiness? Without impermanence, how can we hope to change the destructive path we’ve set for the Earth?”

Get the connection he’s making? It took me some effort to really grasp it: hope for change dwells within impermanence. The hope that today’s indifference to the apes that are vanishing, the frogs and fireflies that are dwindling, the polar bears that must swim further and further in ice-free waters, may transform as we transform. On a personal level, we may find comfort in the constancy of impermanence. It’s always been a comfort to me, at least, to know that when I die I’ll become bones of the Earth. Perhaps this is because it connects me to the 3-million-year old Lucy of ancient Africa, or the 30,000-year old first cave-painters of Africa and Europe, and to every other human and human ancestor who has walked the Earth.

Now, I’m not blinded by the light. Sometimes Hanh goes too far. Do I think that “the trees, the water, and the air don’t ask anything of us; they just love us”? No. I don’t think that nature loves us back. To think so strikes me as wildly anthropocentric. Give me a wild animal that shows its complete indifference to my presence, an animal just living its life, and then I feel part of the natural world.  

And try telling a parent of a young child ailing from cancer or bombed in war that death is only a notion. To recount the story of a Vietnamese nun who survived cancer by accepting that she was going to die, thus freeing her not to die, implies faith in a control over our own fate that simply may not exist. “Acceptance of death will bring you peace,” Hanh writes, “and with that peace you can sometimes continue to live.” Does that qualifier (“sometimes”) rescue him? Painful reality tells us that sometimes, no matter how hard people want to live, or work to accept that they won’t, they suffer and die before their time. 

Finally, there’s a clash of timelines. Hanh is clear about the change-us-first angle: “No more hate, no more discrimination. Then we’ll have the opportunity to make use of the technology that is available to us in order to save our beloved planet.”

Science isn’t on Hanh’s side here. I’m all for evolved plasticity. I recognize that humans may break masterfully with any nasty evolved xenophobic tendencies we inherited from our ancient past. But let’s face it, if we wait around for “no more hate, no more discrimination” to turn from the ideal into the real, we may be meditating mindfully and breathing calmly in coastal cities that are flooded and pretty damn hot.  

Viewpoint differences aside, Thich Nhat Hanh’s is among the most effective religious voices calling for ecological responsibility. (For an example from the Christian tradition, see Bruce Sanguin’s Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos). Hanh captures essential truths and moves us to action -- and lives by his words. Nowhere at Plum Village is there a private cellphone or private car. Residents and visitors compost and recycle; plant native plants, use energy-efficient light bulbs, and drive electric or vegetable-oil-powered vehicles.  

Once a week, Plum Villagers practice No-Car Day. This practice brings the villagers “a lot of joy,” Hanh writes, “because we know that we’re doing something.” Hanh proposes a global No-Car Day, which this year falls on September 22nd. To channel Hanh’s reasonableness for a moment, here’s a proposal. Collectively, we can choose not to drive on September 22nd, if bicycling or public transport or walking is available to us. If we must drive that day for work or health reasons, we may drive fewer miles, or offer or accept car-pool rides. We may teach about why No-Car Days matter: to raise awareness, yes, but also to reduce the pound after pound, mile after mile, spewing of gas emissions into our air, immediately.  

And why not dream? Why not imagine all of southern California, let’s say, opting for No-Car Day? The freeways would be eerily car-less, but jam-packed with walkers, bikers, even horse-riders maybe. Sounds like a great idea for a late-night TV skit….

-- Barbara J. King & family have to drive four miles on Sept. 22nd, or else the feral cats will go hungry. It’s all about balance.