When an eminent Buddhist master and human rights activist like Thich Nhat Hanh warns of impending environmental catastrophe, I sit up and take notice.
Thay – as he is affectionately called – is not alone among his peers with this urgent call to action. The Dalai Lama was the first to sign A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change. Many other great Buddhist teachers have followed suit.
In no uncertain terms, Thay states,
“Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come,” he warns. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed.”
He believes that only an inner revolution and consequent change in our individual and collective behavior – not a technological one – will avert the potential disaster.
Inner pollution equals outer pollution
In Buddhism, the outer world is seen as a reflection of our inner world. As long as our inner world – the mind – is polluted with turbulent emotions, our outer world will be filled with toxins too. Our seemingly diverse emotional states can be boiled down to what is traditionally called the five poisons:
- attachment and craving – “I want…”
- aversion, anger, hatred – “I don’t want…”
- jealousy and envy – “I wish I had…” or “I wish I was…”
- pride – “I’m important, the center of the universe…”
- ignorance – not recognizing our true nature
If we take an honest look inside, chances are we’ll find one or more of these emotions at the center stage of our life.
All our actions are driven by our thoughts and emotions, so naturally they impact our outer environment for better or worse. In addition, this constantly churning emotional fuel make us miserable, bringing a background sense of unhappiness and discontentment. Almost like an itch, we’re never quite satisfied.
Even though we are good people at heart, most of us are plagued by emotional distress to some degree, on both gross and subtle levels.
“The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilizing ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.”
Thay believes that the world cannot be changed outside of ourselves. Instead, the answer is to look within and transform the fear, anger, and despair which we suppress with over-consumption.
Mindfulness is the antidote
Living consciously with mindfulness and awareness is the antidote to a world gone berserk.
Meditation is a powerful method for cultivating mindfulness, increasing awareness of self and others, and transforming difficult emotions. The benefits of meditation are immense for both the mind and the body.
Another form of meditation is to water the seeds of joy by cultivating positive emotions as an antidote to negative ones. For example,
- Love is an antidote to aversion, anger, and hatred
- Compassion is the antidote to attachment
- Joy is the antidote to envy and jealousy
- Equanimity is the antidote to ignorance and pride
Just like turning on a light in a dark room, when your mind and heart are occupied with love, there’s no space for anger and other harmful emotions.
Through looking inwardly, you discover your true self. You come to realize that real happiness is only found within. A sense of interconnectedness and compassion naturally flows from a clearer mind and calmer heart. Thus, the practice of mindfulness meditation leads to more responsible action for oneself and the planet.
Mindfulness doesn’t preclude eco-activism. It simply encourages activism born from a heart of love not one bitter with anger. Thay cautions us to avoid separation and blame,
“The energy we need is not fear or anger, but the energy of understanding and compassion. There is no need to blame or condemn. Those who are destroying themselves, societies and the planet aren’t doing it intentionally. Their pain and loneliness are overwhelming and they want to escape. They need to be helped, not punished. Only understanding and compassion on a collective level can liberate us.”
Although Thay believes that it is possible to avert the ecological disaster that lies ahead, he accepts the possibility that our civilization may not endure. This very act of letting go of our need to save the planet, he feels, is also an essential step towards doing so.
What do you think? Is cleaning up the inner environment of your mind just as important as taking steps to live green and reduce your oil consumption?
[The quotes in this article are from two interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh conducted by the UK Guardian newspaper. I haven’t had a chance to read Thay’s book yet, so this article is not a review of the book, but simply reflections on points raised in the interviews.]
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