Climate Reading Group: Love Letter to the Earth: Thich Nhat Hanh
Love Letter to the Earth: Thich Nhat Hanh
In February I went to Julie’s Bicycle’s ’We Make Tomorrow’ event in London, looking at Climate Emergency and Culture. One of the speakers was Brian Eno. He said that he thought it was time to start listening to people of faith, that they could make an important, rarely heard contribution at a time when other more conventional ways of approaching the problems we are currently facing don’t seem to be working. I share his sense that there is something fundamental – about the human spirit – missing from most of our conversations about Climate and choosing Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Love Letter to the Earth (Parallax Press 2013) was an attempt to redress that a little. As a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, his call is for radical individual change that will lead to a natural shift in our shared awareness:
‘For us to survive, both as individuals and as a species, we need a revolution in consciousness. It can start with our collective awakening. Looking deeply, with mindfulness and concentration, we can see that we are the Earth and, with this insight, love and understanding will be born.’
Love Letter to the Earth, p.100
I found it very inspiring to discuss the book – its message, method and manner – with a group of careful and critical readers. We started by looking at a section on death, continuity and connectedness, the Buddhist principle of interdependent co-arising, where no phenomenon has a single cause or effect, everything interacting and constantly changing, nonlinear, non-dualistic and ultimately unquantifiable. He uses the examples of a cloud and a leaf to show how this works, always encouraging the reader to test everything for themselves rather than just accepting what they are told:
‘Imagine the Earth is the tree and that we are a leaf. We think that the Earth is the Earth and that we are something outside of the Earth. But in fact we are inside the Earth. We may think that some day we’ll die and we’ll go back to the Earth. But we don’t need to die in order to go back to Mother Earth. I am in Mother Earth right now and Mother Earth is in me.’
Thich Nhat Hanh has been a monk since he was a boy and now he is 93. After his lifetime’s practice, reflection and engaged advocacy for peace (including influencing Martin Luther King’s demands for a peaceful resolution to US war with Vietnam), there was the sense that he occupied more ‘saintly’ ground than the rest of us, ‘on another wavelength’ entirely. There was some ‘exasperation’ with his refined holistic perspective and his simple, sweet and pared back style, unfamiliar to our Western intellectual and cultural appetites, trained to expect a literally heady mixture of entertainment, stimulation, personality and opinion.
I was struck by the different language and pace, with a degree of drama and stridency, used essentially to say the very same thing as Thich Nhat Hanh in an article in The Independent on World Environment Day, June 5th 2020:
‘Our economies, livelihoods and wellbeing all rely on nature, from the food we eat, to controlling our climate, regulating disease and as a place of recreation. Without nature, there would be no life.
Covid-19 is nature sending us a message. In fact, it reads like an SOS signal for the human enterprise, bringing into sharp focus the need to live within the planet’s means. The environmental, health and economic consequences of failing to do so are disastrous.’
[You can read the whole article here]
This book has a different status from most books we might read in that it explicitly stands in for lived experience. In Buddhist terms, it is a finger pointing at the moon, in full awareness that words can only translate our direct perception of ‘moon’. Actively encouraging experimenting with the embodied practices of mindful breathing, walking, eating and drinking, cultivating an open awareness imbued with love and kindness, is the book’s primary purpose. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the inevitable consequence will be that we hold the Earth in respect and make clear ethical choices that will help keep our ecology in balance.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s book is quietly provocative, offering an alternative view, challenging our assumptions and preferences. It’s easy to read, perhaps too easy. However, it is harder to absorb its ideas and apply them to our daily lives. We resist change, holding onto what is familiar and comfortable. At this particular moment, when life is all change and challenge, we are craving comfort and reassurance. The one place we seemed to agree this might be found is the peace and beauty of the natural world we have been able to appreciate more than ever before. Haven’t most of us had a small glimpse into Thich Nhat Hanh’s world, where hope is not just possible, but necessary:
‘The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us. Everything depends on whether we have this insight or not.’
‘Every one of us, regardless of nationality or religious faith, can experience a feeling of admiration and love when we see the beauty of the Earth and the beauty of the cosmos. This feeling of love and admiration has the power to unite the citizens of the Earth and remove all separation and discrimination. Caring about the environment is not an obligation, but a matter of personal and collective happiness and survival. We will survive and thrive together with our Mother Earth, or we will not survive at all.’
- 82- 3
Our next Climate Reading Group book is Jenny Offill’s novel Weather (Granta 2020). We’ll meet on Zoom to talk about it on Tuesday 28th July at 6pm.
Till then, stay well,