Our Living, Breathing Mother
In his book, The Lives of a Cell, biologist Thomas Lewis describes our planet as a living organism.
After some reflection, he arrives at the insight that the whole planet is like a giant living cell whose parts are all linked in symbiosis. He describes the miraculous achievement of the atmosphere as the world’s biggest membrane. Lewis finds it so astonishing that the Earth is alive. He is struck by the amazing beauty and exuberance of the Earth in contrast to the barren, cratered moon and other planets.
He likens the Earth to an organized, self-contained being, a “live creature, full of information and marvelously skilled in handling the sun.”
We too can see that the Earth is a living being and not an inanimate object. She is not inert matter.
Don’t think that Mother Earth is outside of you. Looking deeply you can find Mother Earth within you, just as your biological mother who gave birth to you is also within you. She is in each of your cells.
We often call our planet Mother Earth. Seeing the Earth as our mother helps us to realize her true nature. The Earth is not a person, yet she is indeed a mother who has given birth to millions of different species, including the human species.
Our Mother Earth has brought us to life and provided all the conditions for our survival. Over the eons, she has developed an environment from which humans can manifest and thrive. She created a protective atmosphere, with air we can breathe, abundant food for us to eat, and clear water for us to drink. She is constantly nourishing and protecting us. We can see that she is our mother and the mother of all beings.
We are a child of the Earth and our planet is a very generous mother who embraces us and provides us with everything we need. And when one day we cease to exist in this form, we will go back to the Earth, our mother, only to be transformed so that we may manifest again in a different form in the future. But don’t think that Mother Earth is outside of you. Looking deeply you can find Mother Earth within you, just as your biological mother who gave birth to you is also within you. She is in each of your cells.
The Earth Is a Solid Place of Refuge
When we feel that we’re fragile, not stable or solid, we can come back to ourselves and take refuge in the Earth. With each step we can feel her solidity beneath our feet. When we’re truly in touch with the Earth, we can feel her supportive embrace and her stability. We use all our body and our mind to go back to the Earth and surrender ourselves to her. With each breath we release all our agitation, our fragility, and our suffering. Just being aware of her benevolent presence can already bring relief.
On the verge of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he touched the Earth with his hand and asked her to bear witness to his awakening. Flowers sprang up in celebration at the very place where his hand touched the ground. At that moment, the Buddha’s mind became so free and so clear that he saw millions of flowers everywhere smiling at him.
We can be like the Buddha, and in difficult moments touch the Earth as our witness. We can take refuge in the Earth as our original mother. We can say, ‘I touch the pure and refreshing Earth.’
Whatever nationality or culture we belong to, whatever religion we follow, whether we’re Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, we can all see that Mother Earth is a great bodhisattva.
When we see her in this way, with all her many virtues, we will walk more gently on her and treat her and all her children more gently. We will want to protect her and not harm her or any of the myriad forms of life she has given birth to. We will stop wreaking destruction and violence on Mother Earth. We will resolve the question of what we mistakenly call “the environmental problem.”
The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us. Everything depends on whether we have this insight or not.
When you’re able to see the Earth for the bodhisattva that she is, you will want to bow down and touch the Earth with reverence and respect. Then love and care will be born in your heart.
This awakening is enlightenment. Don’t look for enlightenment elsewhere. This awakening, this enlightenment, will bring about a great transformation in you, and you’ll have more happiness, more love, and more understanding than from any other practice. Enlightenment, liberation, peace, and joy aren’t dreams for the future; they’re a reality available to us in the present moment.
The Time Is Now
We can’t wait any longer to restore our relationship with the Earth because right now the Earth and everyone on Earth is in real danger. When a society is overcome by greed and pride, there is violence and unnecessary devastation. When we perpetrate violence toward our own and other species, we’re being violent toward ourselves at the same time. When we know how to protect all beings, we will be protecting ourselves. A spiritual revolution is needed if we’re going to confront the environmental challenges that face us.
Many of us are lost. We work too hard, our lives are too busy; we lose ourselves in consumption and distraction of all kinds and have become increasingly lost, lonely, or sick.
Many of us live very isolated lives. We’re no longer in touch with ourselves, our family, our ancestors, the Earth, or the wonders of life around us. We have become alienated and feel lonely.
This alienation is a kind of illness that has become an epidemic. So many of us feel empty inside and are searching for something to fill the vacuum. We try to fill the void by taking pills or intoxicants or by consuming things.
Yet our addiction to consumerism, to buying and consuming things we don’t need, is causing so much stress, so much suffering, both to ourselves and to the Earth. Our craving for fame, wealth, and power is insatiable, and this puts a heavy strain on our own bodies and on the planet. We don’t realize that it’s not fame, wealth, or power that will make us happy, but our level of mindful awareness.
Falling in Love
Real change will happen only when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.
When we recognize the virtues and talents of the Earth, we feel connected to her and love is born in our hearts. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love: to be at one.
When you love someone, you want to take care of that person as you would take care of yourself. When we love like this, it’s reciprocal. We will do anything for the benefit of the Earth and we can trust that she, in turn, will do everything in her power for our well-being.
Every morning when I wake up and get dressed, I leave my hut and take a walk. Usually the sky is still dark and I walk gently, aware of nature all around me and the fading stars.
One time, after walking, I came back to my hut and wrote this sentence: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” I was as excited as a young man who has fallen in love. My heart was beating with excitement.
When I think of the Earth and my ability to walk on it, I think, “I’m going to go out into nature, enjoying everything beautiful, enjoying all its wonders.”
My heart is filled with joy. The Earth gives me so much. I’m so in love with her. It’s a wonderful love; there’s no betrayal. We entrust our heart to the Earth and she entrusts herself to us, with her whole being.
Walking Tenderly on Mother Earth
Dear Mother Earth,
Every time I step upon the Earth, I will train myself to see that I am walking on you, my Mother. Every time I place my feet on the Earth I have a chance to be in touch with you and with all your wonders.
With every step I can touch the fact that you aren’t just beneath me, dear Mother, but you are also within me. Each mindful and gentle step can nourish me, heal me, and bring me into contact with myself and with you in the present moment.
Walking in mindfulness I can express my love, respect, and care for you, our precious Earth. I will touch the truth that mind and body are not two separate entities. I will train myself to look deeply to see your true nature: you are my loving mother, a living being, a great being—an immense, beautiful, and precious wonder.
You are not only matter, you are also mind, you are also consciousness. Just as the beautiful pine or tender grain of corn possess an innate sense of knowing, so, too, do you. Within you, dear Mother Earth, there are the elements of Earth, water, air and fire; and there is also time, space, and consciousness. Our nature is your nature, which is also the nature of the cosmos.
I am walking not merely on matter, but on spirit.
I want to walk gently, with steps of love and with great respect. I shall walk with my own body and mind united in oneness. I know I can walk in such a way that every step is a pleasure, every step is nourishing, and every step is healing—not only for my body and mind, but also for you, dear Mother Earth.
You are the most beautiful planet in our entire solar system. I do not want to run away from you, dear Mother, nor to hurry. I know I can find happiness right here with you. I do not need to rush to find more conditions for happiness in the future. At every step I can take refuge in you. At every step I can enjoy your beauties, your delicate veil of atmosphere and the miracle of gravity. I can stop my thinking.
I can walk relaxingly and effortlessly. Walking in this spirit I can experience awakening. I can awaken to the fact that I am alive, and that life is a precious miracle. I can awaken to the fact that I am never alone and can never die. You are always there within me and around me at every step, nourishing me, embracing me, and carrying me far into the future.
Dear Mother, you wish that we live with more awareness and gratitude, and we can do this by generating the energies of mindfulness, peace, stability, and compassion in our daily lives. Therefore I make the promise today to return your love and fulfill this wish by investing every step I take on you with love and tenderness. I am walking not merely on matter, but on spirit.
Reprinted from Love Letter to the Earth (2013) by Thích Nhất Hạnh with the generous permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.