A sharing by Karim Manji, a Wake Up London facilitator who is currently on the 90 day Winter Retreat in Plum Village, France.
In the first live Dharma talk a few weeks ago, one of the elder sisters explained the origins of the Plum Village Winter Retreat. It is a continuation of the 90 day Rains Retreat observed by the Buddha and his Sangha when they would remain in one place. There were many reasons for the monastics to cease their travels and take refuge in themselves and each other for 3 months every year; one reason was to minimize causing harm and suffering to all the little insects and creatures that would be more numerously around during the rainy season. So as well as a chance to come back home to themselves, the Rains Retreat was also very much an act of compassion to other creatures of Mother Earth. This same compassion and care seem both alive and made relevant to today’s challenges, 2,500 years after the tradition started.
Love is every step
“Our teacher loves Mother Earth”, said Sister True Dedication in a panel presentation on Plum Village’s engagement with climate change yesterday. Thay (as Thich Nhat Hanh is affectionately known, meaning ‘teacher’ in Vietnamese) had advised us in a DVD dharma talk to practice walking meditation in a way that we are touching the earth. The practices Thay has shared and the environment he and the community have created here in Plum Village make it very easy to share that love. Each day, we not only feel Mother Earth beneath our feet with our mindful steps but with fewer distractions and a more peaceful mind, our eyes seem to be really open to take in the wonders she offers. The sunlit yellow leaves still clinging to the trees, the song of the birds, the fresh air in the morning. We are reminded each lunchtime that our food is a gift of the universe, that so many conditions, the rain, the sun, the soil have come together to offer us sustenance. Thay has added Bodhisativa Gaia, Great Mother Earth to the names involved before ceremonies, to remind us that every Buddha and Bodhisattva, every great being we admire, stems from Mother Earth. She has given birth to them all.
Opening to our pain
At times I use the gatha “Mother Earth, I am here” during walking meditation. Whilst connecting deeply with the Earth is crucial, if we are to take care of her, it also comes with pain; the pain that collectively, as a human family, we are not taking care of her. But this Winter, there also seems signs of hope. On our first Lay Half-Day (an opportunity for lay retreatants from all 3 hamlets to practice together whilst the monastics have their own Half-Day together), we watched a DVD of a dharma talk where Thay was answering questions on climate change of a British magazine. He repeated advice I’d heard before, about taking care of our feelings of despair. Stating the need to accept that maybe humanity might not continue on Mother Earth, but in time she will heal. For me, the practice of mindfulness is crucial with the challenges we face today. I sometimes feel caught in either frustration and despair or turning away, unable to engage as it is all too overwhelming. It was nice that Doran (fellow retreatant here and a former Wake Up London member, who some of you may know) offered a space to share on the topic. In general I feel I need the solidity and freedom that the practice brings to respond skillfully to these challenges.
Living simply to protect Mother Earth
Thay also gave some concrete suggestions as to how we could respond to the climate crisis and lessen our impact on the Earth. He advocated living together in communities where resources like cars could be shared. They didn’t have to be Buddhist communities, they could be organized like Kibbutzes for example. It does seem that Plum Village offers a model where we can live with much less consumption but much more joy. I am sure that when I told some people I’d be in a monastery for three months, thoughts of an austere life came to mind but life here feels anything but. We eat well, we enjoy nature, and although there is plenty of practice and work to do (as a practice!), there seems to be enough time to enjoy each other’s company, to ‘build brotherhood and sisterhood’ as Thay says. I feel that when these basic needs are met, I can be very satisfied with a relatively simple life. It’s easy to feel quite rich without lots of travel or purchases.
Reading Fragrant Palm Leaves, Thay’s journals from the 1960s, it is clear that he has never been happy with monastics limiting their lives just to practice in monasteries. He felt monastics should use their practice to engage directly with the challenges in society. At that time, in Vietnam, it was poverty and war, and he spent time developing ‘self help’ villages – helping villages to start schools and medical centers, and then starting the School of Youth for Social Services to do the same. It is heartening that his monastic students are continuing his vision of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ in the context of climate change. Monastics travelled to Paris last week to support the UN Climate Conference there. Sister True Dedication offered hugging meditation on behalf of Thay and the community to Christiana Figueres, the chair of the conference. It has been said that she has the hardest job in the world, and the community collectively sent her our best wishes after lunch on Thursday. Christiana is a student of Thay and has been spreading his message that in order to respond to climate change we need to fall in love with the Earth. Apparently Thay’s book, ‘Love Letter to Mother Earth’, never leaves her bedside.
Here in Plum Village, we made green ribbons and distributed them to the whole Sangha last Sunday on the day of mindfulness, the day when people around the world were walking for Mother Earth. The ribbons raise awareness of our collective practice of mindfulness and compassion in solidarity with the Earth during this time. We walked with everyone around the world as a Sangha at Lower Hamlet. People were encouraged to take action or make a commitment such as fasting from meat and dairy for the time of the conference. The vegan diet here makes that very easy for us!
Earth Holder Sangha
Brother Phap Ho who is spending the Winter here but usually based in Deer Park monastery shared about the Earth Holder Sangha which has been developing in the United States. It offers a way to come together both to share our response to climate change as well as practical responses. There is a blog and a newsletter sharing concrete practices. Their invitation is for people around the world to start their own group or share the material with their own Sangha.
Brother Phap Ho also shared what they have been doing in Deer Park which seems to be leading the way in its eco-credentials. Plum Village seems to be following suit with solar panels arriving next year and the manifestation of the Happy Farm here also means that less and less food needs travelling here from elsewhere.
Despite having only limited internet for email and Skype this Winter, I still feel connected to the challenges we face as a global community, but this connection is a much more hopeful one compared to my usual connection through a daily or even hourly news fix. It seems here we are dedicated to a practice that encourages love and reverence for Mother Earth, that develops the clarity, compassion and courage we need to care for her. This allows us to see that happiness comes from within and thus let go of the things that harm her. It seems we are living a simple, communal way of life that not only shows that another way is possible but also how beautiful it can be. And it seems Plum Village is offering crucial support and strength to people around the world who are working tirelessly for our planet. All this makes me very hopeful. Whatever happens, it feels that here, we are doing what we can.
Now, time to do the most important thing; go for a walk and enjoy Mother Earth!