Thich Nhat Hanh: maybe in 100 years there will be no more humans on the planet
Interview by Tom Levitt for The Ecologist
The acclaimed buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks to the Ecologist about the loss of biodiversity and why human vulnerability is not something we should despair about
Do you believe humans can avoid a global ecological collapse, or are we driving ourselves towards one?
The National Wildlife Federation tells us everyday that 100 plants and animal species are lost to deforestation. Extinction of species is taking place everyday. In one year there may be 200,000 species going into extinction. That is what is happening; that is not the problem of the future. We know that 151 million years ago there was already global warming caused by gigantic volcanic eruptions. They caused the worst mass extinction in the history of the planet. The 6C increase in global temperature was enough to wipe out 95 per cent of the species that were alive. Global warming already happened 251 million years ago because of volcanic eruptions and 95 per cent of species on earth disappeared.
Now a second global warming is taking place. This time because of deforestation and industrialisation; man-made, maybe in 100 years there will be no more humans on the planet, in just 100 years. After the disappearance of 95 per cent of species on the earth by the mass extinction the earth took 100 million years to restore life on earth. If our civilisation disappears it will take some time like that for another civilisation to reappear. When volcanic eruptions happened the carbon dioxide built up and created the greenhouse effect that was 251 million years ago. Now the building up of carbon dioxide is coming from our own lifestyle and industrial activities.
If 6C degrees take place, another 95 per cent of species will die out, including Homo sapiens. That is why we have to learn to touch eternity with our in breath and out breath. Extinction of species has happened several times. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction a thing will appear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on earth.
You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by that despair. That solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are the environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored. Maybe the flood, maybe the heat, maybe the air.
The urban population across the world is growing. What, if anything, is lost by our increasing switch towards being an urban species?
Well the life in the cities and the life in the countryside are connected because we have to fit the city and that is why the countryside has to change and why it is being contaminated by many things. The countryside has to use a lot of antibiotics, poisons in order to provide the city with the food and things like that.
So the countryside is no longer safe for us. Even if we go back to the countryside there is no solution. Whether you are in the city or the countryside we are losing a lot. Even now in the countryside we have more chance to touch nature, to touch the earth. It is a little bit easier to hear ourselves with the practice of the countryside, but the countryside is losing itself for the cities.
Most environmentalists narrow down the problems we face to two issues: over-consumption and over-population. Where do you stand?
Of course we have to consume in such a way to reduce the suffering of the species on the earth, this is very clear. But you have to reduce population also and to be a monk is to be one of the ways to reduce population, so I am calling for you to join us as monks. If you can create small communities and establish schools and you can take care of the children of other couples then you don’t miss our children. So basing it on my own experience as a monk I have not deprived myself of anything in life. I have a lot. Even though I don’t have blood children, I feel I have a lot of children. They give me a lot of joy and freshness and I think you have to act on two levels. You have to go down in consumption and go down in population and this is possible and we don’t have to deprive ourselves of anything including the children in our lives.
What’s the hardest part of the lifestyle you’ve chosen to lead?
I don’t think I have lost anything in life by choosing to be a monk. In fact I enjoy the life of a monk. For instance when we follow a vegetarian diet we are happy because we can do so. You don’t suffer when you follow a vegetarian diet. You don’t suffer because you don’t eat meat. It is very fortunate not to eat meat because you don’t have to eat the flesh of other species in order to stay alive. You can protect life by eating. You have to learn to eat in such a way to preserve our planet and reduce the suffering of living beings and that is why eating vegetarian can be a great joy, especially when you know how to cook. We have produced a cookbook to tell people they will get a lot of joy by eating vegetarian.
We have come to learn that the life of a monk is much easier than the lay practice. As a monk you live in the community and you follow the community in sitting mediation, walking meditation, eating on time, it is so easy. The easiest to learn is to be a monk. We don’t deprive ourselves of anything, we have a lot of joy together. We have time to build brotherhood and sisterhood. A romantic joy cannot last as long as a brotherhood or sisterhood and our suggestion is that we should not continue to rush into the cities, but we should try to create communities in the countryside.
You can create a lay community and it’s not necessary to be a Buddhist community. Share cars and tractors. The presence of children in communities is very wonderful and you don’t have to be a mother or father to enjoy the presence of young children.
I became a monk at the age of 16 and I don’t feel that I suffer because I have so many spiritual children and lay children. In community even if you don’t have children you can look upon other children of couples as your children, you can establish your own school, you can share apartments, houses…living in a community with 100-200 people you use less cars, you have community cars. You can share refrigerators, you can share tractors, build a garden together, a school or park and share the children of other couples.
How do you attract young people to follow you?
We don’t try to attract young people to follow at all, they just come because when they come to our retreats and our temple they see there is brotherhood and sisterhood and that is what we need the most in our lives. Many of the young people have experienced romantic love and have suffered and when they come to our temple they see brotherhood and sisterhood and we can be ourselves and we can be nourished by that energy of brotherhood and sisterhood.
That is why to create a community and build brotherhood and sisterhood as a nourishment is a very important thing. You can devote your life into doing so. So instead of going to big cities and having to breath that kind of air that is so polluted we can organise so that you can create many communities in the countryside and try to live in such a way that can help protect our mother earth and protect the environment. We can work and we can also garden and we can do it together and you can use your talent in order to serve the community in building brotherhood and sisterhood, an alternative lifestyle.
So if the young people come to us, not because we offer, it is the joy, the happiness generated by brotherhood and sisterhood. Our daily practice is to generate the energy of love in brotherhood and sisterhood. There should be a political party that is capable of generating brotherhood, liberty, and fraternity. We know that fraternity brotherhood is important, but we don’t know how to generate fraternity. If there is a political party that knows how to generate fraternity then we will join that political party, but many people will just talk about it. Establishing small communities like that we will truly generate the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood. The young people they are capable of seeing that and many of them will devote their lives in this in order to generate energy that you cannot buy in supermarkets.
Thich Nhat Hanh: you don’t need to be a monk to stop buying new things
In the second part of his interview, Thich Nhat Hanh explains why you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to give up an addiction to a high-consumption lifestyle
Most of us in the West are still attached to a high-consumption lifestyle. We like to buy new and exciting things. Is there a strong enough alternative lifestyle out there that can convince us to leave this high-consumption one behind?
What we need is transformation of our consciousness, our happiness, our lifestyle. In Asian countries people are very much doing the same. We like to buy new and exciting things. We are seeking for happiness, but there is suffering inside of us. There is a big vacuum inside of us. That is why we are looking to fill up that vacuum inside. That is our situation. We don’t feel at peace with ourselves. We have a big vacuum inside and we don’t know how to fill it up with better things, so we look to consumption. We think that if we can buy new and exciting things we can then forget the vacuum inside. That does not seem to have an effect. We are buying more and more, but we do not feel the kind of fulfilment. We need love, we need peace, but we don’t know how to recreate peace, so we are looking for other things to cover up the suffering and the vacuum inside of us. Of course there must be some sort of lifestyle that can help us create love and joy and we don’t have to go to the market to buy things. Unless you know how to create that kind of life you continue to go and buy things.
Suppose you learn about five trainings. The five trainings is kind of like a lifestyle that is born from a vision. Everything is connected to everything else. If you are healthy and happy then other forms of life can profit you. If you are sick and suffer then other species will have to suffer with you and that will help to see that you are linked to everything else. To protect yourself you have to protect nature and every other species. Inside of inter-being will help you to remove discrimination, fear and anger and make you feel better in yourself. The trainings help us to protect life, your life and the life of other species.
Your life and the life of other species are interrelated. When you protect the life of other species, you protect your own life. In order to protect ourselves we have to protect others. When you breath in mindfully you can see that Mother Earth is in you and you are in Mother Earth. That kind of insight helps you to remove your fear of dying and helps you to see that in order to protect yourself you have to protect Mother Earth. Protecting Mother Earth is protecting other species is protecting oneself, that is very clear. Even if you are the youngest of the species on the earth you can play the role of an elder brother or sister and look up to the wellbeing of other species. This is a very beautiful thing to do and what Mother Earth expects you to do as a species on earth, the Homo sapiens. Protecting life is a joy and that is a kind of lifestyle that comes from the inside of being. You are doing it for yourself because life is one, it can’t be shot into several pieces. To live in such a way to help you to protect life can bring you a lot of joy because there is love. When you have love in yourself you don’t have to run and buy things because love is fulfilling and makes you peaceful and happy.
The second training is to happiness because if we realise that happiness can not be possible with only making money and buying things we should know how to generate and create to happiness. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others and I will share my time and energy and resources with those in need. I will practice looking deeply into the happiness and suffering of others are not separated from my own happiness and suffering. That happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion and that wealth and power can bring much suffering and despair.
I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not external conditions and that I can live happily in the present moment simply remembering that I have more than enough conditions to live happily. I am committed to establishing a livelihood that can help reduce the suffering of lively beings on earth and help reverse global warming, so this proves that happiness is possible and we should stop running after fame, power, wealth and sensual pleasures. We should recognise the wonders of life that are available in the present moment. We should be able to help ourselves and other people suffer less and that belongs to the lifestyle we are looking for.
The third training is to love, cultivating to love. If you are so busy, if you only think of consuming how do you have the time in order to love? We learn one thing from the third training, sexual desire and love are two different things because love can only build, heal. You have to learn how to love ourselves, you have to learn how to care of our body, to release the tension and pain in our body. There are very complete ways to do it. You know how to practise touching the earth by walking meditations, by lying down, allowing nature to heal you. You know how to release the tension in your body, to release the pain in your body, not to work too hard, all these things we can do, but if you are so busy making money in order to buy things do you have the time to do so? There are those of us who know how to organise our life in such a way to have time to care for ourselves and take care of others around us.
The fourth training is about how to restore communication within father and son, father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, partner and partner, brothers and brothers, brothers and sisters. If we cannot communicate we suffer. Very often we cannot communicate with ourselves. You don’t like yourself, you hate yourself, you don’t know how to listen to yourself, you don’t know how to help yourself. So the practice of loving and deep listening should be your own practice, directed to ourselves. We have to learn how to listen to ourselves, to listen to the deepest desires in ourselves, to listen to the sufferings in ourselves in order to understand. When we have understood our suffering, our deepest aspirations, we will be able to listen and understand the suffering and aspiration of the other person. This is something we can do.
We are deeply divided as a society. We are trying to kill each other and the killing is taking place anywhere at any time day and night. We have a lot of anger, fear, discrimination and despair and that is because there is not enough communication between members of our species, only killing other species. We are killing ourselves as a species and that is why technology is not enough. We have to learn how to listen, how to speak lovingly. Aware of the suffering caused by and the inability to listen to others I am committed to cultivating compassion in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, religious groups and nations.
The fifth training is about nourishment and healing and all of us need nourishment and healing. Most of us are sick and we don’t know how to go back to nature and get the healing. We don’t know how to generate the energy of compassion and joy in order to heal ourselves. We rely only on medicines, antibiotics, surgery. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental for myself, family and my society by practising mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I will look deeply into how I consume.
This is the key practice: consumption. We cannot get out of this difficult despairing situation unless we make a resolution in the way we consume. I will be aware of what I eat and consume through my senses and what intentions and mental state I cultivate in my consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, use or cohort drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing healing and nourishing elements in and around me and not letting sorrow drag me back into the past, nor letting anxieties, fear or cravings pull me out of the moment. I am determined not to cover up with loneliness, anxiety or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate into being and consume in a way to preserve peace and joy and in my body and consciousness and of family, society and the earth. My mindful consumption is the way out.
Can we strive for financial and spiritual contentment, or are they mutually exclusive?
Can you be both rich and spiritual? Do you need to be rich, do you need to make money? We need money, but not to consume things. We need it to organise trips, to hire a bus, to build a mediation home. When we go to a city we need some money in order to buy the tickets for our monastic brothers and sisters because we know that transformation in a retreat would require enough teachers and monistic practitioners.
But we seek financial support not for buying new and exciting things, but to have more place for practitioners to stay during their retreat and to bring more monastic to retreats, to build a mediation home and quarters, but that has always come if our spiritual practice brings fruit and then there will be friends who will help us on the financial side. but it is very clear that spiritual practice can bring a lot of happiness, love and fulfilment and you don’t need a lot of money to be happy, so this is no longer a problem. If there is some financial help then more people will benefit from the practice. If we are limited by financial conditions then the number of practitioners will not increase, but we do not sacrifice our spiritual life for financial realisation.
Thich Nhat Hanh Vietnamese buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist returns to the UK in 2012. For details see www.mindfulnessretreats.org.uk