Lesson
7

Caring for the Earth

2 of 7

Meditation

I came to realize clearly that Mind is not other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.

Dogen

Buddhist meditation (and closely related practices such as chanting) can serve as a vehicle for advancing several ends prized by environmentalists: it is supposed to reduce egoism, deepen appreciation of one's surroundings, foster empathy with other beings, clarify intention, prevent what is now called burnout, and ultimately lead to a profound sense of oneness with the entire universe. Australian John Seed, who defends rain forests, says:

I think I developed some qualities in meditation that are very useful in environmental work, such as being able to focus on the process rather than the goal .... For every forest we save, we can't help but notice that a thousand forests disappear. So the sitting practice taught me how to work joyously without seeing any sweet fruits of my action.

For some Buddhists, meditation alone is regarded as a sufficient expression of ecological awareness. Others supplement time-honored forms of meditation with new meditative practices that incorporate nature imagery or environmental themes. Ancient Buddhist genres are being adapted to create ecologically oriented spiritual practices. An exercise taught by Thich Nhat Hanh encourages meditators to visualize themselves as elements of nature:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.

Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.

Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.

Although this exercise was originally presented as a meditation, not as a technique for enhancing sensitivity to the environment, it evokes ecologist Aldo Leopold's 1949 warning that unless we learn to "think like a mountain," we will not be able to avoid ecological disaster.

Gathas

Thich Nhat Hanh has helped to popularize another method of individual practice—short poems (gathas) that can prompt us to maintain awareness in daily life. Many of these "mindfulness verses" also function as reminders of our interconnectedness with the Earth. The verses may be memorized or posted in appropriate locations. For example, when turning on a water faucet, a person following this practice will mentally recite:

        Water flows from high in the mountains.
        Water runs deep in the Earth.
        Miraculously, water comes to us,
        and sustains all life.

Washing one's hands can become an occasion for renewing one's dedication to the environment:

        Water flows over these hands.
        May I use them skillfully
        to preserve our precious planet.

The following verse, meant to be used when getting into a car, again evokes a twofold mindfulness -- for the moment and for interrelatedness:

        Entering this powerful car,
        I buckle my seatbelt
        and vow to protect all beings.

Robert Aitken, learning from the environment in the city, uses the occasion to make another vow:

When I stroll around in the city
I vow with all beings
to notice how lichen and grasses
never give up in despair.