Sunday, 23 November 2008

Book Review: The World We Have

What with the increasingly dire (but not surprising) economic news, I was glad to read Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh's latest work, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology. It was a definite respite in the midst of so much uncertainty.

In the interest of simplicity and out of respect, I'm going to adopt the practice of referring to Thich Nhat Hanh as 'Thay', which means 'teacher.' While I'm not an official or formal follower of his, he has certainly taught me much in the short time since I discovered his writing.

I sped through this 141 page volume, eagerly taking in Thay's wise words. He has composed the book in three sections and I'll write a bit about each of them in turn:

1) "A Collective Awakening"

Thay begins by reminding us that "the bells of mindfulness are sounding." These 'bells' are things like floods, droughts, and massive wildfires. He says plainly that while some people are hearkening to the sound of these 'bells,' most people have yet to become awakened to them. But yet, he says we don't have to despair; we can take action in our own lives, and we can help others to "awaken to the true situation": the fact that "the American dream is no longer even possible for Americans. We can't continue to live like this."

Thay goes on to talk about the five mindfulness trainings of Buddhism, the fifth of which is the practice of mindful consumption. Thay says that mindful consumption helps us to "recognize what to consume and what not to consume in order to keep the body, mind and the Earth healthy." He goes on to say that the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight are what is referred to when we speak of the Buddha, or the Holy Spirit, being within us. It is through this energy that transformation can take place.

In the remainder of this section, Thay focuses quite a lot on the Buddhist ideas of interbeing and impermanence. He illustrates these points with examples from Nature. The concept of inter-being can be illustrated by the case of kernel of corn growing into a corn stalk: the seed has not died, it has become the plant. The plant could not exist without the seed's existence; and the seed can not exist without the plant. Similarly, nature and humans inter-are. Every single thing coexists with every other single thing. In Thay's words:
We human beings have always singled our selves out from the rest of the natural world. We classify other animals and living beings as 'nature,' a thing apart from us, and we act as if we're somehow separate from it....Human beings and nature are inseparable. Just as we should not harm ourselves, we should not harm nature. To harm nature is to harm ourselves, and vice versa." (pp 34-35)
I've talked about this concept of interconnection before - it really is the foundation of things I think, pretty much literally. From the concept of inter-being, stems the idea of impermanence. They are two sides of the same coin, really. A yin-yang relationship. Since everything is connected to everything else, any particular thing has no discrete beginning or end. Thay uses another natural idea to illustrate this concept: that of the rising and falling wave in the ocean. If one focuses on the wave itself, one might rejoice at the building up of the wave, and lament its cresting and tumbling into the shore. But if one focuses on the ocean into which the wave is being re-drawn, then there is no need to grieve the loss of the wave, because the water itself is all-encompassing. I can't say this as eloquently as Thay can - here are his words on the subject:
A rising wave has a lot of joy. When the wave is falling, there may be some anxiety about the ending of the wave. Rising always brings about falling. Birth gives rise to death. But if the wave practices meditation and realizes she is water, she can collapse and tumble with joy. She may die as a wave, but she will always be alive as water. The teaching of the Buddha helps us to touch our true nature and receive the insight that will dissipate all kinds of fear (pp 49-50).
It is from this idea that I gained the most comfort from the book. Like Thay says, my fear has dissipated somewhat. Like everything else, civilizations rise and fall, turn and return. Recognizing this, I can let go of the idea that things need to stay the same to be good. Thay goes on to describe The Five Remembrances which practitioners of Buddhism meditate on to help them accept the idea of impermanence. When we no longer fear impermanence, we have a measure of peace, and so we can get on with the task of doing what needs to be done.

2) "Our Message is Our Action"

Thay says that our individual thoughts, words and actions are our continuation. In death, "all we take with us and all we leave behind are the fruits of our thoughts, speech and action during our lifetime. That is our karma, our continuation." Because of this, a path of "service, love and protection" directly influences the world in a positive way, the same way we have been influenced positively by others' compassionate actions before us. Thay goes on to say that "we know that our parents, our ancestors and our teachers all expect us to live our lives in a way that will protect the planet. We have to allow our ancestors, our teachers and the Buddha in us to act."

But what to do? We can't do everything that needs doing - there is just too much. One of Thay's students asked him a similar question, to which he responded, "take one thing and do it deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time." This came as quite a relief to me. In order to do our One Thing well, and for as long as it needs doing, we need the strength of peace. Peace is found through the well of mindfulness. Thay says,
It's important that while volunteering or taking part in environmental activism, we find ways to continue with our practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking and mindful speaking. Let us not give in to anger or despair when reflecting on the current state of the world or when confronted with those who engage in the wasteful use of resources. Instead we can make our own lives an example of simple living (p. 76).
Thay goes on to describe the type of actions taken at his monasteries and practice centers in Europe and North America, actions such as powering one monastery entirely with solar power, and having 'no car days' at several others. As the founder of the Engaged Buddhism movement, Thay and his followers certainly 'walk the walk.'

3) "Practices for Mindful Living"

The third section of Thay's book is full of several different ways that we can learn to be more mindful and connected with 'the world we have.' The first of these are some gathas, reminding us during every day activities, such as eating meals, washing our hands or walking outside, that "the Earth provides us with precious gifts every day." There are several gathas in the book, but I will quote just one (p. 108) -- this one is to be brought to mind when washing one's hands:
Water flows over these hands
May I use them skillfully
To preserve our precious planet
Thay also describes a breathing exercise to do when reciting the Five Mindfulness Practices, as well as outlining a deep relaxation method, and some meditations called the Five Earth Touchings. He concludes this section with a checklist of changes in behavior the reader can complete and commit to, and carry along in one's purse or wallet, to be reminded of the commitments made. The reader is also invited to mail the list to the Deer Park Monastery, and the practitioners there will then send email reminders to the reader to encourage follow through with the commitments.

In conclusion, I can only say that this book seemed to simplify a lot of things for me, and provide some relief from the self-imposed burden of feeling that I had to do everything but yet couldn't do enough. I'm a little bit better now at stopping to appreciate the beauty of the moment, just doing one thing at a time, and taking care to do that one thing deeply and well.


Heather @ SGF said...

Great review. Thanks! I've read a couple of Thich Nhat Hanh's books and this one sounds right up my alley! I'll see if I can't find it at the library. :)

Theresa said...

It's a good one, that's for sure! There's tons of stuff I left out, and I can't convey the sort of inspiring way it's written, so I do encourage people to check the book out for themselves!

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

This was a wonderful review Theresa. I really like the sound of this book. I too am going to see if my library has it - if not, it will be my next book purchase. I think something like this would be a good thing for me to read. It would give me a different perspective and a different take on things. I always appreciate that.

Thanks for the excellent review!

Simply Authentic said...

Looks like a fabulous book! Thanks for the reminders. I'll have to try to check it out once I get through the stack I'm working on now. Hope you've been well!

Theresa said...

Thanks Jennifer and SA - Thay has such a simple yet powerful way of writing - I think you will both enjoy the book very much. :)

Kelli said...

Thank you for this book review! It sounds like a very good book for balancing just the issues you are talking about - the anxiety of realizing how desperate the situation is, the need to do more, the problem of no being able to do enough on your own. Best wishes to you in finding your own balance.

Theresa said...

Thanks for coming by and commenting Kelli - I wish the same peace and balance to you and yours :)

tommy said...

i love it. got the book!!!!

Theresa said...

I'm sure you will enjoy it Tommy - thanks for stopping by!