“Every one of us can do something to protect and care forour planet. We have to live in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and our grandchildren. Our own life has to be our message.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have
"Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
The publication of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ wonderful encyclical, touched me deeply.
I'm a Buddhist monk, born in the United States as a Christian. I was baptized at age 28 after being inspired by the teachings of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh to reconnect with my Christian roots. As the years went by, however, I felt powerfully drawn to Buddhist teachings and to the incredible gift they represented to me. Five years later, Thich Nhat Hanh initiated me at my monastic ordination ceremony by touching my head with water, surrounded by our community invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara—the bodhisattva, or awakened being, of great compassion. I have lived my life since then as a Buddhist monk, spending many years at our community in France.
There's a stream that runs through the forest into which our monastery is nestled; it comes down from a ridge that stands just above the monastery. We often walk along its banks on our daily round of silent walking meditation. It's a beautiful, quiet space. The earth is soft under bare feet. The sound of the stream blends with the melody of birdsong. Maples, hemlocks, and oaks form the roof and pillars of this forest temple. Sometimes I scoop up the water and wash my face and head, allowing the water to cleanse me, washing away cares and burdens. As I renew and restore my initiation, I recall a verse from one of my community’s foundational texts, Beginning Anew:
"At the foot of the mountain there is a stream. Take the water and wash yourself, and you will be cured."
This is the water of justice and righteousness—of right mindfulness, and of the spirit of holiness, and healthy living. This is the healing water that I want to offer to myself, to us, to all brothers and sisters all over the planet in the face of the growing violence we enact on ourselves and our environment every day. This is what Pope Francis was seeking to do when he wrote Laudato Si’.
Pope Francis recognizes, as we all do, that we face grave, interconnected challenges. Nearly half the world's population of seven billion people lives without sufficient food, water, housing, health, or education. Unchecked industrial manufacturing, transport, and agriculture are rapidly depleting our world’s resources, causing widespread pollution, deforestation, and global climate change. We see climate change already generating destructive super-storms and deadly heat waves. In coming decades, climate change will displace hundreds of millions of people, putting nations underwater, destroying ecosystems, and making barren large portions of arable land. Climate change, coupled with destructive agricultural and industrial processes, is precipitating the sixth great mass extinction in the history of life on earth. A significant percentage of all species on earth are likely to go extinct.
We are in deep need of a path of healing. The good news is that a path of healing is available. Laudato Si’ describes this path from a Catholic perspective. Allow me to share several Buddhist teachings which may also be useful.
A core teaching of Buddhism is that finding the path of love based on truth and understanding can transform suffering into well-being and lasting happiness. According to this teaching, there is a right way of living, an ethical way of living, a path that can bring greater peace and happiness to people around the world. Indeed, a path of love and justice is available to us, to our world community. Together, we must seek this path.
Another Buddhist teaching is that the steps toward healing our broken society are available to all of us. Through a regular practice of mindfulness, we can awaken to the miracles of life right now in the present moment. Our tradition teaches us that we need time to give thanks, to touch wonder, beauty, and awe. Instead of turning on the television, or consuming something to cover up an unpleasant feeling, we can take a walk, take time to sit quietly, to pray, to be loved, and to love. We can spend time in our local wilderness or our local park. We can take time to visit a neighbor, care for what is around us. We can take time to do our next task mindfully with care, attention and reverence. As our hearts begin to open we may also find that we need time to cry in order to embrace and release the deep suffering we have been carrying. Many possibilities may begin to open up for us. This is the path of awakening.
A third Buddhist teaching is also relevant here—the Buddha’s realization of dependent co-arising, that all things in the universe are interconnected, that we live in a state of interbeing. Understanding this interconnectedness, understanding that all our actions have consequences, is critically important in helping us become motivated to reduce our environmental impact. Cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion, we will be able to act out of love, not fear, to protect our planet.
Everyday life can easily lead us to forget that our lives are inextricably interwoven with the natural world through every breath we take, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Through our lack of insight, we are destroying the very life-support systems that we and all other living beings depend on for survival.
Once we begin to take steps on the path of healing for ourselves, and consider our actions, then we will have the strength and capacity to connect to others, to build communities, and work together to protect each other and life on earth. We can shift the focus of our businesses from profit to innovation—to solving extraordinary problems, while creating lasting prosperity and sustaining the environment. We can examine our own consumption and purchases—what does it cost to produce the things we buy? We can begin to share resources, to work less, and to simplify our lives. We can begin to transform our educational system so that cooperation, community, and emotional intelligence are valued, so that we can offer opportunities to the underprivileged, so that we can teach respect and empower young women and young men to be happy and loving parents. We can connect to and learn from others: what are we doing that enriches life and makes it more beautiful?
“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. ‘Purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act.’ Today, in a word, 'the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.’ ”
—Pope Francis, Laudato Si', 206
There's no way to know for certain what will happen to our civilization. But one thing is certain: there are only benefits to be realized through a commitment to a path of love and justice. The love and happiness we generate will never be lost. This is the path of opening our hearts and making time to connect to each other and life all around us. The teaching on love is clear: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Today, as an interconnected community of 7 billion—everyone is our neighbor. And God is among us in the smallest of things—a singing bird, a leaf, a blade of grass, a stone on the path. This is it—the moment for us to join together—the most precious moment of our lives.
As our Buddhist text teaches, at the foot of the mountain, is a stream. Let us take the pure water of compassion and mercy, wash ourselves, and be healed. As the Bible says, Let justice flow down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. May we all join together to protect the earth—our common home.
This essay appears in Creation at the Crossroads, a faith-sharing resource on Laudato Si'.