Some Very Helpful Things from Thay

Tane Mahuta, Māori God of the Forest

I am most of the way through “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet” by Thich Nhat Hanh, recently authored by him and published, and packed with practical applicable insight. The book’s title is maybe deliberately a little playful in its faux-grandiosity; Thay’s path to saving the world is more about changing our little contribution to the fate of the world, and changing our own minds and hearts in order to do that. A lot of the insights apply to just being happy, free of suffering, really there for the people around you and firstly yourself; and “saving the planet” actually feels more like the upshot of what he spends most of his time talking about.

But, in saying that, there is so much in this book which is amazingly helpful to live fully and fulfillingly in these times, in a way that requires so much less to be happy and contribute more. Here are some key takeaways that I got out of it:

  • Electrons are intelligent: Thay talks about how some modern physicists are now working on the idea that electrons possess a rudimentary intelligence on the same scale as that of our own, animals, and plants, and quantum mechanics is electrons making simple choices. So it makes sense to give love to, well, everything. Also, it kind of takes the burden off human intelligence. And makes fly swatting seem like kind of a weird thing to do.
  • We inter-are: Thay and his co-authors constantly use the term inter-being which is such a helpful new word to describe the notion that no one just “is” in an independent sense. I am made up of “non-me” elements, and constantly influenced by them.
  • Nothing is 100%: he talks about how no happiness can be 100% free of suffering, nor can any suffering be 100% free of happiness. I find this so helpful as I have a real inclination to make things simple in a mathematical way, but when you realise that it never is, and always expect something’s opposite inside it, that makes things easier.
  • Action and Insight go together: I tend towards insight because it’s tidy, absolute, and kind of final. But actually, life just goes on and on and on, and it’s always messy, and there’s always suffering that we have to help ourselves and others with. Thay developed “Engaged Buddhism” because he valued the insights of Buddhism but in the middle of the Vietnam war he saw that something practical was needed. And his insight is so much more powerful because it’s been forged in the heat of real world pressure; he shares a story of getting really panicked with hundreds of lives on the line and needing to practice calming down, applying the mindfulness practice, which opens up new creative possibilities to find a way out of a predicament. It’s amazing to see that modelled, and it’s a great challenge; I’ve started to try and apply mindfulness in moments when I’m angry, just take those 10 breaths to slow down, and it’s really hard but very rewarding.
  • Healing, healing, healing: Thay talks about how he is a fierce advocate for slowing down, stopping, taking the time to breath, taking the time to heal. I feel like this is one of the most critical missing ingredients in our society today, as a lot of people are going faster and faster, which leads to more consumption as we get tireder and search for something to fill the void. He and his people at Plum Village have a simple definition of love: being there. This includes being there for ourselves; when we are suffering, be there for our suffering, be with it, embrace it, love it, and in this way it transforms. And it works, trust me.
  • Don’t run away: closely related to this is not running away from our suffering. We’ve got so many good distractions to pave over or sweep our suffering under the rug in modern society. But again, if we can slow down, be there for ourselves, give that compassionate love and care to the parts of ourselves that are suffering, it’s transformative. This has been such a provocation for me; I noticed the ways, gross and subtle, in which I’m still running away, and it’s helping me start to turn towards rather than away from the suffering inside me, to transform it.
  • Earth is a Boddhisattva: He describes how the Earth literally is a Boddhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to helping us. How connecting with the earth and with nature is a helpful way to heal. How we are the Earth, we inter-are with the Earth, and when we really feel this, we won’t have problems like destruction of the environment.
  • The Earth needs saving thousands of times: this one is pretty epic; he describes how all life on Earth is impermanent, but, as per the Diamond Sutra, if we aren’t caught up in the idea of a self, or a lifespan, then we realise that everything we do matters, and we can’t make this conditional just on the well being of our family, or our kids; we have to do whatever we can, to alleviate suffering and help where we can for whoever we can (human or otherwise), whenever we can. And it’s not helpful to attach this to conditionals like “if my favourite humans survive and are happy”. Loving intelligence goes right down to electrons. It permeates the universe. Don’t worry about our survival. Just do what we can, and trust the process. This is the most liberating thought for me, at a time like this when climate change, biodiversity loss, and many other challenges created by us seem to hang the delicate conditioned existence of many species including ourselves in the balance.
  • The moment is eternal: when you really slow down, and focus, and experience all the moments of a day mindfully, a day can be almost unbearably vast. Enjoy the eternity of moments now. If you get lost, don’t worry, there’s always another now to come back to.
  • Working with the absolute and relative: Buddhism talks about the two truths: the absolute truth is that there is nothing that has independent existence, so we literally all are one, we all “inter-are”. But he jokingly points out how you can’t travel to another country without a passport on this basis; the relative truth is that we are people who are citizens of countries, etc. I am finding that so much of the art of living that one can benefit from Buddhist practice is in finding the way to see things and do things through absolute and relative lenses at the same time. For example dealing with grief: in a relative sense I still grieve the loss of my brother, in an absolute sense I know that my brother still is, he still is in me, elements that were him are all around me, I can talk to him in me. Those two things can be true at the same time. Having that kind of existential flexibility, to understand that there aren’t really any boundaries, but to constantly live and work within the relative boundaries, is where happiness and helpfulness live.

There is so much more, maybe I’ll add more later. I hope you enjoyed these takeaways, please drop your musings and reactions below!

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Hamish Lindop

Hamish Lindop

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