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Letter from Thich Nhat Hanh

Before the retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in October, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) wrote a letter to the sangha. He describes an interview with a reporter from Time Magazine, in which he talked about the situation in Burma, the Iraq war, and the environment. Here is an excerpt about global warming. For the full letter, go to www.orderofinterbeing.org/docs/TNH_Letter_October_2007.pdf or the Plum Village website. mb47-Letter1

About global warming, Thay recounted to Time Magazine the story about the couple who ate their son’s flesh — the story told by the Buddha in the Son’s Flesh Sutra. This couple, with their little child, on their way seeking asylum had to cross the desert. Due to a lack of geographical knowledge, they ran out of food when they were only half-way through the desert. They realized that all three of them would die in the desert, and they had no hope to get to the country on the other end of the desert to seek asylum. Finally, they made the decision to kill their little son. Each day they ate a small morsel of his flesh, in order to have enough energy to move on, and they carried the rest of their son’s flesh on their shoulders, so that it could continue to dry in the sun. Each time when they finished eating a morsel of their son’s flesh, the couple looked at each other and asked: “Where is our beloved child now?”

Having told this tragic story, the Buddha looked at the monks and asked: “Do you think that this couple was happy to eat their son’s flesh?” “No, World Honored One. The couple suffered when they had to eat their son’s flesh,” the monks answered. The Buddha taught: “Dear friends, we have to practice eating in such a way that we can retain compassion in our hearts. We have to eat in mindfulness. If not, we may be eating the flesh of our own children.”

UNESCO reports that each day approximately 40,000 children die because of hunger or lack of nutrition. Meanwhile, corn and wheat are largely grown to feed livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, etc.) or to produce alcohol. Over 80 percent of corn and over 95 percent of oats produced in the United States are for feeding livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Eating meat and drinking alcohol with mindfulness, we will realize that we are eating the flesh of our own children.

Report from the United Nations

In 2005, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began an in-depth assessment of the various significant impacts of the world’s livestock sector on the environment. Its report, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, was released on November 29, 2006. In the executive summary, Henning Steinfeld, chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch, asserts that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.”

Land Degradation

Presently, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. Forests are cleared to create new pastures, and it is a major driver of deforestation. For example, in Latin America some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. From these figures, we can see that the livestock business has destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of forest all over the world to grow crops and to create pasture land for farm animals. Moreover, when the forests are destroyed, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide stored in trees are released into the atmosphere.

Climate Change

The livestock sector has major impacts on the atmosphere and climate. It is responsible for “18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, which is a higher share than transport.” This means that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. It also emits 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, most of that from enteric fermentation by ruminants. This is an enormous amount, because every pound of methane is twenty-three times as effective as carbon dioxide is at trapping heat in our atmosphere. The meat, egg, and dairy industries are also responsible for the emission of 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, most of that from manure. Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide (296 times the GWP of carbon dioxide). It is also responsible for about two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute largely to acid rain and acidification of the ecosystem.

Water Scarcity and Water Pollution

More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food. It requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. Meanwhile, it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of grain. Livestock in the United States produce an enormous amount of animal excrement, 130 times more than human excrement; each second the animals release 97,000 pounds of feces. “Most of the water used for livestock drinking and servicing returns to the environment in the form of manure and wastewater. Livestock excreta contain a considerable amount of nutrients [nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium], drug residues, heavy metals and pathogens.” These waste products enter streams and rivers, polluting water sources and causing disease outbreaks that affect all species.

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The Solution Is Simple

Just as the Buddha cautioned us, we are eating the flesh of our children and grandchildren. We are eating the flesh of our mothers and our fathers. We are eating our own planet earth. The Son’s Flesh Sutra needs to be available for the whole human race to learn and practice. The U.N.’s recommendation is clear: “The environment impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.” We need to reduce at least 50 percent of the meat industry products, and to do that we must consume 50 percent less meat. The U.N. also reports that even if cattle-rearing is reduced by 50 percent, we still need to use new technology to help the rest of cattle-rearing create less pollution, such as choosing animal diets that can reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, etc. Urgent action must be taken at the individual and collective levels. As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert global warming with the practice of mindful eating.

Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to fight global warming.

With love and trust, Thay

Sources Steinfeld, et al., “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” (available at www.fao.org/docrep/010/ a0701e/a0701e00.htm)

“Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars, UN Report Warns,” UN News Centre, 29 Nov. 2006.

“Fight Global Warming by Going Vegetarian,” article from www.goveg.com.

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Keeping the Flame Alive

By Brandon Rennels mb65-Keeping1

Last winter in Plum Village, a friend told me my first name can be translated as “Fire-starter.” At the time I had just begun my role as a coordinator for the international Wake Up movement. I was working alongside Buddhist monks and nuns to support young adults in practicing mindfulness and creating communities where they live. Wake Up had been growing steadily over the past few years, and many conditions had come together to allow me the opportunity to dedicate my efforts to the cause. I had been searching for a way to apply my business consulting background to support mindfulness practice, and this was it. It was a dream job—my answer to: “What would you pay to do?” I saw many opportunities to contribute, to support people, to get things rolling.

But fire, when uncontrolled, can be extremely destructive. Coming from a corporate background, I was used to pushing the limits of my mental and physical capacity in order to “get things done.” Once I transitioned to working with the mindfulness community, I naively thought these habits would drop away. I soon learned that working on mindfulness projects does not necessarily mean one is working mindfully. In addition to my old work habits, I encountered a new stress, a second arrow of frustration, when I felt overburdened. Most people in the corporate world will admit they’re stressed out by work, but in the mindfulness realm I thought I should be calm 24/7. So when things went awry, as they often do, I felt bad about feeling bad.

Even though I had found work that I truly cared about, my path had really just begun. To balance doing vs. being, engagement vs. rest, making a difference vs. taking care of myself, and to protect and nurture my internal flame—this was my true “job.” To protect this flame I have often relied on the other elements of air, water, and earth. All the elements are necessary for our survival, yet all have the potential to destroy. What’s necessary is a cultivation of them in balance. Fortunately, I’ve had some help from friends along the way.

Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to visit many different Wake Up Sanghas in the Netherlands. We started most meditation sessions with a weather report about how we were feeling in the moment, aided by the metaphor of the elements.

During my time in the Lowlands, I was able to touch, taste, and play with these elements in different ways, ultimately finding ways to sustain my internal flame.

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Air: I Am a Cloud

I had heard that the Netherlands is famous for its clouds. From my observations, I can see why. Big puffy clouds resemble something familiar, but when you turn away for an instant, the scene morphs, and the imagination has a fresh canvas to play with. Through the wind, air acts as an invisible force, shaping and transforming the outer landscape.

Air affects the inner landscape as well, in the form of the breath. Each Wake Up event starts with sitting meditation, following our breathing: full in-breath, full out-breath. I enjoy beginning this way. It really allows a person to arrive. (I went to visit a Wake Up Sangha in Belgium for a “Wake Up and Play” event, a gathering specifically designed to have no formal meditation, but after an hour everyone decided that we should sit! Sometimes you need to arrive before you can have fun.)

Air also carries sounds. Sound, like the wind, is an invisible force that can heal, seduce, enchant. During my fi weekend in the Netherlands, one of my hosts had a birthday party. At one moment we all lay down on the floor with our heads together, listening to the sounds, to our breathing, to one another. I was acting DJ for the evening and thought to put on a French electronic artist who just happens to be named “Air.” Shortly after the opening beat, one of the guys said, “Oh, nice! This is the perfect moment for Air.” I smiled to think that two people who grew up on different continents with different cultures and different life experiences could so easily be united by music.

As everyone was leaving, I realized that this constellation of people might never again be in the same room together. Impermanence. Just as the cloud changes shape, so does the fabric of each moment of our lives. I was grateful for the moments we shared.

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Water: Flowing Like a River

It’s easy to flow like a river when you like the direction in which you’re headed. During a lazy day in Amsterdam, I had the luxury of sitting (well, lying down, really) on the back of a paddleboat. It was a magnificent, sunny summer afternoon, and I had just peeled an orange and was savoring each slice while my toes skimmed the surface of the water. At one moment we started turning sideways, and after a few seconds I began to wonder, “Where are we going?” The two people paddling seemed to have been distracted. It didn’t matter. So what if we were off track? I was confident we would find our way.

While it’s one thing to keep this trust when you’re being chauffeured on a calm canal, it can be more difficult to maintain trust when the waters are high. At one point in my stay, there was a weeklong stretch that was quite packed. We had events almost every day in different cities, my work responsibilities had picked up, and on top of it all I wasn’t sleeping very well. Our final event for the week was about awareness of food waste, and although I was interested in the topic, I debated whether it would be better for me to just rest. We arrived the night before on a cold, rainy evening, and by the time we got to our host’s house it was well past my bedtime. Knowing how much work had been put into this event, I decided to flow with the river and join.

When we arrived at the event the next morning, judging by the number of teacups and tired faces, it seemed everyone had had a long week. A few people shared that they were tired, and we all listened, together taking refuge in the Sangha. Our next activity was a silent walk, but as people were slowly gathering their belongings, a new idea emerged. The organizers, sensing the energy level, switched the program to an interactive game. I was unsure if this would be a welcome change, but after a few minutes of laughing and stumbling into one another, the group’s mood had clearly lifted. Sometimes a simple adjustment can have a delightful downstream effect.

The events of that week provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how to balance “doing together” and “being together.” In the face of much to do, again I saw that the habit energy of rushing had, at times, gotten the best of me. That’s okay. It happens. But I knew I needed to observe this tendency deeply if I wanted to sustain the flame in the long run. The term “burnout” is often used to describe a metaphorical extinguishment of our internal flame. A surplus of air (impermanence) or water (flowing as a river) can create unstable conditions for fire, so to protect myself I can call on the solid foundational element, earth.

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Earth: Rooted as a Tree

Have you ever hugged a tree? It took me a while before I physically embraced my fi tree. The term “tree-hugger” conjured up a negative image in my mind, and this judgment persisted until I visited a national park in California. I saw someone wrapped snugly around a giant sequoia, and she looked happy enough. I tried it myself. Whoa! It actually feels great. Trees, like mountains, are metaphors of stability in mindfulness practice. In a storm the branches sway but the trunk is solid, stable, unmoved. While the Dutch claim that they don’t have much “nature” (as most areas have been developed), I found plenty of trees to take refuge in.

One stop on my trip was a Sangha meeting in Rotterdam. Upon entering the home where we would be practicing, I was immediately invited to share a meal with the hosts. This particular Sangha felt mature and stable, and as I was feeling a bit ungrounded that day, I was thankful to take refuge in them. As we all settled into sitting meditation together, I began breathing in their solidity, and soon the image of a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. It had brilliant brown bark with a wide trunk and roots that dug down deep. In the center of the trunk there was a door, and I found myself wondering what was inside. After a few more breaths the door slowly opened, and inside were my mother, my father, and me as a five-year-old child, all inviting me in. They welcomed me with open arms, gave me some space, and breathed with me. With each breath I felt recharged, encouraged, and free.

If there was ever an “island within,” I had found it. In this space I felt safe, and with each breath I was able to ground myself in the solidity of my ancestors and of Mother Earth. By the end of the evening I had rekindled the inner flame and given it space to burn brighter, like a torch guiding my way and igniting my deep aspiration to change myself, and by extension, the world.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

At the end of my time in the Netherlands, I had the honor of co-facilitating the Sangha meeting in Nijmegen. As I led the mindful movements and deep relaxation, I felt so comfortable, as if I was among old friends. Many of the people in the room I had gotten to know through numerous encounters within and outside of the Sangha meetings.

The Dharma sharing that evening was filled with a lot of emotion. There was the joy of a new baby, sadness of a pending death in the family, difficult jobs, new relationships… this was the real deal! We shared and listened, breathing together with what Jon Kabat-Zinn would call the “full catastrophe” of this shared human experience.

At the end of the evening we all gathered in a circle for a group hug. Looking around, I felt the entire community supporting me and knew I could handle whatever challenges lay ahead. The flame was burning brightly and it felt good. We sang one last song together, and it was a fitting way to end my journey:

Been traveling a day Been traveling a year Been traveling a lifetime, to find my way home Home is where the heart is Home is where the heart is Home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.

mb65-Keeping5Brandon Rennels, True Garden of Faith, has been serving, living, and lounging within the Plum Village community for the last couple years. As a coordinator for Wake Up, he has had the privilege of interfacing daily with passionate young practitioners around the world. He has also logged enough time at the monastery to significantly improve his table tennis game. In a previous life he was a management consultant based out of Dubai.

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A Love Letter to the 1%

By Brother Phap Ho  mb63-LoveLetter1

Dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%,

I have heard much about you, dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%, but I am not sure if we have ever met. My name is Brother Protection and I am a six-foot-two-inch Buddhist monk with a shaved head, brown robes, and glasses. I just turned forty this year, and it’s been eleven years since I lived and worked as a lawyer in Stockholm, Sweden. If you see me around, please stop and say hello. I would love to meet you in person.

Last year I was interviewed by Occupy Boston’s newspaper, together with some other monks and nuns. I remember saying that as we practice walking and sitting meditation, we make happiness and peace possible in the present moment. We also wish for everyone, the 100%, to be happy and peaceful. I looked up toward the tall high-rise buildings and prayed that everyone up there would be free of worry, stress, and frustration.

I know that you must have studied and worked very hard to become part of the 1%. I can also imagine that you have a lot of responsibilities toward many people. Money and power offer not only liberty, but a lot of responsibility. I hope this is not burdening you too much.

As a Buddhist monk, I do not have a lot of money or power, but I do feel much responsibility toward the Earth and the people, animals, and plants on this planet. We all understand that there is just this one planet that is inhabitable in our solar system. When I look up at the full moon, I also look with the eyes of my ancestors and future generations of people of this Earth. I hope they will be able to enjoy the peaceful radiance of the full moon soaring through the dark sky. I hope that everyone on all continents will have enough food to eat and access to clean water. I hope that all people will be able to feel safe in their family, society, and country, and will not have to go through the devastation and suffering of war. I wish for all of us to reflect on what can we do to make this a reality and then to act on our insights and the insights of scientists, on which we rely. We need your help!

Our Earth 

Our natural environment is undergoing great stress due to the way we humans are using the resources of this Earth. Our air, water, and the Earth itself are becoming polluted. As carbon dioxide levels increase, the planet is warming up, causing desertification, extinction of many species, and stronger and more frequent natural disasters, all leading to hardship for so many. Were we to use all the identified fossil fuel resources, including the tar sands, the climate of this planet would change so dramatically that we would no longer recognize it as our Earth. We know that everything changes and nothing lasts forever, but wouldn’t it be nice to take care of the natural environment so that many more generations of people will be able to enjoy the wonders of glaciers, vast forests, an abundance of animal species, and reliable seasons which make agriculture possible? Together we can reduce our emissions and support initiatives and research into renewable, sustainable energy sources. The Earth needs our caring support. We receive everything we have from our planet. Let’s see what we can do for the Earth.

Our Children 

Thousands of children die every day from malnutrition and lack of clean water. I try to imagine a young mother with children who are crying from hunger and getting sick from dirty water. Here in Southern California, where I currently live, people play golf in areas that get only ten inches of rain a year! The golf courses are kept green with water from the Colorado River, which no longer reaches the ocean. On this planet we grow more than enough food for everyone to have plenty to eat, but we throw much of it away. Many crops and water resources are also used for animal food production. Even in this rich country, one-sixth of the population has issues with hunger at the same time that obesity rates are soaring. There is something strange, something scary, about this situation. It seems that with our advancing technology, we have lost some of our common sense. I am sure that together we can find ways to share the resources of this planet so that everyone has enough conditions to feel safe and at ease.

We Are All Human Beings 

In the past, the 1% has not always clearly understood the situation of the 99%, but today information and technology make such understanding possible. When we understand clearly the situation of people in difficult circumstances, we can no longer blame them or say that they are the cause of their own misery. In this country, we might feel that the poor and uneducated just have to make more effort to overcome their difficulties, and some miraculously do. But we also have to be aware of many challenging conditions, such as how unevenly educational resources are distributed, and how much energy teachers in under-served neighborhoods expend in dealing with the social problems of the children in their care. What would we have done if we had grown up in a neighborhood with drugs, gangs, and violence, with a father in jail and a drug- addicted mother? What are the sufferings of a mother addicted to crack? Did she receive love, respect, and education when she was a little girl?

Many studies show that every person has the capacity to transform her life and to learn the skills needed to become capable of taking care of herself and her family. But due to difficulties and lack of opportunities for many generations, people need our help to get back on their feet. They need our acceptance and love to be able to feel good about themselves again. Discrimination causes so much suffering around the world, but when we stop to listen and look deeply, we recognize that we are all human beings, wishing to be able to love and care for our families, wishing to live in peace and freedom. The great diversity of colors, languages, cultures, and views becomes a wonderful asset for a more prosperous human existence on this planet.

I thank you, dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%, for listening to my thoughts and feelings. I know that you have the means and influence to do great things for our planet and all people. But don’t worry or feel burdened. You are not alone. Many of us are very eager to help you. We are all part of the 100%, and remembering and caring for all of us is a great joy. If we support all people in developing their talents and positive qualities, we will make our planet an even more amazing place to live.

It is not easy to be part of the 1%, and therefore I truly wish you happiness and ease. I hope you are able to enjoy the tremendous gift of being alive as a human being on this precious planet.

In joy and gratitude, Brother Protection

mb63-LoveLetter2Brother Phap Ho (Brother Protection) is very grateful to have found his path of practice and service. This article is, in many ways, a fruit of two Wake-Up tours in 2012. “It’s time to wake up,to be the change in the world you want to see” (from the Wake-Up song).

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