Advent, the Mystics, and Mother Earth

A Dharma Talk by Brother Phap De
December 11, 2011

Today is, in the Christian Churches of the West, the third Sunday of advent, the season in which our Western ancestors made a pretty big deal about getting ready for Christmas, getting ready for the Prince of Peace, looking for the arrival of the Messiah. This looking had already been going on for 700 years before the birth of Jesus, starting back at the time of the Buddha in the time of the prophet Isaiah. In the Christian Churches, they have four candles in the advent wreath, one for each week of advent. One Candle was for waiting. One Candle was for hope. One candle was for joy. That was to be for today. I light this candle for joy.

Fifty years ago I had a friend who was a United Church minister and we used to work together on ecumenical activities. At this time of the year he would put a sign up on the office door that would say, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” That doesn’t quite fit with our practice here – vô sự, to be without projects. Be business-less. Whatever advent was for our ancestors in the old days, it was very important. For most of us it has lost its meaning. It is not something that we’ve been able to engage in with much nourishment or satisfaction. But we haven’t been in mourning. Those of us who have been brought to the practice of mindfulness have found that we’ve been given something that works to help us to cut through our sufferings of anger or jealousy or greed, and to be able to experience joy in life. When I told Thầy that most of the people I know in this practice are so happy with their experience of the Plum Village experience of mindfulness, they don’t really miss or have a sense of loss. Do some of you agree with that? Thầy doesn’t agree with that. He said, in his own way, “It’s in your blood.”

We can touch that, even in this season when we hear some of the wonderful old hymns or chants or songs of the advent and Christmas season. In fact, even if we aren’t in to it, just singing with others and having a good time with Christmas carols touches our hearts. It’s nourishing. So Thầy has persuaded me to take a deeper look, amidst my current satisfaction, to get more in touch with my spiritual ancestors, with my spiritual roots.

And as I followed Thầy’s inspiration to begin to look and get back in touch with my ancestors, I discovered something I didn’t really know – that I have, in my life, been heavily caught in discriminatory thinking, or dualistic thinking. Good, logical, Western thinking where there’s right and wrong, left and right, up and down, and in and out. It’s very distinct. Earth is here and heaven is out there. I’m here and God is up there. Matter and spirit are separate and the body will get left here when our eternal soul goes away up there to heaven. That’s dualistic thinking. After all my involvement in the church and theology, this thinking left me saying, “This isn’t it.”

I realize that my ancestors, too, were caught in dualistic thinking. Some of them were able to break-through but for the most part, they were also trapped in dualistic thinking. So they ended up staying in that thinking and living in hope like the old Israelites, like their ancestors and like many do today. When advent came around, they thought, “It’s the Christmas season. The Savior is coming. He’s not here yet but He’s coming.” In fact, many of us in our emotional lives do this too by living in a state of, “This isn’t it yet. I’m hoping for something better.”

Thầy speaks of this in Peace is Every Step. “Hope as an obstacle. Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us, to make some hardship lighter.” Thầy goes on to say, “When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe that something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or at the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.”

My ancestors lived in a lot of hope. They used prayer, ritual, willpower, and good intentions. For them, prayer and ritual was a way to petition to the God who was away to take away their problems and to bring some relief to their suffering. Now, with mindfulness practice, I have a method, not just a prayer that works in transforming habit energies that might cause suffering, either for myself or for others. Before this practice, the dualistic thinking that I was caught in made a separation between our historical moment (our conventional existence) and the Ultimate Dimension. But with the mindfulness practice and with Thầy’s teaching, I have a big advantage. Early on in my experience of Thầy, I was reading his then new book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, I was able to tell him, “Thầy, you understand Jesus better than all my great theology teachers. He said, “That’s because I have Jesus in my heart.” It was very simple. He has continued to show to me as a Living Christ, a Living Buddha. That’s helped to make it easier.

It helped me to see that that Holy Spirit who showed up in the gospel, going to Mary and making her the mother of Jesus, that same Holy Spirit is in us. And just as that Holy Spirit was busy in Mary, making her the mother of Jesus, so too is she busy in us, helping us to become new Buddha’s, new Christs. And I’ve come to see, with Thầy’s help, that that Holy Spirit is the energy that is nourishing our Mother Earth.

This morning during walking meditation, you were outdoors strolling, walking, touching Mother Earth. I used to think in my old ways that the earth was just a planet, an inert mass of matter without any spirit or intelligence. I used to think of the earth as our temporary address until we died and moved on to our eternal home of the Kingdom of God in Heaven. Now I see that just as the cells in our bodies have their own intelligence and are busy helping to keep us alive and well, so Mother Earth is not just made of matter but made up of cells and intelligence. As you walked this morning, you did not look at the grass and the trees as just inanimate objects. I hope that you were able to see that those trees, particularly the big, elegant oaks, are not inanimate objects but in fact, each oak is our brother, our sister. They know how to nourish themselves to grow tall and strong and to purify our air. With this practice and the wisdom of the Buddha, I’ve been able, finally, to go back and to look at the sayings of Isaiah, from 2700 years ago, and understand what he hoped for when we he said, “For the earth brings forth it shoots and as the garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness.” Righteousness – that’s Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action. Isaiah goes on to say, “We will be oaks of righteousness.” Like the oaks and the coyotes and the rabbits, we here are the children of Mother Earth and also of Jesus and Buddha. We’re learning now that this is the Kingdom of God, present right here, in and on Mother Earth. We do not have to wait for it in the future. We do not have to live in hope. This is it.

So we come back home to ourselves and practice. We’re particularly lucky to be able to do this on this land here at Deer Park. We come in doing it to know joy, without waiting. We come back home to Mother Earth and we let each gentle step be a kiss of peace and gratitude. And we have quite a number of you in the community that have been coming forward here and helping the monastics, working as a four-fold Sangha, taking care of Mother Earth here. As you walk around you see all the wonderful signs of life. Each breath that we inhale comes from Mother Earth having purified it.

So we are also gratefully aware that it is Mother Earth who purifies our water, aware that each drink of water comes now from our own well down in Oak Grove. The water comes through the soil of Mother Earth and reaches our well, filtered and purified by our Mother. These have been wonderful days. Cool as the evenings have been, the days have been warm to soak up the rays of the Sun, our Father. If we can think non-dualistically, we can begin to see that the Sun is our Father too. We are the children of a Mother Earth and a Father Sun. This is the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that helps us realize that the Kingdom of God is here and now.

This is the wisdom that helps heal what was a problem for our Jewish predecessors in the time of Isaiah on down through the time of John the Baptist and on into Europe and the the Western culture of Italy, and France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and so on. Life was viewed in such a way that there was a lot of fear, a lot of guilt, and a lot of misunderstanding of our source, a loving God. Through that time there was a loss of connection not only to the internal abiding presence and energy of the Holy Spirit but also to all of creation. In the fourteenth century one of our Ancestors, a good German monk by the name of Meister Eckhart, he had it. He was able to think non-discriminatively. This got him in trouble with the Bishops because of the way he was thinking. He said things like this, “Is this not a holy Trinity, the firmament, the earth, our bodies? And is it not an act of worship to hold a child and till the soil and lift a cup?” And of communion, “First, seek that from your lover’s soul before anything offered from a priest.” You know, we existed as Thầy has taught us that we are not just present here is what we call us. We’ve been around a long time in different forms and shapes for millions of years. And Meister Eckhart had that understanding. Thầy has reminded me that there is a lot of richness in my tradition and look to the mystics. To end, here’s a poem that shows this awareness.

When I was the stream, when I was the
forest, when I was still the field,
when I was every hoof, foot,
fin and wing, when I
was the sky

no one ever asked me did I have a purpose, no one ever
wondered was there anything I might need,
for there was nothing
I could not

It was when I left all we once were that
the agony began, the fear and questions came,
and I wept, I wept. And tears
I had never known

So I returned to the river, I returned to
the mountains. I asked for their hand in marriage again,
I begged—I begged to wed every object
and creature,

and when they accepted,
God was ever present in my arms.
And He did not say,
“Where have you

For then I knew my soul—every soul—
has always held

 “When I Was the Forest” by Meister Eckhart
in Daniel Ladinsky, Love Poems From God

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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