Earth Day / I Have a Dream

Brother Chân Trời Đức Niệm outlines his dream for “spaceship” Earth in the face of the potentially overwhelming realities of the climate crisis.

This article is dedicated to and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his spiritual brother and friend, our beloved teacher Thay.

The challenge we face

Sister Tue Nghiem (left), Brother Troi Duc Niem

Last summer, while in quarantine in Turtle Lodge after a home visit, there was a night when I could not sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night, gripped by fear and worry. I practiced deep belly breathing and tried to embrace my fear tenderly. In the previous days I had been reading some articles about the climate crisis.

The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC), which had just come out, says unequivocally that we need to keep the average global temperature increase below 1.5 °C to avoid catastrophic climate consequences. At our current rate of emissions, in only six or seven years we will have used up the global carbon budget. Scientists have calculated this: If we emit more emissions and use up this carbon budget, the chances of reaching certain tipping points and thus accelerating further climate heating beyond human control are very high. Once we reach a tipping point we cannot go back and ‘fix’ it. So we should stay within the 1.5 °C target.

We can understand the current situation better with this metaphor: Spaceship Earth is like a big container ship that is heading full speed towards a hidden iceberg. However, the surface of the vast ocean is rather calm – only if we look deeply, will we see the iceberg. If we continue as we are now, we will hit the iceberg and sink. Because the ship is very large, it needs some time to change course. But if we turn the ship’s driving wheel too sharply and abruptly, then the ship might sink as well due to social collapse and unrest. This means there remains only a small, narrow window of time and path in which the ship can change course smoothly.

Dreams and reflections

While I was lying wide awake in the middle of the night and breathing deeply, a voice in me was saying: “This is not acceptable, we cannot continue like this anymore. We need to do something now.” I sat up and started to write down some ideas and reflections that have been cooking in me for a while. When I finally did put down on paper what was in my heart and store consciousness, I felt that my heart was much lighter and more at peace. My experience is that allowing myself to cultivate a vision and dreams has helped me to see a path forward and gives me hope, energy and inspiration. In this article I would like to share with you some of these dreams and reflections and some ways in which we are living this dream already. I hope that it inspires and nourishes you as well.

A vision of hope

I have a dream. I have a dream that one day people of all different religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds, of different ages, colors and genders will come together and unite. That we will join hands and join forces because we see and feel that there is something more important and precious than our individual and national interests that unites us all: peace, justice, siblinghood, and the future of our beautiful blue planet.

I have a dream that the seeds of compassion and awakening sown by the Buddha, Thay, and our spiritual ancestors will continue to sprout and fully blossom like jewelled lotus flowers in the hearts of millions of people and that the vision and dream of Thay will be realized: A collective global awakening. Thay reminds us, “We have to wake up together. And if we wake up together, then we have a chance.”

I have a dream that Mother Earth will again be clothed in her beautiful green mantle as humans plant billions of trees, restoring the abundance and the wonders of life. Many people around the world have this aspiration and are already helping deserts to become oases of green, lush trees, sustainable for farming again.

I have a dream that on billions of rooftops, town halls, churches, and meditation halls around the globe, glimmering solar panels will radiate and spread the warmth and light of Father Sun into our homes, along with wind turbines on the green land and the blue sea, totally replacing fossil fuels.

I have a dream that everywhere in the world small ‘Happy Farms’ and other kinds of intentional communities will sprout, harvesting not only delicious and fresh vegetables, but also the fruits of the practice, bringing forth the happiness and togetherness of people working and living in communities.

Children on the Happy Farm

Mindful community – green community

We can celebrate the fact that in Plum Village we have been able to realize many aspects of this dream in the past 40 years : Thay has helped his brother, Dr. King, to make their dream of the “Beloved Community” a living reality. Thay has built a beautiful, diverse, and vibrant international community where people from various cultural and religious backgrounds have found their spiritual home and begun to explore new ways of living together. We have been practicing to be vegan since 2007 and have planted many trees. During the last Rains’ Retreat we planted more than two hundred trees in a single day in New Hamlet – working and planting trees together as a fourfold sangha has brought a lot of joy, nourishment and fulfillment to me. In Deer Park Monastery we have drawn power from solar panels since the early 2000s and in Upper Hamlet we will also install solar panels soon. Over many years volunteers and hundreds of children in the Summer Retreats have been nourished by our Happy Farms, getting in touch with nature and harvesting red tomatoes, golden corn, and blackberries with their own hands. One of Plum Village’s important contributions is that we show the world how it is possible to live a happy and fulfilled life without much consumption, money, or comforts. Seeing the joy, love and harmony among our siblings helps people to realize that another way of life is possible. This gives people inspiration and strength to change their lives.

I am living my dream of building a beloved community here every day. Being here gives me the chance to learn and deepen my experiences in community building: In sangha meetings I learn more about the art of reaching a collective decision and insight, how to communicate, to contribute and let go of ideas. I have a chance to bring people together and to help organize activities, like the Activist Retreat, workshops or Dharma sharings about Mother Earth. It was wonderful to witness the deep connections, sincere dedication and joy of the retreatants and monastics from different centers during the “Action from the Heart” online retreat. We have started a Wake Up Earth Holder Sangha, where we watch Thay’s talks about the environment and practice Dharma sharing. Building siblinghood, playing together and at the same time engaging with the topics and increasing our collective awareness gives me a lot of nourishment and joy.

Holding the problem

One way I am watering the seeds of insight is by reading books by climate leaders and thinkers like Joanna Macy, Naomi Klein and Thay. In his new book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, Thay shares about the importance of community building and global ethics. I also keep my awareness alive by listening to the podcast “Outrage + Optimism” by Christiana Figueres, a student of Thay and the architect of the Paris Climate Agreement. It is very inspiring to hear from many people around the world, and helps me feel more connected with the global climate movement that demands an end to fossil fuels.

For centuries our economies have been running on fossil fuels. The oil, gas, and coal industries are so deeply linked with the political and economic system that it is very difficult to untie this knot of greed, profit-seeking and lobbyism. I believe that only intense public pressure and a broad, diverse, yet unified movement will be powerful enough to end the use of fossil fuels in time and to realize a swift and fair transition of our system. Thay has been very clear and outspoken about these roots of the environmental crisis for a long time now. Addressing the leaders at COP15 (in Copenhagen, 2009) he said, “We need to subsidise renewable energies and heavily tax fossil fuels. It is possible to have 100% renewable energy by 2030.” What would Thay say now to world leaders and activists, if he were able to speak out?

A question that comes up for me is: How can we spread the harmony, experiences and wisdom of our sangha building to other communities, organizations and faith groups? What can we do to help the beloved community manifest not only in one tradition, but in many, and – more importantly – across traditions? I try to keep this koan alive in my heart, Given that we only have a few more years left to start changing the course of spaceship Earth, what can we do to help the collective global awakening manifest a little more quickly and widely?

Embracing overwhelm

Many of us are aware that the climate crisis is an important challenge we face. Has this awareness – that the actions or non-actions of the next few years will very likely determine the fate of humanity – penetrated deeply into our consciousness yet? I think many of us – including me – do not feel the urgency and pain of this crisis deeply every day. It can be quite overwhelming. I feel that manas (an aspect of our consciousness that seeks pleasure and avoids pain), wants to avoid suffering in the present moment. That is one reason why our mind tells us that the crisis is not that urgent and we still have enough time, or helps us find ways to avoid the topic altogether with psychological barriers like cognitive dissonance, distance, denial, doomism. We run the risk of fooling ourselves, individually and collectively. Insights and awakening are impermanent, so we need to put some effort into keeping this awareness alive every day and to help more and more people to wake up. I have the hope that we can have regular sessions of “heart-storming” (Thay used this term in a Dharma talk on March 1st 2003), to share about our dreams and aspirations and to look deeply as a sangha into what we can do to contribute locally and globally.

Bells of awakening

I have a dream that one day many different spiritual and faith traditions, humanitarian groups and NGOs will come together to co-create and follow a code of Global Ethics similar to the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I am convinced that this can serve as a connecting element between different groups and be a foundation and inspiration for a new movement.

I have a dream that many climate justice, science, and spiritual leaders and organisations will come together to form the most diverse, colorful and non-violent movement in history, uniting behind one goal: to stay below 1.5° C by ending the era of fossil fuel consumption and creating a just, inclusive, peaceful, and regenerative world society on a green and healthy planet.

I have a dream that bells of mindfulness, of awakening, climate justice and peace will sound everywhere in the world, from every hill top, in every town, from countless temples and churches, and in many people’s hearts.

I have a dream that people of different faiths in many villages and cities around the world will come together to listen to these bells of mindfulness, stopping to pray, practice, and recite the global ethics trainings together, and listen deeply to each other. Listening to each other’s suffering, joy, and insights into what we can contribute to transform this crisis, and then acting together to make it happen.

I have a dream that more and more people every day will realize that this planet Earth is the Kingdom of God, is the Pure Land, is a most precious jewel of the cosmos, and that they fall in love deeply with Mother Earth and find true peace in their hearts.

Living and being peace

We can celebrate the fact that in Plum Village we have been able to contribute to this dream in the past 40 years. Thay and the sangha have transmitted the Five Mindfulness Trainings to hundreds of thousands of practitioners worldwide. These trainings are a powerful and timely contribution to a global ethic. Thay has also helped to formulate the UNESCO Manifesto 2000 that was signed by 70 million people.

I saw Thay for the first time 20 years ago in Germany. He shared about the Kingdom of God being available in the here and the now. Having been raised Christian, I was touched deeply by his teaching and especially by his way of being. This was a real eye-opener as I realized that it was indeed possible to touch the Kingdom of God in this life and on this beautiful planet. Thay’s shining example of being peace is an immense contribution to the world.

We are so lucky that we can continue Thay’s ways and dreams. Every day I go for mindful walks in the forest and hills surrounding Upper Hamlet, getting in touch with the beauty and miracles of Mother Earth. After breakfast I walk to Thenac through the old path at the edge of the hill overlooking the golden vineyards, the deer forest and a little blue lake, enjoying the magical morning mist and glorious sunrise. The many shades of red, pink and orange are reflected in the clouds in the wide sky and are so beautiful. This nourishes and refreshes my body and soul deeply. I also learn more ways to take better care of the fear and pain inside that is partly related to some individual and collective trauma. I practice to take time to contemplate it and not to run away. I notice that by doing this more space, peace and acceptance are slowly growing in me.

Children of the future

I have a dream that one day the children and young people of this planet can go out and play freely together in the green parks and car-free alleys of the cities and villages, without fear or worries about the future, without feeling the heavy burden of eco-anxiety and depression on their shoulders.

I have a dream that one day all children of the world will be able to sit down together at the table of siblinghood in peace and freedom, looking towards a bright future on a beautiful, green, healthy planet.

I have a dream today – that as a sangha, along with many spiritual, climate activist and other groups, will sit together as one global beloved community on the hill of the 21st century and look back on the winding road up the mountain of challenges and say, “It is good, we have managed to climb the mountain together and fight and unite for an inclusive, peaceful, and regenerative 1.5 °C world and we have been able to create it with harmony, love, and siblinghood.”

This is my hope and prayer:

Let the bells of freedom, mindfulness, peace, and awakening ring in every being across the universe.
Let the bells of awakening, strength and wisdom ring in the minds and hearts of the young generations, because they feel the urgency keenly and have the most determination, imagination and fierceness to stand up for a green, just, and regenerative world.
Let the bells of awakening, freedom, and love ring in the hearts of every being so that the symphonic harmony, strength and beauty of the bells touch their hearts deeply and a collective global awakening will manifest widely and powerfully at last.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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