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Building Collective Consciousness - Wisdom from Earth Holders Retreat

18 Feb 2018 8:47 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)



With gratitude to FCM member Carol Green for this sharing

When we look into our own bodily formation, we see Mother Earth inside us, and so the whole universe is inside us, too. Once we have this insight of interbeing, it is possible to have real communication, real communion, with the Earth. This is the highest possible form of prayer.

To express our reverence for the Earth is not to deify her or believe she is any more sacred than ourselves. It is to love her, to take care of her and to take refuge in her. When we suffer, the Earth embraces us, accepts us, and restores our energy, making us strong and stable again. The relief that we seek is right under our feet and all around us. Much of our suffering can be healed if we realize this. If we understand our deep connection and relationship with the Earth, we will have enough love, strength, and awakening to look after ourselves and the Earth so that we both can thrive.     – Love Letter to Mother Earth (Thich Naht Hanh)

A mindful approach in building a strong, loving collective consciousness is the best path to resilience and to effective action in addressing catastrophic climate change, Buddhist monastics at this past fall’s Earth Holders “In the Arms of Mother Earth” retreat in Abiquiu, NM told about 200 participants.

Ten monks and nuns from several monasteries in the Plum Village tradition on their 2017 Awakening Together Monastic Tour spent four days at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center teaching Thich Naht Hanh’s approach to deepening love of Mother Earth and working together to strengthen collective consciousness of ecological vulnerability. The monastics sang, walked, played and radiated love and understanding as they offered guidance to attendees from across the country, most of whom expressed deep suffering because of concern about climate change and the U.S. political response to its threats.

Practitioners were urged to first return to basics to deal with their emotional suffering and unconscious ways of living -- to stabilize themselves by returning to fundamental dharma teachings and by practicing mindfulness, then to turn inward and examine their own consumerism -- before trying to reform or challenge others.

Looking inside leads to wise engagement, reduces the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed and reminds us to re-examine depth of our personal commitment, said Sister The Nghiem (True Vow), abbess of White Crane Hamlet at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY. As we do so, we can then step forward to encounter suffering with awareness, right intention and right action and use suffering as a magnifying glass to see what the suffering holds: Ignorance, craving, hatred and fear. As we see clearly and with equanimity and non-judgmentally, clarity arises as to what has to be done. This leads to openness, no fighting, just understanding.

She told participants that as we look at ourselves, we realize that we can leave a smaller imprint on the Earth by consuming less, sharing our resources and de-cluttering. This is Grounded Radicalism, she said.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are instructive as guides. The “elephant in the room is how we consume.”  There is a need for a radical shift, especially among Americans, she said.  She urged us to question whether we need five TV sets, three cars and an overflowing closet. She said consumer boycotts have targeted some large corporations, showing that reduced demand for certain goods can lead to reduced output by manufacturers. Individual action, which becomes collective action, does count, she said. It is grass roots and has an immediate way of effecting change. 

What are we consuming and how much? she asked. There is a wisdom in simplifying, de-cluttering and sharing our resources, and we should not be afraid to be radical in this way, she said.

“Simplify your living,” she said.  “Enough is enough.” If you are too cluttered in material things, your mind is also cluttered, and you are stressed, and you can’t focus on your mind or body.  You can see more clearly what’s important if you de-clutter.  She suggested moderation, but not abstinence.

Sister Man Ngheim (Sister Brightness), of Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA, stressed that individual mental formations contribute to collective consciousness.  She said if we adopt separateness, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, in our views, we create war collectively.  When we create dualism, it builds to a collective level.  Teach the dharma through how you live, she urged.  Together we can do a lot.  That’s how all great change happens -- when the individual contributes to the collective.

Brother Phap Luu (Brother Dharma Stream) of Dharma Cloud Monastery in Plum Village, described how he became so committed to environmentalism that he wrote a proposal to mandate that all practice centers fill out a form each year to evaluate their ecological practices. He nervously presented his plan to Thay and “got the hammer.” Thay asked: “What are you going to do with that? Have you learned to live together?  If not, what is the point?”

And so, he learned from Thay, a master community builder, an important lesson – that imposing a restriction on a group causes suffering, while leading by example so that others commit of their own free will builds a strong and lasting following and community.

He asked: In what ways can we honor our deep love and commitment to the planet that gives us life and amazes us and also have peace and harmony in the family? Do you know how to live together in harmony? It is the key to happiness and to our survival. Building a brother/sisterhood in a solid way is very important to take care of our pain, he said.

He said Thay was in despair about what happened to his village in Vietnam.  As he watched it being destroyed during the Vietnam War, he turned to his monks and said, I have to work with American soldiers.  To do so, he had to manage his emotions. Thay discovered that walking meditation helped him deal with his pain. He walked slowly and mindfully, counting his steps with in and out breaths, and it led to a deep transformation and to his life-long love for Mother Earth.

We are looking deeply at catastrophic climate change, Brother Stream said.  He invited attendees to look deeply at interbeing and to cultivate compassion for people, plants, animals and minerals.

He said the mark of true practitioners is to cultivate joy wherever they are.  If you see a piece of trash being thrown on Mother Earth, you can transform the resulting anger into compassion. The act generates anger from seeds in the unconscious, but mindfulness teaches you to pause and transform the anger into compassion and understanding: “Yes, I was unskillful once and threw trash on the road.”  Before you allow it to overwhelm your consciousness, you move it aside while it is still an acorn, before it becomes full-blown anger. Compassion is soft, but strong. It allows you to approach the person who threw the trash and build a relationship with him, opening the door to change.

Can we have compassion when the Environmental Protection Agency is being dismantled?  Can we look at President Trump through the eyes of practice?  We have to be careful not to fall into despair (and give up), he said.

He said Trump is a manifestation of the collective consciousness as it stood in 2016, and we don’t yet have enough understanding with our brothers and sisters to have built a stronger collective consciousness (than the one that elected Trump).  We have to go into places where there is poverty, opioid addiction and other problems and help suffering people transform their minds, not seek to transform only their political platforms, he said.  As their minds transform, Americans have the possibility to wake up and see the beauty and healing power of nature, and we can help them do that, he said.

Brother Phap Ho (Brother Dharma Protector) of Deer Park Monastery, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, urged using time, presence and the support of sangha to create collective consciousness. Our presence is the greatest gift we can give someone, he said.  How do we cultivate the capacity to be there for someone?  Where are we spending our time and energy?  Is it coming from our intention or from our habit energy?  What do we prioritize?

When we are challenged, isn’t that the time to go to sangha?  We can recharge, put our burdens down.  If you are hesitating, that means you should not think about it.  Just go.

Are we avoiding what needs to be done?  Are we talking to people?  Why or why not? What is most important?  Do we heal friction?  How do we reach people and heal?  Become calm and see what is really going on, he urged.

How can we avoid confusion and despair in a world of too much news?  Watching the news brings emotions.  We’re taking it in without giving ourselves enough time to digest it.  Take the news in small bites, then spend the time to go inside yourself before you take in any more, he suggested. Deep looking is an art.  It’s different from figuring something out. Deep looking requires becoming calm, stopping and relaxing body and mind.

Being born in this time gives us the responsibility to care for more people.  What we have is not mine; it belongs to everyone.  When we look into the idea of Self, we should think, What about other people? Humans have awareness and abstract thinking, plus they can collaborate.  How do we use our ability to collaborate in a responsible, loving way? 

How can I organize my life and practice so I can grow so I can benefit many others?

True virtues are understanding and love (Love is possible when you understand someone) and cutting off afflictions (which make us busy and use up our energy).

We don’t come from nowhere.  We were a fetus.  We have parents.  We need oxygen, water, plants, animals.  Our ancestors continue in us.  We have some say over our actions that affect plants, animals and the Earth. He read from the Three Touchings of the Earth: 

  • Touching the Earth, I connect with ancestors and descendants of both my spiritual and my blood families.
  • Touching the Earth, I connect with all people and all species that are alive at this moment in this world with me.
  • Touching the Earth, I let go of my idea that I am this body and my life span is limited. 

I am one with all.  I am present everywhere on this planet, in the past and in the future.

How do we fall in love with Mother Earth and stay in love?  Hiking and other outdoor activities are not enough.  We need a space where we feel safe.  The Earth Holders group is trying to bring insight, understanding and love into the existing climate movement, not trying to create a separate movement.


He suggested joining EcoSattva training with One Earth Sangha (whose training started recently; contact Andrew Rock in Tampa to enroll), Buddhist Climate Action Network, Buddhist Global Network, Arise for Social Justice or Wake Up! He urged listeners to use their experience to lift up others, including the next generation.  Bodhisattvas don’t discriminate between givers and receivers, he said.


Recommended reading:  Two books by Thich Naht Hanh: The World We Have and Love Letter to Mother Earth.


Begin with gratitude for the earth.  Without the Earth there would be nothing.


  1. Discuss your points of gratitude for the Earth.
  2. Discuss your beneficial regrets, without judgment or self-blame.  What acts have you done that you would do differently in the future?
  3. Make amends and re-commit.

The six commitments of the Earth Holder Sangha:

Study, observe and practice the 5 or 14 Mindfulness Trainings.
  1. Move in the direction of more simple and compassionate living by signing onto the Earth Peace Treaty and committing to transform three unwholesome habits.
  2. Eat a plant-based diet at least one day per week.
  3. Participate in at least one Earth Holder “Global Call to Action” per year.
  4. Introduce at least one “Earth Holder Guideline” to my individual or local sangha practice.
  5. Attend semi-annual Earth Holder conference calls and participate in sangha decision-making.

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