SUPPOSE WE TAKE a seed of corn and plant it in the damp soil. A week or so later the seed will sprout. When we look at the plant, we no longer see the seed, so we may think the seed has died. But the seed has not died; it has become the plant. If you’re capable of seeing the corn seed in the corn plant, you have the kind of wisdom the Buddha called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. You don’t discriminate between the seed and the plant. You see that they ‘inter-are’ with each other, that they are the same thing. Looking deeply at the young cornstalk, you can see the seed of corn, still alive, but with a new appearance. The plant is the continuation of the seed.

The practice of meditation helps us to see things other people can’t see. We look deeply and we see that father and son, father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, corn seed and cornstalk, have a very close relationship. That is why we should awaken to the fact, to the truth, that we inter-are. The suffering of one is the suffering of the other. If Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian realise they are brother and sister to one other, that the suffering of one side is also the suffering of the other side, then their wars will stop. When we see that we and all living beings are made of the same nature, how can there be division between us? How can there be lack of harmony? When we realise our ‘interbeing nature’, we’ll stop blaming and exploiting and killing, because we know that we inter-are. That is the great awakening we must have in order for the Earth to be saved.

We human beings have always singled ourselves out from the rest of the natural world. We classify other animals and living beings as ‘Nature’, a thing apart from us, and act as if we’re somehow separate from it. Then we ask, “How should we deal with Nature?” We should deal with Nature the same way we should deal with ourselves: nonviolently. Human beings and Nature are inseparable. Just as we should not harm ourselves, we should not harm Nature.

Causing harm to other human beings causes harm to ourselves. Accumulating wealth and owning excessive portions of the world’s natural resources deprives fellow humans of the chance to live. Participating in oppressive and unjust social systems creates and deepens the gap between rich and poor, and aggravates the situation of social injustice. While the rest of the human family suffers and starves, the enjoyment of false security and wealth is a delusion.

It’s clear that the fate of each individual is inextricably linked to the fate of the whole human race. We must let others live if we ourselves want to live. The only alternative to coexistence is co-nonexistence. A civilisation in which we must kill and exploit others in order to live is not a healthy civilisation. To create a healthy civilisation, all must have equal access to education, work, food, shelter, world citizenship, clean air and water, and the ability to circulate freely and settle on any part of the Earth. Political and economic systems that deny someone these rights harm the whole human family. Awareness of what is happening to the human family is necessary to repair the damage done already.

To bring about peace within the human family, we must work for harmonious co-existence. If we continue to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world, imprisoning ourselves in narrow concerns and immediate problems, we’re not likely to make peace or to survive. The human race is part of Nature. We need to have this insight before we can have harmony between people. Cruelty and disruption destroy the harmony of the human family and destroy Nature. Among the healing measures needed is legislation that is nonviolent to ourselves and to Nature.

The harmony and equilibrium within the individual, society, and Nature are being destroyed. Individuals are sick, society is sick, and Nature is sick. We must reestablish harmony and equilibrium, but how? Where can we begin the work of healing? Buddhist monks are like psychotherapists in that we tend to look at the problem from the viewpoint of mental health. Meditation aims at creating harmony and equilibrium in the life of the individual. Buddhist meditation deals with both the body and the mind, using breathing as a tool to calm and harmonise the whole human being.

Buddhist practitioners believe that the interconnected nature of the individual, society, and the physical environment will reveal itself to us as we recover and gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear and the dispersion of mind. Among the three – individual, society, Nature – it is the individual who begins to effect change. But in order to effect change, the individual must be whole. Since this requires an environment favourable to healing, the individual must seek a lifestyle that is free from destructiveness. Our efforts to change ourselves and to change the environment are both necessary, but one can’t happen without the other. We know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals aren’t in a state of equilibrium. Our mental health requires that the efforts for us to recover our humanness should be given priority.

Restoring mental health does not mean simply adjusting oneself to the modern world of rapid economic growth. The world is sick, and adapting to an unwell environment cannot bring real health. Many people who need psychotherapy are really victims of modern life – which separates us from each other and from the rest of the human family.

For therapy to be effective, we need environmental change. Political activities are one recourse, but they are not the only one. Tranquillising ourselves is not the way. The poisoning of our ecosystem, the exploding of bombs, the violence in our neighbourhoods and in society, the pressures of time, noise and pollution – all of these have been created by the course of our economic growth and these are all sources of mental illness. Whatever we can do to bring these causes to an end is preventive medicine.

To practise mindfulness and look deeply into the nature of things is to discover their true nature, that of interbeing. We find peace and can generate the strength we need to be in touch with everything. With this understanding, we can easily sustain the work of loving and caring for the Earth and for each other for a long time. •

Edited extract from The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008) by Thich Nhat Hanh. Reproduced with the permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.