Thich Nhat Hanh
The Eyes of the Elephant Queen
Every step we make has the power to heal and transform. Not only can we heal ourselves by our steps, but we can help the Earth and the environment.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra describes the life of the Buddha during his last year—the places he travelled, the people he met, and the teachings he gave. In the sutra, it is said that the Buddha had just spent the Rains Retreat near the city of Vaishali, north of the Ganges River, and that he then decided to travel north in order to return to the town of his birth, Kapilavastu. Although he knew this was the last time he would ever see the beautiful city of Vaishali, he did not lift his hand to wave good-bye. Instead, we find this sentence in the sutra:
The Buddha, on his way, turned around, and with the eyes of an elephant queen, he surveyed the city of Vaishali for the last time and said, “Ananda, don’t you think that Vaishali is beautiful?” After having surveyed the city of Vaishali with a gentle gaze that took in all of its beauty, the Buddha turned back to the north and began to walk.
When the Buddha looks, he does so with the eyes of the elephant queen in order to look deeply and recognize what is there. We, too, have the eyes of the Buddha and of the elephant queen. If you see deeply into the beauty of nature around you, you’re looking with the eyes of the Buddha. It is extremely kind of you to look on behalf of the Buddha, to contemplate the world for the Buddha, because you are his continuation.
So when you practice sitting meditation, sit for the Buddha. The Buddha in you is sitting upright, the Buddha in you is enjoying every in-breath and out-breath, the Buddha in you is contemplating the world with mindfulness and getting in touch with the beauty of nature.
If you know how to contemplate the beauty of nature with the eyes of the Buddha, you will not say that your life has no meaning. You can listen with the ears of the Buddha, you can contemplate the world with the eyes of the Buddha, and thanks to that, your children and their children will also be able to look and contemplate like the Buddha. You transmit the Buddha to your children and to their children, in the way you walk, sit, look, and listen, even in the way you eat. This is something that you can do now. Starting today, you can already be a real and true continuation of the Buddha, our spiritual ancestor.
Every minute of our daily lives is an opportunity for us to walk like a buddha, to listen with compassion like a buddha, to sit as peacefully and as happily as a buddha, and to look deeply and enjoy the beauties of the world like a buddha. In doing so, we are helping our father, our mother, our ancestors, and our children in us to evolve, and we are also helping our teacher to fulfil his vow, his aspiration. In this way, our life will truly become a concrete message of love. Living our lives in this way, we can help prevent global warming from harming our planet.
When we look deeply into ourselves, we can identify elements of the Kingdom of God that are available in the here and now. To me the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea; it is a reality. That pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. To me the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha. Your beautiful child with her fresh smile belongs to the Kingdom of God, and you also belong to the Kingdom of God. If we’re capable of recognizing the flowing river, the blue sky, the blossoming tree, the singing bird, the majestic mountains, the countless animals, the sunlight, the fog, the snow, the innumerable wonders of life as miracles that belong to the Kingdom of God, we’ll do our best to preserve them and not allow them to be destroyed. If we recognize that this planet belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will cherish and protect it so we can enjoy it for a long time, and so that our children and their children will have a chance to enjoy it.
The Buddha teaches us about the cycle of samsara, a cycle in which the same suffering repeats itself. If we don’t practice, we won’t be able to step out of it. With mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful dwelling in the present moment, we don’t need to consume and run after objects of craving in order to be happy. In our monastery at Plum Village, nobody has their own bank account, no one has a private car or a private cell phone, and the monks, nuns, and laypeople who live here don’t receive any salary. And yet there’s joy and happiness, there’s brotherhood and sisterhood. We don’t need the “American dream” anymore. Breathing in, we get in touch with the stars, the moon, the clouds, the mountain, the river. When we’re inhabited by the energy of mindfulness and concentration, every step we take leads us into the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha.
When we look deeply into a flower, we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. When I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud and touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we are able to see the clouds and the rain in the flower. We can touch the sun without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so it’s not possible to take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be as a separate entity; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality that the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.
The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and nonself are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily lives we can touch the truth of interbeing and nonself in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, with your planet, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, nonself, interdependence, and interbeing.
We have destroyed our Mother Earth in the same way bacteria or a virus can destroy a human body. Mother Earth is also a body. Of course, there are bacteria that are beneficial to the human body, that protect the body and help generate enzymes that we need. Similarly, if the human species wakes up and knows how to live with responsibility, compassion, and loving kindness, the human species can be a living organism with the capacity to protect the body of Mother Earth. We have to see that we inter-are with our Mother Earth, that we live with her and die with her.
It’s wonderful to realize that we are all in a family, we are all children of the Earth. We should take care of each other and we should take care of our environment, and this is possible with the practice of being together as a large family. A positive change in individual awareness will bring about a positive change in the collective awareness. Protecting the planet must be given the first priority. I hope you will take the time to sit down with each other, have tea with your friends and your family, and discuss these things. Invite Bodhisattva Earth Holder to sit and collaborate with you. Then make your decision and act to save our beautiful planet. Changing your way of living will bring you a lot of joy right away and, with your first mindful breath, healing will begin.
Reprinted from The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008) by Thich Nhat Hanh by kind permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org. You can purchase the book here.