Is the consciousness of a flower or a cat equal to that of a human being? Do non-living things have consciousness? In 2014, at the University of Virginia, astrophysicist, Dr. Trinh Xuan Thuan asked the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, (Thay to his students), to explain. Thay’s response is both uplifting and humbling.
Transcript of Thích Nhất Hạnh reply
“When we look into our cells as a human being we see that the human being is made only of non-human elements. We have the mineral element in us, we have the element of vegetable in us and we have the element ‘animal’ in us. Not only do we have human ancestors but we also have animal ancestors and vegetable ancestors and also mineral ancestors; and our ancestors do not belong only to the past – they belong to the present. They are fully present in us. Without them we cannot see the way we see, we cannot think the way we think, we cannot live the way we live. And the electron is also in us. So when I produce a thought every ancestors in me including the mineral, vegetable and animal ancestors, collaborate with me in order to produce that thought.
It’s like when you see – you look at the tree. That is not the job of only your eyes, as you know very well. Without the brain, without the blood, without the cells in your body, without all that, the ‘seeing’ would be an impossible thing for eyes.
When the eyes ‘see’ the whole body is participating in the act of seeing. When we produce a thought, when we reason, when we create music, when we do mathematics, not only a number of neurons are doing so, but the whole body – the whole lineage of ancestors in us are participating in producing that thought.
So looking like that you see that you are made of ‘non-you’ elements and that the non-you elements continue to be in you and if you take the non-you elements out, there is no more ‘you’ left.
We have the complex of superiority as human beings and we think we have that kind of intelligence, that kind of consciousness that other living beings do not have. But I’m not very proud of that kind of mind that we are using in daily life: the mind of discrimination caught by many notions, the foundation of all kind of suffering. We discriminate against this and that, and that creates complexes of superiority, inferiority, and equality.
(gestures to an orchid) This plant has intelligence, this plant has knowledge, this plant has a will to live. This plant knows how to fabricate flowers and fruit and how to continue to live in the best way it can. And it seems to me that this plant is creating less suffering than we human beings. I am not very proud of my mind of discrimination. Therefore I am free from the complex of ‘superiority of a human being’. I know that I can do better.
That is why when you produce a thought, Mother Earth is producing that thought together with you. Don’t say that you are alone producing that thought. Mother Earth is in you at the foundation and she is producing that thought with you at the same time. This thought is not your property. This thought that is produced is a creation of the whole Earth – and not only the Earth, the Sun also, because without the Sun the Earth can not be herself; she is not able to create you and to bring you into existence.
So that is the mind of Non-discrimination. As far as you use the mind of discrimination to judge and to organize, you continue to create suffering. That is why it’s so important to learn how to remove notions that are at the foundation of separation and discrimination.”