The Way of the Leaf

Wij zijn een deel
Van een groter geheel
Wij vallen als bladeren
En de wind neemt ons mee — Stef Bos

After a trop­i­cal week it seems like the autumn has final­ly begun here in Gilling­ham. Time for an autumn sto­ry from Thich Nhat Hanh. He tells us that he is in the park, com­plete­ly absorbed in the con­tem­pla­tion of a small leaf. He spents a long time ques­tion­ing the leaf, and finds out that the tree is not only the moth­er of the leaf, but the leaf is also a moth­er to the tree:

The tree dis­trib­utes sap to the leaves, and the leaves trans­form the rough sap into elab­o­rat­ed sap and, with the help of the sun and gas, send it back to the tree for nour­ish­ment. There­fore, the leaves are also the moth­er to the tree. Since the leaf is linked to the tree by a stem, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion between them is easy to see. (…)

The Earth is our moth­er. We have a great many stems link­ing us to our moth­er Earth. There are stems link­ing us to the clouds. If there are no clouds, there will be no water for us to drink. This is also the case with the riv­er, the for­est, the log­ger, and the farmer.

Our depen­dence on every­thing around us leads to the ques­tion: Where do we draw the line of the ‘self’? Do ‘I’ stop to exist where my skin touch­es the atmos­phere? If the atmos­phere was not there, my lungs could not absorb oxy­gen and my heart would not beat.


Joan­na Macy explains how our notion of ‘self-inter­est’ can be extend­ed: “It would not occur to me to plead with you, “Don’t saw off your leg. That would be an act of vio­lence”. It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you), because your leg is part of your body. Well, so are the trees in the Ama­zon rain basin. They are our exter­nal lungs.”

The Dalai Lama also empha­sizes this prin­ci­ple of inter­de­pen­dence: “The oth­ers’ prob­lem is also my prob­lem.” In the series of books The Wheel of Time we meet a group of peo­ple who fol­low the “Way of the Leaf”. These peo­ple trav­el around in car­a­vans and are held in con­tempt by oth­ers. They do not use vio­lence, not even to defend them­selves. After all, a leaf does no harm and does not strug­gle against the wind that makes it fall from the tree.

And that is how Thich Nhat Hanh clos­es his story:

I asked the leaf whether it was fright­ened because it was autumn and the oth­er leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. (…) I worked hard to help nour­ish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not lim­it­ed by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will con­tin­ue to nour­ish the tree. So I don’t wor­ry at all.”

That day there was a wind blow­ing, and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, danc­ing joy­ful­ly, because as it float­ed it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so hap­py. I bowed my head, know­ing that I have a lot to learn from that leaf.


  • Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991. Peace is Every Step: The path of mind­ful­ness in every­day life
  • Joan­na Macy, ‘The Green­ing of the Self’, In: Llewellyn Vaugh­an-Lee (edi­tor), 2013. Spir­i­tu­al Ecology
  • Video frag­ment van de Dalai Lama
  • Robert Jor­dan, The Wheel of Time (serie)
  • As always, pic­tures are made by Freddy. ;-)


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