Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, center, arrives for a great chanting ceremony at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on March 16, 2007.

'Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet'

A new book teaches that the Zen Buddhist practice of mindfulness can help us break out of a destructive cycle of consumption and live in harmony with the planet.

Living on Earth

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, center, arrives for a great chanting ceremony at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on March 16, 2007. Thich Nhat Hanh died on Jan. 15, at the age of 95.

AP Photo/File

Zen Buddhism encourages mindfulness and meditation as ways to embrace life and its challenges, including one of the thorniest challenges of our time — the climate crisis.

In the 2021 book, “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet," Buddhist Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says being in the present moment, waking up to our suffering, and acting with compassion can ripple out beyond ourselves and lead to better care of this planet we call home.

“It is our ideas of happiness that have led us into this current situation,” says Sister True Dedication, a monastic Dharma teacher and Buddhist nun who edited the book. “We think happiness lies in consuming. We think happiness lives in striving and competing and satisfying our craving in whatever way, and having these extremely resource-rich experiences. But in the essence of our Zen Buddhist teachings, we know that this beautiful Earth, this extraordinary planet, already gives us so many conditions for happiness.”

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Sister True Dedication lives in the Plum Village community Thich Nhat Hanh founded in France. Nhat Hanh died on Saturday, Jan. 15, at the age of 95.

Sister True Dedication and his other students called him “Thay,” which is Vietnamese for “teacher.”

"We don't need a second car, we don't need a bigger house, we don't need more vacations. We just need to change the way we look and experience things and discover the happiness that is already there for us.”

Sister True Dedication, monastic Dharma teacher and Buddhist nun 

“There's a radical kind of message in our approach to simplicity,” Sister True Dedication explains. “Which is, if we give ourselves a chance to cultivate true presence, to generate what we would call an energy of mindfulness, we realize that we don't need all those things to be happy. We don't need a second car, we don't need a bigger house, we don't need more vacations. We just need to change the way we look and experience things and discover the happiness that is already there for us.”

It has become all too clear. The global economy and lifestyles are leading to the destruction of our natural world and planet, Sister True Dedication says. The kind of simplicity that Zen Buddhism advocates takes humankind in another direction — away from mindless consuming.

“Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet” calls for "a radical shift in the way that we understand ourselves in relation to everything else," Sister True Dedication says. Thich Nhat Than called this an "insight of interbeing,” a term which expresses the idea that we are profoundly interconnected with everyone and everything around us, including the natural world.

"[W]ith the insight of interbeing in the Buddhist teaching, we see that we are part of the Earth, we are profoundly interconnected with the Earth.”

Sister True Dedication, monastic Dharma teacher and Buddhist nun 

“[Humankind] sees the Earth as something outside of us, something separate, even something inert that is there for us to exploit, to be master of, that is there somehow for us to use,” Sister True Dedication explains. “But with the insight of interbeing in the Buddhist teaching, we see that we are part of the Earth, we are profoundly interconnected with the Earth.”

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“This is fully in line with science and the teachings on evolution,” she points out. “For example, a tree is not just there to provide us with fruit; it is not just there to provide us with wood to make furniture or build our homes. Our trees are intimately part of who we have become as a human species. Their oxygen is our in-breath, their out-breath is our in-breath.”

"In the practice of mindfulness...we're doing these two things at the same time: nourishing joy and happiness, and handling pain and suffering.”

Sister True Dedication, monastic Dharma teacher and Buddhist nun 

Through the practice of mindfulness, we learn how to handle strong emotions and painful feelings, while simultaneously learning to "maximize, or optimize, our feelings of well-being and happiness," Sister True Dedication explains. “So we're doing these two things at the same time: nourishing joy and happiness, and handling pain and suffering.”

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When we hear bad news relating to the planet, we can be overcome with feelings of sadness, despair or anger. Zen Buddhism teaches that "it’s possible to metabolize some of our painful feelings with mindfulness, with concentration and insight, and transform them into a source of energy to take action, and to take radical action, which is what is needed right now,” Sister True Dedication says.

“Thay, our teacher, once said that a little bit of indignation can be OK, can be healthy enough to get us off the cushion, to engage us into action, but, he said, the energy of anger burns us up, it really burns us up,” she continues. “We should all be feeling shock and outrage in many ways. But the energy which then gets us onto our streets, or takes us to the voting booth, that energy, if it's an energy of love and positive action — that will sustain us so much more than the energy of anger.”

The practice of mindfulness also allows us to give each other one of the greatest gifts we can offer, says Sister True Dedication — the gift of listening.

“I think that has huge potential in the climate movement, in general,” she says. “That’s what we've seen in the conferences where we've participated and brought the practices from the book into these conferences. It's the listening that people are most eager to learn.”

Buddhist teaching contains a “weird irony,” Sister True Dedication notes: Only by getting in touch with our suffering can we find our way out of it. This applies to climate activists and corporate CEOs alike.

“What is driving those oil companies to be so stubborn about continuing to do what they do? What is it?” she asks. “And in those human beings at the top of those companies, what is it that they are still caught in, that they haven't yet discovered? Only when we can identify and really name it, and be with them as they realize this about themselves, then right away, we will wake up to the way out and to new solutions. So it's by leaning into these dark places that we can really see the light to kind of find the way out.”

This article is based on an interview by Jenni Doering that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.