Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet
Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet is one of over 130 books written by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Image: courtesy of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins)
The Zen Buddhist practice of mindfulness can help us break out of a destructive cycle of consumption and live in harmony with the planet, according to the 2021 book “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet” by Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. His student, Sister True Dedication, edited the book and joins Host Jenni Doering to share insights about how mindfulness can provide an antidote to burnout and a source of energy to all who care about climate and environment.
BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.
DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.
Zen Buddhism encourages mindfulness and meditation as ways to embrace life and its challenges, including one of the thorniest challenges of all, 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. Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet was edited by Sister True Dedication, a monastic Dharma teacher and Buddhist nun who lives in the Plum Village community Thich Nhat Hanh founded in France. She and his other students call him “Thay” which is Vietnamese for “Teacher”. I recently talked with Sister True Dedication and she began by explaining how we got into our current pattern of exploiting the earth.
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: It is our ideas of happiness that have led us into this current situation. So 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. And so there's a radical kind of message in our approach to simplicity. 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. And on a planetary scale this is one of the core insights that as a species, humanity, we would need to wake up to, in order to be able to change our way of living. Because our current economy, our current lifestyles, are leading, and we know this very clearly, our lifestyles are leading to the destruction of our beautiful planet, of the natural world. And there's nothing to be afraid of in this kind of simplicity, that takes us in another direction away from the mindless consuming.
DOERING: So this book, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, is really calling for a radical shift in the way that we understand ourselves in relation to everything else. You call this an "insight of interbeing." Could you explain this and tell us why is it important to our efforts to address climate change and other environmental crises?
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: So the word "interbeing" is a word that our teacher created, it's not a word that you can actually find in the dictionary yet. And it really means that we can understand that we inter-are, we are profoundly interconnected with everyone and everything around us, including the living world, including the natural world. What this means in the light of our planet is that, in fact, some of the reasons and the ways of thinking and seeing that got us into our current problem, are because we see 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. 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. And this is fully in line with science and the teachings on evolution. 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. Like, 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. And to see the life in the tree, the wisdom in the tree, and to not think that we are entirely separate from one another. And we know that there's going to be a radical difference to the planet, if all the trees weren't here, just as there would be a radical difference if all the humans weren't here! So it's to really look deeply using both the eyes of science, but also, like, the eyes of what we might call a more spiritual dimension.
DOERING: You know, one of the key ideas here in the book is about the importance of maintaining ourselves and caring for our own selves, not succumbing to burnout, which I think is something that a lot of people can relate to now in our modern world. Could you tell me about how this, you know, mindfulness and interbeing can really help with that, can really set us up for actually doing the work that we want to do and caring for the Earth in a way that we aspire to?
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: Hmm. That's an excellent question. Yeah, I think if we want to care for our environment, we have to care for the environmentalist as well. It's like, the two are deeply interconnected. The energy of mindfulness helps us be present in our day, so that we're not kind of lost and swept away and overwhelmed. And that's when we start going beyond our limits, when we get caught up in things and we're not really being, being able to be fully present for what is going on. And so we'd say that in the practice of mindfulness, we learn to be able to handle our strong emotions, our painful feelings, and we also learn to kind of maximize, or optimize, our feelings of well being and happiness. So we're doing these two things at the same time: nourishing joy and happiness, and handling pain and suffering, if you like. In a really granular way, what this means is that when we hear bad news relating to the planet -- we may have watched something on the screen, we may have heard a news bulletin, and a feeling comes up. And that feeling may be sadness, it may be grief and despair. Or it may be anger and resentment, perhaps, especially at our political leadership at this point. So those are real feelings. And in the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, we speak about the power of aspiration and intention. And 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.
DOERING: You mentioned anger, and these emotions that come up with the climate crisis. And it's true, I mean, just a few people and companies have emitted far more greenhouse gases than most of the people in the world. And they've known, largely, the problems with what they're doing. And yet, they're also not the ones that are the most vulnerable to climate impacts. So this is just a huge injustice. And it makes a lot of climate activists very angry. So to what extent can anger like that be constructive? Or what do Zen teachings have to say about, like, how to use it, how to "metabolize" it, like you said?
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: So Thay, our teacher, once said that a little bit of indignation can be okay, 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. And for me, we had a very powerful experience in Scotland with some events around COP26. There was a protest at this event against a new oil speculation, oil searching in the North Sea. And there was a very angry young activist and the CEO of Shell had to listen to her directly. And at the time, everyone thought it was terrible and dramatic. But the monks and nuns, those of us there, we thought this was a very healthy conversation. One side had to listen to the other side, and how powerful that this Shell CEO had a chance to hear the voice of the youth and their desperation and their suffering. And anger is there for a reason, anger is there because people are not being heard. So for me, it was very powerful to witness this protest. And the incredible news is that, you know, six weeks later, Shell pulled out of that exact oil field, the Cambo oil field in the North Sea. And for me, my response wasn't a sense of... my response was gratitude to him, and that he woke up and he realized, and was able to oversee that decision to pull out of that oilfield. And 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.
DOERING: Yeah, and you, and you mentioned being grateful to the Shell CEO. And it seems like he must have been listening to that activist who was very angry. And like you said, it's a conversation, it's a dialogue. If two sides can come together and respectfully engage, there should be a positive outcome.
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: Yeah, in Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, we also explore this question of dialogue, and brave dialogue. When we can meet, human to human, across all the kinds of polarization that we have in our societies, I believe that real transformation is possible. It's when we demonize each other and we demonize our actions that we really are going down the kind of wrong path as a species, because we will need to collaborate, we do need to listen to one another. We do need to find collective insight to get ourselves through this fiendishly difficult problem of really addressing climate change and the destruction of nature in all these aspects. And so what was powerful in the dialogue in Scotland was it didn't necessarily look like the CEO was listening at that time. Because sometimes, listening takes longer for the insight to settle and for courage to manifest, the courage of right action. To offer that gift of listening is I think one of the greatest gifts we can offer one another and that the practice of mindfulness allows us to give. And I think that has huge potential in the climate movement in general. And 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.
DOERING: Mmm. And, in fact, I was really interested to read in this book that Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris Climate Agreement, is a student of Thay. So how did his teachings help shape the success of Paris?
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: So Christiana has shared with us that it was her own kind of spiritual strength that she drew from Thay's teachings and from various mindfulness practices that gave her the sort of personal strength and faith to be able to carry through all the negotiations leading up to the agreement. But specifically, Christiana highlighted the practice of deep listening. And she found a way through her own embodiment of this practice to be able to show up, and she speaks about meeting both coal investors and island nations that are really in danger. And being able to come with a truly open heart and to ask truly open questions, and to have that sense of inner courage and openness for whatever they wanted to say. To really allow people to find their own words to describe their suffering, their struggle as a nation or as a corporate CEO. It's not that corporate CEOs are without their struggles too, and how can they name and articulate them, and that's their struggles that are driving their unmindful action, right? It's the irony, this is this weird irony in Buddhist teachings, it's exactly by getting in touch with our suffering that we can find the way out of it. It's exactly by waking up to the suffering, naming it, really getting down to what it is, what is driving those oil companies to be so stubborn, about continuing to do what they do, what is it? 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? And 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.
DOERING: So for someone who's listening, who is yearning to get in touch with this sense of interbeing, and wants that connection, wants to be able to sort of fuel their care for the planet with mindfulness, and reconnect. What would you recommend in terms of going outside and connecting with nature? And what should the mindset be of someone who wants to do that? Is there a specific question or thought that they should bring to mind or just simply go out and be? What would you recommend?
SISTER TRUE DEDICATION: Hmm. So the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet opens with a beautiful invitation to listen to the Earth. And a very simple way to know whether we're in the present moment or not, is whether we're with our five senses. So with what we can hear: if you can hear the birdsong, you're in the present moment. With what we can smell: if you can smell the leaves on the forest floor, you're in the present moment. If you can feel the breeze on your face, you're in the present moment, or taste the salt on your tongues, if you're by the sea. So, being with our senses, we're in the present moment already. And to take a moment to really pause. And I think some people say, Oh, my mind's so distracted, my mind is thinking of this, it's thinking of that; my phone's vibrating in my pocket. So maybe you really need to turn off all your notifications before you go on such a walk! And the trick with mindfulness is, the more we allow our senses to be fascinated by the present moment, everything we can see, hear, smell, or even taste or touch -- the bark of a tree, perhaps -- the more we're in touch with these senses, we've got no time to think. You're, the thinking won't happen. So then just keep coming back to all of these sense impressions as we are being with nature, and just really having a moment to be with the vitality of life. So the, the challenge is to open up our curiosity, and that is already a huge source of nourishment, and that is already, we're, we're living the truth of our interbeing with the Earth. It's not an idea. It's not a notion. It's an experience that each one of us can then have.
DOERING: Sister True Dedication is editor of the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh.
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