In the masterful Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, first published in October 2021 by Penguin Books, Thich Nhat Hanh shares his wisdom on how to be the change we want to see in the world. He is blazingly clear that there’s one thing we have the power to change, which can make all the difference: our mind. How we see and think about things determines all the choices we make, the everyday actions we take (or avoid), how we relate to those we love (or oppose), and how we react in a crisis or when things don’t go our way.
Filled with powerful examples of engaged action he himself has undertaken, inspiring Buddhist parables, and accessible daily meditations, this powerful spiritual guide offers us a path forward. It opens us to the possibilities of change, and suggests ways we can contribute to the collective awakening and environmental revolution our fractured world so desperately needs.
The post below comprises a commentary by Sister True Dedication – who also edited the book – and the first introductory pages.
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
Thay is blazingly clear: there’s one thing we have the power to change, which will make all the difference, and that is our mind. Our mind is the instrument with which we engage and interact with the world; it holds our despair and fears, our hopes and dreams. Our mind’s way of seeing determines the decisions and actions we take or avoid, how we relate to those we love or oppose, and how we respond in a crisis. In Buddhism we often say that with our mind we create the world. Our perceptions are conditioned by language and culture and by society’s tendency to put reality into boxes and categories that simply don’t fit. These discriminating labels limit our clarity and our action to protect the planet and prevent us from living in harmony with each other and with the world.
We may want the world to wake up and act. But what kind of awakening would actually be helpful? What do we need to wake up to?
Buddhism speaks of two levels of truth: the level of labels and appearances, often called “conventional truth,” and the deeper level of reality, known as the “ultimate truth.” Thay teaches us that, if we’re going to help our society and planet, we need to wake up to what’s going on at both levels of truth.
In many talks in Plum Village, the international practice center and monastery that Thay founded in southwest France, Thay taught us one of the most ancient and powerful texts in Zen Buddhism, the Diamond Sutra. It is the world’s first treatise on deep ecology and a treasure of humanity’s shared wisdom heritage. The sutra originated in the northeast of the Indian subcontinent, sometime between the second and fifth centuries. There’s even a ninth-century scroll of the Diamond Sutra, printed on paper from mulberry bark and hemp, found in the remote Dunhuang caves, where the old Silk Road entered western China. It is the world’s oldest dated printed book. On a teaching tour to London a few years ago, Thay took a few dozen of us with him to see the scroll at the British Museum. Our times make it possible for wisdom to transcend geography and generations.
As you’ll discover in the following pages, the Diamond Sutra proposes a deep contemplation to give us a breakthrough in our way of seeing the world. It offers a four-part meditation to cut through the stories we tell about what life is and isn’t in order to help us get closer to the deeper level of reality as it truly is. It’s known as the Vajracchedika Sutra—the “thunderbolt” or “diamond” that “cuts through illusion.” Applying the teachings of the Diamond Sutra can give us a vast source of energy and clarity to take the right kind of action.
It’s unbelievably hard to stop and step back. It may even be scary. The fact is, it’s rare to get a chance to challenge the deeply held beliefs society imprints on us. For that reason, you may like to read the following pages slowly, taking time to see how these insights may apply directly to your own life. You may like to go for a walk to create space to contemplate these ideas, or to take some notes in a journal as you go along. Thay always says, as the Buddha did, “Whatever you do, don’t just take my word for it. Put it into practice and see for yourself.”
Ready for some truth-telling?
Many of us are barely awake. We’re living in the world, but we can’t really see it; it’s as though we’re sleepwalking. To wake up first of all is to wake up to the beauty of the Earth. You wake up to the fact that you have a body and that your body is made of the Earth and sun and stars. You wake up to the fact that the sky is beautiful and that our planet is a jewel of the cosmos. You have an opportunity to be a child of the Earth and to make steps on this extraordinary planet.
Second, to wake up means to wake up to the suffering in the world. You wake up to the fact that the Earth is in danger and living species are in danger. You want to find ways to bring relief, healing, and transformation. This requires a tremendous source of energy. If you have a strong desire in you, a mind of love, that is the kind of energy that will help you do these two things: wake up to the beauties of the planet to heal yourself and wake up to the suffering of the world and try to help. If you have that source of strength in you, if you have that mind of love, you are what can be called a buddha in action.
If you see the suffering in the world but you haven’t changed your way of living yet, it means the awakening isn’t strong enough. You haven’t really woken up. In Zen, sometimes a teacher will shout, or hit you, so you can wake up—they’ll do whatever it takes. The Zen master’s shout is like a crash of spring thunder. It wakes you up and, with the rains that follow, grasses and flowers will bloom.
We need a real awakening, a real enlightenment. New laws and policies are not enough. We need to change our way of thinking and seeing things. This is possible; the truth is that we have not really tried to do it yet. Each one of us has to do it for ourselves. No one else can do it for you. If you are an activist and you’re eager to do something, you should begin with yourself and your own mind.
It’s my conviction that we cannot change the world if we’re not able to change our way of thinking, our consciousness. Collective change in our way of thinking and seeing things is crucial. Without it, we cannot expect the world to change. Collective awakening is made of individual awakening. You have to wake yourself up first, and then those around you have a chance. When we ourselves suffer less we can be more helpful and we can help others to change themselves too. Peace, awakening, and enlightenment always begin with you. You are the one you need to count on.
On the one hand, we must learn the art of happiness: how to be truly present for life, so we can get the nourishment and healing we need. On the other hand, we must learn the art of suffering: the way to suffer, so we suffer much less and can help others suffer less. It takes courage and love to come back to ourselves to take care of the suffering, fear, and despair inside.
To meditate is crucial, to get out of despair, to get the insight of non-fear, to keep your compassion alive so you can be a real instrument of the Earth helping all beings. To meditate doesn’t mean to escape life, but to take time to look deeply. You allow yourself time to sit, to walk—not doing anything, just looking deeply into the situation and into your own mind.
Eternity in the Present Moment
The extinction of species is taking place every day. Researchers estimate that every year over twenty thousand species go extinct, and the rate is accelerating. This is what is happening now; it’s not something in the future. We know that 251 million years ago there was already global warming caused by gigantic volcanic eruptions, and that warming caused the worst mass extinction in our planet’s history. The six-degree Celsius increase in global temperature was enough to wipe out 95 percent of the species that were alive. Now, a second massive warming is taking place. This time there is also man-made deforestation and industrial pollution. Perhaps within a hundred years there may be no more humans on the planet. After the last mass extinction, it took the Earth 100 million years to restore life. If our civilization disappears, it will take a similar time for another civilization to reappear.
When we contemplate this, it is only natural that a feeling of fear, despair, or sadness may arise. That is why we have to train ourselves to touch eternity with the practice of mindful breathing, with our in-breath and out-breath. Mass extinction has already happened five times, and the one underway now is the sixth. According to the deepest insights of Buddhism, there is no birth and death. After extinction, life will reappear in other forms. You have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may one day disappear.
How can we accept that hard fact and not be overwhelmed by despair? Our despair is fueled by views we have about ourselves and the world. When we start to re-examine our views and change our way of thinking and seeing things, it becomes possible to transform the mind of discrimination that is at the very root of our suffering.
It is possible to train ourselves to see and experience the present moment in a deeper way. And once we touch reality deeply in the present moment, we touch the past, we touch the future, and we touch eternity. We are the environment, we are the Earth, and the Earth has the capacity to restore balance, even if many species must disappear before balance is restored.
It doesn’t take years of practice to touch eternity in the present moment. In a split second, you can touch it. Taking just one breath, or one step on the Earth, with mindfulness and concentration can help you transcend time. When you touch the present moment deeply, you have an eternity to live.
➛ You may also want to listen to this episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In, where Sister True Dedication addresses contemporary environmental crises and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s ethical framework of living as presented in the book Zen and The Art of Saving the Planet.