Review: Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh



My Quick Take: This is an excellent book published just before Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh passed away in January 2022.  I appreciated it for its simple approach to explaining some of the basic principles of Buddhist teaching and practice, and how it suggests a framework for climate change and social justice work.  


This article was originally published in The Mindful Word on August 20, 2022. 


“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.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh is an engaging new book that speaks to climate change from a Buddhist perspective. Naht Hanh passed away in January 2022, but prior to this, Sister Chân Hiến Nghiêm (True Dedication) edited his teachings for this book. A member of the Plum Village monastic community that he founded, her commentary is interspersed throughout. This was an excellent approach, adding context to his teachings.

The book does not directly address climate change, but when I stepped back and re-examined the title, “Saving the Planet'' involves more than climate alone, though that is a main focus. It is also about saving our relationships, communities and humanity as our planet inevitably changes.

The teaching is semi-structured; there is a lot of repetition, but repetition reinforced the core teachings. Indeed, when you strip the philosophy down to basics, it is simple indeed. The Buddhist principles that the monk speaks about are universally applicable to the fight for climate change, social justice and personal responsibility.

There are so many compelling teachings and real-world stories to be explored in the book, but these are some key messages (or pieces of advice) that stood out for me.

Recognize that everything is interrelated.

We truly are one with other living and non-living elements on Earth, which is the main principle of interbeing. By recognizing this interconnectedness, we realize how urgent it is that we take action to help the planet, and we can’t ignore the suffering any longer.

Cultivate inner well-being with mindfulness.

We should attempt to practice right speech and action so that we’re capable of helping others. However, this isn’t an either/or situation; we can cultivate mindful qualities within ourselves, and help others and the planet, simultaneously.

Practice mindful listening.

The skill of letting someone speak even if you don’t agree with them is crucial, and it takes a deep sense of mindfulness in yourself so that you can be non-reactive. It is particularly powerful to practice with those you disagree with.

Manage your own anger.

We can’t be very effective in our actions if anger is ruling us. Anger can be transformed into compassion, which Nhat Hanh sees as crucial in order to move planetary health in a positive direction.

Find a community.

We need a community to sustain ourselves, and our actions for change. I love this idea of finding even a small sangha of people who want to work to address climate change within a Buddhist framework.

Part of what gave this book power was not only reading these fundamental principles summarized in such a thoughtful way, but also hearing how Nhat Hanh has applied this in his own life. He coined the term “Engaged Buddhism,” practicing core Buddhist principles in the face of great violence during the Vietnam war. He truly knows suffering, and has practiced what he teaches. 

 As I read this book, I sensed his acceptance and optimism, but also his fierce engagement with society and our planet. In the book he says:
“When you wake up and you see that the Earth is not just the environment, the Earth is us, you touch the nature of interbeing. And at that moment you can have real communication with the Earth… We have to wake up together. And if we wake up together, then we have a chance. Our way of living our life and planning our future has led us into this situation. And now we need to look deeply to find a way out, not only as individuals, but as a collective, a species.”

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet lays out the ideal and perhaps necessary conditions that need to exist in society before we can work collectively and effectively for change.

Being mindful of our own acceptance of change, addressing our anger and fear, practicing deeply listening to others, and accepting our connection to other beings on the planet seem like basic precursors to action, and working on these practices looks like something we can all start to address immediately.