Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet coverZen and the Art of Saving the Planet

Thich Nhat Hanh

Rider, 2021 plumvillage.org/books

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet is a very worthwhile book with a couple of odd aspects.

The general reader is likely to read it exactly as it is presented, as a book by Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay” to his many followers) with commentaries from one of his senior students. As such, it is wise, gentle and encouraging, like everything else of his that I know.

He argues that the only way to have a sustained positive effect on the world is to work from a position of universal compassion, and the way to reach that position is mindfulness practice. Further, that no-one can do it alone and that, to be most effective, we need to form or join communities consciously working for change.

None of this is particularly specific to saving the planet, and in fact environmental activism as such is hardly mentioned in the middle half of the book. But if our hypothetical general reader takes it all in and applies it, they will be a better and happier person by the end of it, having painlessly absorbed a solid course of Engaged Zen. And then, we hope, they are ready to go on saving the planet.

The author and his writings

Readers with some knowledge of Buddhism may look at the publication date and, remembering the author’s stroke in 2014, wonder how much of it he actually wrote.

It is clear from the credits at its beginning and end that the book was compiled from his talks and writings by a group of his senior students, including Sister T.D., a former BBC journalist who contributed linking commentaries to Thay’s pieces. This process, however, is quite usual for Buddhist books (particularly by teachers who are not native English speakers) and we’re told that Thay expressed his wish for such a book a few years before his stroke, so all that’s really missing is his oversight of the final text.

Some may also remember his The Miracle of Mindfulness (1991) which was drawn from teachings to his Vietnamese followers in the difficult years of the war. At times, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet reads like a reworking of that lovely little book. But that’s fine, too: the lessons are timeless and universal, and only their application changes.

A different kind of Buddhism

Thich Nhat Hanh held an odd position amongst Western teachers of Buddhism, widely respected for his Engaged Buddhism but sometimes doubted for his seemingly new-agey/touchy-feely/lightweight approach. Both views, I think, are rooted in his personal history.

Vietnamese Buddhism is somewhat different from other traditions (close to Chinese Mahayana but influenced by Theravada) and how many Vietnamese monks do we know in the West? And then there were the challenges of the war, which forced him to apply the dharma to very difficult circumstances, and exile in France.

Reading Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, I found myself frequently re-translating his terminology into the English words usually used in Theravada or Chan and realising that his core doctrine is actually very orthodox. Even his “inter-being”, which appears to have no parallels in other traditions, is “not-self” (anatta) looked at from a different angle.

Our doubts, then, are baseless; but his strengths are real.

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