This Buddhist Monk Is An Unsung Hero In The World's Climate Fight

The architect of the historic Paris climate negotiations credits the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh with helping broker the deal.

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND -- One of the guiding forces behind the scenes of the Paris climate agreement is an 89-year-old Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk.

Christiana Figueres, who led the climate talks, has credited Thich Nhat Hanh with having played a pivotal role in helping her to develop the strength, wisdom and compassion needed to forge the unprecedented deal backed by 196 countries.

Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says the teachings of Thay, as he is known to his hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, “literally fell into my lap” when she was going through a deep personal crisis three years ago.

She says the Buddhist philosophy of Thay, who is currently recovering from a serious stroke, helped her to deal with the crisis while also allowing her to maintain her focus on the climate talks.

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Cyrus McCrimmon via Getty Images

Figueres said she realized that "I have to have something here, because otherwise I can't deal with this and do my job, and it was very clear to me that there was no way that I could take a single day off,” she told The Huffington Post this week at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

“This has been a six-year marathon with no rest in between," she said. "I just really needed something to buttress me, and I don't think that I would have had the inner stamina, the depth of optimism, the depth of commitment, the depth of the inspiration if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.”

United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres.
United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres.

So what did Thay teach her?

Figueres illustrates this via a visit she made to his monastery in Waldbrol, Germany, which was once a mental institution with 700 patients, before the Nazis came along to exterminate them and took over the premises for the Hitler Youth.

She says Thay chose to locate his monastery there “because he wanted to prove that it is completely possible to turn pain into love, to turn being a victim into being a victor, to turn hate into love and forgiveness, and he was intent in showing that in this place that had been associated with such absolute, inhuman cruelty.”

“The first thing that he did was he wrote to the Buddhist community and he said, ‘I want hearts. I want hand-sewn hearts, one for each of the patients who were killed here, so that we can begin to transform this building, and this space, and this energy,'" Figueres told HuffPost.

“It was such a powerful story for me, right? Because in many ways, that is the journey that we have been on in the climate negotiations," she continued. "It is a journey from blaming each other, to actually collaborating. It's a journey from feeling completely paralyzed, helpless, exposed to the elements, to actually feeling empowered that we can do this."

“It's actually been for me internally a beautiful journey of healing. So for me, I've sort of been living life at many different levels, because I had to turn my own personal crisis, I had to transform that," Figueres went on to say. "I'm still in the midst of that, I'm not going to say I'm way over on the other side, but I had to do that for myself."

“I felt this is exactly the energy that the climate change convention negotiations need, all inspired, you know, by this amazing teaching,” she said.


In fact when Thay arrived for the first time at the former Nazi headquarters, which has 400 rooms, he wrote a letter to the patients who died, which is read every day at the monastery by the monks and nuns who live there.

“Now the Sangha [community] has come, the Sangha has heard and understood your suffering and the injustice you endured,” it says. “The people who caused your suffering have also suffered a lot. They did not know what they were doing at that time. So please allow compassion and forgiveness to be born in your heart so that they also can have a chance to transform and heal. Please support the Sangha and the next many generations of practitioners so that we can transform these places of suffering into places of transformation and healing, not only for Waldbrol but for the whole country of Germany and the world."

Thay, who is considered by many to be the father of mindfulness in the West and has been an environmentalist activist for more than two decades, has other monasteries around the world and has built the fastest-growing monastic order in the world. He is also well respected by senior leaders across the United States.

“I don't think I would have had the inner stamina, the depth of optimism, the depth of commitment, the depth of the inspiration if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.””

- U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres

Last year, he was invited by the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, to the organization's Washington headquarters for an event with the staff. Kim's favorite book is Thay's The Miracle of Mindfulness, and he praises the Zen monk's practice for being "deeply passionate and compassionate toward those who are suffering."

Thay visited Silicon Valley in 2013 at the invitation of Google and was also asked to lead a private day of mindfulness for CEOs of 15 of the world's most powerful technology companies.

Marc Benioff, CEO of cloud computing giant Salesforce, has been actively supporting Thay's rehabilitation after he fell ill.

Thay has led an extraordinary life, including a nomination for the Nobel peace prize from Martin Luther King in 1967 for his work in seeking an end to the Vietnam war. In his nomination King said: "I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."

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