Not far from Hanoi, Vietnam, off a long road that winds through plush green rice fields and banana plantations, sits Chua Phuc Son, a small pagoda in a quaint district called Gia Lam. The pagoda is the solitary home of a Zen monk named Thich Tinh Giac, who in addition to practicing the dharma is on a mission to educate his fellow Vietnamese about protecting the environment.

As a monk, Tinh Giac has a powerful voice in Vietnamese society, and he takes that responsibility seriously. The connection between religion and environmentalism is not abstract for Tinh Giac, who has witnessed the damage inflicted by some religious rituals to Hanoi’s ecosystem. During the Vietnamese Kitchen God festival, for instance, in the week leading up to the Lunar New Year, thousands of Hanoians head to the waterways to release live carp, believing that the Kitchen God will ride the fish to heaven, carrying away the bad fortune of the past year. Back in 2010, Tinh Giac looked on in disbelief as people tossed carp, and then the plastic bags they came in, into the Red River.

“When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, this is very bad for the environment.’ So I stopped and tried to pick up all the rubbish. Then I gave everyone a talking-to,” Tinh Giac recalls.

Every year since then, Tinh Giac has gone down to the water at festival time to collect the discarded plastic bags. Wading through the gray waterways in his brown robes, the monk has attracted attention, has been featured in national newspapers and has been on TV, making him a minor celebrity in Vietnam. In his favor, environmentalism is on the rise among the youth; now when he goes to pick up trash, Tinh Giac is joined by a growing cohort of students.

Tinh Giac is on the progressive side of the Mahayana tradition in northern Vietnam, and he dismisses many traditional rituals.

“I ask them, ‘Have you seen it [the Kitchen God]?’ They say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘OK, but it’s a good story.’” He says this with a cheeky grin, his default expression.

Now when he goes to pick up trash, Tinh Giac is joined by a growing cohort of students.

Tinh Giac goes on—laughing, waving his hands, slapping his knee—to explain that the tale is supposed to be taken not literally but rather as an allegory illustrating a core Buddhist tenet: “The meaning of releasing the fish is to practice compassion and pay respect to the lives of others,” he says.

Tinh Giac himself became interested in environmentalism while studying in Australia, where he developed his passion for the natural world as well as a penchant for being frank. Still, he remains respectful. He says that he must understand the root of a problem to fix it and that education is key, particularly for older generations who have followed their customs and traditions for years.“They need someone to give them a new lesson and good education to change their mind to change their actions,” Tinh Giac says.

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Dead carp float to the top of Hanoi’s Red River following their release at a festival. | Photo by VnExpress / Ngoc Thanh

Admittedly, this is an uphill battle. Along with Buddhist practices, Vietnamese people follow elements of Taoism, Confucianism, and local folk religions. Each has its own rituals that, like the release of fish, can be wasteful or damaging to the environment. His neighbors and other visitors commonly ask him for advice on burning fake money for the dead or discarding “unlucky” incense bowls and altars by throwing them into a river.

“You reap what you sow,” Tinh Giac says. He means it metaphorically, but he literally grows most of his own fruits and vegetables—often in cracked incense bowls that he has salvaged from the Red River and repurposed as planters.“You plant the seed . . . fertilize it, water it, and look after it well. So in the future, it has fruit.”

This is the heart of what Tinh Giac believes, and it’s catching on. The monk has three formal students who live some 800 kilometers away, but he is supported by Gia Lam’s villagers, some of whom he also teaches on an ad hoc basis. He estimates that 95 percent of the locals no longer burn fake money, throw rubbish into the river, or release carp for the Kitchen God. They have a whole new outlook. And if Tinh Giac gets his way, their future will be a whole lot greener.