COMPASSION IN ACTION: And the Spiritual Ecology of Translating Sky Dragons into Power Grids. By Kyle Lemle

In the time when the nuns sing before the birds, the sun waits patiently as if it would not come at all. Silence given voice in an ocean of sound lapping in all directions - the thick buzz of the living, the chanting street dogs, the great crash of becoming one - the sound of the Himalayas being born to our North - harmonizing with the great crash of cymbols echoing from inside the temple walls where the nuns are busy ushering in the ritual of dawn.

With the crash, half of me becomes awake, the other half still at home in California, running laps around all my creations. And another crash, though I forgot it would come, right on time, the red sun rises over the mountains, like a whale breaching from the depths, and all the green turns to gold. The nuns raise the flag, and another day is blessed. 

Tilokpur Nunnery

Tilokpur Nunnery

I’m here at the Tilokpur Nunnery for a strange experiment, the meeting of 50 nuns and 11 Spiritual Ecology Fellows. We are the guests of Khoryug, a network of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries across the Himalayas working on environmental protection and mitigation. This is the first time Khoryug has hosted a workshop at this nunnery, and the first time a group of foreigners have collaborated with Khoryug on a workshop.

We’ve come together to discuss the desecration of the Himalayas and specific actions the nuns can take to better serve the environment at the personal, community and systemic levels. Despite the majesty of these mountains, the once seemingly impenetrable frontier, they are now undergoing catastrophic changes. Climate change is happening three times faster here than the rest of the world. Tigers are being poached for trade. Over 75% of Himalayan forests have been destroyed or degraded.

Forming the cultural spine of the Himalayas, the Tibetan Buddhist community has woken up to their responsibility in creating cultures of environmental stewardship in light of the big changes underway. Leading the Karma Kagyu lineage response is His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, who has said, “Environmental Conservation must be the essence of our spiritual practice.”

Environmental Conservation must be the essence of our spiritual practice.
— His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

Under His Holiness’ auspices, we gather. The awkwardness is palpable our first morning as we enter the temple’s conference hall. The nuns and Fellows naturally sit on opposite sides of the room from each other. What common language could we possibly teach one another in? My prostrations this morning were abysmal, but I can certainly workshop a workshop, how many times have I talked about the ‘lungs of the Earth?’

“This is my first time being in a workshop,” many of the nuns share as they introduce themselves to the room, cowering away from the microphone.

To start the workshop the nuns offer a prayer of auspiciousness, and the plenary is offered butter tea and sweet rice. We get to work talking about the Earth, its rapid decline, its resilient nature. All of this with the help of five incredible Tibetan interpreters who gracefully translate complex science to the nuns and intricate cosmology back to us.

We talk about the forest: the source of the rest, the mother of rivers, the waste filter of air, the cooler of climate, the home of the animals - its disappearance is bound up with ours. 

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We talk about water: about our murky past, the water in which we are all born. The mechanized separation of water from water.

We talk about wildlife: about humanity’s relative inexperience on this planet, how the 250,000 years of human history is a mere 3% of elephant history walking the Earth.

We talk about waste: about cultures of disposability, how after drinking a bottle of water it takes only two seconds to dispense what will take thousands of years to decompose. We arrive at a new definition for plastic: the exploitation of the energy of our ancestors for our immediate convenience.

We talk about the the science of the greenhouse effect, a concept which many of the nuns have never learned. In return they offer the following interpretation of climate change: the karmic dragon born from the spells of the animals who are dying at the hands of humans.

Climate Change: the karmic dragon born from the spells of the animals who are dying at the hands of humans.
— Tilokpur nuns

The internal heat manifesting external heat manifesting internal heat. Our Indian neighbors further South in Delhi had nowhere to run from the 50 degree C heat this year.

After all the problems of the Earth are named, we are asked to come up with solutions, together. The nuns know better than us the origins of greed, the fires of delusion, the sacredness of life - following the instructions of the Buddha they stay inside the nunnery every year for the duration of the monsoon months to avoid stepping on creatures of the rain. Their solutions come first from the principle of non-harming.

And maybe for the first time ever participating in a workshop, I try not to jump to efficient conclusions, to blaming, to inciting revolution. Here, I am asked to look at my own mind, the same mind that births the problems of our worlds. Turning inward for mere seconds and I can find how greedy my activism can be, the same energy that takes down polluting systems also makes war.

All this time we’ve spent trying to paint the boat blue when at the bottom of the boat there is a 200 year old leak and I am the problem I seek. Ecology is like the Golden Rule but what I do unto others I do to myself. Scientists call it climate change, Buddhists calls it Karma. This is why the Khenpo of the nunnery implores us “with Karma comes responsibility.”

The challenge today is to come up with a practical solution for helping Himalayan forests, so the nuns, my project partner Kailea, and I put our heads together. The nuns explain that many of the trees they planted have died. We discern that they were planted too young, their roots were not established enough to withstand drought, weeds, wind, monkeys and cows.

So we agree to improve resilience through building an on-site nursery to grow larger trees for planting later. A scientific solution to young tree loss and a spiritual solution to caring for life in our own backyard. 

Forestry workshop at Tilokpur Nunnery with the Tilokpur nuns, a translator, and Spiritual Ecology fellows, Kailea Frederick and Kyle Lemle.

Forestry workshop at Tilokpur Nunnery with the Tilokpur nuns, a translator, and Spiritual Ecology fellows, Kailea Frederick and Kyle Lemle.

And after hours of forming our nursery plan, when we are on the verge of designing an operational strategy, when asked to come up with our final call to action, the nuns suggest that the nursery can happen later; writing a song will be a better use of our time together. I swallow my sense of urgency.

One of the younger nuns in our group, Lobsang Palmo, who was silent for the entire workshop finally speaks up. She reminds us that any living thing could have been our mother in a past life including the forest dwelling insects, animals and spirits. So we write a song together called “Eight Steps How to be a Best Friend to a Tree.” It’s about mothering all things, knowing they will care for us when we are old. And just when we think we are getting somewhere with the song, the bell rings for tea and biscuits.

The workshop comes to a close with a great feast and a Karaoke rendition of “My Heart Will Go On.” The veil of shyness shown in our initial meeting is lifted, revealing trust - our most precious commodity according to our facilitator and mentor Dekila Chungyalpa. The nuns all vy for the microphone passing it from one to the other, expressing words and songs of prayer and gratitude. And in the morning as we load our vans for departure, the nuns shower us with the traditional blessing of white scarves, so many blessings we have no more limbs to wrap them in.

They brought their study of inner environmental change, we brought our study of outer environmental change and we crashed to our mutual confusion, our mutual enlightenment. For the nuns compassion is action and sometimes the greatest action is stillness. In ceremony every morning from their cushions they shower all beings with wishes of wellness, wishes of freedom. Now, we hope they have a few more tools with which to rise from their cushions and tend their garden, a few more ideas of where their plastic biscuit wrappers may go after they are offered to Buddha, and even a vision of a future in which offerings are made with no plastic at all.

As for me, I’m still left with the question of what a prayer does. Who listens and how long does it last? I even have outcome metrics for chanting, for lighting butter lamps. But like many of my colleagues, I often burn out before the lamp, my internal resources become depleted before the projects are finished. Perhaps all I can do is show up in peace to my work, without attachment to results, to changing the world. For me it will be about flipping the question, not where can I be of most service, but how can I create the conditions for service to flow naturally through me?

It would be more convenient to continue as usual in our respective worlds, it’s hard to translate sky dragons into electrical power grids. But on the brink of collapse, we lean in, we learn from each other. And maybe one morning after the songs are uttered, the cymbols crash, and the flag is raised, the nuns will look out to the mountain side and see the forest they brought into being from their own nursery, I will be singing the nun’s forest song with a gospel choir of anxious UN bureaucrats, and we will know ourselves enough not to hurt ourselves. 

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Kyle Lemle is a tree planter and community-based natural resource management professional with experience working for international and grassroots NGOs from Bhutan to Thailand to California. He is an inaugural recipient of the Spiritual Ecology Youth Fellowship and is currently working with leading scientists and religious leaders around the world to empower diverse moral imperatives for conservation. The Fellowship brought him to India to work with Khoryug at a Tibetan Nunnery near Dharmshala and then to Vandana Shiva’s biodiversity farm and seed saving institute called “Navdanya” from where he writes to us. He can be reached at kyle.lemle@gmail.com

Fall Field Visit to Northern India

In October, the 11 fellows comprising this year’s Spiritual Ecology Fellowship program gathered in Northern India for a two-week-long field visit where they met with environmental leaders whose work embodies the main principles of spiritual ecology. This was the second of four retreats occurring over the nine-month program. The overall aim of the fellowship is to equip a select group of emerging leaders who have the potential to be catalysts of change, with the necessary tools and insights to develop projects that put spiritual values into social and environmental action.

After arriving in Delhi, the group headed north to Dharamsala, a city that sits in the Himalayan mountains and is now home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. There, the group had the opportunity to meet two of Tibetan Buddhism’s most influential leaders: His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. 

In a private audience with His Holiness the Karmapa, the fellows asked questions about the environment and how he became inspired to start KHORYUG, a network of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in the Himalayan Region working on environmental protection; an initiative that the fellows were soon to participate in. He spoke to the significance of protecting the environment given humanity’s interdependent relationship with all living things. He also gave advice for how the fellows could meaningfully participate in an upcoming workshop at a KHORYUG nunnery. He stressed the importance of simple human connection, having fun, and creating relationships with the nuns.

In the library with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa at Gyuto Monastery in Dharamsala, India.

In the library with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa at Gyuto Monastery in Dharamsala, India.

In the afternoon, the group met with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, who is also an author and teacher. In speaking with her, they learned more about the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and its contributions for bestowing wisdom and compassion when looking at the root of social and ecological crises. All were inspired by her life-long commitment to promoting equal rights and opportunities for Buddhist nuns.
 

KHORYUG SPIRITUAL ECOLOGY WORKSHOP

The following day, fellows drove to the Tilokpur nunnery for a five-day environmental workshop with KHORYUG. After arriving to butter tea and sweet rice, the group met with fellowship mentor and KHORYUG environmental coordinator, Dekila Chungyalpa, and her graduate assistant, Damaris Miller.

This was the first time that outsiders were brought in to conduct a workshop with KHORYUG. Around 30 nuns, ages 15 – 30, participated. The fellows, at first somewhat nervous and sensitive to the limitations of having to provide the “scientific” analysis in the workshop, and the nuns, at first shy in meeting the Western newcomers, quickly formed a level of trust with one another that allowed for everyone to have a memorable experience and fruitful exchange of ways of looking at the issues.

For the second half of the workshop, the fellows and nuns broke into small groups centered on water, waste, wildlife, forests, and climate change. The nuns discussed some of the local issues that they’re facing in the area, and together in their small groups, devised local solutions to the problems by bridging scientific analysis with Buddhist values. On the last day of the workshop, the fellows and nuns used their creativity to present their solutions using song, poetry, film, and play.

The climate change group, for instance, co-created a poem called “Cherish the Earth” and assembled it to the tune of a song often sang in reverence to the Karmapa by his followers. Part of the poem reads:

Ancient treasures beneath the soil, plundered by greed.
Pure streams of life blood, mixed with poisons of speed.
Magnificent grassland, grazed down to sands with no seeds. 
Who on Earth is dreaming nightmares into heartless deeds?

Wishing to serve the teachers' noble vision.
Protecting nature is now our humble mission. 
Sisters and brothers dearest to the heart, 
All sentient beings on Earth, never apart.


For the closing of the workshop, everyone met together in the main dining hall for a final meal and post-dinner party full of music, dance, and uncontrollable laughter. The next morning, trying to hold back tears, the fellows said their good-byes to an inspirational group of nuns who bestowed both wisdom and insight on their Western peers. At every turn, white scarfs (khatas), a blessing in Tibetan Buddhism, were placed around the necks of those departing. Upon leaving, we waved goodbye until we could no longer see their smiling faces.
 

NAVDANYA FARM

At Navdanya Farm with Dr. Vandana Shiva in Dehradun, India.

At Navdanya Farm with Dr. Vandana Shiva in Dehradun, India.

The last days of the retreat were spent at Dr. Vandana Shiva’s seed saving farm Navdanya, located just outside of Dehradun, the capital city of Uttarakhand, that sits at the edge of the Himalayan foothills. Upon arriving to the farm in the morning, Dr. Shiva took a break from planning for the upcoming Monsanto Tribunal and Peoples Assembly at The Hague, to sit down with the fellows. Dr. Shiva’s ability to answer rather challenging questions posed by the fellows in relation to her work and spiritual ecology—e.g. how seeds embody a sacred code of the universe—conferred that she indeed posses the same intellect, eminence, and prowess in person as she does in her library of scholarship. Closing the second retreat with a visit to Dr. Shiva’s seed saving farm was an inspiration to the fellows that instilled in them yet another successful example of a project that has become a catalyst of change by putting the principles of spiritual ecology into action.


UPCOMING: Winter Retreat in California

The fellows will meet again in Inverness, California, this coming January, for a one-week retreat focused on leadership training and project development. Joanna Macy and others will be joining as mentors. Now that the fellows have seen firsthand in India what it takes to implement and run successful social and environmental projects, they will continue to integrate that learning into strengthening their own projects that they have been developing throughout the course of the program. At the closing retreat in April 2017, the fellows will be able to apply for seed funding to forward their projects beyond the fellowship.

We are humbled by the success of the inaugural year of this program. These emerging leaders reflect the great potential to build a tomorrow that is rooted in the spiritual values of interconnectedness, stewardship, service and reverence for nature. We are looking forward to next year when we’ll welcome another group of young people ready to be catalysts of change.

Applications for the 2016-17 Spiritual Ecology Fellowship are now open. The deadline to apply is March 15, 2017.  If you are interested in in the program, and are between the ages of 22 – 30, then you can apply here.

Spring Retreat on Whidbey Island and Upcoming Fall Field Visit in India

Spring Retreat on Whidbey Island

The Spiritual Ecology Youth Fellowship program gathered for the first time at a summer retreat from 20 through 28 July, 2016, in Whidbey Island, Washington to explore the main principles of spiritual ecology. The 11 participating fellowsmet with program director, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, and mentors, Tiokasin Ghosthorse and Dekila Chungyalpa, to consider how the values of stewardship, service, interconnectedness, and reverence for nature can be applied practically to projects capable of creating fundamental and lasting change. The fellows—bringing diverse experiences in storytelling, forestry, medicine, marine biology, climate justice, advocacy, design, education, and social justice—envision a common commitment to creating the spaces capable of rebalancing humanity’s role in the delicate web of life.

With Lakota Wisdom Keeper, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, the fellows built a tipi, explored it’s cosmology, and participated in a water ceremony, learning how to integrate the values of reciprocity, respect for Mother Earth, and interconnectedness into ways of thinking, being and relating in the world. Dekila Chungyalpa, a 2014 McCluskey Fellow in Conservation at Yale and former director of WWF’s Sacred Earth Program, mentored the fellows by providing insightful feedback to the early rounds of their project development, which they will work on throughout the fellowship, and be able to apply for seed funding for at their last retreat in the Spring (2017).


Fall Field Visit: India

Next, we will head to Northern India for a 12-day field visit in late September, 2016, to learn from leading practitioners in the field about how to implement social and environmental regeneration projects.

Dekila Chungyalpa is working closely with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa and KHORYUG, a network of Buddhist monestaries and centers in the Himalayas working on environmental programs that practically apply the values of compassion and interdependence towards the Earth and all living beings. Dekila has arranged a five-day interactive workshop with the fellows and a KHORYUG nunnery to explore integrated solutions to some of the Region’s most pressing environmental challenges.

The second portion of the fall field visit will be spent with Vandana Shiva at her seed saving farm Navdanya, where fellows will have the opportunity to attend the annual Agroecology and Organic Farming Systems gathering.

We’re exited that our inaugural year has gotten off to such a strong start and look forward to sharing news of our fellows' journey over the coming months. Applications for next year’s (2017-18) fellowship will open September 2016.

At Dawn

"The cosmology of where we come from is where we're going."—Tiokasin Ghosthorse. I'm still reflecting on this last week spent with the Spiritual Ecology Youth Fellowship (SEYF) where we were honored to be hosted through teachings from Tiokasin Ghosthorse of the Lakota Nation. 

One of the key days of this meeting was when we were instructed to build this tipi. Each pole was infused by us individually as we tied our prayers onto the top end before placing each one in careful alignment with the next, creating the skeleton for which to wrap the canvas around. 

Somehow the metaphor of this continues to strike me again and again. Through individual and careful reflection we create the fragile space for true and long standing relations. There could not be a more pertinent time to ask ourselves where we have come from and where we are going." 

—Kailea Frederick, Spiritual Ecology Fellow

Photo by Kailea Frederick

Photo by Kailea Frederick

Living & Breathing Public Service

Spiritual Ecology Fellow Vy Tran is pursuing a co-terminal master's degree in Community Health & Prevention Research and began her public service journey as a medical interpreter – in Vietnamese and Spanish – for patients at a nearby medical center. She is interested in how environment impacts health. 

“I see research as a way to scale up service by advocating for certain legislation or certain populations that are unable to speak for themselves,” Tran said. “While I’m still very committed to direct service, I realized that if I wanted to scale up my impact I needed to tackle change on a systemic level.”

Read the article

Last Word with Farmer-Author Wendell Berry

Guy Mendes

Guy Mendes

Modern Farmer: What is a modern farmer?

Wendell Berry: An industrial farmer. We need to say that the countryside is suffering from want of caretakers. Farming at its best was diversified and very well done. The people who did that work here are dead or gone and their children are gone. They’re being replaced by huge machines and toxic chemicals. Industrial farming leads away from and against what Aldo Leopold called the “land community.”

Modern Farmer: What should a modern farmer be instead?

Wendell Berry: A farmer who has understood the dependence of agriculture on nature. The responsible farmer would not own more land than he or she could know well and pay close attention to and care for properly. Farming has to do with everything. We can’t reduce it to a transaction between a technician and a machine...

Read the article on Modern Farmer

Subtle Activism: Spiritual Responsibility at this Time of Global Crisis and Transformation

David Thomas Nicol interviews Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee for the Subtle Activism Summit, The Inner Dimension of Peace Building.

Subtle Activism is an emerging subject that explores how spiritual practices can effect not only individual but also collective or global transformation. This interview explores this bigger dimension of spiritual practice, and also how many of these practices traditionally give us access to the inner worlds, where we can work with the forces within creation to help the regeneration of the Earth. It looks at the power of prayer as well as ways of working with the energies of the archetypal world. Finally it explains how we need to bring our connection to the Real into our daily life.  Listen to the interview here:

‘Who Speaks Wukchumni?’ Short film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee on The New York Times

"Throughout the United States, many Native American languages are struggling to survive. According to Unesco, more than 130 of these languages are currently at risk, with 74 languages considered “critically endangered.” These languages preserve priceless cultural heritage, and some hold unexpected value — nuances in these languages convey unparalleled knowledge of the natural world." —Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee from ‘Who Speaks Wukchumni?’ on The New York Times

This short documentary profiles the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, a Native American language, and her creation of a comprehensive dictionary. By Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

This short documentary profiles the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, a Native American language, and her creation of a comprehensive dictionary. By Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee


A New Monasticism for Our Times, Part 2: Inspiring Transformation in the Heart of Radical Change by Rory McEntee, Foundation for New Monasticism

"The Fool Praying" by Cecil Collins

"The Fool Praying" by Cecil Collins

There can be no doubt that a great renewal of society and culture is needed. Our capitalistic and predatory economy is failing us, continuing to create wider gaps between the haves and have-nots. It is a soulless world-vision, leading to wide spread depression and the devastation of our planet -- a far cry from that which lies deepest in our hearts, the sacred dimension of life where the very depths of our humanity is found. 

This sense of the sacred is not something that needs to be defined for you, by dogmas or beliefs or teachings, but rather is that which resides deepest in your own heart, in your own being, in your own experience of Life.

Read the article on Huffington Post

Thich Nhat Hanh: Hearing the Cry of the Earth

Walking mindfully on Earth

Whether we can wake up or not depends on whether we can walk mindfully on our Mother Earth. The future of all life, including our own, depends on our mindful steps.

We have to hear the bells of mindfulness that are sounding all across our planet. We have to start learning how to live in a way that a future will be possible for our children and our grandchildren.

I have sat with the Buddha for a long time and consulted him about the issue of global warming, and the teaching of the Buddha is very clear.

Pope Francis: The Earth, our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth

NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise" by NASA / Bill Anders

NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise" by NASA / Bill Anders

The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilised in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected. Read full article