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.


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.


  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.