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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org