Compassion in Action: And the Spiritual Ecology of Translating Sky Dragons into Power Grids

In the time when the nuns sing before the birds, silence is given voice in an ocean of sound lapping in all directions. With the great crash of symbols echoing from inside the temple walls, the nuns are busy ushering in the ritual of dawn.

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 committed to environmental stewardship.

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 due to rising temperatures and deforestation.

The awkwardness is palpable our first morning as we enter the temple’s conference hall – what common language could we possibly teach one another in? “This is my first time being in a workshop,” many of the nuns share as they introduce themselves. To start the day the nuns offer a prayer of auspiciousness, and the plenary is offered butter tea and sweet rice.

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 waste: about cultures of disposability. 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.

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.

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, the director of the nunnery, implores us “with Karma comes responsibility.”

So our solution we come up with together is to build 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.

The nuns 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. 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?