GETTING DOWN TO EARTH
A dharma sister in Brazil just sent me the link to a wonderful new website, www.ecobuddhism.org, which has posted my teacher’s aspiration prayer for the planet as well as His Holiness Karmapa’s 108 must-dos to save the Earth and green the world. The list includes planting a vegetable garden and fruit trees, composting, being vegetarian and dishing the dirt to make young people more earthy and ecological. Best of all, it says to make healthy offerings of fruits and trees instead of candy and biscuits, and to plant trees as a long life aspiration equal to releasing birds and fish. This is wondrous news.
It is especially thrilling because it describes what has been uniquely happening in my teacher’s sangha for the last ten years. I had no idea we would be the vanguard of a new movement when in March of 2000 I barged into the no water, no electricity, dirt floor kitchen of my Rinpoche’s Kathmandu boarding school to cook for 250 undernourished kids. But with the magic of those Biblical loaves and fishes, the three meals I prepared provoked huge changes in food shopping, that led to cooking classes, gardens, compost, nutrition talks—and inevitably a stream of “help us too” pleas from others who saw the children’s energy and immunity blossom. Last week I was asked by another Rinpoche’s monastery to come quickly to its kitchen. It had 100 young monks whose health needed boosting.
The noble truth of what has become the veggiyana is that strong bodies make strong minds. Almost 775 years ago, the Zen Buddhist patriarch Dogen Zenji wrote in one of his most important teachings that taking diligent care in the kitchen enables all members of the Dharma community to practice in the most stable way. Hunger, fatigue and sickness, he noted, are unbeatable distractions.
Sadly, it doesn't take long to see that Himalayan people are more often than not malnourished. Mainly this is due to their traditional penchant for eating, to the exclusion of anything else except chilies, endless quantities of white food: bread, potatoes, rice, noodles, daikon, cauliflower and milk. Every Rinpoche or Khenpo I have cooked for suffers, not surprisingly, from high blood pressure and diabetes due to this diet. It definitely shortens their lives. So saving Dharma seemed to mean, for starters at least, making food more colorful, and fruitful.
Then Karmapa came along and said make the food more vegetarian. Protein became the problem for Tibetans hooked on meat, milk and butter. Cold turkey vegetarianism also exacerbated widespread iron deficiency. Two years ago, I was running around Kathmandu filling up trucks with kilo jars of peanut butter and sacks of raisins. Two years before that, I drove totally across the valley with half a banana tree on my lap, sticking out of the taxi windows, in order to get enough bananas to those 250 kids. That's when I knew fruits had to get closer to the kitchen and started to buy trees. I inadvertently and unknowingly smashed a pile of taboos by telling the monks to get their hands dirty in a garden and an orchard if they wanted long lives and strong minds.
Now Karmapa is telling them it’s a must-do more important even than meditating. So at Namo Buddha monastery they’ve planted over 2000 trees in the last eight months and tripled the size of the small vegetable garden we started. The abbess of the Tara Abbey nunnery where two dozen fruit trees were delivered last December told me with a beatific smile how wonderful it was to see her young students learn to touch the earth the way the old villagers where she comes from do. No nun is fainting any more, too weak from malnutrition to stay on the path.
What began with me taking off from a meditation seminar to learn the nutritional qualities of all the lentils in Nepal, what I called running around memorizing the difference in a hill of beans, so I could feed 250 people for one day has become an ad hoc program spread to the stomachs of thousands every day --and in a culture whose common Hello is: Have you eaten rice yet? The extra money offered for food has reduced the cost of infirmaries, infirmities and medicines. It is strengthening bodies for the extra effort to garden, which is reducing not only the cost of food itself but also the higher cost of driving a truck long distance to procure it, which reduces stress on the planet. It strengthens minds not only for meditation but the extra curricular classes in cooking and nutrition that empower students and monks to return to their mountain villages ready to reduce the rampant malnutrition there and break the ongoing cycle of physical suffering. Lama Sherab of Tsum has called for help.
The schoolchildren are composting, tending a few fruit trees in the school yard and menu planning for cooking class every Saturday in which they prepare lunch for the entire school, population now over 500. They now know that raisins have iron which makes them peppy and peanuts have protein which makes them strong. They seem to love all this hands on extra curricular stuff. The Roots and Shoots Club that Jane Goodall started for them is now at the nunnery and monastery as well, along side puja practice.
Many dharma sisters and brothers have happily joined hands in this veggiyana. Dharma Gaia Trust is out there supporting Buddhists supporting the environment, and contributed to those 2,000 trees. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche is out there this spring teaching on minimum needs and maximum contentment. In an interview on the ecobuddhism website, he says: “Powerful interests might not be able to experience a change of heart—greed is not easily changed, after all. The karma is really ripening, and at the same time virtue is appearing in front of all of us. We can see that choice clearly. Instead of affecting indifference, we should reflect and act appropriately. As Buddhists, we can make strong aspirations for positive change to come about, within a time frame that is not too late. Thinking negatively, blaming anyone or feeling hopeless will not help. Taking hope and taking action is what will transform things.”
Who knew ten years ago in a dirt floor, electricity and water free kitchen, cooking red beans, rice pudding and eggs could do exactly that? Welcome to a world where giving peanuts makes a big difference.
I am setting up a website, www.veggiyana.org, for the dish on what's happening in the sangha kitchens and gardens around Nepal, so anyone hungry to transform things can come to the table. It will be ready in June. Om mani padme hung.
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.