Dekila Chungyalpa visited Bodh Gaya, a religious site associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Gaya district in Bihar, northwestern India in 2007. It is here where Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment and where Chungyalpa experienced an epiphany of her own that would create an unbreakable bond between religion and nature conservation.
The Sikkim-born conservationist was here to attend a talk on compassion towards animals given by the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, spiritual head of one of the major Tibetan Buddhist lineages.
Chungyalpa aspired to be a vegetarian but failed consistently at each attempt. Then when the 17th Karmapa asked his audience to consider not eating meat for one meal, or a day, or a week and more, it was a revelation. She suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, became a vegetarian. Not only was it a spiritual awakening but also an intellectual one.
Live in harmony
“I experienced first-hand how a religious leader could, with only a few words, influence thousands of people to change their behavior. It opened up a whole new way of approaching conservation, which had simply not occurred to me before”, says Chungyalpa, an associate research scientist at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Two years later, Chungyalpa founded and ran the pioneering faith-based conservation program, Sacred Earth: Faiths for Conservation, at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Valuing all life on Earth is at the heart of today’s environmental ethos. Trying to live in harmony with nature is one of its basic tenets. Every religion has scriptures that expound such a view.
For example, in Genesis in the Bible, God speaks to Noah and tells him that he now establishes a covenant between himself and every living creature on the ark.
Similarly, in the Koran, there is specific mention that all animals, including creatures that fly with wings, are precious to Allah. Hinduism also has a deep reverence for nature, for different wild animals who have symbolic power and subscribe to the Dharmic law of Ahimsa, non-violence, as a way of life.
Plans for conservation
The roots of nature conservation in the United States are deeply spiritual. In 1903, John Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club, convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to create the US Protected Area system, with the argument that this would protect the ‘creation of God’.
He saw nature and biodiversity as the best evidence of there being a benevolent God and that faith based argument helped established Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier National Parks.
In recent years, the UK-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) has pioneered the development of conservation projects based around the fundamental teachings, beliefs and practices of the world’s major religions.
It was the brainchild of HRH Prince Philip, then president of the World Wildlife Fund, who invited the leaders of the five major world religions to discuss how could help save the natural world.
In 2012, the Many Heavens, One Earth, Our Continent conference was hosted by the ARC in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was a celebration of the many faith groups across Africa who was launching their long term plans for conservation.
A spiritual faith
During the conference, fifty African religious leaders representing different faiths and nationalities announced a joint partnership to denounce the massacre of elephants and rhions and wildlife trafficking generally.
And, earlier this year, the Religion and Conservation Biology working group of the Society for Conservation Biology established the inaugural Assisi Award during their 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology, Cartagena, Columbia.
The award acknowledges organisations and individuals whose work demonstrates that faith-based conservation is contributing significantly to the common global effort of conserving life on Earth.
Most people are religious. It’s estimated that over 80 percent of people in the world embrace a spiritual faith (there are some two billion Christians, 1.34 billion Muslims, 950 million Hindus and two hundred million Buddhists).
In addition, many of the world’s most important nature conservation sites are also sacred. But these places also face overwhelming threats, including deforestation, pollution, unsustainable extraction, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. Such threats not only endanger the integrity of ecosystems but also leave the people who live there impoverished and vulnerable.
While religion can be a God-send in the battle to conserve nature, tens of thousands of wild animals have been poached (some to the brink of extinction) to satisfy our religious devotion.
African elephant ivory are carved into religious artifacts such as saints for Catholics in the Philippines and elsewhere. They are also crafted into Islamic prayer beads for Muslims and Coptic crosses for Christians in Egypt as well as amulets and carvings for Buddhists and Taoist in Thailand, and in China-the world’s biggest ivory-consumer.
Rhino horn also has its importance to Islam. In the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, the horn continues to be coveted by Muslim men, although imports were banned in 1982.
The material, whose luster increases with age, is used for the handles of curved daggers called ‘jambiya,’ which are presented to 12-year old Yemeni (jambiya are considered a sign of manhood and devotion to the Muslim religion, and are used for personal defense). Yemeni men place great value on the dagger handles, which are commonly studded with jewels.
The elephant is revered in Buddhism (it is the symbol for Thailand). And, there is a pan Asian belief that ivory removes bad spirits. In China, religious themes are common in carved ivory pieces. Chinese Nouveau rich are frantically collecting ivory in the form of Buddhist and Taoist gods and goddesses.
Furthermore, Buddhist monks in China perform a ceremony called kaiguang, the opening of light, to consecrate religious icons, just as some Filipino priests will bless Catholic images made of illegal ivory for their followers.
WWF’s Sacred Earth program successfully targeted conservation initiatives in different priority places such as the Mekong, East Africa and the Amazon.
The Himalayas was also another conservation priority area for the Sacred Earth Program (Chungyalpa’s childhood was spent exploring the wilderness of western Sikkim, an ecological hotspot in the lower Himalayas).The Buddhist monasteries and nunneries are in some of Asia’s most fragile and ecologically important landscapes.
The Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas are the water towers of Asia. They contain the world’s largest reserve of freshwater outside the north and south poles. This area gives rise to many of the great rivers in mainland Asia including the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween and Yangtse.
The combined human population in these basins is over 1.5 billion, almost 20% of the world population. At the same time, the region is also immensely vulnerable to climate change with temperatures in Tibet rising by 0.4 degree centigrade per decade-double the global average!
The combination of these factors means that as glaciers melt and monsoon patterns change due to climate change, over a billion people are at risk of experiencing face crop failures, water shortages, power losses, floods, and droughts at much higher frequencies.
“The awareness of protecting life and living environment in Buddhism is one of the main basic laws which were set out by the Buddha,” says Khenpo Chokey, a senior monk at Pullahari Monestry in Nepal, which runs several conservation and environment-friendly initiatives including tree planting, vegetable gardening and waste management.
Buddha taught the concepts of interdependence cause and effect (karma) and doing the right thing (dharma).The ‘Thripitaka’ (Three Baskets of Buddha’s teachings) the Buddha expressed his views on environmental protection.
In the Vinaya (rules laid down by Buddha) all forms of plants are to be protected and trees must not be cut. Monks and nuns observe the Rain Retreat during which they stay within the monastery/nunnery compound to minimize stepping on insects and sprouting grass.
As the then director of the WWF Sacred Earth programme, Chungyalpa was asked by Ogyen Trinley Dorje to collaborate with his senior monks to create a set of environmental guidelines for Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and centers in the Himalayas.
All monasteries are vegetarian
“The guidelines were unique in that they presented the science and solutions for major environmental threats facing the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau within the philosophical framework of Buddhism”, says Chungyalpa.
These efforts has resulted in the establishment of KHORYUG, an association of over 50 influential Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries across the Himalayas (www.khoryug.info) (stretching from Ladakh in northwest India all the way to Bhutan).
These monasteries/nunneries, under the auspices of the 17th Karmapa, eventually developed their own conservation projects that directly engage Buddhist monastics: these included organic farming, rooftop water harvesting, reforestation, river clean ups.
Their efforts are having an impact. For example, there is the annual plantation of over 25,000 indigenous tree saplings locally, as well as a shift to solar energy as the primary source of water heating and kitchen facilities in twenty-one of the monasteries.
In addition, all Khoryug institutions are plastic-free and segregate waste for recycling. All of them have community clean up days where they clean public areas once a month. All monasteries are vegetarian partly due to Buddhist principles and partly due to climate change.
Climate disaster management
More importantly, the last three years of training has resulted in a group of monks and nuns who are qualified to become trainers themselves and who now lead training conferences for other monastics and local community members on the topics of climate change, disaster management, and community emergency response team training.
For example, Rumtek monastery – the largest monastery in the state of Sikkim – carried out their own 5 day climate disaster management training conference last year, with representation from over 75 percent of monasteries of different lineages attending.
In addition, KHORYUG has put out three publications during this period: “Environmental Guidelines:, “108 Things You Can Do” and, most recently, Disaster Management Guidelines”
Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades but is originally from Springfield Gardens, Queens, New York.