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Environmental Sustainability in South India

By Ven. Gache 

At Sera IMI House, we take whatever measures we can reasonably make to contribute to environmental sustainability. Some aspects of life in India preclude things that we could do more easily in a Western country, like buying organic and using sustainable power. On the other hand, there are many ways that we make less of an environmental impact simply by being here rather than by being in a Western country. Some examples of how we contribute:

-The lifestyle at Sera Jey makes it relatively easy to avoid travel by motorized transport for great lengths of time, often months. Even when we do travel, the local infrastructure makes public transportation options like buses and trains a viable option.

-The food we serve at Sera IMI House is vegan, and we have a house rule that monks cannot purchase meat for consumption within the house.

-We have neither heating nor air-conditioning, and our water is heated by solar panels.

-We do our best to minimize electricity and gas use. Unfortunately, there is no viable alternative to gas for cooking. We have considered the possibility of increasing our solar panels such that they could provide electricity, but so far that has seemed too costly an endeavor. In any case, we have very few appliances, and the natural lighting in the house allows minimal use of electric lights. 

-The house has always hosted a large garden area with many trees, and we have recently initiated a project to plant as many trees as possible both on our own land and on the border with our new Mongolian neighbors.

-We do our best to reduce trash, especially because there is no proper disposal system here (we know that the garbage truck that collects it delivers it to a field where it is burned in an open fire). Local Indian “opportunists” frequently visit, collecting recyclable trash that they either reuse, melt down and rebuild, or deliver to recycling centers. We try as much as possible to give our waste to them.

-Whenever it is available, we try to purchase eco-friendly cleaning agents and other materials.

Although I felt a duty to our planet to plant trees, I had always been somewhat ambivalent about doing so because of the injunction that monks should not dig in the earth. However, the director of the Sera Jey Science Centre shared with me some passages from the vinaya where the Buddha not only allows but specifically instructs monks to plant trees in situations where the environment has been degraded. I was happy to see that the rules were clearly flexible in accordance with the needs of the time.

(1) The Buddha Blessed One was residing at Rajagriha, in the Bamboo Grove of Ja-Kalandaka. When the Buddha established the lord of gods, Sakra, in knowledge of the truth at the Mt. Videha, King Bimbisara inaugurated an annual feast to mark the occasion and gathered all residents of Magadha to that place. Because Mt. Videha was rocky and without trees, the assembled residents of Magadha, tormented by heat, exclaimed: “Alas, Noble Bhikshus! Please plants trees in this place!”

They replied, “Wise Ones, The Blessed One has not given us permission to plant trees!”

The people asked, “Noble Ones, what is wrong with that?”

While they were all waiting their speechless, the Bhikshus explained to the Blessed One and the Blessed One replied, “in that case, I give permission! Please plant trees!”

(2) The Blessed One further instructed, “water them at the proper time.”

If bhikshus were only to put effort into that, their practice of virtue would thoroughly diminish, so the Blessed One instructed, “do not put inordinate effort into that. Sometimes when you wash your hands, or your feet, or chew on tooth-sticks, or clean your begging bowl, or wash yourself, let some water spill onto the trees.

(3) The Blessed One addressed the assembly, “I prescribe the practice of planting trees for bhikshus. Bhikshus, having planted trees, if a flower tree is growing, until it does not sprout flowers, do not leave. If a fruit tree is growing, until it does not bear fruit, do not leave. Bhikshus, having planted tree, until they do not bear flowers or fruit, do not leave.

If an urgent responsibility suddenly arises and the bhikshu must leave, and he thereby doesn’t know what to do, the Buddha addressed them, “such bhikshus should assign a gardener or a bhikshu who is a close friend to look after the trees, and can go having no regret.”

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