A Western Monastic Community’s Response to Climate Change: Sravasti Abbey’s Efforts to Protect the Environment
By the Sravasti Abbey Community
The Sravasti Abbey community created this short paper and video to share what our Buddhist monastic community is doing to protect the environment and reduce climate change. We had hoped to present this at the 2021 gathering of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. However, Covid forced the conference online, the Sakyadhita program was shortened, and we lost that opportunity. We happily offer it to you instead! Watch the video here.
Many people still look to faith traditions for moral and ethical guidance on life choices. Buddhism, like all major world religions, has a special responsibility for taking action against climate change and protecting the environment.
By appealing to ethical principles and values, religious institutions can encourage people to forgo immediate pleasures to secure the well-being of future generations.
Sravasti Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Newport, Washington, USA, seeks to fulfill this role during this time of climate crisis. Abbess Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron founded the Abbey in 2003, and it is currently home to 17 monastics and three trainees.
This paper describes how Abbey monastics practice the six bodhisattva perfections, renunciation, and bodhicitta through our care for the environment and our fellow inhabitants.
Sravasti Abbey has been involved with protecting the environment and responsible stewardship of natural resources since our founding in 2003. This attitude is informed by our Buddhist faith and practices of love, compassion and wisdom, as well as economic considerations.
In addition to our conservation efforts and programs that promote green sustainable living, Abbey monastics publicly share our commitment to environmental issues by as attending climate change rallies in our area in order to encourage local officials and citizens to take climate change seriously.
We also raise awareness of how environmental issues relate to Dharma practice in short talks posted on the Abbey’s YouTube channel. Many of the nearly 1,000 guests who visit the Abbey each year report being inspired to adopt an environmentally conscious lifestyle after learning about our energy efficient construction and heating designs, forest and garden management practices, and recycling program.
Three Principal Aspects of the Path to Awakening
An environmentally conscious lifestyle requires a constant effort based on ethical integrity. Ethical conduct is the foundation for our all our practices within Buddhism and a major aspect of the practice of renunciation. Ethical conduct is a key component of the aspiration for liberation (renunciation), which along with great compassion/bodhicitta, and the wisdom realizing ultimate reality, comprise the three principal aspects of the path to Buddhahood within our tradition.
Practicing renunciation doesn’t mean giving up pleasure, but rather giving up suffering and its causes. We’re willing to give up a few short-term conveniences in order to have a cleaner and safer world. For example, we do not go shopping whenever we need an item, but go only when there is a significant list of necessary items. This is one way to reduce our carbon imprint. Although most of our vehicles have been donated to us, we keep the ones that have good mileage or are hybrid vehicles.
Minimizing our environmental impact becomes a practice of compassion and bodhicitta—the second of the three principal aspects—when our motivation is to be of maximum benefit to all sentient beings, both living and yet to come, both human and non-human. For example, we are mindful of our water consumption and maintenance of our water resources so as to prevent unnecessary loss of precious ground water.
Finally, we view environmental protection as a practice of wisdom, the third principal aspect, because it creates the causes for a safer and more equitable world. For example, we are conscientious of our use of electrical energy for we know this is not an unlimited resource to be overutilized.
Bodhisattva Practice of Environmental Protection
Another way we maintain our commitment to environmental care is by applying the bodhisattva practices within the Mahayana tradition. As Mahayana practitioners, we have taken the bodhisattva vow to not only refrain from harming all living beings, but to be of greatest benefit to them by becoming a fully awakened Buddha.
At the Abbey, we practice the six bodhisattva “perfections” of generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom through our care of the environment in the following ways:
As part of our practice of generosity – the first perfection – we publicly share our time and knowledge on environmentally conscious practices with our guests and the local community. We also create habitats that provide shelter to native species. Items that are in good condition but no longer needed are donated to local charities instead of going into the garbage.
The talks we give about the importance of combatting climate change that are posted on the Internet and the many petitions we sign concerning environmental protection are also part of our practice of generosity.
The second perfection is ethical conduct. We forbid the killing of any living being on our property and use non-lethal methods to deal with infestations. Valuing all life and knowing the horrible pollution that results from raising cattle for food, we have a vegetarian diet. We also perform religious rituals to harmonize our relationship with other beings sharing our land.
We select building materials from no-VOC paints to types of sheathing that lessen off-gassing to protect the health of living creatures. Our proactive maintenance of buildings reflects our concern for the health of people who use them as well as our concern not to waste resources needed to repair or rebuild neglected structures.
The third perfection is fortitude, which we practice when we wash, dry, sort, and package every last bit of recyclable material to either reuse or take to nearby recycling stations. We also apply fortitude when spending many hours planting, watering, and cultivating organic vegetables and fruits to reduce food packaging and waste.
We practice joyous effort – the fourth perfection – when we harvest, process, and store our fruit and vegetables, and when we work to cut dead branches, remove dead trees, and thin crowded forest areas in our nearly 340 acres of forest to reduce fire danger and promote a healthy forest environment.
The fifth bodhisattva practice is concentration. We develop this faculty by staying in tune with the seasonal demands of caring for our land and maintaining the health of trees and plants on our property.
We need concentration to identify noxious weeds among the tall grasses and other plants in our meadows in order to support native plant growth. While we do some of this by hand, there are some large areas of noxious weeds that we must spray. However, when we do so, we use the least harmful substances possible in as small quantities as possible and take care not to pollute any springs, ponds, or wells.
Lastly, we exercise the perfection of wisdom by forming relationships with local officials and experts in forest and land management and seeking their advice on environmental trends. We research the many building materials required in construction with an eye towards durability, sustainability, low environmental impact, practicality, and cost.
New buildings are designed to be energy efficient and include solar panels. In building construction we use wall systems with high thermal mass and insulation value.These are organic, non-toxic, energy efficient, insulating wall blocks made from 85% mineralized wood and 15% cement, with a 4-hour fire rating. The composite materials are all natural, and last for centuries. We also use low-flow toilets and energy-efficient LED lighting. Our heating and cooling systems are geothermal.
We also learn about the dangers climate change and how it will affect human migration, the existence of coastal cities, and the ability of human beings to grow enough food to feed the increasing population.
At Sravasti Abbey, we recognize that our individual and collective future depends on taking responsibility for our actions of body, speech, and mind. Compared to the global scope of what needs to be done to prevent or mitigate climate change and pollution, our efforts are minimal.
We strive to learn more and do more to protect the planet and all life on it. By acting as responsible stewards of our land and resources, we show other beings how to live a harmonious life that recognizes the interdependence between all beings.
We hope that our advocacy and programs to protect the environment will inspire other religious practitioners and monastic communities to care for the environment as part of their spiritual practice. In this way, we will create conducive conditions for future generations to practice the Dharma and attain awakening on planet Earth, just as Shakyamuni Buddha did.
We hope you’ll join us in your practice to protect the environment! Watch our video here.