Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Teaching Zero Waste

For the past four days, I've been here in east Bhutan at the Chokyi Gyatso Insitute, site of SJI Education's first pilot project. I've been meeting with the head khenpos and lopons, making acquaintance with the monks, enjoying the warmer weather, and sitting in the ceremony that started yesterday. The puja lasts all week and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is here presiding. He's been discussing SJI and GNH at every mealtime and telling us stories of his early childhood, which was spent in the region.

He said something so interesting yesterday, that legend has it that Dewathang has saved Bhutan once and is predicted to save Bhutan again and again. The tale goes that one disciple of the great Longchenpa was practicing Vajrakilaya in Yongla up the way and the next day the British army's camp burnt down (no fatalities) and they retreated. Maybe SJI can help save Bhutan in more gentle ways.

One sign that Rinpoche's vision is helping change the area already is the beautiful tsok offering that the monastery prepared for the ceremony. Tsok is a traditional Buddhist practice of feast offering and often these days monasteries rely on packaged foods like chips, biscuits, candy, soda, and ramen noodles, all of which leave huge piles of non recyclable garbage. This garbage has no place to go in most rural areas and ends up in the rivers and streams, often the plastic is burned crating toxic fumes. So Rinpoche insisted that his feast offering be all local foods with no packaging. A group of women from Kulikata has been spending the morning making neat bundles of bamboo leaf filled with all kinds of curries and chili and rice. Hundreds of people from surrounding villages have come to pay respects and all are fed. There are endless cups of tea and homemade snacks. The cups we use are carved from bamboo as well. All the ingredients are from local villages—fresh milk, fresh churned butter, red rice, white chilies. We each were given one big leaf full of corn meal and rice, then handed one of the banana leaf bundles tied in string. Inside were all kinds of surprises, some of us had lovely black beans, others stewed pumpkin dish, or turnips. In the end, there was no garbage at all.

I wonder if the young monks are satisfied, if they see this practice of zero waste as being backward or if they can appreciate that it is cutting edge. Of course I hope the latter. But if there were piles of chewing gum and chocolates, do you think they'd still choose the fresh home made puffed rice instead? Habits are so hard to break, materialism is so hard to ward off, desire is a bitch!

Our hope is that through our integrated, project-based curriculum we will be able to help guide these young boys to make sustainable decisions from the heart, not because they are told, but because these see the whole cycle of consumption and role they can play in creating a more self-reliant, healthy society. How does one teach this kind of responsibility and instill a willingness to resist the temptation of bag of salty potato chips?

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