It seems so long ago now, but before the earthquake(s), follow-up visits to the Tsoknyi Gechak School for further environmental education took place for the combined classes 5&6 (ages 14-16). These visits were to talk about climate change in Nepal and, if we had time, to launch into the basic climate science of the greenhouse effect. Based on our previous presentations, the school is already implementing a plan to collect and separate their trash and to recycle the plastics.
Doing such a thing in Kathmandu can be a challenge. The city has its own waste management process, but has privatized recycling. Recycling is supported by trash-pickers who collect the materials and sell them to contractors. The contractors may manage to recycle some materials directly back into the Kathmandu market or, more likely, sell the plastic to recyclers in India. Since the city has divided up the territory by contract, finding out who is actually your contractor and then arranging with “pickers” to receive your recyclables on a regular basis can be a difficult task.
We spent two hours with Class 5&6, beginning with the Dalai Lama’s statement, “Taking care of the environment simply means taking care of our own home.” We progressed through basic principles that should guide our thinking and actions: that all things are connected, that our actions effect the web of life, we already have what we need to address climate change, that every person and every action makes a difference and we are stronger when we act together.
We continued with the climate risk profile of Nepal, including energy, water and food security. We talk about solutions like solar energy, water conservation practices, forestry management and community resilience, continuously relating these issues to school practices that will make an immediate difference.
In talking about the science, we developed the idea that the atmosphere regulates the temperature of the planet so that it continues to be habitable to humans and all life. Scientific concepts like this are not foreign to these young nuns, but it can be challenging for them because we are combining a good deal of unfamiliar material. When unpacked, broken down into the component parts, going from glacial melting, heavier monsoon, black soot and deforestation and connecting all that to what we have been doing to the atmosphere, it is all quite a big leap. But they got it.
These girls come from villages along the Himalayan range to the north and far west of Kathmandu. Many come from villages at significant altitude where, besides the air, education is rare. Many have seen landslides. Their villages are most often poor, dependent on agriculture, lack power and sometimes have to struggle for water. Moving away for the sake of an education may mean years will pass before they have a chance to return. Some of these children are at kindergarten level. Being here for an education may mean they will not see their parents or siblings for a long time.
Yet they are thirsty for it. The opportunity for a secular education is not a government guarantee. There are children here who are 10 or 12 years old who have had a mere 2 years of actual schooling. As everywhere else, some of them are very bright and given the opportunity, will take leaps forward. Others will take longer to absorb academic material, to develop the capacity for more complex reasoning, planning and action.
We also spent some time talking to the adult nuns in the shedra about the same topics. Few of them have had any secular education. They have been receiving religious education for a few or in some cases for many years, yet have no awareness of the Dalai Lama’s position or the Karmapa’s aggressive voice about climate change and our responsibility to take action.
They are accomplished in Tibetan language, buddhist ritual and religious literature, but few understood where plastic comes from. Not one of these nuns has seen the ocean. We were showing them a limited view of the consequences of global waste, mostly in the form of plastic, for the first time. We will schedule another session with these nuns to go further into the science as time permits. Cafting the message for each group, for each age, has been a primary challenge.
I stayed in a guest room in the school overnight and was awakened at 5 am by activity upstairs and outside in the courtyard. By 5:15, the girls were walking laps. Group exercise started at 5:30, led by a very bright and limber 15-year old. When I emerged from my room to join them, they were all smiles and greeted me in unison, “Good morning.”
They continued with an hour of prayers before breakfast, reciting in unison and giving it the same energy as they direct to their school work and their play. Following breakfast, there is an assembly, the singing of the Nepali national anthem in Nepali and the Tibetan national anthem in Tibetan. These girls are learning and receiving instruction in three languages, and may also speak a different dialect native to their home village.
All of this activity is taking place against the backdrop of ongoing construction work on the retreat center and the temple here at TGL, which will now have to be re-evaluated due to the quake. Swarms of laborers show up every morning. Hod carriers (exclusively women, some of whom have children in tow) lug rock and sand to the work areas where men mix cement, lay brick and rock. Tons of re-bar, thousands of bricks and piles of dirt and sand obscure the structures taking shape here. It is all happening at record pace by Nepali standards.
The pursuit of organized activity for social benefit in Nepal requires patience, persistence and a capacity for equanimity. With the commitment and passion of the Head of School, Fionnuala Shenpen, with the aid of the teachers and the enthusiasm of the students, these environmental programs will stimulate sustained school-wide action and contribute to a thriving educational experience.
The long-term difference these activities will make is hard to calculate. We can never really know what outcomes will result from the seeds we plant. I do know that we and anyone else who is compelled to act in this way, do it for two very basic reasons: because we can and because we must.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche always concludes his retreats with a prayer for the earth and for a technology to address this urgent global issue in a powerfully effective way. If such a thing is a miracle, then the miracle will be for all of us to realize that the technology for “taking care of our own home” lies in our own hands, hearts and minds and cannot wait to be revealed.