A couple of years ago, quite by accident, I found myself at Vallecitos in New Mexico, at the first vipassana retreat for environmentalists, led by Joseph Goldstein and Carol Wilson. My life has not been the same since. As an environmental activist, I had always described my work as creating contexts in which awareness of interdependence and interconnection could arise. At this retreat I discovered that, as a vehicle for understanding interdependence and interconnection, the practice of vipassana meditation was unsurpassed.
We are living in profoundly disconnected times—disconnected from ourselves, each other, the planet and the life that it sustains—and the sense of fragmentation is causing tremendous harm and suffering. Dharma practice is so appealing right now because it offers us the possibility of experiencing our interconnection with each other and all of life. Once this awareness is internalized, our personal choices, political choices, land use choices, human rights choices, economic development choices, etcetera, will spring from a different and deeper place.
The Migratory Species Project is an attempt to infuse activism with the motivation and perspectives that arise out of meditation practice. This project began to take shape a couple of years ago as I stood by Lake Yamdrok Tso, one of the most sacred lakes in Tibet, and watched the ongoing construction of an adjacent Chinese hydroelectric power plant. This plant is expected to cause the lake to drop about seven inches a year over the next fifty years. A Tibetan spiritual legend holds that if and when Yamdrok Tso evaporates, the whole of Tibet will perish. The Tibetan prophecy is well founded since the lake drop is likely to result in lower rainfalls in the area, which would imperil the barley crop, the staple food of Tibet.
I considered what could be done to prevent the Chinese government from continuing with the project. China has demonstrated its immunity to arguments based on desecrating sacred places or protecting human rights, and it has no record of concern about environmental preservation (quite the opposite). It struck me, however, that many of the ducks and birds that are seasonal residents of Yamdrok Tso live in other places at other times of year and are integral to those ecosystems. I wondered how this power plant would affect these species and their migrations. It occurred to me that the various places along the migratory route might form a coalition to stop the project and argue that, regardless of issues of national sovereignty, the Chinese government has no right to harm the environment beyond China’s borders. I began to see the migratory routes as threads connecting life and peoples and cultures and as paths of organizing for the preservation of all three.
In addition to the ecological importance of a particular migratory species, the project also emphasizes the role of that species in a larger social and spiritual context. We encourage people to understand the artistic, religious and economic significance of a species in the various communities along the route. How has that bird or that butterfly or that fish appeared in the art, music and stories of a community? How does that creature fit into the local economy? The project then invites people to look beyond their own place and ask those same questions of the other places along the migratory route. At every level this inquiry leads to relationship and, potentially, to an understanding of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “interbeing.” My hope is that such an understanding will also give rise to a compassionate activism that will help to maintain the ecological health of the entire migratory route.
As people develop their own spiritual practice or sense of the Dharma, I believe that they will also develop a sense of “right” relationship to each other and the planet and behave accordingly. It is valuable to continually traverse the interior geography of the self (the realm of “spirit”) as well as the exterior geography of the world (the realm of politics and activism). The dialectic is essential for the emergence of a wise and engaged spirituality.