Katy Butler finds her spiritual ground
"I found myself in a workshop one day talking about Zen and the environment," says John Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, "and I realized how stupid it was because, you know, Zen is very experiential. You don't talk about it. You do it. So I decided I should take these people, most of whom had never been in the wilderness, out into the wilderness and let them experience it for themselves."
That first canoe trip, a grueling 125-mile cross-country jaunt, was so successful and generated so much excitement that Loori and the monastery developed an array of programs and workshops known collectively as the Born as the Earth program, Each uses the wilderness experience and the natural environment to teach the interdependency of the self and the universe, and outdoors skills and knowledge to overcome feelings of fear or anxiety about being out in the wilds.
Founded by Loori in 1980 in the tradition of the Mountains and Rivers order of Zen Buddhism, Zen Mountain Monastery sits on a 240-acre parcel of land in the Catskill Forest Preserve. In its first meeting, the monastery board designated 80 percent of its land to be forever wild. "If a tree falls," says Loori, "it rots where it falls.”
Established as a contemplative retreat, the monastery was jolted into environmental activism when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation attempted to appropriate five acres of its land under eminent domain in the early nineties. The monastery decided to resist and found several environmental lawyers, field biologists, and ecologists among the alumni of the Born as the Earth programs willing to take on the DEC. They formed the Green Dragon Society under the auspices of a new nonprofit corporation called the Zen Environmental Studies Institute (ZESI) and won the case. The society is currently involved in a class action suit along with twelve other environmental groups to halt the development of a resort on Bellair Mountain, in the Catskill Forest.
All of these activities are based on a conviction that love of nature is a far more powerful force in protecting the natural environment than science, legislation, religion, or self-interest.
As the ZESI brochure points out, ''We take care of the things we love.”
For more information, contact Zen Environmental Studies Institute. PO. Box 24, Mt. Tremper, NY 12457; (845) 688-7240; www.mro.org/eco.
Image 1: © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B65D4, Used by permission
Image 2: Collection, Isabella Kirkland, 2001, oil paint and alkyd on canvas, 36 × 48 inches, features animals treated as decorative objects to admire in private, to exhibit, or to study in depth. © Isabella Kirkland, courtesy of Feature Inc., New York City