Stories from My Days in Robes – Part Two

Photo donated by Birgit Genz
Carbon Footprint of a Barefoot Monastic

Encouraged by the positive interest about my time as a monastic, I continue here with reflections and some of the considerations of a life committed to the lifestyle, practices, and interior reflections put forth by the Buddha. It begins with my not having a trash basket in my kuti at Meetirigala Nissarana Vanaya forest monastery.

Meetirigala is one of Sri Lanka’s most respected meditation monasteries. Having been established as part of the strict forest tradition, my room had no electricity or hot water. Nor, it turns out, did it have any place to put trash–you know, tissues and so forth. I was newly ordained and as such I was concerned about learning the protocol for everything from obtaining food, wearing my robes well, engaging in the meditation hall or group practices, and remaining safe from snakes (yes; big and small) and monkeys (including the one that tried to climb my robes when my look into his eyes was compassionate rather than the requisite domineering). For my garbage, I temporarily took the box from my small tube of toothpaste and stuffed into it the occasional tissue and other refuse. Good enough.

Two weeks later, when I packed down the contents of this same box in order to make room for my final debris, I noted with surprise that I’d been there a fortnight and this tiny box was only half full. This triggered a reflection on the rest of my monastic footprint during my time at this austere center in the jungles of Sri Lanka. I had not engaged any mode of transport. My electric use had been nearly zero. All of the food I’d been offered was, to my knowledge, local and involved very little packaging (the rice may have come in sacks, there was the occasional piece of candy). In a word, the carbon footprint of a forest monk, at least in Sri Lanka, is tiny.

So whatever perspective is offered by the Buddha’s teachings on renunciation, whatever clarity of mind and compassion is afforded by Buddhist practices, I had in front of me concrete evidence of the teaching on renunciation and its result in harmlessness: half a toothpaste box of waste in two weeks, and near zero use of fuels (I did burn two candles during that time). Of course, I was in Sri Lanka, an economically poor country in which scarcity throttles wastefulness. A forest monk living in the U.S. or Europe would likely have a larger environmental impact, if for no other reason than the calculation of one’s carbon footprint includes the resident nation as a whole and the impact of their military, highways, and other infrastructure. Still, the Buddha’s call to simple living can be understood in the framework of resource consumption and be appreciated as a teaching relevant to each person’s ecological impact. The mind leads all actions, including wastefulness and harmlessness in lifestyle.

I wish I could end the story here and be a hero. It’s not that simple. It hurts to reflect on the fact that I flew half way around the world to get to Sri Lanka and Thailand. And it hurts every time I reflect on the fact that in order to teach these Insight Dialogue retreats globally, I am burning a heap of jet fuel. I can and do remind myself that, were I not traveling, the travel of multiple others to my retreats would be grossly more harmful. And it is the case that people sometimes fly quite far to engage in these relational Dhamma and Insight Dialogue retreats that I’ve been sharing. While I am keeping in mind that I undertake as many teachings as possible for each flight I take, and even many climate change activists fly to conferences and presentations, I remain haunted by the carbon footprint of my teaching activities. When, I ask, do I stop? What best serves our hurting world?

I will sit with this and other burning questions. I invite you to do the same. The Dharma invites us into the full challenge of cause and effect. “I am the heir to my actions” advises the last of the five remembrances we are asked to contemplate daily in the Upajjhattana Sutta. We can tap into the richness of the Dhamma to reflect on how we live. Can my life be simpler and can my footprint in the carbon world shrink along with the footprint in the mental world of the self? Concretely, each of us can ask whether the hunger for pleasure is behind a purchase or a trip, and whether it reflects our values to purchase an object, drive to the countryside, or fly to the vacation? What positive actions can I take, like planting trees to offset my carbon use, speaking to others about climate change, supporting organizations that are taking intelligent action? Maybe I can just read more about the issue, and maybe I can sign the Dharma Teachers’ statement? As with all things, we begin where we are and continue from where we are. The here and now of meditation is not separate from the here and now of relating to others nor from the here and now of our impact on the physical world.

May I make wise choices. May the forest monks and nuns, and the many innocent beings in our hurting world, be at peace. May we awaken.

Yours in the Dhamma,

Gregory, formerly Venerable Revata

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Greg, headshotGregory Kramer

Gregory Kramer is the Founder and Guiding Teacher of Metta Programs and has been teaching Insight Meditation since 1980.  He developed the practice of Insight Dialogue and has been teaching it since 1995, offering retreats in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.  He has studied with esteemed teachers, including Anagarika Dhammadina, Ven. Ananda Maitreya, … Continue reading→


Featured photo donated to Metta Programs by Birgit Genz.