As you travel out of Leh town, the first things you start to recognize are the unending expanses of space. Gazing eastward or westward, unhindered horizon. Northward or southward, sheer and halting peaks endlessly reaching upwards. Heading southwestward towards and then past the airport, the army barricades, Spituk Monastery, more walled camps, and Taxi Collective’s recently set toll slowly fade away. The icy blues of the Indus River catch your eyes as the road bends and bows to their majestic hues. As you rise up above Phey village and look down onto the groves of trees below, the Student’s Ecological and Cultural Movement of Ladakh campus is just barely visible. Then the road sharply banks away directly westward. This straight stretch, followed by a fierce S-turn passes you by Sangam, the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers.
Whipping past Sangam, more military camps, descending by Patthar Sahib Gurudwara, leveling up on the plains of sprawling rocks, reascending through more shades of brown than you knew existed, continuing through the roadside stores and dhabas of Nimmu, around the palace and fort ruins of Basgo — its still standing monastery, then Likir Monastery, and the ancient Alchi Monastery, you can finally arrive to the road that winds its way to Chulichan Nunnery and upwards to its governing monastery, Rizong. The road carries you leisurely as if the valley within which it lies has warded off the external world’s rush, its tensions, and the surreal mixtures of browns and blues which had just filled your mind. The sound of nothing grabs your attention. Though whatever vehicle you arrived in may be rattling, rumbling, roaring after the turns and climbs it just battled, it acquiesces to the valley’s stillness and calm. You’ve arrived to Chulichan Nunnery, home to around 20 nuns, currently, most coming from the Zanskar region.
After your mind and ears adjust to the silence — apart from sweet squeals of laughter from the few young nuns playing outside between duties — next your eyes struggle to discern what’s different about the grounds around the nunnery. The budding greens and flowers are captivating, but not so unusual. The densely packed trees occur elsewhere, too. It takes a few minutes and it strikes you: trash. There’s hardly any trash scattered around or rustling under the breeze. It seems not only has the valley shielded its interior from the external world’s emotive affects, but also its material wastes.
“Our objective for the following game is to understand overcrowding and subsequent pressures on our limited resources. We’ve been talking all day today about resources, waste management, the impacts of growing populations not only on wildlife and nature, but also on those populations, themselves. In this gorgeous valley, it’s a little difficult to imagine how rapidly Leh town is growing and changing, plus how other parts of Ladakh are changing because of tourists and differences in the climate. So, to better understand what’s happening, we’ll play a game!”
As we start outlining a square in the dirt, two young nuns eagerly run to our side to help us finish the lines, adding a little more space than we were intending.
“You can see here an outlined square. This is our environment. Will five of you come stand inside? Within this environment, there’s plenty of space for our inhabitants and wild life to live alongside each other, plenty of resources for them to live comfortably — water, land, quiet. These five maintain their own farms, have clean water they use for drinking, cooking, and irrigation. Will five more of you join them? It gets a little tougher, right? We’re not even crowded, yet, and look how difficult it is to keep your own space! Imagine these new five people are searching for jobs. A few of them take work on the farms, while others begin to set up a market where they sell produce. Will two more of you move in? These two don’t have anything to do with farming but begin building a factory beside one of the rivers upstream of the farmers.”
“How are the original five doing with all these newcomers and changes in their environment? Do you have the same flexibility or availability to farm? Deal with your livestock? Maintain the quality of your soil and water? Now, four of our inhabitants decide to move away. Do you in the group feel any relief?”
All the squeezed-in nuns rejoiced, yes! as they squirmed and shifted from their uncomfortable standing positions. Resettling from giggles and happily re-found space, we began to discuss more about what just happened. After asking the group their reactions and thoughts about the exercise, I was surprised about the immediate connection ascribed between tourists and most environmental issues. Excess trash, water depletion, expensive produce, loss of traditional livelihoods, mass exodus of villagers to Leh town, degradation of sacred sites and lands, changing patterns of lifestyles and family styles — all brought by the influx of tourists flooding the region every year between May and September. More on this below, but in that moment of the workshop I wanted us to focus more internally than immediately excusing ourselves of responsibility or losing the potential opportunity to learn with Buddhist teachings: “Can we think of anything within Buddhism that might help us coexist with nature or inform us for countering the negative effects of increasing populations? Is there any teaching that can help us connect these issues?”
I was ecstatic for the head nun’s response. The Middle Path. One of the most basic — foundational — principles within Buddhism, this concept of Moderation exactly applies to much of what the nuns had been insinuating with their comments about tourists. This concept of Moderation exactly offers a centering and grounding for thinking about any type of environmental conservation initiatives, particularly those that engage consumptive practices and human population management. This concept of Moderation exactly was what I’d been hoping to hear.
In Part 2 we will explore more of the relation of this game, these teachings, and sentiments to the rest of Ladakh.