Moderating May: Buddhism and the Environment in Ladakh

A two day conference, titled ‘Buddhism and the Environment in Ladakh,’ took place on 9th-10th May, 2018, at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies (Deemed University), Choglamsar.  The event was co-hosted by the All Ladakh Gonpa Association, the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, and the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies.  Each day of the conference concluded with a screening of award-winning films by local filmmaker, Mr. Stanzin Dorje Gya.

The conference was a terrific success due to active participation, large number of attendees, and the widespread interest and eagerness for nature conservation in Ladakh. The event was able to create the space for encouraging proactive steps moving towards responsible protection of Ladakh’s environment while being guided by an understanding of Buddhist principles.  The event’s Chief Guest, His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, head of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage, graced the inaugural gathering of over 700 guests by setting the tone of the conference with attention on interdependence and the importance of the environment.  The inaugural ceremony was also joined by Chief Executive Councillor Mr. Dorje Motup, as the Guest of Honor, and other dignitaries.

H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche preaches to conference participants about the necessity for moderation and practical actions to protect the environment.

The rest of the conference embodied His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche’s charge to translate theory into action.  In sum:  throughout Day 1 the themes of moderation and right action guided talks as attendees raised important questions about the applications and adaptions of these principles into modern environmental needs.  Day 2 continued with discussions about how these principles can help us think about the environment and people as a system in order to utilize locally-driven practices, or rather how to cultivate what was called “Place-based Ecocultural Stewardship.”

Two of the most interactive and thought-provoking sessions came from the panels held each day.  The first panel comprised of local Buddhist scholars, moderator Prof. Geshe Dakpa Kalsang, Ven. Thupstan Paldan, Ven. Khenpo Randol, Prof. Dr. Lobzang Tsewang, and Prof. Dr. Lobzang Tsultrim, to discuss general Buddhist perspectives on the environment.  The panel emphasized the Buddhist tenet of interdependent origination, or shunyata.  Aligning intentions and actions more with this principle would help people to reflect on their daily livelihoods in order to consider how to not harm the environment.  The panel from Day 2, Dr. Dorjey Angchuk (Defense Institute for High Altitude Research), moderator Tsewang Rigzin (Journalist), Dr. Tsewang Namgail (Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust), Dr. Nordan Otzer (Ladakh Environment and Development Group), and Sonam Wangchuk (Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh), discussed the conservation actions taking place particularly in Ladakh.  The common theme that emerged was about the need for more environmental education, which will help to instantiate a longterm vision of and effective merging between traditional practices, technological advances, and a perspective-shift on approaching environmental issues.   

Over 700 guests joined the conference’s inaugural ceremonies.

The conference also hosted individual speakers to lead discussion on specific topics.  Ms. Tsewang Dolma (Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust) updated the attendees about the current crisis around waste management in Ladakh.  She instructed on harmful wastes and ways in which religious communities, especially Buddhist monastics in Ladakh, could help alleviate negative impacts from solid waste.  Meghna Uniyal (Humane Foundation for People and Animals) was invited from Delhi to address the growing issue of free-ranging dogs across Ladakh.  Her insights drew on the legal and governmental measures that should be implemented and how to utilize laws that are already in place to manage street dogs.  Two visiting researchers shared their findings from the past year living in Ladakh and spoke about the need to locate Ecological education and action within local contexts.  Ms. Morika Hensley (Fulbright-Nehru Student Researcher) illustrated the importance of artwork — petroglyphs, or rock carvings, and Buddhist sacred art at monasteries and inside caves — as tools for environmental conservation efforts.  Mr. Andrew Kerr (American India Foundation Clinton Fellow) touched on the Buddhist principles of “Interconnectedness”, “Generosity”, “Contentment”, and “Community” to find solutions for environmental conservation.  He provided examples from Mongolia and the Eastern Himalayas for applying Buddhist principles in nature conservation.

Mr. Andrew Kerr and Ms. Tsewang Dolma discuss the importance of place-based knowledge systems and conservation efforts.

As one of the first of its kind in Ladakh, the conference is already setting new actions in place for environmental conservation and awareness in the region.  The two-day proceedings ended with the creation of Working Groups that could take forward the spirit of the conference and provide outlets for individuals to join together on shared passions.  Just within this short time following the event, a number of meetings and action plans already have been discussed between local organizations and government officials for addressing the stray dog issues in Leh.  Other initiatives that may emerge from the Working Groups pertain to waste management, health, and water sanitation and access.  The Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust intends this event to be the first in a series of larger engagements with various communities and stakeholders across Ladakh.


Author’s Note:

This article is a summary written for SLC-IT following its first-ever hosted conference, which also was the first-of-its-kind conference in Ladakh exploring the intersections of Buddhism and Ecology from the perspective of conservation activism.  Sincerest thanks to Rigzin Yangdol for writing with me.

Andrew is excited to join the Snow Leopard Conservancy - India Trust to work with the education program for monks and nuns as an AIF Clinton Fellow. He is a firm believer in the human ability and duty to serve our neighbors far and near. What is important to him is to always be engaged with people and collaboratively work for cooperation, empowerment, and sustainability. He has helped build houses in Trinidad and Tobago as well as Sri Lanka; researched nonlinear optics in France; taught tennis, 5th grade, and high school programs in the U.S.; and analyzed sanitation projects in India. He aspires to motivate these experiences into an informed and adaptive life mission of service. After spending ten months studying Urdu in Lucknow, he is grateful to continue living in India, engaging this perplexing place he calls home-away-from-home. Andrew holds a B.Sc. in Physics from Austin Peay State University, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, and is always seeking to learn more.

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