Part 2 of my conversation on climate with Ani Tsondru, Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, continues her story after she had spent more than seven years in closed retreat in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Spain.
Tsondru describes how the lack of a supportive monastic community, which is currently the case in the West, made emerging from this cloistered period challenging. As she says, “So when you come out of a long retreat, it’s really – you are out of place completely. Because there’s nowhere to go, literally.” Initially unsure whether to go back into a retreat, or stay at the monastery and help Lama Tsondru, she decided to stay in South Africa and “figure out how to be a nun, without any kind of context for being a nun”.
I am struck by her creative engagement with the situation, how she continues to build a handmade life, blending together environmental issues with Buddhism in the teaching she does at different centres and in her contemplative wilderness trails. The big difference is that in the past she was doing environmental work for rational reasons “that didn’t really extend all the way to my heart and soul and to the depth of my mind, in the way that they do now”. But now, from a space of broader awareness, she is able to feel far greater understanding for the position of others on climate change and the environment, and therefore the engagement is no longer conflictual.
Ani Tsondru: I now find myself in a different relationship with the destruction and the destructiveness that’s going on. Maybe it’s that I’m not so emotionally invested in fighting a battle anymore. Although the outcomes of the self-inflicted crises that face us on Earth are of life-and-death importance, and warrant our undivided attention and skilful action, at the same time I have become less attached to the outcome. This frees up a lot of energy, so I can do it in a different way that may be more productive. I don’t know. But I think that might be it. … I spent some time with Joanna Macy doing The Work that Reconnects, so I am teaching Buddhism and meditation but in the context of being part of this Mother Earth, and not just in a compartmentalized kind of way as a purely spiritual Buddhist.
Penny: That’s wonderful. A creative life.
Ani Tsondru: Yes. In the wilderness trails, I try and help people to see that the wilderness is inside you, you don’t have to spend R10,000 going to Umfolozi again to find that place that comes to light when you’re in that place.
We talk about the world needing a system change, a total break from the more destructive forms of capitalism that have taken root.
Ani Tsondru: But you see, it depends on every single one of us, because you can only do what you can within your sphere of influence. And it’s not as if you each have to go out and save the world, you just do what you can do. And if we all just did that, there would be no problem, isn’t that so?
Penny: Exactly. So, what is it that comforts you, or inspires you, on this path?
Ani Tsondru: (long pause) Well, I think, being in the wilderness, wherever that is, comforts me. Because I know that it is home, that it is our home, not just my home. This whole Earth is our home. In fact, every single thing here matters, and our legacy goes far back – our DNA was present in the first DNA that came together. All of us, every single DNA-containing creature. So we’re not Johnny-come-latelys.
And even more astounding than that is that we are stardust, we come from the heart of exploding stars, the Big Bang, whatever there was at that moment. … So when I lift my eyes from my tiny little existence for this instant in limitless 14 billion years of time, as far as we know, of the universe, then that puts everything in perspective. It doesn’t make anything not matter, it makes everything matter, in a way that’s not overwhelming. Part of the comfort is knowing that everything does have its time and seasons, and nothing is permanent. So the changes don’t pierce you to the heart.
Penny: And how does your formal spiritual practice help?
Ani Tsondru: To the extent that my spiritual practice is unveiling little glimpses of who and what I really am, and that we and all of existence are part of the same vast shining expanse of grace… that, in a way, results in comfort, because then I do understand in a different way that it is all connected, none of us is a separate, lonely event in time. Each thing is a strand of the immense tapestry of life, of Earth, and of the unfolding Universe, and ultimately everything is all right – but at the same time it’s still vitally important to each do what we can. It sounds like a paradox but it’s not.
We experience things as they are and therefore it is our duty to do what we can to not cause harm, to restore the damage, to think, speak, and act with kindness and compassion, while at the same time we know everything changes all the time, and that that’s how it is. And it’s all okay.
Penny: So the comfort that you find in the wilderness, in nature, does that in turn help you to respond practically, would you say?
TT: I suppose, yes, I suppose … if I think back some years, to when I was feeling affected by things or just out of sorts, then I would sometimes bring to mind a moment like sitting in Umfolozi under a tree in the dust, and the feeling that arises there, when, though you have nothing, everything is perfect. And that would be a trigger reminding me of what my natural state is, it would evoke this state in me and then things would be all right, and I would be ready to do what was needed without being drained.
Now I don’t do that consciously really, because now I can evoke in myself a more – it’s more to hand, maybe, to mind, to heart, it’s just there. So when I realise that things are getting difficult, then I more easily am in touch with that place of truth where everything is okay, whatever. And then I can act with a bit more wisdom than acting in the heat of the moment.