Sikkim is situated in an ‘ecological hotspot’ of the lower Himalayas but the growing presence of industrialization, increasing pressure of urbanization, and flourishing tourism have started to raise questions on environmental issues in the state. The immediate threats to the region are posed by the accelerated growth of the human population, aggressive tourism, deforestation, plastic waste, water pollution, etc. To commemorate World Environment Day, this paper brings forth the nuances of Buddhist environmentalism being practiced at the Guru Kubum Taklung Sang-Ngag Choekhorling, located at Deorali, Gangtok (Sikkim).
Buddhism is the world’s oldest missionary religion founded by Gautama Buddha and has its origin in India in the sixth century BCE. From India, it spread to other parts of the world in subsequent times. Sikkimese Buddhism is an offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism; derived from the fact that Buddhism as a school of philosophy went to Tibet through the great Indian Tantric master Guru Padma Sambhava, and then travelled to Sikkim from Tibet. Guru Padma Sambhava is believed to have visited Sikkim from Tibet and personally consecrated Sikkim as the cosmic point of Nyingmapa Buddhism. Guru Padma Sambhava is adored in Sikkim as the patron saint and is referred to as Guru Rimpoche: The Precious One.
Guru Rimpoche is said to have tamed all supernatural beings of the land during his eighth-century visit to Sikkim and to have bound them through solemn oath into being protectors of the faith and to refrain from causing harm to sentient beings. By this act, and by having hidden spiritual treasures (ter) to be discovered in later times, Guru Rinpoche is seen as having brought Buddhism and a civilized way of life. For the Nyingmapas, ter or terma are spiritual treasures, sometimes objects such as images but usually, texts attributed to Guru Padma Sambhava who hid them so as to be later physically discovered or revealed in other ways by Buddhist practitioner called tertӧn [literally- ‘discoverers of hidden treasures’]. Though Buddhism was introduced to Sikkim in the eighth century itself, it was established as the state religion of Sikkim with the crowning of the first Sikkimese king Phuntsog Namgyal as the Chogyal or Dhramaraja at Yoksum in 1642 by the three lamas who came from Tibet. Thus, Sikkim has a long tradition of Buddhism. It is practiced by about 25% of the population and the Buddhist monasteries of Sikkim have deeply influenced the cultural heritage and lifestyle of the people of Sikkim.
Sikkim has more than 200 monasteries belonging to different lineages and sects and it also has an Ecclesiastics department under the Government of Sikkim, which looks after the wellbeing of all these monasteries and Buddhist affairs. There are three types of Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim: Tak-phug, Gompa and Mani Lhagang. Tak-phug means cave hermitage. Gompas/monasteries, consist of a main shrine hall, a chapel, a school, and cells for the monks. Mani Lhagangs are smaller Gompas in villages with only a shrine. Some of the popular monasteries of Sikkim are: Dubdi Gompa, Pemayangtse Gompa, Tashiding Gompa, Enchey Gompa, Rumtek Gompa, Ralang Gompa, Phensang Gompa, Phodong Gompa, Chorten Gompa, Guru Kubum Taklung Sang-Ngag Choekhorling and many others.
Buddhism and Environment
One of the most important contributions of Buddhism to human development has been its discourse on Environmentalism. Although Buddhism originated in the 6th century BCE, the Buddha’s teachings regarding the environment continue to remain relevant even today, particularly because of the environmental degradation caused by humans and their actions.
A Buddhist response to environmental problems and degradation can be understood through the environmental perspectives and ethics of Buddhism. Environmental ethics is a relatively new area of study that became popular with the awareness of environmental degradation and the fact that environmental resources were rapidly diminishing due to unsustainable overuse by human beings. Religious environmentalism involves the conscious application of religious ideas to modern concerns about the global environment. It is a post-materialist environmental philosophy that emerged from the West and has its roots in the eighteenth-century European “Romantic Movement”. Religious environmentalism in Buddhism finds support in the belief that it is intrinsically environment-friendly.
According to scholar Lily de Silva, “several suttas from the Pāli canon show that early Buddhism believes in a close relationship between human morality and the natural environment”. “Buddhism advocates a gentle non-aggressive attitude towards the vegetable kingdom which provides all necessities of life”. She writes that solutions to problems like ostentatious consumerism, energy crisis, and pollution can be found in Buddhist ethics commends frugality and contentment as virtues in their own right.
About the attitudes of Buddhism towards animals and plants, she states that “the well-known Five Precepts (Pañca Śila) formed the minimum code of ethics that every lay Buddhist was supposed to follow”. The Buddhist monastics had to abstain from even unintentionally harming living creatures. Thus, “kindness to animals was the source of merit in Buddhism—and could be used by human beings to improve their lot in the cycle of rebirths and approach the goal of nirvana”. On the Buddhist attitude towards pollution, de Silva writes that “there is significant evidence in the scriptures which suggest that cleanliness, both in the person and environment, was highly commended”.
Guru Kubum Taklung Sang-Ngag Choekhorling located at Deorali, Sikkim, (popularly known as Deorali Gumpa) was built for the sake of world peace by Palyul Dzonang Chogtrul Jampal Lodoe Rinpoche in 1962 following the direction of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama who asked him to build a Gruru Rimpoche statue in Sikkim. Initially, the monastery was very small, only 4 people could fit in the monastery. From 1992 onwards, the expansion of the temple began. Building of the objects of body, speech, and mind, quarters for monks, etc. were supported by the Government of Sikkim, the Tibetan Government, and the devoted generous people. In addition, the former Speaker of Parliament of the Central Tibetan Administration Late Ven. Taklung Kungo Nima Zangpo raised Rs. 32 Lakhs. After the completion of the construction, the monastery was named ‘Guru Kubum Taklung Sang-Ngag Choekhorling’. It then became a branch monastery of the Jangter (Northern Treasure) tradition.
After the establishment of the monastery, a committee Kshichu kidug/ (association of many families) came together to offer kidug to the monastery, so the responsibility of taking care of the monastery was handed over to the committee. But later, the Kidug asked for the appointment of a monk to look after the monastery. Therefore, Rimpoche Nima Tsangpo was appointed to look after the monastery. A letter was received from the office of the exiled Tibetan government by the Rimpoche to take care of the monastery and start a monastic system. From then onwards a system of monastic studies began at the monastery. The monks are taught basic Tibetan, reading writing, memorising Buddhist texts, pujas, rituals, and practices from the Nyigma sect of the Jangter tradition (Northern Treasure Tradition). The monastery has no age limit for monks to begin monastic studies; one can start from as early as 9/10 years old or even 50/60 years old. The length of residence for the monks at the monastery also depends on the individual motivation of the monks or even their personal circumstances such as family issues. Monks of different ages reside there. Presently, the monastery is headed by Tulku Nawang Tenzin Loden Rinpoche. There are about 30 monks conducting annual Sadhana and Tsok-bum, monthly 10th and 25th Day pujas, daily mahakala puja in the morning and evening, and grand pujas during exceptional auspicious days. The monastery is fully supported by devoted sponsors. One special feature of the monastery is that it houses one lakh Guru Rimpoche statues.
The monastery is not located at a mountain top like other monasteries because when Palyul Dzonang Chogtrul Jampal Lodoe Rinpoche Rimpoche came to build the statue of Guru Rimpoche in Gangtok, the then king of Sikkim (Chogyal Tashi Namgyal) donated the land at the present location of the monastery at Deorali for building the monastery.
The location being parallel to the National Highway has been a blessing in disguise as its easy accessibility attracts many devotees to the monastery on a daily basis. The funding for the monastery comes from donations from well-wishers, patrons, and devotees who offer prayers at the monastery. The ground floor of the monastery which lies adjacent to the National Highway and opposite to the Station Guru Dwara at Gangtok is let out on rent to people for commercial purposes such as shops and workshops. Thus, the location of the monastery and easy accessibility, the monastery has always had enough. According to Tulku Nawang Tenzin; these advantages help the monks to focus on spiritual practice and the rest falls into place.
Environment-friendly practices have been adopted by monks in certain monasteries in Sikkim: Guru Kubum Taklung Sang-Ngag Choekhorling at Deorali, Gangtok, and Pema Yangtse Monastery in West Sikkim are pioneers in implementing practices related to Buddhist environmentalism.
The Guru Kubum Taklung Sang-Ngag Choekhorling at Deorali, Gangtok has banned the use of plastics within the monastery premises; the devotees are asked not to offer plastic-covered edibles as tsok. Sparing use and conservation of water and electricity are amongst other environment-friendly practices that are being followed by the monks at the monastery.
The monastery has also been conducting and participating in plantation drives so as to conserve nature. These conservatory practices began in the monastery after the covid outbreak in 2020. It was during the pandemic and lockdown that Tulku Nawang Tenzin realised how Buddhist environmentalism can be used to implement certain practices to protect the environment from harm and degradation. He says “the environment is very fragile and important so it has to be protected”. He attended various environmental workshops conducted by the organisations like Bhumi Sparsha and others and learned more about the creation of awareness and engagement amongst people through art, music, theatre, and plantation drives. Earlier devotees brought tsok offerings to the monastery which consisted of about 80 percent plastic-wrapped sweets, biscuits, chips, juice etc. When Tulku Nawang Tenzin sat at the pujas, these plastic-wrapped tsok offerings made him very uncomfortable. Hence, he decided to implement plastic-free tsok offerings at the monastery, so the monks as well as devotees could do something for the environment. The monastery conducts One lakh tsok bhum offerings in the 1st month of each year in the form of edible goods to the one lakh Guru Rimpoche statues housed at the monastery. In previous years, plastic-wrapped offerings were accepted but from the year 2021, the monastery started a non-plastic tsok/offering system. Since then, all pujas and religious ceremonies at the monastery have been made plastic-free and devotees have been informed to stop plastic-covered offerings. Sometimes devotees unknowingly get plastic-wrapped goods but overall, about 90 percent of plastic use has decreased within the monastery.
Plantation drives have been conducted by the monastery with the help of the forest department. A date is selected as per the plantation season with guidance from the forest department and all the monks and committee members of the monastery are invited to plant trees above the Ganesh Tok area in Gangtok. The monastery plans of doing it every year. Since the monastery does not have a grove of its own, the location of planting trees is beyond the monastery’s premises. However, there are plans to have a terrace garden with plants, flowers, and a few trees in the near future. According to Tulku Nawang Tenzin “if everyone contributes to conservation, it will definitely make a difference”.
The importance of forest groves is reflected in the early texts associated with Buddhism. The texts refer to sacred groves, some maintained by the people of a city, others by a monastery, and still others by the wider community who lived on the edge of the forest. Sikkim also harbours some sacred groves with a religious background. These sacred groves are reported in all parts of the state. Almost all of these sacred groves are attached to the local monasteries (Gompas), dedicated to the various Buddhist deities, and managed by the Gompa authority or Lamas or often by the village community (Sacred Groves of Sikkim). Cutting trees from the sacred groves is strictly prohibited.
Buddhism commends frugality as a virtue and contentment is highly praised, thus human use of natural resources is to be done in a prudent way so as to ensure the sustainability of those resources for future generations. The monks at the monastery are taught about the conservation of natural resources where wastage of water and electricity are strictly prohibited. In the winter months, monks are allowed to use heaters during very cold weather, but not for the entire day; only in the evenings. In order to prevent wastage of food and offerings in the monastery the tsok offerings in the form of fruits, vegetables, and other consumables are redistributed to devotees and the leftover food during meals is re-used in the next meal or the next day.
The Buddhist teachings about interdependence are instrumental in bringing about awareness about environmental conservation. Tulkula Nawang Tenzin says that “Buddhism can contribute to conservatory practices as Buddhist teachings are more about the present reality so its emphasis on awareness may lead humans to adopt careful actions towards others and towards the environment too. Thinking long term…not only about today but also the future”. Issues such as global warming, plastic harm, water pollution, knowledge about the current style of overconsumption by humans, and unsustainable practices have to be discussed so that awareness of the problems may lead humans to curb their harmful actions. For instance, the dumping yard at 32 Mile, near Gangtok is overflowing with plastic waste so people of Gangtok and around have to base their actions in order curb these harms to the environment.
Discussions with monks from other monasteries regarding ‘Zero Waste’ initiatives have also begun, so hopefully the near future will witness a complete plastic free and zero-waste system in place. Visiting monasteries with offerings and performing pujas and prayers during occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries form a significant part of Buddhist life in Sikkim. Another practice that may be propagated by the monasteries in Sikkim is the plantation of trees on special occasions such as a child’s birthday. In this way, the child will be made aware of the benefits of nurturing the environment from a very early age.
Religion is a primary source of values in any culture; has direct implications for the decisions humans make regarding the environment. Religious discourse can have a long-term ripple effect on the lives of humans. Thus, religion can be used in seeking a comprehensive solution to environmental problems. This is true in the case of Buddhism; one of the earliest Eastern religious traditions in the world. As a major world religion, Buddhism has a long and rich history of responding to human needs. With the rise of the religion and ecology movement, there has been research on the various aspects of Buddhist traditions to see what teachings are relevant and helpful for cultivating environmental awareness. The development of green Buddhism is a relatively new phenomenon, reflecting the scale of the environmental crisis around the world and thus opening up new interpretations of Buddhist teachings. Environmental concerns are motivated by many fields of environmental suffering—from the loss of species and habitat to the consequences of industrial agriculture. Therefore, it would not be incorrect to propagate the discourse on environmental ethics in Buddhism to bring about a change in the process of environmental degradation. It is important to remember that for many people religion remains the arbiter and repository of life’s deepest moral values. In this context, religion provides a rich resource to mobilize people for political action. Religion prompts us to pursue the most long-lasting and authentic values. Religion can thus enable us to take at least the first step toward collective change. Buddhism does offer rich resources for immediate application and in the case of Sikkimese Buddhism there are ample examples in the myths, legends, and traditions to prove this point. Moreover, such environment-friendly practices in the monasteries will further serve the purpose.
By Dr. Sangmu Thendup. She is a Buddhist scholar and teaches at Sikkim University- Gangtok