By creating the Zen Environmental Studies Institute, Ltd. (ZESI) in 2000, the Mountains and Rivers Order turned its recognition of environmentalism as spiritual practice into a nameable and unified form. ZESI is a not-for-profit religious corporation of the MRO, whose membership is open to all. Environmental education, art practice, research, activism, spiritual study, and Zen training weave together, resulting in ZESI retreats, a newsletter, website, and the manifestation of the green dragon in the world. There are training opportunities at Zen Environmental Studies Sites on Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Forest Preserve and on the Esopus Creek in the Catskills Preserve, in the form of retreats and Green Dragon volunteer work (stream monitoring, bird census, etc.).These are invitations to engage wilderness as a sutra, as the actual word of the Buddha.
The dragon makes its mark when our hearts have been transformed by nature. What follows, necessarily, is loving, skillful action on behalf of the insentient—as Daido Roshi says, “to give voice to the voiceless.” ZESI’s Green Dragon Society, for example, is a team of biologists, river engineers, bioethicists, media personnel, and environmental lawyers, who advocate for the earth, sky, and waters. They are the scales, as well as the body and fiery breath, of the howling, iridescent creature.
ZESI’s website includes a “Green Alert” section which updates readers on environmental issues that require attention and action, such as the climate change crisis and oil drilling schemes in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge. It also highlights closer-to-home issues of preservation and protection of the Catskill Forest Preserve, in the midst of which sits the Monastery’s main house. The website’s urge, “DON’T JUST SIT THERE—DO SOMETHING!” points to a fundamental teaching about the importance of Zen practice off the cushion.
The exhortation is not a hot-headed call to arms or an encouragement to protest for the sake of dissent, but rather a reminder of the bodhisattva vow—an impossible commitment to live the life of a buddha. This sort of activism is based in wisdom, compassion, and true love.
The Mountains and Rivers Order leads by example, seeking to act as a model and inspiration for students, community members, and visitors. Most recently, the green dragon has become interested in architecture. With plans to construct the Zen Mountain Monastery’s Sangha House—the Dragon Hall—underway, the MRO has used this building project as an opportunity to create a structure that nourishes practitioners, as well as the land upon which it rests. This effort will result in a visible manifestation of the Precepts. The Dragon Hall is a human creation envisioned with an earth-centered intention.
The natural world is yet another gate through which, if we enter fully, we can receive the teachings of the Way. The universe of our self is manifest in the cobwebs, old growth forests, and caddisflies that we encounter in the environment. Expressing love for this world is an opportunity to take right action—whether we are trying to save the life of a stream or of a person. Zen practice has never been about keeping one’s hands clean. This Green Dragon training urges us to dig our fingers deeper in the dirt. Before we know it, we’ll be breathing fire
Valerie Meiju Linet became an MRO student in 2000. She lives and works as a clinical social worker in Kingston, NY.