Right now green buildings are really popular because they are fun and creative. Our eco-design course is one of the biggest draws on campus. This is what students want to work on. Taking the first step with a green building creates a supportive environment in which to address some of the harder challenges, such as climate change. One Pure Land temple in Japan went even further in launching their green building; they started their own bank. The priest, who was very concerned about global warming and nuclear issues, founded the Eidogawa Citizen’s Network for Thinking About Global Warming. The citizens’ group decided they wanted to establish an alternative energy power plant in their ward. They thought they should find a way to withdraw from the financial institutions that were promoting corporate-scale profit-driven energy sources such as oil and natural gas. The bank, whose name is Mirai —“future”—worked like a credit union. People put their savings in the credit union, and the credit union made the loans to buy the solar tiles for the temple roof. Because people did not want to give up the traditional temple architecture, they figured out a way to make the solar panels fit with that architecture. Members donated to the temple by buying individual solar tiles. So, they were building social capital with the local bank while they were building their alternative energy source.

Now, what do I imagine for the green building here at Zen Mountain Monastery? I imagine beautiful light streaming through well-designed energy efficient windows that capture the light from many different angles. Good florescent lights, non-toxic paint, and non-toxic cleaners, as well as beautiful bamboo floors would complement the space. What about a green Buddha? What materials go into making Buddhas? Are wooden Buddhas less toxic than bronze castings? What about the shellacs? I have found that just raising these questions generates useful discussions.


Photo by Luciano Tirabassi


The Dragon Hall may become a place for community programs such as an environmental film series. People who come to see the films will be more able to think about difficult issues because they are very comfortable in this supportive space. I see three possible roles for the new building: the first is as a model, for others to enjoy and appreciate a green building, to physically feel how it enhances one’s practice. Second, it could be a real sanctuary in an environmental sense. I know of two places that are purposefully offering such environmental sanctuary in a Buddhist context. At Vallecitos Refuge in Taos, New Mexico people can join an activist retreat, specifically designed to help people recover from burnout. One of the founders of that group, Grove Burnett, is a teacher in the Vippasana tradition who studied with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. At the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont people work with land conservation professionals in a retreat setting, using meditation to open up the quality of the dialogue. Sanctuary for environmental professionals is desperately needed in this country. ZMM could offer staff retreats for New York environmental groups as a way of supporting environmental professionals. The third role I see would be to provide environmental leadership training for Buddhists. Zen students could come here to consider how to take up environmental responsibility from a Buddhist perspective.

I recently picked up a book on tea ceremony and thought of the Dragon Hall as an extended practice in the way of tea. Every room could be about guest and host, whether it’s an office or the gallery or the performance hall. According to grand master Shoshitsu Sen the Fifteenth, four values should be prominent in tea practice: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. As a building practice, it would be the practice of harmony with the earth you’re digging. Harmony with the air, the quality you’re bringing to the building. Harmony with the water, with the light, the quality of the lighting.

Respect would apply to the materials and the source of the materials, whether it’s the walls or the paint or the floors. This is where you really apply sustainability criteria and respect for what will last over time. Rare and expensive heavy metals are not necessary. We tend to think of purity in a religious or spiritual way but it can just as easily be seen as not leaving a toxic legacy. Of all the values, purity most relates to indoor air quality. It can also be seen in terms of the traces we personally leave. Those traces can be an investment in silence and integrity, or of leftover emotions. Can we clean up our personal traces just as we clean up the other toxic inputs in the building?