Green Dragon Earth Initiative
Interview with Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
by Valerie Meiju Linet, MRO
Featured in Mountain Record 29.2, Winter 2010
MR: What is the Green Dragon Earth Initiative?
SS: This is a continuation of the work that Daido Roshi began many years ago with the integration of environmental advocacy into his teachings. That work eventually developed into the creation of the Zen Environmental Studies Institute (ZESI), which includes the wilderness retreats that we conduct here in the Catskills, in New York City, and in the Adirondacks, water testing that was carried out for several years in the local waterways, identification of local flora and fauna, our ZESI website, and so on. The Green Dragon is an enlightened being who has realized its identity with all phenomenal reality, and specifically in this case, with the Earth and all of its creatures and life systems. Arising from this identity is great compassion; responding to the cries of the earth. My hope is that the Green Dragon Earth Initiative will be our sangha’s ongoing, committed response to the current environmental crisis.
Initially, I was thinking of and speaking about this work as an environmental initiative. Recently though, I was reading an article by David Roberts in which he wrote about how unhelpful it is to think of the current global crisis as a purely environmental issue. Framing it this way presents these vast and immensely complex issues that affect every one of us as a single, niche issue, only important for environmental advocates or for people who love nature. What we’re in the midst of is much much larger than that—it always has been. It’s very clear at this point that this crisis reaches into every imaginable area of human life and activity, including economics, food production, energy, consumerism, and social justice.
So it seemed more accurate and skillful to describe this effort as an Earth Initiative. In short, this Initiative is an invitation to gather on a regular basis and explore issues that impact the environment, and make decisions about our best response.
MR: In the past, as you said, the ZESI programs have focused on wilderness retreats and on projects such as the bird census and water testing that help participants get in touch with the environment. What inspired this particular form, this Earth Initiative incarnation of the Green Dragon?
SS: I think the ZESI programs that we’ve done have been, and continue to be important. The retreats are important because they bring people into direct contact with the earth, because taking care of the environment isn’t abstract. As soon as we start thinking in terms of an issue or a cause, particularly if we’re not directly experiencing the problem, it’s very easy for it to exist mainly in our heads, and to be divorced from the heart-rending experience of having one’s own body threatened and damaged. One of the things we really want to work at as we deal with the issues and information in the context of this Initiative, is to stay very connected to what it is we’re talking about, what it is we’re responding to—which is the planet and living organisms.
The ZESI programs bring people into direct contact with the planet in order to engender a feeling of love for the earth, which can give rise to a greater degree of advocacy and environmental stewardship. The present state of things, which is changing rapidly and is so complex and so vast, involves all of us, every single person. People in developed countries, and particularly people in the United States, are significantly responsible simply because of our consumerist lifestyles, the choices we make daily, and the disproportionate amount of energy and earth-derived materials we use compared to people around the world. We’re all implicated in bringing the planet to this point, and we’re certainly responsible for trying to address these problems.