A River’s Powerful Lesson

Buddhist monks and nuns travel to India for an environmental conference on freshwater

thinlay at river

On a sunny November afternoon, 60 Buddhist monks and nuns from across the Himalayas traveled by bus through congested traffic, down an unpaved, dusty road to an unremarkable stretch of the Yamuna River. There wasn’t much to see. Why travel all this way? They’d come to listen to stories about what had once been. The Yamuna used to be sacred. No more. What had once been a holy pilgrimage site is now a place to avoid; the water is toxic, destroyed by damming and pollution.

The field trip came on the fourth day of an environmental conference in New Delhi, India, chaired by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa and organized by WWF Sacred Earth program director Dekila Chungyalpa. Monks and nuns from across India and Nepal came to learn about preserving freshwater in the Tibetan plateau, known as the water tower of Asia.

Freshwater concerns

Freshwater problems are particularly acute in the Himalayas where an unprecedented amount of development in Tibet is causing pollution to water sources. Add melting glaciers due to climate change to the mix and the region is facing a real environmental emergency.

During the conference, the monks and nuns brainstormed ideas on how to protect their own water sources from threats and came up with plans to implement conservation solutions back home.

“The first half of the conference was for the head. Today was for the heart,” said Chungyalpa. “It’s important for these faith leaders to appreciate the fragile nature of freshwater. This is what they will most remember. This is what will transform them.”

A monk’s experience

For 27-year-old Thinlay, a member of Nepal’s Benchen monastery, it was a memorable afternoon. “It was my first time seeing something like this and it was horrible,” he said. “This is what a dead river looks like. My eyes were full of tears. I thought, ‘how could this happen?’”

Thinlay says seeing the Yamuna was a stark reminder of the critical work he needs to continue at home. With the help of environmental guidelines from WWF and His Holiness’ Khoryug organization—the Karmapa’s network of Himalayan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries working on environmental protection—monasteries are becoming real-life, sustainable development success stories. This year Thinlay’s monastery began building a rainwater-harvesting tank. The tank, designed to collect up to 100,000 liters of water per month, stores rainwater and purifies it through a filter system so the monks can re-use it for cooking, cleaning and gardening.

Additionally, Thinlay and the 300 monks at Benchen plant trees in the community, pick up plastic, and organize volunteer trash clean-up days. But Thinlay says the most important thing he can do is teach the next generation about the environment’s essential value.

“We are leaders in our communities. We have a deep responsibility to pass on the message of environmental awareness,” Thinlay said. “We must share with others how to reuse water for multiple purposes, conserve water and why it’s important keep water sources clean.”