In this interview, Catherine Pawasarat Sensei talks about the impact our views of connection with – or disconnection from – our natural environment have on the quality of our lives moment to moment. She highlights the centrality of natural laws in the very essence of the meaning of ‘dharma’. She also talks about her own journey of fully connecting with her ecosystem and reflects on what we can do as practitioners to help us do the same.

If these teachings resonate with you, we recommend you check out Planet Dharma’s library of articles on the website. There are over 100 blog posts offering dharmic perspectives on all sorts of issues of interest to awakening beings. You can check them out at planetdharma.com/articles.

Podcast Transcription:

Welcome to Dharma If You Dare.. I’m Christopher Lawley, Planet Dharma team member and producer of the podcast.  I’m very excited to be bringing you our second ever interview with Planet Dharma’s teachers. This time it’s a conversation with Catherine Pawasarat Sensei on the intersection between spiritual awakening and ecology.  One of the goals of these interviews is to highlight a particular area of engagement that Qapel and Sensei have that inform who they are as teachers since both have a wide variety of areas of interest and expertise that inform the fields and modalities that they integrate into their teaching. For Cata Sensei had an early career as an environmental journalist. She is very interested in issues of sustainability and as she describes in the interview, the split humanity has created between itself and the natural world.  During our conversation, Sensei talks about the impact that our views of a connection with, or disconnection from, our natural environment have on the quality of our lives from moment to moment. She highlights the centrality of natural laws in the very essence of the meaning of dharma. She also talks about her own journey of fully connecting with her ecosystem and reflects on what we can do as practitioners to help us do the same. 

 

I wanted to also mention if you enjoy hearing Sensei and the Qapel’s thoughts on various topics, I suggest you check out Planet Dharma’s library of articles on the website. There are over 100 blog posts offering dharmic perspectives on all sorts of issues of interest to awakening beings. You can check them out at planetdharma.com/articles

 

And now here’s the interview:

 

CL: Well, thanks for making time for this.

 

Catherine Sensei: My pleasure.

 

May it benefit all beings. 

 

CL: So before we get started with the interview in earnest, I’m wondering how things are at Clear Sky right now. How’s the weather? what’s life like out there?

 

CS: It’s really good. Qapel and I, we took a short holiday, we did a drive around the Okanagan. I’m not sure if that’s geographically accurate to say that’s what we did, but we drove over to Nelson and over to a Osoyoos and up to the Similkameen and Penticton and Revelstoke, and then down the other side through Nakusp down to Creston. Yeah, it’s a lot of beautiful scenery and nice to have a change of pace. We just got back last night and it’s great here. We have five karma yogis on-site: Jenai as you know and then two from the summer, and two new ones just arrived, just the day before we left. And so it’s really exciting. They’re all really keen and bright and talented and hungry for dharma and it’s really great, and beautiful weather, beautiful autumn day. How is it there in Calgary?

 

CL; Yes, also beautiful autumn definitely. It goes up and down. So like a yo-yo here it’s always interesting. You never know what you’re gonna get in the morning but the skies here are just always gorgeous. It’s interesting when you were talking about going on your visit to B.C., and it sounds like visiting nature – we’ve talked so many times that I’ve heard you speak in different classes and with other teachers, the beauty of nature and how nourishing it is and how important it is to be in nature, to have moments of connection like that. And when I was thinking about what to ask you about ecology and spirituality, I was struck by my memory of how our sangha had difficulty understanding why the ecological restoration projects that we undertook that you initiated and led happened. And now in retrospect you know a decade later  it seems much more integrated into our sangha psyche. But at the time there really did seem like a large number of us were kind of questioning what this has to do with spiritual liberation. And I was wondering if you could speak to how you see that dynamic either how that showed up in our sangha or in society at large.

 

CS: Yeah, that’s a great line of inquiry, Chris. Yeah you’re right. I remember when we first started the ecological restoration effort, we could say, I was talking about native plants and the importance of native plants and someone said just very honestly, “what’s the big deal about native plants?” And I was so stunned by that question and I thought it was so self-evident, and yet I really didn’t have an answer to that question, so it really was a good one for me to realize that we need to be able to speak to all the different places that people are coming from, and to help people – we can say help people understand –  and I don’t want to make too much of, you know, healing the split that we suffer from – but there really is a –  let me speak for myself –  I realized one day that I thought of the ecosystem as something separate from myself, and I didn’t consider myself part of the ecosystem. And this was especially surprising and alarming for me, because I’ve worked in different aspects of environmentalism and I worked as an environmental journalist and I lived in the Brazilian rainforest and I’ve been doing that kind of stuff for my whole adult life and I thought, ‘wow, if I’m not part of the ecosystem then what am I doing and what have I been doing all this time and what is everyone else doing?’ So that was a great turning point for me to just take that as meditation is reflecting on myself as part of the ecosystem wherever I happen to be. And that feeling of connection has been so rich and so nourishing, and such a constant source of inspiration and revitalization, it’s kind of like – you know – ‘Catherine before that moment and Catherine after that moment’ kind of experience.

 

And so I wish that for everyone. It speaks really deeply to the Buddhist philosophy of non-duality. We often – usually when we talk about nonduality, we talk about ourselves and another person or other people. And of course, that’s true. And of course that’s also very important. And then there’s also this bigger ‘us’ and the entire ecosystem ‘us’ in the entire planet or this organism, this organism and all the organisms that are living inside this organism. And then of course the entire universe and life are so much more interesting and easy with that point of view, because, in a sense the entire universe is on our side, we’re all on the same team, the whole planet is on the same team as me and all the plants and I are on the same team. So like, stuff isn’t that hard.

 

And this accords really well with the truth that dharma, as you know, the root of the Sanskrit word, dharma or dhamma in Pali means law. And we often say the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. And of course, of course, that’s true. Those are kinds of laws that the historical Buddha pointed out to us, and what it’s helpful to remember is that those laws have always existed. Those are really natural laws which Taoism also draws on very profoundly. So, really what we’re doing as practitioners of dharma is aligning ourselves ever more deeply, ever ever in a more integrated way, with the natural laws of the universe. And so there is this beauty and effortlessness that comes with that, and energy. Right? Well the sun has all this energy and I have access to the same energy that the sun does, because I’m a part of the same system, for example.

 

CL: Thank you for that. What was coming up for me while you were speaking, Was that ancient times?Or certainly maybe even a few 100 years ago earlier, this connection to nature would have been more a part of regular life For sure. And I’m wondering whether you see this split that modern life has created as being healed through a return to those earlier ways of relating or do you see us moving into a new way of relating?

 

CS: You mean relating with one another as human beings or relating with everything with the ecosystem?

 

CS: Yeah, that is a really great question. I think we want to be very realistic that more than half the world’s population lives in cities now and a lot of these are megacities, and when we’re in a beautiful natural environment that’s expansive, it’s impressive, it grabs our attention in a way that the tree on the street corner might not be right, We can walk by that maybe without being very aware of it. And I think this is one reason why retreats in nature are so valuable because I think once we have the experience,  I find,  not only can I take it with me everywhere, but I want to and I need to where that tree on the street corner in a big city is now this being that I’m connecting with. And I think having a kind of mutual appreciation of one another. And if I didn’t have the experiences in nature that I’ve had in this case our retreat center, Clear Sky, I’m not sure how I could get to that, not to say it can’t happen, but it’s hard to envision how it could,  and so retreats in nature –  because of Covid, we’ve been doing some terrific retreats at home virtually. And it’s wonderful that technology empowers us to do that –  and yet if your home’s in a city, then I think when we do a retreat in nature and then we’re surrounded by these natural laws and we are in a city to I don’t and I’m not anti-city by any I means – I love cities – but the layer that humanity has constructed is between us and the natural laws in their original state. I’m using that term a little loosely because I wouldn’t say that the nature of Clear Sky’s  in its original state either and probably isn’t that many places on the planet that are in their original state, but that’s how it is and that’s okay, that’s what we have to work with.  For myself, it was very profound. We have some meditation cabins here at our retreat center, clear sky. And because of zoning issues, they’re not wired, they don’t have electricity and they don’t have water,  and they’re well insulated, but I’ve done most of my retreats in winter and well I really wasn’t prepared for that experience despite the great installation and the, you know, double-paned windows and so on. And that was very challenging.  I didn’t know how to build a fire, I didn’t know how to keep a fire going, Get these raging fires that were you know, 35 degrees, which is like 100 in Fahrenheit, I’d have to strip off all my clothes because it was so hot. And then and then it would go out really quick and I’d be really cold. It wasn’t great for my formal meditation. And then one morning I woke up and I was so cold that I actually thought that I had made a mistake moving to Canada and then I was going to  have to leave and the water was frozen in the offering bowls and I just thought I really can’t take this. And it was painful. It was a lot of suffering involved in that. And, as you know, a lot of our greatest breakthroughs happened through suffering. Please please don’t take that as a kind of masochistic manifesto.  But it was the first time in my life I realized that 99% of humanity has been experiencing those things fairly regularly And how did I make it to.. maybe I was 40 years old at the time, how did I make it so long in life with no experience of that whatsoever? So I felt this very profound connection with all of these human beings throughout space and time who’d had that experience and now I’ve had that experience too and such a greater appreciation for skills and paying attention to what was going on with nature. I never needed to do that. I never needed to think about what the weather gonna be like in the morning so I make sure I’m not caught in a situation where the water, my offering bowls might freeze. Not that that’s so terrible, but it was really hard for me to get out of bed and get dressed because it was so cold –  and much greater respect for those skills, the need to develop those skills myself and just be a better a rounded human being and more resilient, right? If I can handle those kinds of things, there are a whole lot of other things that I can handle because of that. And I think that’s something that growing up as I did with central heating and running water and flush toilets and so on, that we, we lose a lot of things that really build character. Again, I’m all for running water, flush toilets, electricity. 

 

Another thing that has become apparent to me as time goes by – for every wongkur initiation that we do, we first ask permission to the deities, the devas, the different kinds of beings that we can’t necessarily see –  and that includes elemental beings, and for example, nature spirits.  And this has really become much more alive to me, the more I’ve been involved with the ecological restoration and I have a much stronger feeling of connection with those beings, and also a much stronger feeling of mutual support that we’re here at Clear Sky, trying our best to take care of the land and help it to be healthy,  and that there’s a very good chance that they’re doing the same for us and for all the beings that come to Clear Sky. This is partly what I think of when we talk about creating a blessed Buddha field through our practice, that all kinds of beings are being restored to health, are becoming healthier, are becoming more integrated, are becoming part of us all being the same community, and that must be what they mean when they talk about this beautiful web of life.

 

CL: Thanks so much. You’ve really touched on so much. You spoke about the view and you’ve spoken about how it can look integrating the view into well in your experience that retreat example or daily life and I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that for kind of either society at large or for spiritual practitioners, the kind of – from what you see in in the people you meet and the students you work with – what you see, the forefront of this kind of work is going forward for these people, or for us.

 

CS: Yeah, I’m so glad you asked that question because the really important thing to know is when we first got Clear Sky, we had some specialists come to the land and they said, “oh your land is in really bad shape.” And people told us that they thought we could not bring it back to health, they thought it might not be possible. And we’ve been doing this just over 10 years now and now when people come onto our property, people tell us how beautiful it looks and how healthy it looks. And although I’d been working in the environmental field for a long time, I didn’t have any hands-on experience in knowing how to do ecological restoration. So we met people who did know, we’d ask them questions and just tried our best, and it was a gamble and a lot of guesswork and so on,  and a constant learning process and it really speaks to how much can be done by those good intentions, and of course doing due diligence and continuing to learn and so on. But that’s one of the things that I find so inspiring about this work is you don’t have to be a specialist. It doesn’t need to be a huge deal. It doesn’t need to be entirely time and energy consuming. But we just start with some fundamental principles and collect some basic tools –  connecting with the local native plants or ecological society is a really great place to start – and we can start with little things like potted plants, if you live in the city, or window boxes or join a local group of park volunteers, it can be small and it can be manageable. When we lived in Japan, we had a very small garden, really small – the size of  a 12-person dining room table,  and we put native plants there and within a year had a lot of birds and snakes. It’s not as scary as it sounds non-poisonous snakes..  but the point here is I was amazed at how quickly relatively small effort –  the rest of nature did most of the work and that’s what’s so great about all being on the same team like I was saying earlier

 

CL: Thanks very much. Yeah, I’m struck, I think what I’m taking away from this conversation is the reminder of how much more whole my experience is when I am connected to my ecosystem,  to my environment, to the other beings that I’m interacting with directly or indirectly. And that also the experience of investigating these aspects of my experience can also be a really fruitful part of my spiritual practice.  So not only is my daily life riche,  but that I’m also unfolding through the experiences that I’m engaging with when I ask questions about my place in the ecosystem or where is the intersection of spirituality and ecology? 

 

CS: That’s so beautifully put Chris, so agree 

 

CL: I really appreciate your time today. Thanks very much 

 

CS: Thank you. Okay, may it benefit all beings. 

 

CL: We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please rate and review dharma if you dare on your favorite podcast app to help more people find and benefit from these teachings and don’t forget to subscribe to get episodes and bonus content sent directly to your device sharing on social media or telling a friend are also great ways to help us grow among the many areas of interest and expertise.

 

Cata Sensei is involved in the garden festival in Kyoto Japan.  Sensei is the world’s foremost English language expert on the festival and has used this position to help reintegrate people’s understanding of the festival as a massive spiritual ritual. If you would like to learn about this fascinating and beautiful 1150-year-old monthlong purification ritual focused on warding off epidemics, check out the Sensei’s  book The Gion Festival:  Exploring its mysteries. You can find it and some videos on the topic at gionfestival.org/book. See you next time and may all our efforts benefit all beings.