All life forms in the universe are sentient- a round-up of the 2022 LJM Eco Camp

All life forms in the universe are sentient- a round-up of the 2022 LJM Eco Camp
Planet Earth is our home and its evolution since the beginning of time has witnessed the birth of our world and the lives in it. Ours is an era marked by technological advancement at the expense of a relentlessly ransacked Nature, with negative consequences readily tangible in that the sustainability critical for all has become dangerously impaired. Such was the background when Master Hsin Tao, Founding Abbot of the Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society (LJM), started his long-time dedication to the promotion of spiritual ecology in the hope of turning the tide and helping people steer back to the pursuit of peace in mind and away from that of materialism. To contribute to relieving the dire ecological crises of our Earth, the LJM University for Life & Peace (ULP) organized the ‘Youth Eco Camp’ with the Nagarjuna Education for Peace and Life as the co-organizer. The Eco Camp took place at the LJM Wu Sheng Monastery for three bursts, with veteran ecology expert Professor Chen Yu-Fong in the lead and botany expert Professor Yang Guo-Zhen as the docent when the three batches of young participants moved along their designated route for a first-hand encounter with the mountains and landscape on the premises of LJM. To optimize the result of their studies, reading assignments beforehand and group discussions during as well as after each leg of the route came with the territory to help make certain that the participants obtain a solid basic core of knowledge about the interrelations between mankind and Nature, and the way to follow the rule of the universe regarding its self-healing mechanism.

Group 3 of the Eco Camp was made up of 14 participants whose Day 1 morning session was escorted by LJM volunteers and the two professor lecturers. Enshrouded by mountain wind and mist, the lecturers began their talk with how winds move in winter, the seasonal change of weather, and botanical classifications in correlation to the altitude… only to zoom in on the special local characteristics of LJM’s surroundings and the botanical symbiosis. Professor Chen likened the clustering of botanical species and how the symbiosis functions to that of the human society that takes all walks of life to work properly as a living community. Professor Yang, on the other hand, pointed out that quite a bit of foreign plants and trees had been introduced into Taiwan that later had a direct impact on indigenous growth because of the lack of public understanding of biological diversity. Such impact can expose the habitat to environmental disasters, according to Professor Yang, who continued that, however, the gradual awakening of eco-friendliness has prompted more islanders to focus on the rejuvenation of indigenous botany to restore Taiwan’s natural forestry.

With the help of the two expert lecturers, the participants embarked on a botanical journey that began with a basic understanding of the plants and trees just around them, moving on to expand their view of how to maintain ecological balance. Questions upon questions were raised - some out of curiosity, but more for the intent to go further in their appreciation. It was obvious that the group’s average impression of the Monastery’s natural surroundings was no longer superficial.

Walking up the stairs along the mountain trails, the participants made stops here and there to deepen their direct contact with the surroundings by putting their senses to work - they behold the details of the foliage, they softly touch the bark for a feel, and they close in on plants for a decent sniff… One can easily tell how the group really got to know Nature much better by way of such direct communication. The lecturers also moved on to another plateau for their talks from the rudimentary basics to a holistic ecological equilibrium.

The group then reached the highest point of the Monastery, where a statue of the Eleven-Faced Bodhisattva Guanyin was erected. Work continued over lunch there - the lecturers highlighted what it means that LJM sits atop the ridgeline of Xueshan, or Snow Mountain. Gusty winds rule out the possibility for plants to have a taller natural shield, which results in the fact that plants there are resistant to blasting winds and direct exposure to sunlight. Yet even there it was inevitable that man-made plantations had been attempted. The lecturers had high hopes that the participants would remember their personal experiences of the interrelations between man and nature. Noticing that the group showed a relaxed calm in the natural openness, Professor Chen shared his observation that ‘as you’ve finally arrived here ( the Monastery), it’s time for your mind to go home’. Trailing the mountain path from the Four Famous Mounts to the Bodhimaṇḍa of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha afforded the participants a further extension of exposure to pristine mountain growth all around. The plants there were washed and rinsed afresh by mountain rains to dazzle with the color of emerald green. Miniature waterfalls cascading down from towering boulder stones and mountain cliffs, meanwhile, caused occasional splashing like pearls flying in all directions. The 6-hour-long journey did not wear out the participants. Instead, the treasure trove of knowledge and the plentiful supply of phytoncide in the woods kept them wide awake and wishing for more.

The following day first took the group to the Forest Meditation Hall that sits facing the ocean. As there were layers of misty fog enshrouding the entrance, Professor Chen opened his talk with an introduction to fluid mechanics as displayed by the motion of moist air in the form of clouds, mists, and fogs, sharing the participants knowledge of basic meteorology. The professor likened the venue to the Alaya Consciousness of LJM, i.e. the Eighth Consciousness, where the spirituality resides. ‘The practice of Dharma is all about experiencing the function of our mind,’ he suggested, adding the expectation that the participants try to ‘feel and experience’ the plants rather than trying to memorize their name and characteristics. Upon entering the Forest Meditation Hall, what greets the eye were mountain mammals fleeing to hide away. Birds chirping can be heard everywhere, and even vines wrapping themselves around tree trunks give off strong signs of vitality. The lecturers point to how tree branches spread out in all directions to grow the tree’s umbrella for a radius of its turf. The drizzling rain became stronger as the group reached the platform of the venue and the lecturers signaled silence for people to enjoy a moment of quiet in experiencing one’s own being out in the open and in rain. Some lifted their heads to feel raindrops running down their cheeks, while others simply stood motionless to enjoy a spiritual rinsing. There were also participants who leaned against trees to register what was happening both outside and inside. For those short moments, words had no use in the face of implicit understanding people fell back on.

Master Xien Yueh, supervisor of the Preparatory Office of the ULP that hosts the eco camp, was there to share her insight into spiritual ecology under the direct tutelage of Master Hsin Tao at the very same venue. She told the participants that the Venerable learned from his awareness that we humans and all sentient beings in the forest are ultimately equal because of our sharing of spirituality. Our ties to the outside world, said Master Xien Yueh, give rise to impact in the forms of restlessness and attachments that lead us to the desire of fleeing from suffering. And the only and simplest way to attain the goal is return to spirituality, the master said. The courses taught and gone through in the eco camp afford the participants the appreciation that plants are life forms with their own energy that links to spirituality. The interconnectedness between man and nature helps us to generate love and compassion to Nature, which coexist with humans on the earth as part and parcel of a living community.

The afternoon session was conducted at the Triyana College. Professor Chen led the group to reflect on the interrelations between man and nature and the meaning of life. Chen approached his task by adopting a multi-lense angle which involves science, philosophy, logic, and Buddhadharma. The professor presented his lecture with daily observations, enabling participants to develop a comprehensive understanding about how to preserve and safeguard local ecology for sustainability.
A documentary featuring a round up of the camp activities was run at the Closing Ceremony. Participants were once again moved by what was going on at the moment of recording. Participants and volunteers all shared their respective takeaway. Participant Liu Wan-Ni said she was most touched by the sound of water droplets dripping down the blades of plants in rain, and she enjoyed the sense of achievement in learning about botany. But above all, what shook her to the core was the repetitive reminder from Professor Chen that one should maintain the notion of ‘allowing the benefit of the doubt’ and never take things at their face value, not even when someone authoritative like a teacher says so. Participant Lin Jing-Cheng, on the other hand, signed up for the two-day eco camp to destress what his new job demands of him - and it did. Lin said what surprised him was that the Forest Meditation Hall was once an orchard, and Master Hsin Tao restored the land lot to its original state of a natural forest without any man-made element or factor. The ‘Do nothing’ principle turned out to be the right formula for nature’s self-healing mechanism. The anecdote prompted Lin to contemplate on what to do - he decides to reflect and check to see if anything equally important if not more somehow fell through the racks.

Away from the hustles and bustles of the secular world and emerging in the thicket of the woods up on Ling Jiou Mountain, the participants get to realize that all life forms in the universe are all sentient. It might not be possible to equip all the participants of the three groups with all details about the botanical surroundings of the LJM monastery, but it is a starting point. Any journey must begin with the first step and only when people are ready to take action in search of spirituality and re-learn to appreciate nature will future ecology stand a chance of restoration, which in turn makes sustainability possible.