An Eco-Lesson from the Himalayas to the World:
Pad Yatra




The Himalayas contain the largest field of glaciers outside of the polar ice caps, and the effects of current global warming trends, especially their ability to trigger environmental crises, have entered the forefront of concern for locals in this region. With the rise in global temperatures and rapid glacial melting which throw this eco-system off-balance, bad weather easily becomes catastrophic weather, and this entire region of human livelihood, culture and history has become endangered. There has also been an increase of plastic waste and, with no viable recycling or trash disposal system, the current generation is experiencing a sudden peak in polluted and poisoned water sources along the glacial melting routes, a source that provides half the world's population with fresh water.

In August 2010, a series of cloudbursts triggered torrential rain, mudslides, flash floods and debris flows, inundating local areas in Ladakh, causing tremendous damage very quickly, and traumatic experiences for the local inhabitants. "The impact of the rain alone caused skin to break and bruise," says Darryl Hannah in her narration during the new film PAD YATRA, clearly transmitting the degree of impact experienced. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, a revered spiritual leader in the region, soon arrived to survey the outcome of this event, offering on-the-ground support and aid, as well as spiritual relief, to survivors.

At the recent New York premiere screening of PAD YATRA: A Green Odyssey at the Asia Society, which the United Nations Association of New York co-presented with Live to Love International who produced the film, our honored guest was His Holiness the Drukpa himself, a recent recipient of a Millennium Development Goals Award recognizing his humanitarian and environmental work. In this rare New York visit, he graciously addressed the audience in a post-screening Q+A session, while giving it a most impressive gift: the great inspiration to accomplish something meaningful in the world.

Our president Paula Rice Jackson gave a warm welcome to the audience, promising them "an amazing piece of work. It is a spiritual film, an eco-centered film... about faith and determination, and about wanting to do the right thing by your neighbor a big policy with us at the United Nations Association of New York."

As a much-beloved spiritual guide for many, the Drukpa is inspired by his own compassion for people as much as his love of the natural world. Recognizing that many of these current disasterous ecological events have been caused by a long influence of human activity centered around economic conquest, greed and relentless consumption, he advocates a gentle and highly grounded approach to making a difference in the world. In this case, what could be gentler than walking a pilgrimage?

The activity of the pad yatra, which means "spiritual foot journey" in Sanskrit, is an old tradition in the Himalayas which has been adopted by the Drukpa as a modern means to effect the kinds of change necessary for life to continue in this region, and as this inspiring film demonstrated, there were numerous challenges in undertaking such an endeavor.

Traversing hundreds of miles on foot, sometimes at altitudes above 17,000 feet, the participants educated many locals on ecological responsibility while passing through villages, as well as collecting plastic litter and removing tons of polluting material from drinking sources. Beset by various tests of endurance, climatic and environmental factors, they also survived harrowing injuries, illnesses and bouts of starvation.

"Although there were many Buddhist monks and nuns on the pad yatra, the values of the pad yatra are universal: to have simple life and responsibilities, and to be helpful. These are values we learn from parents or teachers at a young age, we just need to return to them... to return to our beginner's mind, to what we already know," the Drukpa said. "We can do that through simple actions, it doesn't have to be complicated... using reusable bags when shopping, drinking tap water instead of bottled water... you can even do your own little pad yatra, picking up some garbage on your way home from work."

Memorable were several affective moments between His Holiness and many of the local residents of these remote regions who, upon suddenly meeting the Drukpa, were unable to hold back tears of gratitude at their encounter, highly moved by a deep devotion to spiritual teachers typical of Tibetan practitioners.

Also offering their own support and boosting the trekkers' morale, the so-called "Kung Fu Nuns" of the Drukpa order were a very welcome presence in the entourage, whose strength was especially inspiring to some participating Westerners like Carrie Lee, president of Live to Love International, and whose sister Wendy Lee directed and produced the film. Carrie had underestimated her own endurance limits and, like several others among the troops, experienced the utmost in hospitality and care from the Drukpa's sangha under such demanding circumstances.

The status of these nuns in the largely male-dominated world of Buddhism was of special importance to His Holiness, who has adopted an active policy for women's empowerment, providing nuns with a modern education and leadership skills, while building their confidence and offering a positive example for young women across the region. During his current visit to New York, while attending some of the current UN General Assembly sessions, he addressed the Women Leaders Forum. "We all have to join together to help eliminate fear, especially among women; not only women, but children and everyone who is affected by fear. This is because everyone deserves to be fearless and fearlessness is a part of our primordial nature," he said.

The Drukpa founded the organization Live to Love International to support social initiatives in many areas: building urgently needed medical clinics that serve poor rural regions, responding to communities affected by natural disasters, providing educational training and services, as well as ancient art preservation efforts, all of which are protective of local culture and history. One of his main projects, the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, has been awarded numerous international accolades for its environmentally-sound architecture. The school was recently overwhelmed by the 2010 mudslides, but it survived with almost no structural damage, a bittersweet yet telling victory which effectively allowed for restoration.

Although the pad yatra adventure shown in the film took place the year before the catastrophic events in Ladakh, it was clearly meant to signal a newly inspired response to such events and their prevention. Several regions have now banned plastic products, and filtered water has become a popular new enterprise to eliminate the demand for plastic bottled water.

Also inaugurated as an ongoing project is the planting of tens of thousands of trees across the region as a part of this new green revolution, which affords crucial protection against mudslides and debris flows. For a tree-planting ceremony coming up in Ladakh, the Drukpa expects to plant an amount which will succeed their previous Guinness Book of World Records citation.

His Holiness invited the inspired among the audience to join the upcoming pad yatra, while illuminating its fundamental importance for a participant: to forge a deeper connection to the natural world which we have largely ignored, to get a sense of "understanding of how important are the mountains, trees and waters for the world, and especially for the individual... all these beauties which we have ignored."

Some think of the pad yatra as a spiritual pilgrimage, which he says is fine as that has its own value. There is also his personal Buddhist consideration that all disasters are mostly man-made in one way or another through interdependence, which produces cause and effect with the resultant karma providing its own clear lessons.

"But from a greater perspective, I would say the pad yatra is very important as an initiative way of building a relationship between yourself and nature. Because without nature, we would not be able to survive in this world... So, we must build a good relationship with it not just from a spiritual but from a logical, scientific point of view."

The Drukpa's modern ecological version of the pad yatra, while honoring the core Buddhist tenet that all beings are interconnected and interdependent, also conveys an important message quite directly: what rolling up your sleeves while listening to the demands of the heart, and setting out to accomplish something meaningful in the real world, might actually look like.

As the Drukpa would say: may all beings benefit.

TOP: His Holiness the Drukpa on stage and with UNA-NY president Paula Rice Jackson; MIDDLE: His Holiness with Amir Dossal, UNA-NY 2010 Humanitarian Award recipient and founder of Global Partnerships Forum, and with UNA-NY treasurer Robin van Puyenbroeck. BOTTOM: The Drukpa with Pad Yatra director Wendy Lee, and at the post-screening VIP reception.


View more amazing images in a photo gallery from the Pad Yatra




reportage: Peter Muller