Travels along the Gandaki River, Nepal

I am a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I study the Earth’s climate, especially in high-altitude regions.  I am also an ordained Soto Zen priest in the Everyday Zen community, and I co-lead a sitting group here in Albuquerque with my dharma brother Keizan Titus O’Brien (  This past December, I traveled to Nepal as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to begin studying the impacts of climate change along the Gandaki River corridor.  The Gandaki is one of the major rivers of Nepal and it transects remarkably diverse landscapes from the arid Tibetan Plateau, across the high Himalayas, through the Siwalik foothills, and into the humid Terai plains. Our research team included an atmospheric scientist (me), an economist, a water resources engineer and several graduate students.  The trip was officially a ‘research planning trip’, meaning that our goal was to meet with Nepali partners and get a feeling for the lay of the land, and to see how the different cultural groups along the Gandaki perceived climate change and how they were responding to it, with the aim of developing a full proposal to study the problem.  Several of us on the trip were long term Buddhist practitioners, and we were very keen to see if there might be an intersection between our climate change work and our Buddhist practice here in the birthplace of the Buddha.

When we arrived in Kathmandu on Christmas day, the first thing that hit me was the air pollution.  It was orders of magnitude worse than anything I have ever seen.  The air everywhere was smoky with car and motorcycle exhaust.  It was overwhelming, and it was not a welcome start to our trip.  We checked into the Samsara Hotel (that’s really the name of it!) and immediately went up into the foothills outside of town for a Christmas lunch at my Nepalese colleague’s mountain home.  It was nice to get out of the air pollution and have some time to relax while gazing at the gorgeous Himalayan snow peaks that surrounded the site.

The next day was focused on meetings with local NGOs working on the climate change issue in Nepal.  It was very inspiring to meet with the World Wildlife Fund, which is involved in many aspects of rural community development that I would have thought was well beyond the core focus of the WWF.  It turns out that NGOs in places like Nepal provide the kinds of support that governments provide in more affluent nations.

Our first glimpse of the links between Buddhism and a response to climate change came here.  One of the heads of the local WWF is from the Upper Mustang region and is a devoted Tibetan Buddhist.  There is a terrible problem with deforestation in the plains of southern Nepal, especially around Lumbini, where the Buddha was born.  The WWF has committed itself to planting 108,000 trees every year for 10 years in and around Lumibini.  They plan to native plant trees that would have been around at the time of the Buddha, including ashoka, sal, pipal and kadam.  The region is an important carbon sink, and this project has the potential to really improve wildlife habitats, improve water quality, and, in the words of our colleague at the WWF “build connectivity across the landscape to facilitate wildlife movement while promoting harmony between humans, wildlife and nature.”  He spoke with real passion and emotion about how this project is a direct expression of his Buddhist practice and how he has been conducting it with the support and guidance of his Tibetan teachers.

Our next meeting was with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.  The Vice Chancellor of the Academy, Dr. Jibaraj Pokharel, warmly welcomed us into his office.  The centerpiece of his office was a magnificent seated Buddha figure.  After we settled down and his staff brought us tea, Dr. Pokharel began the meeting by recounting the story of the Buddha’s awakening.  I must confess I was a bit confused by this – did he know that I was an ordained person and that this was a key interest of mine?  Apparently not, but it appears that he often begins meetings with this story.  How lovely it would be if we always began our meetings with stories from the life of the Buddha!  Again, we found that this group recognized that a response to the broad problems of climate change could be firmly rooted in the Buddha’s teachings of interdependence.

After these initial meetings, we flew to Pokhara and then drove (very very slowly) along the Gandaki River, between the magnificent 8-km high peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna to the southern fringe of the Tibetan Plateau and the town of Jomsom.  This drive crosses one of the strongest climate gradients on Earth, driven by the intense orographic rain shadow of the Himalayas.  As we drove, we transitioned from the very wet jungle-like terrain on the southern slopes of the Himalaya to the drier, higher elevations dotted with pine trees (very reminiscent of our beloved Sierra Nevada in California) to the semi-arid deserts of the Tibetan Plateau that reminded us a bit of New Mexico.

In Jomsom, we met with local community leaders who spoke of the disruptions they have experienced from droughts and changes in precipitation patterns that they attribute to man-made climate change.  It wasn’t clear to me, as a climate scientist, that everything they attributed to climate change was really an effect of a changing climate.  Some of the issues they described may have been related more to local changes in agricultural practices and water use.  But still, it was clear here that the communities are keenly aware of climate change and view it primarily as a problem foisted on them by bigger countries like India and China.

Our trip continued down to Lumbini itself, where we visited the Maya Devi temple at the Buddha’s birthplace, and Kapilivastu, the site of the Shakya clan’s palace, from which the young Prince Siddartha escaped to begin his life as a monk.  We had several additional meetings aimed at launching the new Lumbini Center for Sustainability, where the explicit focus is on bringing the teachings of the Buddha to bear on problems of environmental change in Nepal.  The chancellor of Lumbini Buddha University joined us and spoke eloquently about the need to bring the Buddha’s teachings into the discussion of how we respond to climate change.  We then traveled to Chitwan National Park, where deforestation is rapidly bringing tiger habitats into close proximity with human populations, and then finally we returned to the Hotel Samsara in Kathmandu to rest a bit before returning to the USA.

I am not a specialist in development, but I wonder to what extent has ‘climate change’ become a catchall for the wide range of (legitimate) grievances that people in small, poor countries have with their larger neighbors?  I can certainly understand that tendency, although I am not sure how helpful it is.  In Nepal, the response to climate change is primarily focused on adaptation rather than on mitigation.  Despite the terrible air pollution, Nepal is fairly low on the list of the world’s greenhouse gas emitters (between Uganda and Namibia), so they feel that it is China and India and the United States that need to take primary actions to stop global warming.  My sense from the Buddhists we encountered on the trip was that they felt that local actions are consistent with the Buddha’s teachings and that they can be helpful in staving off the worst effects of climate change.  Very notably, the Buddhists we met with were not despairing about climate change or even complaining about it very much.  Instead, they were all focused on the local, concrete actions they could actually take, right now, that could help the situation.  It was a very pragmatic, down-to-earth approach that I found refreshing.

The Buddha famously refused to address questions beyond the scope of his teachings.  Instead, he exhorted his students to focus on suffering and on its cessation.  The Buddha’s teaching on the origin of suffering implies a local, proximal response.  Rather than concerning ourselves with some ultimate, cosmic cause of suffering, the Buddha’s teachings emphasize steps we can take ourselves.  I think some of this spirit infused our Nepalese colleagues in how they are approaching the problem of climate change.  Even though poor countries like Nepal are extremely vulnerable to manmade climate change, they can’t really stop China and the US from emitting greenhouse gases.  One potential approach to climate change might be despair, which is certainly a very human response.  Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work finding the steps that we can take locally, however small, to do our part.

I always think about a story the great folksinger Pete Seeger used to tell about the power of individual, small actions:

“I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us.

“I imagine a big seesaw, and one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand…

“One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction. And people will say, ‘Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?’ Us and all our little teaspoons.”

— Taisan Joe Galewsky


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