Counsel From an Unusual Source

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

August is the “gringo month” on the coast according to Patricio Tamariz, who believes it brings weather that resembles the Pacific Northwest. Days usually begin with gray clouds that can last into the night, but occasionally surrender to the radiator hot sun of the equator for a few hours in the afternoon. When this acquiescence occurs, there is a peculiar phenomenon of sweating and then suddenly feeling for a moment as though cold water had been thrown over you when the clouds take command again. An unusual treat at the equator even if it’s eerily like running a fever. 

This is going to be an exceptional visit in the quest to create an ecological city in Bahia de Caraquez. It has been impossible up to now to raise the amount of money needed to transform large infrastructure systems such as sewage, water, garbage, or electricity. Only small grants have come our way, and the economically stressed city doesn’t possess sufficient funds on its own. Even the subsistence salary for an Environmental Planner was withdrawn in the last six months and that position is now idle. The problem of how the city can progress beyond the mainly private projects under way has been a daily preoccupation, and because of the lack of positive responses in the form of large grants, I felt that this fifth trip might be the least fruitful one. Events are already starting to prove me wrong.

When I was in Japan recently, a prized opportunity came up to visit Zen Buddhist Roshi (Abbot) Keido Fukushima at Tofukuji Monastery in Kyoto. I went with Judy Goldhaft, Ken Rodgers of Kyoto Journal, and a box of Godiva chocolates which I had heard him answer to an audience question at his last public lecture in San Francisco as an example of his personal non-spiritual attachments. Roshi Fukushima is a genial and quick-witted person whose manner resembles an artist rather than what might be typically expected from the top level keeper of a venerable religious tradition. He is in fact a gifted painter of individualistic calligraphic scrolls. (A rendition of the character mu meaning nothingness was done with so much ink that the spaces between the strokes slowly filled in and disappeared while it dried leaving behind a single dark form — nothingness.) When Ken asked me about the subjects that might be covered in our conversation, I mindlessly blurted out that I would tell him to help raise money for eco-ciudad projects in Ecuador. “You don’t tell Zen abbots anything,” he coolly replied. 

Tofukuji Monastery is spread over a large area with brilliant classical Japanese architectural and garden highlights everywhere one looks. The largest existing Zen meditation hall that is capable of holding 500 sitting acolytes, a magnificent three-story gate with voluptuous paintings of Nirvana on the ceiling of the top floor, and long handcrafted wood pavilions with views of bountiful red and yellow maple trees. While imposing in totality, it has the capability of focusing the mind intimately in any particular spot. 

We were met at Fukushima’s residence by a monk who briskly seated us at an elegantly plain wooden table. The main decoration in the scrupulously uncluttered room was a display of a few pieces of broken ancient rice bowls on a shelf in the corner. The abbot accepted the chocolates with genuine delight and began our informal audience by telling about some of his experiences in California and other places in North America. Our subsequent statements and questions to him were met with responses that could best be described as simple good sense. In a more complicated exchange, I asked if complete revelation could be attained by direct perception of elements in nature alone. He recited a teaching of Zen’s founder Dogen, 

“In spring, flowers. 
In summer, songs of birds. 
In fall, the moon. 
In winter, snow.” 

He asked, “What do you think that means?” I threw the question back, realizing that he had thought this brief text through many times. He replied that when perception of those seasonal signs is experienced fully without distraction they can briefly occupy the mind in a total way that closely resembles complete revelation. You become a flower, a bird’s song, the moon, or snow. What an unguarded and generously inclusive answer from someone who has meditated for thousands of hours hoping to attain enlightenment! 

The Bahia ecological city funding problem came to mind and I was moved by his candor to state it in a completely different way. I told him that I had originally come for assistance in finding financial support but realized just then that I needed his advice instead about why this obstacle had become so personally frustrating. Fukushima recalled the experience at the Rio de Janeiro UN Conference on the Environment of Amazon rain forest activists who seemed to be split over contradictory goals until an indigenous person who came from the region spoke about the situation of native people who lived there. His obvious involvement galvanized the group to drop their differences and adopt a united position. It was an example of why local inhabitants must eventually solve their own problems in ways that seem reasonable to them.

This is a basic tenet of bioregional practice, of course, and I pursue it in Bahia by involving as many groups as possible in decisions and activities, and encouraging leadership by local planners and workers on projects. But I hadn’t accepted the out-sized financial limitations on undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects. I always felt that since they required outside support they were the responsibility of myself and others who might be able to get it. The abbot performed a great service by enabling me to see that the big projects had been a personal involvement and didn’t necessarily fit the perceived needs of Bahia’s residents. I decided that they could be undertaken at some future time and I should pitch in with what people wanted to accomplish now. 

So I wasn’t sure what would happen when I returned this time with assistants Scott Farber and Edward Smallwood, capable and enthusiastic recent college graduates who will stay on until January. We could always do maintenance on the revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora and seek out local approaches to recycling, alternative energy and other sustainability possibilities. Which new projects we would undertake was undecided. I was taking the abbot’s counsel to watch for ideas that grew from within the community itself. 

The day after we arrived I called Mayor Leo and he excitedly insisted that I come to his house right away. Ed and Scott might be introduced at this time but they had set off toward the Malecon beach walkway at the other end of the city. I looked for them there without success. With a little time left before the meeting, I took a chance and walked all the way back to Jacob Santos’ Bed & Breakfast Inn where I had originally telephoned Leo. Fortunately, in the serendipitous way of strangers in a new place, they were also headed there looking for me. Our good luck proved to be an omen for the meeting with the mayor and his wife Michelle.

When previous assistant Amy Jewel was here five months ago, Michelle asked her to help develop two proposals for the British government’s “Small Grant Scheme”. One was for a large native planting project on hillsides entering Bahia (see for Report on Bahia de Caraquez Hillside Erosion Suitable for Revegetation Using Plantings Without Physical Alteration of the Landscape, under “Ecuador Dispatches Jan/Feb 2001 — Survey”). The other was to initiate a city-wide recycling program (Preliminary Waste Management and Recycling Plan, under “Reciclaje/Recycle”) by gathering compost materials for a low-income women’s vegetable garden. The compost/garden grant had just come through! The idea is to collect everything from kitchen scraps to tree trimmings, compost them into fertilizing soil, and raise food plants to a transportable size. They can then be sold, replanted at home, or donated to the immediate community. As a result, the neighborhood will become tangibly more self-reliant while the women learn and practice self-sufficient skills. Planet Drum Foundation and the municipal government are partner recipients of the grant, and Leo wanted me to go to Quito with him the next night to finish arrangements. The new assistant Ed is British and speaks fluent Spanish, and since I was already scheduled to do other things, it was decided that he would travel with the mayor instead and deliver my letter of gratitude. It will be instant immersion in Ecuadorian politics for Ed who already demonstrated his diplomatic skills by negotiating terms with the landlady at our new office/apartment. 

The roshi’s insight seems to have coincided with some plain good luck. Michelle found the grant source and helped develop the idea of a compost/garden project, which marks it as an activity that comes from within the community. This will be the first step for households to participate in recycling, and it fits with the aspirations of some economically struggling Bahians.

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