ZESI: Zen Environmental Studies Institute

I recently had the opportunity to speak to one of the monks at ZESI: Zen Environmental Studies Institute regarding the environment and buddhism. The institute provides education and training in Zen Buddhism and ecological studies. Encouraging the dissolution of oppositional thinking that generates the traditional “us against them” mentality, ZESI encourages experiencing the interconnectedness of life and the mutuality between humans with nature. Programs are offered throughout the year that include a wilderness solo experience, zen meditation, wilderness skills training, and yoga, among many other activities. This beautiful monastery in the Catskills is an incredible place to let go of our daily routines and get in touch with a deeper sense of ecology.

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About Kimberly Jordan Allen


  1. That place sounds amazing. I think my Uncle may have spent some time there, or someplace very similar.

    Several times when I’ve been out on the trail I’ve encountered Outward Bound folks, and I don’t know whether it’s just the groups I’ve found, or whether it’s the philosophy of the organization, but those folks were all about ‘conquering’ nature. Staying up all night, hiking the most amount in one day, or summiting in record time, I always wondered if they even noticed the gorgeous surroundings they were practically running by. I bring this up because in the above post there’s the ‘us against them’ idea brought up and that’s what I saw with these groups.

    I feel like it’s this idea of people against nature that has gotten us where we are today- the natural world has already solved myriad problems- instead of looking there for inspiration and direction (like how to create a fabric that won’t get dirty, so no need for washing, like many plants, for example), we strike out on our own, clearcut forests, dam rivers, etc. Now of course some people are realizing that those forests protect water quality, which is more valuable than the timber, or that the fish in the dammed rivers is worth more than the sense of ‘control’ over river flows (stop building on floodplains for goodness’ sake!).

    It is high time that we stop thinking of ourselves and way of lives in opposition to nature- something to ‘beat’- it’s impossible anyway. All the answers are there, we just have to be smart enough to look for them.

  2. I did Outward Bound when I was sixteen. I wasn’t taught to concur or objectify nature, but we were pushed extensively. The fight was more an inward one, which didn’t always succeed in motivating me. A lot of negative reinforcement was used on the trip I took (which was in Montana’s Abaroska Beartooth Wilderness) which didn’t always motivate me. Positive reinforcement tends to work better for me, personally. The trip was amazing and I am eternally grateful I did it. Philosophically, I didn’t agree with everything. I was also really young and rebellious at the time, which probably didn’t help my anti-authoritarian ways.

    What I was thinking about, more than man against nature, was man against man. I have known environmentalists who have no problem finding beauty or divinity in the natural world, but have a really hard time finding it in other people. My personal feeling regarding the political polarization is that what largely leads to media soundbites, dualistic thinking, and stereotyping, is this lack of ability to empathize between people. It is too easy to think “Democrats against Republicans,” “Right against Left,” “Green against Red” etc.. What I have usually found is that nothing is that cut and dry. It is an old joke/cliche that there are many animal activits who love animals but can’t stand people… and I understand the anger. I know it. I have seen monkeys being bludgeoned in the jungle, for their skins, or Gorillas’ body parts being sold in markets, and it makes me incensed. But simply going and telling these people “you are wrong” isn’t going to change anything.

    When it comes to the environment and implementing change, being able to mediate – generate dialogue – initiate enthusiasm and concern – comes from being able to identify – being able to share and relate to others. Too much animosity and finger pointing generally leads to not much – except Fox TV!?!

    This is something the monk at ZESI and I discussed. One of the things encouraged greatly by Buddhists, with regard to the preservation of our ecology, is compassion. Anger and violence have no place when you are working on being aware of interconnectedness. The simple black and white thinking that creates polarization, even among environmentalists, has often led to inaction.

    The willingness to see the multiplicitous dimensions of a situation allow for true understanding and acting from that awareness. One could even say that part of what has led us to the troubling degradation we are confronted with today, is the hatred/violence inherent in objectification. If I see a tree, not as a tree, but as a “duralog” or a pad of “sticky notes” – in other words – the commodification of our natural world – then I no longer care that I am destroying or “using” it for money. As Summer quoted from Coulter, and I am paraphrasing, ‘the earth is perceived as being for us to rape and pillage.’ This perception necessarily implies that we are disconnected from the earth – not one with it. This includes our fellow humans.

    But if the realization occurs – that the earth is not outside of us – but within us, then how can we not act on behalf of that body – that is us? To act on behalf of this organism, that is you, that is me, means letting go of antiquated discourse, such as “us versus them.”

  3. Socialpyramid says:

    I think what Kim discusses is THE very reason why the deal fell apart to save the urban farm in LA over the past week. In interviews, the landowner revealed that he was infuriated by the way the farm’s supporters were talking to and about him. He told reporters: “Even if they raised $100 million, this group could not buy this property. It’s not about money. It’s about I don’t like their cause and I don’t like their conduct. So there’s no price I would sell it to them for.” This after the farm supporters had put together millions in fair offers.

    He “disliked from the beginning,” he said, “the activists, the movie stars, the anarchists and the hard-nosed group.” Being a wealthy, high-society kind of person, he obviously expected everyone to treat him as a peer, although that’s an awfully lot to ask for dirt-poor immigrants who barely speak English and are trying to scrape by in South Central. Clearly, we all need to try harder to connect with one another across socialpolitical/cultural/economic divides.

  4. Absolutely!! The days of name calling and finger pointing are LONG over. It is time for the environmental movement to change with the times. A lot of people are doing this and promoting diplomacy over polarization, which is encouraging. It is truly a shift in perception that leads to letting go of the ego and acting, truly, on behalf of the earth. That being said, maybe this guy (regarding the LA farm) just would not have agreed to anything when it boiled down to it.

    Unfortunately, it is the lack of willingness to think of the planet before the dollar that has angered so many. The anger may be warranted, but acting in a state of rage is dangerous.

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