Tibetan monk who went beyond religion

Chetsang’s love for the environment knows no bounds. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Chetsang’s love for the environment knows no bounds. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, July 19 ― A Tibetan Buddhist leader in exile is changing the face of the ancient religion with a power-packed agenda that aims to improve the lives, and environment, of the people he constantly prays for.

Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, who established the Drikung Kagyu seat in exile in Dehra Dun, India, after fleeing his native Tibet in 1975, has put his hand to the plow ín an effort to fast-forward Buddhism to meet the needs of the 21st century.

He has started a growing movement  known internationally as Go Green & Go Organic in Ladakh, Kashmir (dubbed Little Tibet), through which he hopes to stop global warming and its terribly effects in its tracks by embarking on a  programme to green the earth.

“You have to pray but you have to also go out into the world to change lives through practical methods so that the people benefit in practical ways,” the United Nations Global Mountain Partnership ambassador says in an illuminating 45-minute interview yesterday where the softspoken monk reveals a bond with the people that goes beyond the monastery.

The 71-year-old-to-be has become a “religious revolutionary” with a new dynamic that  seeks to make Buddhism more relevant to its adherents ― and people of other faiths.

“My entry into all this started when I realised many years ago that a river that was brimming with water had over the years trickled down to a stream that we could jump over,” he says with incredulity.     

For Chetsang, it was a far cry from the gushing rivers of his youth.

In its wake, came “cloud bursts” in another part of the year that rained terror on villagers unused to floods that washed away their homes.

The extremes in weather made him realise that urgent action was needed to forestall a worsening of the phenomenon.

It was at this point that he assumed the additional role of environmental guardian at home and abroad, leaving active soul-saving to younger monks while he travelled the world on an environmental mission with religious fervour.

“I do some environmental and peace work. Everybody has to do this too, regardless of religion, territorial boundaries or anything else,” the red and yellow-robed head of a religious order that goes back to 1179 says in understatement as I interview him in the 10th floor hotel room in Kuala Lumpur.

The air unfortunately is too warm for a man used to near freezing temperatures.

The septuagenarian, who has just returned from an exhausting trip to Penang and Alor Star besides attending to commitments in Kuala Lumpur, surprisingly does not look fatigued.    

The hands-on man walks over to examine the air-conditioning LED apparatus on the wall revealing the simplicity at his core.

Chetsang has only good things to say about the Indian government that has given subsidies to locals to green the environment.

He is now actively involved in encouraging the planting of a species called the Sea Buck Thorn which will encourage the local economy by yielding valuable ingredients for cosmetics and medicines.

Chetsang, who grew up near the Himalayas that tower over the rest of the world, is worried about the reduction in snowfall in the mountain range (15 per cent less now compared to 30 years ago).

“Global warming has definitely affected the Himalayas. I understand that huge chunks of ice have travelled to the Yangtze river in China,” he says.

 Speaking excitedly in English that he picked up while working in fast food outlets in the United States in his younger days, the man who is also fluent in Mandarin, talks of the ‘ice stupa’ (artificial mini glaciers) that he and his fellow environmentalists came up with during winter to supply much-needed water for crops in spring.            

“We developed a system where water was brought down from the upper reaches of a river to become ice structures lower down that yielded water for irrigation when the weather turned warm,” he says.

The Swiss want him to reprise the system in the cold confines of the land-locked country that also needs additional water supplies part of the year.

“Our engineering team is going over to Switzerland later this year to teach them the art of creating ice stupas,” he says.

Has his green vision caught on with locals and the monks under his charge?

The footballer as a youth, who tries to swim as much as he can on his travels to keep fit besides doing freehand exercises, held a series of meetings with the community three years ago to get them on board.

“I met up with monks at monastries, schools and government officials among others, to get them involved in the greening project,’ he says content that organic farming that he introduced has caught on with farmers. 

The senior cleric is also a crusader for interfaith dialogue as ‘all religions have to work for peace.’

“There are no more borders and no more gates between people of different faiths. All of us ― Christians, Muslims, Buddhists have to learn about other religions. How will we work with each other if we don't know one another?”

What next for the intrepid monk-cum-environmentalist who barely has time to meet commitments in Ladakh before flying off to meet other responsibilities the world over?

Chetsang has a 10-year plan “if I am alive that long” that involves training the next generation to take over.

The monk with a difference is all set to continue making his mark on the world of Buddhism and society at large with his huge heart for mankind.

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