[Bill Humphreys, Wes Burnett, Diane Fitzgerald, Karen Burnett]
When Leslie Gajdukow was ten years old, her parents moved from Massachusetts and bought a mountain outside Farmington, Maine. “The plan was to live off the land but then, within a month of moving in, my dad found a job at a local paper mill.” Living off the land is never as easy as it sounds.
Leslie became involved in Zen through a yoga course. “I had been injured as a triathlete and I was trying to make a comeback, and they said, go to yoga class. It will make you better. Which it didn’t, of course. And there’s this woman next to me, and as we’re trying, desperately, to do the positions – because she’s a runner too – we’re laughing most of the time. And then maybe two or three weeks into the class, it was announced that Diane – and I didn’t know it was the person sitting next to me – was going to start a meditation class. I had been looking for a meditation practice. But in Maine there was nothing. Then all of a sudden, they announce that this woman who I’d been kind of hanging-out with was going to start a meditation class.” The woman was Diane Fitzgerald.
Wesley Burnett also “came from away” as they say. His family were originally summer visitors. “We started coming up, doing a little bit of boat riding and that kind of stuff. Liked it well enough that we bought a cabin, which we expected to only be a summer place. But we spent two winters here now, and we survived. We’re off the grid – way off the grid – but we seem to get by. Got lots of firewood and a generator to run the solar batteries during the winter months. We have a thing to keep the wellhead from freezing. And other than that, we’re just watching snow all winter.”
He tells me that he’d long had an interest in Buddhism but hadn’t become active until coming to Maine. “There was a group meeting, and I went once, and I’ve been going ever since.”
Both Leslie and Wes are involved in the Zen Downeast’s EcoSattva program.
Leslie explains that she and Diane had been discussing ways in which the sangha could become more engaged in addressing environmental issues. “And then I saw the movie Plastic Oceans, and I’m like, ‘Let’s do something with this.’”
The sangha showed the movie to groups and led discussions about the need to avoid single-use plastics.
“We did most of our stuff on Campobello, in Canada. We spent a summer doing that. There was a big marathon in Lubec which used to draw thousands of people. We made sure we had booths, and we went to the blueberry festival in Machias.”
They were planning a series of workshops prior to the pandemic, which had to be redesigned for Zoom after restrictions were placed on public gatherings. It proved to be more successful than anticipated.
Wesley, however, felt they should also be engaged in something physical.
“I told Diane we needed a project where we actually got our hands dirty. I said, ‘We’re doing a lot of political stuff. It’s better to go out and get your hands dirty than to go out and get your soul dirty dealing with politicians.’”
So the EcoSattva group adopted a beach. “Mowry Beach is just a public beach. It’s part of the conservancy program. And it had a reputation of being dirtiest beach in Maine. So, we started going down and picking up the garbage.”
I ask Leslie what concern about ocean plastics has to do with Zen.
“Well, ‘ecosattva’ means compassionate care of the Earth. It’s a combination of ‘ecological’ and ‘bodhisattva.’ right? So compassionate care for the Earth. As long as you love anything about your life and who you are, you love the Earth just as much as if it is you.”
“One of the things Zen Buddhism teaches is that we should be involved in the world,” Wes tells me. “Because I was a geographer and dealt with a lot of physical stuff and wildlife, it didn’t come to me as any great news that we have a serious environmental problem in front of us, and that we’re having to contend with it. What the EcoSattva program’s done is get us to focus on things that we can do something about here in Maine. I lived in Africa for a long time, and I know what’s going on in the Sahel. But there’s nothing in the world I can do about it right now. I can help my neighborhood up here deal with problems of plastic, sea level rise. These are things right in front of me. These are things I have to live with day to day. And having a clear understanding of the environmental dilemmas in front of us and a clearer understanding of the community that I live in, I can bring help and assistance to that and maybe help the whole world get through this mess or not. If it can’t get through this mess, then I still did the best I could.
“Meditation makes me see the world clearer. It makes me examine the world, to examine reality and see it clearer for what it is and what it’s worth. I’m not saying that everybody that has the clarity is going to focus on the environment. There’s plenty of other problems worth focusing on, but it’s the one I happen to have a background in and I enjoy working with so it’s the one that I focus on.”
“And the connection between the two?” I ask.
“Most desirably I’d be in a state of meditation all the time. I would haul my firewood and chop my firewood and stack my firewood and haul my water, which I have to do, with an entirely different attitude now simply because what I’m doing at the moment is a portion of my practice, it’s a portion of my meditation. I can’t see the two as separate. I have chosen to work in the environment because I have a background in it, and I see that as part of my practice. My task is to save all sentient beings. Right?”
It’s Zen 101. When Master Shitou in 8th century China asked Layman Pang how he filled his time, Layman Pang replied with a poem still remembered today.
Nothing to choose, nothing to discard. I exercise occult and subtle power. How miraculous! How wondrous! Hauling water and carrying wood!
I ask Wes how he would sell involvement in the EcoSattva program to others.
“Well, why don’t you come out to the beach and pick up junk with us. You’ll find it very satisfying. You’ll see a lot of birds and changes in the weather. It’s very exciting. It’s very satisfying. The wind blows. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’re comfortable. Sometimes you’re uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s too hot. Sometimes it’s too cold. That’s part of living in nature. It’s just a great experience to come out and do something to make a beach look better just for the beach’s sake. And to let the community that that beach serves to get more joy out of it because it’s cleaner and nicer.”