Project manifesto

“towards sustainable community, dedicated to mindfulness, meditation, and forest restoration”

A red dragonfly pauses for a moment on a lotus blossom, Lumbini, Nepal, birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama

The aim of this document:

Here we set out some of the themes, ideas and practices we hope will form the core of the Gaia Forest journey. Using the following headings as a preliminary structure, we hope to collaborate with our founding group in developing these ideas as the project matures.

1: Our aspiration
2: How to live together?
3: A question of survival
4: Why community?
5: Why deep ecology?
6: Why plant trees?
7: Syntropic farming and natural medicines
8: A shared rhythm of practice
9: Communication and decision making
10: Space for personal practice and study
11: Embodied practice and mindful movement
12: Right livelihood and living simply
13: The place

1: Our aspiration:

The challenges facing humanity are great, but so too is our capacity, to adapt and transform. To build community is to aspire to nurture this potential, and find strength in togetherness.

“I do not allow myself to be overcome by hopelessness, no matter how tough the situation. I believe that if you just do your little bit without thinking of the bigness of what you stand against, if you turn to the enlargement of your own capacities, just that itself creates new potential.” – Vandana Shiva

2: How to live together?:

As in many spiritual traditions, it has long been recognised that there is a profound link between happiness and healthy relationship.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”H.H. The Dalai Lama

In Buddhist thought this connection can be mapped into four fundamental qualities of the human heart: friendliness, compassion, altruistic joy and inclusivity, the cultivation of which are the key not only to developing insight, but to healthy relationships.

“Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same.” Marshal B. Rosenberg

Deeply influenced by his experiences growing up in Vietnam, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has done perhaps more than many other Buddhist teachers to emphasise the insight that living together in harmony is humanity’s greatest challenge. In the Plum Village Zen Buddhist tradition, the path of personal transformation is rewoven into a path of community living.

“The sangha is a community of people who agree with each other that if we do not practice right mindfulness, we will lose all the beautiful things in our soul and all around us. People in the sangha standing near us, practicing with us, support us so that we are not pulled away from the present moment.”Thich Nhat Hanh

Cultivating a lifestyle based on the ethics of “interbeing”, we can develop mindfulness, leading to calmness of mind and insight. With mindfulness we are better able heal our own suffering, and in turn offer our presence in support of one and other on the path.

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

3: A question of survival:

Learning to live together is no longer a lifestyle choice, it is a question of survival. The subtle trauma of our disconnected modern lives is evidenced by climbing rates of mental and physical ill-health.

“If we look into the present situation in ourselves and our society, we can see much suffering. We need to call it by its true names—loneliness, the feeling of being cut off, alienation, division, the disintegration of the family, the disintegration of society.”Thich Nhat Hanh

In Australia the failure of “free-market” economics means most of a generation have given up hoping to afford their own home. As a backdrop to this, our patterns of consumption are driving our biosphere to the edge of collapse. Globally we face extreme events that may make our endeavours uninsurable, as anthropogenic climate change drives the planet’s sixth mass extinction event.

“Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here… The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.”Pema Chodron

4: Why community?:

Clearly we need to build community, to reduce our social isolation, return to a simpler way of living which shares resource equitably, and causes less harm to the biosphere. These ideas are not new, in fact humans have lived for most of our existence as a species in small, mutually supportive communities, in relative harmony with the earth and the cycles of nature.

“We do not need to invent sustainable human communities. We can learn from societies that have lived sustainably for centuries… Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.” Fritjof Capra

Indeed, it is only recently that we have begun to imagine we ought to live virtually alone, each in a separate box, and our that consumption has begun to outstrip the capacity of the biosphere to support us.

“Our civilization, our culture, has been characterized by individualism. The individual wants to be free from the society, from the family. The individual does not think he or she needs to take refuge in the family or in the society, and thinks that he or she can be happy without a sangha. That is why we do not have solidity, we do not have harmony, we do not have the communication that we so need.”Thich Nhat Hanh

Rather than living in a paradigm of competition and scarcity, by joining together to build sustainable spiritual community we can collectively create the conditions not only for our survival, but for our health and wellbeing.

“…those communities that intentionally bring environmental consciousness into combination with spiritual consciousness, I think are really on the forefront of the transformation that we need to see over the next few years”Christiana Figueras

5: Why deep ecology?:

Relationship is also a defining characteristic of living systems. In theory at least, the interconnectedness of the biosphere, exemplified in food webs and cycles of water and nutrients, is a familiar concept from the science of ecology.

“Perhaps the single most important thing that we can do to undo the harm we have done is to fix firmly in our minds the thought: the earth is alive”James Lovelock

In practice however, despite this knowledge, our societies seem unable to refrain from damaging the webs that support us. It can be said that the “deep” in Deep Ecology is an invitation to look beyond theories, concepts, and technical fixes, to probe the underlying causes for our current ecological crisis

“The fundamental insight of deep ecology is that underlying all of the symptoms of environmental problems, there is the illusion of separation between human beings and the natural world” John Seed

In doing so, Deep Ecology becomes a process of reuniting our objective knowledge of interconnectedness with a subjective, conscious and embodied experience of living, one that includes compassion and reverence for all life.

“Deep ecology does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It does see the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all human beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.”Fritjof Capra

6: Why plant trees?:

Engaging with this ethical and spiritual dimension, Deep Ecology also provides tools for coming to terms with our current situation and drawing from this acceptance the power to act for positive change. For us, this means growing and planting trees

“And if I would know, that I will die tomorrow, today still, I would plant an apple tree.” – Martin Luther

Where we live we are blessed to find ourselves in the heart of the World Heritage-listed Gondwanan Rainforest region, containing the largest remaining area of subtropical rainforest in the world.

“The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia… represent outstanding examples of major stages of the Earth’s evolutionary history, ongoing geological and biological processes, and exceptional biological diversity… many of which are restricted largely or entirely to the Gondwana Rainforests”UNESCO: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/368

These landscapes are magnificent places for contemplation and retreat, where it is still possible to experience the healing power of nature.

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”Rachel Carson

Yet we are also inheritors of the damage done by decades of unsustainable clearing and logging, with Australia having one of the highest rates of tree clearing of any developed country. In the past, we’ve cleared more each year than poverty-stricken countries like Burma, Mexico, and Zimbabwe, and the laws are set to be weakened, resulting in further forest losses.

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”Mahatma Gandhi

This problem is not a local one either: deforestation causes nearly 20% percent of the world’s CO2 emission, equalling almost all of the emissions from the global transport sector combined. Globally forests are home to more than three quarters of all terrestrial biodiversity, but we are losing them at an astonishing rate; each year more than 13 million hectares: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/forest/reforestation-the-easiest.html

“If we lose the forests, we lose our only teachers”. – Bill Mollison

This tragedy also presents us with a great opportunity. The act of planting a tree is one of the simple, most natural and most effective ways to sequester carbon, improve soil and water quality, and provide habitat for biodiversity as well as food and shelter to human beings.

Theravadin Buddhist Monks sweeping outside Maya Devi temple, Lumbini, Nepal, birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama

“Sometimes I come across a tree which seems like Buddha or Jesus: loving, compassionate, still, unambitious, enlightened,… How much can I learn from a tree? The tree is my church, the tree is my temple, the tree is my mantra, the tree is my poem and my prayer.”Satish Kumar

A recent study has shown that a coordinated effort for reforestation would be the most effective form of tackling climate change:

“There’s 400 gigatons now, in the 3 trillion trees, and if you were to scale that up by another trillion trees that’s in the order of hundreds of gigatons captured from the atmosphere – at least 10 years of anthropogenic emissions completely wiped out,” Thomas Crowther; https://themindunleashed.com/2019/02/restoration-world-forests-cancel-co2.html

We envision the protection, propagation and planting of forest trees as being a cornerstone of our community’s contribution to not only our own health and wellbeing, but that of the planet as a whole. We hope to find a home that allows us to do this on our own land, as well as working to support local, regional and international forest restoration.

“We must find our way back to true nature. We must set ourselves to the task of revitalizing the earth. Re-greening the earth, sowing seeds in the desert–that is the path society must follow.”Masanobu Fukuoka

7: Syntropic farming and natural medicines:

With so many hungry mouths to feed in a growing world population, clearing for agriculture is overwhelmingly the greatest direct cause of deforestation. There is growing evidence though that a return to ecological farming methods including agroforestry and organic farming, and a shift away from a carnivorous diet will not only be capable of reducing agricultural emissions, but also of providing food for human populations into the future: https://www.iddri.org/sites/default/files/PDF/Publications/Catalogue%20Iddri/Etude/201809-ST0918EN-tyfa.pdf

“The time has come to reclaim the stolen harvest and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and the most revolutionary act.” Vandana Shiva

A second cornerstone of our community project is the growing of simple, wholesome, organic food in a way that maximises biodiversity, climate change resilience and carbon storage. In doing so, we are inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka to integrate this into our spiritual practice.

“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”Masanobu Fukuoka

We are also deeply inspired by the work of Ernst Götsch and the Syntropic Agroforestry movement. Through these methods we aim to interplant annual food crops with a mix of food and timber-bearing trees. With careful pruning regimes, such a food forest has proven potential to to maximise photosynthesis, carbon capture and soil building as well as producing economic harvests.

“Unconditional love and cooperation are the basic principles of inter and infraspecific relationships between all species of this planet. It is a fundamental precondition for the syntropic process to occur.” Ernst Götsch

Humans have for millennia recognised the health benefits of a vast array of natural medicines based on plants and fungi. Only relatively recently have pharmaceutical companies attempted to control this natural pharmacopeia, humanities’ birthright, through patenting and synthesising them. At Gaia Forest we aspire to cultivate and offer some of these as part of our right-livelihood solutions. This will include species from the European and Chinese traditional apothecaries, and notably Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum).

8: A shared rhythm of practice:

We are committed to the practice of engaged Buddhism. This means applying the teachings not only to our personal development in retreat, but also to relationships both within and outside of our community, and to our environment.

“I don’t think the Buddha wanted us to abandon our society, our culture or our roots in order to practice. The practice of Buddhism should help people go back to their families. It should help people re-enter society in order to rediscover and accept the good things that are there in their culture and to rebuild those that are not.”Thich Nhat Hanh

Within our community, we are inspired by the practices of mindfulness in daily life, and their application to living in harmony as exemplified in the Plum Village tradition. We envision a shared rhythm of activity forming the backbone of our community practice, including daily sitting meditation, shared meals, “working meditation”, dharma talks and opportunities for group discussion, and yes, singing!

“A sangha is a community of friends practicing the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Throughout the year we also envision a rhythm of personal and communal retreats, and a calendar marked by celebration of the natural cycles of nature, the moon, and the seasons, which cross all cultural boundaries.

“To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words.”Joanna Macy

9: Communication and decision making:

Communication lies at the heart of building functional, healthy relationships. In developing the framework for Non-violent Communication (NVC), Marshal B. Rosenberg drew on insights from many spiritual traditions to create a very clear pathway to building healthy habits of communication.

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“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.”Marshal B. Rosenberg

By emphasising empathic listening and hearing the basic human needs behind even angry or unskilful words, conflicts can be transformed into opportunity for growth. We envision mindfulness, and the tools presented in Non-violent Communication as being a key part of our community practice. Living together brings many challenges, but with a shared practice, can also provide the support and inspiration for deep transformation and healing.

“In order for us to develop some roots, we need the kind of environment that can help us become rooted. A sangha is not a community of practice in which each person is an island, unable to communicate with each other—this is not a true sangha. No healing or transformation will result from such a sangha. A true sangha should be like a family in which there is a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.”Thich Nhat Hanh

10: Space for personal practice and study:

While we recognise that practice in relationship is crucial to our survival, not just of community but also as a species, we also recognise that our personal practice is a vital part of our development on the path.

“Silence is essential. We need silence just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.” Thich Nhat Hanh

For this reason we aspire to creating private retreat spaces of silence and solitude, especially for the cultivation of the traditional Buddhist techniques of shamatha and vipassana. We aspire to create a place for lay practitioners to deepen their practice, but it is also our dream to nurture a space for the monastic path for those who so chose, becoming a truly “fourfold” Sangha of lay men and women, monks and nuns.

We envision building capacity to host retreats and invite visiting teachers, as well as hosting our own workshops and maintaining study programs in-house. Education will be an important aspect of our work, with opportunities to volunteer on-site and learn with us. We would also love to eventually host a forest school for young children.

11: Embodied practice and mindful movement:

As in many spiritual traditions such as Yoga and Qi-gong, the Buddhist approach to meditation begins with mindfulness of the body. Be it standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, awareness of the body is a gateway to a deeper connection to our inner experience. The breath in turn is a gateway to this body awareness.

“Our breath, like our heartbeat, is the most reliable rhythm in our lives. When we become attuned to this constant rhythm, our breath can gradually teach us to come back to the original silence of the mind”. – Donna Farhi

We recognise that body and breath awareness and movement is a vital part of any healthy lifestyle, and a vital aspect of the spiritual path. We recognise that before we can truly begin to cultivate compassion , literally “feeling with another” we must cultivate our capacity to feel into our own embodied experience. We envision having dedicated space for yoga, tai-chi and other movement practices, as well as hosting retreats in embodied practice taught by our resident and visiting teachers. In turn we hope that the benefits of this will flow out into other aspects of our daily life, infusing movement in work and play with mindfulness and ease.

“Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a water snake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse. To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds. Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.”Thich Nhat Hanh

12: Right livelihood and living simply:

In a society geared to consumption and growth, choosing to downsize can be a radical act. We envision creating an affordable alternative to people who wish to devote themselves to different priorities in life – a space for living simply and mindfully, closely and gently upon the earth, growing good wholesome organic food, practicing mindfulness, and making do with less.

“Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” Henry David Thoreau

In addition to planting trees, growing food, and hosting retreats, we hope to support any activity that helps our residents and visitors to make an ethical, rewarding and fulfilling living while still leaving them free time to study and practice.

“Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms; ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap; a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos; a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings. When we are tired and feel discouraged by life’s daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.” Thich Nhat Hanh

For some this will mean working off site, and for us this interconnection with the wider community will always be important. We hope though to also create livelihood opportunities at home in Gaia Forest. Some of the projects we have in mind include bread making, wood working, pottery, dyeing and weaving, producing wild honey, growing medicinal plants, and perhaps making cheese from our own goat dairy! We also hope to soon have space for hosting artists, musicians, writers and others.

“Human happiness, true prosperity and joyful living can only emerge from a life of elegant simplicity, embedded in the arts and crafts.” –Satish Kumar

13: The place:

We are seeking land in the order of 100 acres, with an emphasis on a peaceful, secluded, forested space for resident and retreat accommodation and practice. We would like a place with a view to distant horizons, preferably on a hill or mountainside; with abundant clean water for peaceful reflection, swimming and irrigation; ideally a river or lake; and ideally a place with the ocean not too far away.

We will require at least a few hectares of cleared land, to have ample space for gardens, orchards and open ground, and eventually for livestock and possibly agroforestry; and we welcome an opportunity to give back to the land by restoring and revegetating cleared land. Ideally we would like a place with protected forest and/or wilderness nearby, for hiking retreats. We would like to be at least a couple of hours distant from major cities and out of earshot of busy roads.

We are also seeking a place with a healthy local community, as we feel that the long-term sustainability of our community lies in its connection to the wider community. Residents might need to have jobs/enterprises in the local community and have access to schools. We are practical, and keen to learn as we go, building from the ground up, so the property could have very little infrastructure at the outset. We are currently focusing on the Mid-North Coast area of NSW, between Johns River in the south to Coffs Harbour in the north, and especially on the area around Bellingen.

We envisage building up slowly over 10 years so that we eventually have:-
Inhabitants: around 10-15 permanent residents.

Activities:

Residential living; growing food – vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, fruit, and nuts for the community +/- surplus for local markets; caring for forest – weed management, seed propagation, planting; holding small retreats/workshops – e.g. meditation, Yoga, Deep Ecology native plant propagation, earth building – maximum of around 30 people; and other resident enterprises.

Infrastructure:

One common dwelling with commercial standard kitchen, meeting room, office space etc; self-contained cabins (tiny homes); some bed-only cabins; some covered platforms/tents for visitors/participants; one communal amenities building (showers, toilets, laundry); a small temple/meditation space; a yoga/workshop space; and an agricultural shed – maintenance workshop, machinery storage, gardening equipment etc.

Utilities:

Solar power, composting toilets, rainwater tanks

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