This article was published in the Echo
It seems a paradox that if you want to engage effectively, you have to disengage, but this is what is reflected in the life of Ani Tsondru who left her former life as an environmental scientist and lawyer to become a Buddhist nun. And not a nun who is secreted away in a monastry, but one who heads up an organisation which is taking the government to court over its proposed nuclear deal.
It was easy to guess who Tsondru was as I rushed in to the Noordhoek Garden Emporium café, brow furrowed, having battered my way through the traffic: the relaxed woman, at ease, fully in the present, sitting in the dappled shade, bicycle propped up nearby.
Her journey to this point could be said to have begun when Noodhoek resident Tsondru was doing work for Biowatch and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa.
“A lama – a spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism – from Spain came to teach special compassion practice and it turned my whole world upside down,” said Tsondru. “Eight months later I was in Spain on retreat, not speaking a word of Spanish.”
For three years and seven months Tsondru lived a traditional closed retreat. No newspapers, no phones. “I learnt Spanish and Tibetan very quickly!” she said.
Coming out of retreat for a few months, Tsondru took her vows as a nun, sorted out her affairs and went on a four-year retreat in India.
“That sort of practice changes you immensely, although you are the same person, transformed. Your priorities change.”
Afterwards, Tsondru wasn’t sure what to do. She could have returned to her spiritual community in the monastery in Spain, but she felt she really needed to come home.
“It’s something about how you fit into a space,” she said. “I had a starvation for the bush and the first thing I did was a wilderness trail in the iMfolozi. It underlined that I needed to be back.”
But how to be back without having her monastic structure? It’s all a bit of an exploration, she says, trying to see how she can give back to the earth, to life, to the country, to the people.
The outcome was becoming executive director of Southern African Faith Communities’ Environmental Institute (Safcei) last month.
Safcei have been in the headlines because of their court case, in conjunction with Earthlife Africa, brought in October last year to challenge the government’s plan to procure 9600 MW of nuclear reactors, saying that the minister had failed to put the necessary processes in place to ensure that the nuclear procurement deal was conducted lawfully and in a fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective way as required by the constitution.
Earlier this month, lawyers for the two organisations managed to get correspondence showing that the required steps leading to a nuclear deal – the section 34 determination – were not taken and was kept secret for two years, gazetted only because of the court case. (See correspondence on http://safcei.org/government-attempts-to-undermine-legal-case-against-nuclea/)
“There is an arrogant assumption that South Africans have no right to such critical information about nuclear projects that impact on our future until after it is too late to prevent the deal,” said Tsondru.
She said that Safcei was a small organisation and as such had to concentrate on small areas. Nonetheless, Safcei stands out from other organisations at international and local conferences because it doesn’t have a specific agenda.
“We come from a place of compassion – the common ground of all religions. It’s not tub-thumping. We don’t necessarily have the answer. As soon as the ego gets involved, love goes out the window and we want things for ‘me’. None of us spouts dogma. We just get on with repairing the damage to this earth.
“Environmental justice is not just green things. It’s our whole environment – it’s the social environment, it’s the economy, it’s the green things, the living things, the earth.
“We’re earth keepers.”
How does fighting such David and Goliath causes not become dispiriting, exhausting, enraging?
“The more you uncover your true nature – pray – is to sink into a place where we are most truly ourselves,” said Tsondru. “So I understand in a different way how things are – wonderful, terrible – and they don’t tend to impact on me in that personal way that upsets one and makes you strung out. Before I would get irritated, but that is not an effective state. Now I am not knocked left and right with the way things are. I understand with a longer perspective.”
Giving a vivid analogy, Tsondru said one could view thoughts or events as though they were fish in a tank. You could look at them, see what is wrong with them or how to heal them, without infecting yourself.
Tsondru helps people to give themselves this sort of space by teaching meditation at the Cape Garden Emporium as well as taking groups with wilderness guide Roy Ashton on The Wilderness Within trails to the iMfolozi game reserve. Here people walk and meditate, amid sometimes scary wild animals, with none of their usual accoutrements of urban life.
“I help people to see why they’re so happy – they’re deliriously happy after two days – because they feel like they’re home. Home is within you. It’s exactly that, we see we are connected. If you harm anything, you are harming yourself.”
If you would like to find out more about Safcei or donate money towards the court case, see their facebook page, their web page safcei.org/ or, for information on some of their causes, see http://nuclearcostssa.org/