Dates: Oct. 24-30 (Earthen Architecture and Sustainability Workshop)
Getting In: Series of public busses from Dharamsala to Bir. Taxi (150 INR) from Bir to Dharmalaya Institute.
According to its website, Dharmalaya is “devoted to education and empowerment for compassionate living, with a practical focus on sustainable village development, contemplative service-learning, and immersive ecotourism.” I attended a week-long Earthen Architecture and Sustainability Workshop held at Dharmalaya’s eco-campus located in the bucolic Himalayan foothills near the town of Bir. The program is one of the many workshops and retreats hosted at Dharmalaya. There are also open-volunteer periods for those who want to learn about earthen architecture and practice sustainability in a less formal setting.
The Dharmalaya Institute was founded in 2008 by an international team. The workshop was led by one of the co-founders, Mark Moore (USA), an, inter alia, music producer who relocated to the Himalaya after falling in love with the region while traveling in Nepal some decades ago. Mark is also the founder and President of Earthville Network, an organization that promotes innovation and collaboration to the end of a more sustainable and compassionate world. The other participants in the program consisted of new Dharmalaya interns — mostly Indian architecture students — and a cohort North Americans traveling in India as part of the Carpe Diem travel-abroad education program.
Dharmalaya's campus comprises structures designed in the neo-traditional Kangra style of Indian eco-architect, Didi Contractor — an octogenarian that Mark described as “totally badass.” During the tour of the campus on the first day, we discovered that every nook of the campus had a story — a sustainability lesson — couched within it. Flori was planted on a denuded hillside to prevent landslides; the directional alignment of the buildings were carefully planned for optimal solar heating and cooling conditions; poorly designed stairs are like the bass player in a pop band, you only take notice only when something is not right; Mark’s shirt is made from organic materials. From these lessons, and others, it was revealed that sustainable systems are like the environment itself, composed of reflexive relationships creating a multifaceted ecosystem in which every element in functional towards the telos of the system. Dharmalaya strives to embody the principles of a sustainable system from top to bottom, which is to say, also from bottom to top.
The art of mindfulness is also embodied within every level of the Dharmalaya system. Patently, at the institutional level, Dharmalaya promotes mindfulness as to eco-sensitive building techniques and other practices that reduce our carbon footprint. But since the true vehicles of sustainable practices are individuals themselves, Dharmalaya also seeks to inspire cultivation of mindfulness at the individual level by encouraging participants in their programs to practice meditation and to engage mindfully with their labor and their surroundings.
What changes when you introduce mindfulness into ecology? One of the key tenets of sustainable architecture is to use as much local material as possible in order to avoid the environmental waste of shipping (i.e. outsourcing). Thus, in the pragmatic sphere of sustainable practice, mindfulness leads solutions to problems can be solved by the principles of practice already made intrinsic to the system. In example, when the Dharmalaya team returned to the campus following the monsoon season, they found that an entire hillside had collapsed, leaving the main building in precarious danger of being affected by landslides. Rather than bringing in concrete and laborers from afar to construct retaining walls, as was the knee-jerk solution offered by consultants, the team decided to plant indigenous plant species on the hillside whose roots would reinforce the ear. This proved to be a more ecological, cost-effective, and long-lasting solution.
Moreover, the structuring of a reflexive relationship between the individual and the whole (the system) makes both the individual and the system more robust as the system grows to nurture the individual and the individual flourishes within the system, nurturing it in turn. The workshop was full of examples of this principle of dynamic microcosm-macrocosms interplay. For instance, when instructing the group in adobe brick making, Mark invited us to, “see if you can pick up one clump to feel the entire mold,” adding that, “that’s how the villagers do it.” Mark’s message was not that he wanted us to merely work more quickly like the villagers — although productivity is a byproduct of mindful work — but rather to concentrate on the material and our labor so that we used our minds as well as our bodies. In mindfully scooping up the right amount of mud (or “masala” as the locals called it), the worker harmonizes her actions with the grander goal of the eco-architecture project such as not wasting labor, talent or materials, and to respect the nature of the materials over and above the their utility. This benefits the individual by enriching her relationship to the activity, in addition to benefiting to the system (or “whole”) with respect to the individual’s productive output. Perhaps Henry Ford had something like this in mind when he said, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.”
So mindful approach to work and materials has its virtues. But you have to start somewhere. Thus, on the morning of our first day, Mark introduced us to dirt, extending an invitation to the group to explore the dirt as dirt qua dirt. Each participant went off alone to interact with the dirt using the five senses. A discussion followed in which we shared our a posteriori findings about dirt. It was our first lesson in eco-architecture; cultivating a mindful relationship the earth from which we could ground (pardon the pun) the various facts we would come to know about dirt as it exists as fodder for adobe structures.
In the following days we learned how to create dirt masala by “pugging” mud with our bare feet; how to mold adobe bricks from the masala; how to use the bricks to build walls (masonry) using finer masala as mortar; and the process of applying (you guessed it!) dirt plaster onto the wall (the plaster was mixed with cow dung — we got to pug that as well). At 7 A.M., we met for yoga in the main building’s exquisite meditation/program room — a couple of the Carpe Diem folk and I traded off leading the morning yoga session. At 8 A.M., Mark joined us and lead a 15 minute meditation session before breakfast. The day was divided into two work shifts, separated by a lunch break. The vegan meals, prepared in accordance with Dharmalaya’s principles of ethical eating, were delicious; I finished big plates of food with an honest appetite. Following dinner, the group convened again in the meditation/program room for a powerpoint presentation and discussion led by Mark. Exhausted from the day, I was in bed and asleep by 9 P.M.
The main building (perhaps Dharmalaya has a sexier name for it) is the only virtually completed building on the campus (although others are mostly finished and operational). The building comprises sleeping quarters, study spaces, a dining room/common, a kitchen, bathrooms, and the aforementioned meditation/program space. The two-story structure, which took a largely volunteer work force two and half years to construct entirely by hand, incorporates several earthen building techniques: rammed-earth, cob, and adobe (Mark estimated that the building is composed of thirty-thousand (mindfully made) adobe bricks. The building is wired for electricity and uses solar power to maintain piping hot showers for its residents. Due to the insulating properties of adobe in tandem with the directional design of the building and careful placement of windows, electric heating is unnecessary. Also of note, is that the dishes are cleaned with wood ash, which has anti-bacterial properties.
It’s just mud! Is it safe? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Notwithstanding the fact that Dharmalaya’s buttresses vernacular building concepts with modern technology such as steel rebar and plinth band, the earthen buildings are actually less susceptible to damage from earthquakes than “hard” firebrick buildings. The reason is really quite simple; the monolithic character of earthen structures vibrate (or “dance” as Mark put it) with the earthquake. Firebrick buildings, on the other hand, are more susceptible to earthquakes since they are composed out of dissimilar materials that fail to sublimate the parts of a structure into a unified whole. Here earthen architecture provides another lesson about the mereological nature (mereology is the study of parts and the wholes they form) of ecological systems. While on first glance it may seem implausible that a system could, when viewed as a whole, take on properties not possessed by any of its parts (such as the strength of an adobe structure given that its bricks are relatively weaker than firebricks), earthen architecture reminds us that such systems are actually integral parts of our world. From cognition (composed of non-sentient cells) to our experience of time (a tangible phenomenology composed of fleeting and indistinguishable “nows”).
Although the Dharamalaya Institute exists in somewhat of a bubble — it’s easy to be positive about sustainability within the tranquil setting Dharmalaya lives in — the practices in sustainability and mindfulness taught and practiced on its campus are designed to go beyond Himalayan hillsides. This sense of purpose is built into the name of the institute. Dharmalaya is composed out of two words: “dharma,” which means something along the lines of duty as it accords with the cosmic law and order; and “alaya,” which literally means abode but can also be understood as a repository of knowledge. In the words of Dharmalaya: “Thus, taking all these meanings together, we translate ‘Dharmalaya’ as ‘a place to live responsibly, learn deeply, and work with joyful diligence to activate our great potential for the benefit of all."
With deference to the dharma in Dharmalaya, I invite you to consider several practices that you can develop to bring sustainability and mindfulness into your lives, cultivating yourselves as alaya for dharma.
Practice mindfulness. As I descried above, mindfulness will naturally translate into more sustainable practices. For instance, when we cultivate mindful habits about our eating practices, we won’t feel satisfied with the simulacrum for food offered by fast food joints. We will not longer want that McDonalds breakfast sandwich because, actually paying attention to its tastes and character instead of merely inhaling it as we drive to work. We will realize how much better the real thing is, which we can mindfully prepare at home with fresh, organic ingredients.
Remind yourself constantly that sustainability is important. Organic items such as viands and clothing are expensive — luxuries that are unaffordable for many. It’s easier to structure a sustainable budget on spending sustainably when you can readily remind yourself of the personal and societal benefits on working towards a sustainable future. Accordingly, when making purchasing decisions, remember the three “Rs” of sustainability: Reduce (less consumption), Reuse, and Recycle.
Remember that, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ( Native American Proverb)
By organic or used clothing for health as well as environmental reasons.
Source locally. This goes from the food you put in your fridge to the supplies your company order. Transportation costs have huge environmental impact.
Watch The Story of Stuff — a short film that reveals how unsustainable our culture of consumerism is.
Don’t be afraid to care. There’s no reason why sustainability can’t be cool or sexy. Be proud of your eco-friendly habits. That’s not to say one should only swipe right on the Tinder baes wearing organic hemp clothing, but maybe an uncaring attitude towards the environment should be a deal breaker. It is for me…
[Dec. 19: This post was amended to reflect the following correction: The name of Indian architecture student filtering dirt with Dharmalya groundskeeper Pushkpa Thakur is Sohan -- not Sohnam.]