The Gyalwang Karmapa Inspires Environmental Preservation in Bodhgaya

by Yeshe Wangmo

HHKarmapa and Lillian Sum (in the pink top) planting trees in Bodhgaya in 2009
The Gyalwang Karmapa and Lillian Sum (in the pink top) planting trees in Bodhgaya in 2009

This is the second part of my research on the Gyalwang Karmapa’s environmental activism in India, in which I feature Lillian Sum who has been working with the Karmapa in Bodhgaya on various environmental projects since 2008. She is on the Kagyu Monlam working committee and has also set up an independent non-profit organization of her own called Sacred Earth Trust. She was one of the three female devotees of the Gyalwang Karmapa featured in James Gritz’s recent documentary, “Never Give Up.”

Mingyur Rinpoche planting a tree at Tergar in 2009
Mingyur Rinpoche planting a tree at Tergar in 2009

In 2008 Lillian was part of an international group brought together by Ven. Mingyur Rinpoche to design and implement a rooftop garden adjacent to the newly built Karmapa residence on the top floor of Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya. Out of the five people who started the project, Lillian Sum was the only one to last 9 months in the Bodhgaya heat to complete the garden. The Karmapa was delighted with it and requested her to plant trees in Bodhgaya. He then tasked her with a project that stunned her: cleaning up a toxic garbage dump on the road to Tergar. The land that needed clearing was about 60 meters long, 15-feet wide and 12-feet deep; it was completely filled with refuse and plastic debris. His Holiness added, “I will request 500 monks to help you.”

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Also very dirty.
Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Also very dirty.
KMC khoryug SET clean up 2011
The Kagyu Monlam Organization, Khoryug, and Sacred Earth Trust joined forces to Clean Up Bodhgaya in 2011

“It was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to me,” Lillian recalls. “I told him that 100 monk helpers should be enough, but that we needed masks, tongs, gloves and rakes. Then we rented a tractor and engaged the local government who were very supportive. There was a huge ditch filled with plastic waste leading to the big dumping site and the whole thing took 11 days to clear. One local road builder lent two tractors, a digger and a dump truck. We had the support of all the tractors in Bodhgaya and at the end we filled the huge hole with 40 truck-loads of soil.” When it was all finished, we put up a sign with the unmistakable command, “PLEASE DO NOT DUMP HERE, by the order of Nagar Panchyat.” (Nagar Panchyat is the local government administration at the village level).

But old habits die hard and it took a bit of effort to keep the locals from dumping again. The freshly cleaned site filled in with virgin soil was hard to resist, “But we had the local teashop guy keeping an eye out,” explained Lillian. In this way it stayed clean for about 2½ years, after which time a local entrepreneur built a shop on the former dump site, which was now fully-rehabilitated land.

After this project was successfully completed, the local people were inspired and requested a grassroots environmental organization. At the same time, Lillian was invited by the Gyalwang Karmapa to join the Kagyu Monlam’s environmental team. The Karmapa advised Lillian that if an environmental non-profit organization was set-up for the local people, she should stay around to manage it. Thus Sacred Earth Trust (S.E.T.) was established in 2009 (

international clean up bodhgaya 2010
International ‘Clean Up Bodhgaya’ 2010

One of the Trust’s main objectives has been to deal with the ubiquitous mounds of plastic refuse littering the landscape around Bodhgaya. This took a great deal of concerted effort to organize. “In January of 2009 we started a campaign to ban plastic and collected over 7,000 signatures,” Lillian recalled. “Our petition was presented to important state and local government officials as well as the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC); and as result, in September 2009, there was a plastic ban within the temple complex, followed by a written agreement by the working committee of the Nagar Panchyat in April 2011.”bag mahabodhi buddha robe 2011

women sewing 3
79 village women made 53,500 bags.

“By then we were working on enforcement of the ban using education as part of the solution for reducing plastic pollution,” Lillian recalled. “Sacred Earth Trust engaged village women to sew cloth bags to replace plastic ones for organizations like the Kagyu Monlam and Nyingma Monlam (to use for tsok), and for local retailers to use for their customers. In the first 3 months, 79 village women made 53,500 bags and since then we have continued to manufacture cloth bags—for Buddhist groups predominantly. Local businesses have also been supportive because the ban on plastic bags has now become the law.”

In terms of educational programs, S.E.T. has a village-based program called Saraswati Project, that focuses on health, hygiene, nutrition, food security, pollution control, and reducing carbon emissions in a domestic environment. Since then, they have been facilitating teacher training for environmental education for youth, village women and university students.

Lillian Sum and colleague at carbon offsetting initiative.
Lillian Sum and colleague at carbon offsetting initiative.

“We go on site to schools and use creative learning techniques to deliver environmental education so that the teachers are inspired to be catalysts for change within the communities,” says Lillian. “We’ve hosted 14-day permaculture design courses for the last two years for international and local participants and have provided a balanced delivery of theory and science combined with practical hands-on knowledge. This provides participants with a good foundation and the confidence to share the information and experience with others after receiving internationally-recognized certification.”

In addition to educational programs, Lillian has plans to build a plastic recycling center in Bodhgaya. This would encourage the locals to collect plastic waste and then transform it through compression into brick-like building blocks to construct an eco-training center. The blocks could also be used to build other structures, such as sanitation facilities in six villages surrounding Bodhgaya.

Environmental Information Table for the monks, 2010
Environmental Information Table for the monks, 2010

Though these projects are focused on the villagers, Lillian has also provided environmental education for the monks during the Kagyu Monlam, introducing zero waste initiatives and teaching the basics of waste segregation, recycling and waste decomposition (in particular the amount of time it takes various forms of waste to decompose). Educational films have been used to help facilitate awareness among the Sangha. In addition, clean-up activities through the streets of Bodhgaya engaged 300 volunteers and were essentially a collaboration between Kagyu Monlam volunteers, Khoryug and Sacred Earth Trust.

Local school children planting trees in Bodhgaya, 2009.
Local school children planting trees in Bodhgaya, 2009.

Lillian has engaged in other activities in Bihar such as planting trees in the Kalachakra grounds, and on village and school properties. She supported Tergar monastery in raising funds to plant over 500 trees at the Gaya airport as part of an exercise in reducing carbon emissions, and has developed various projects through a “Clean & Green Bodhgaya” initiative.

Grey water system.

She has also been involved with the set-up and implementation of a pilot waste water treatment facility built for the Kagyu Monlam, on the Garchen (tent) site. This project was designed in 2012 by the Kagyu Monlam architect, Ven. Chokyi Gyatso, and has been overseen by the Gyalwang Karmapa’s Monlam Committee. Its purpose is to filter both grey and black water runoff generated by kitchen sinks, showers and toilets at the tent site, where thousands of ordained monks and nuns live during the annual Kagyu Monlam.greywater2

Grey water consists of soapy water from kitchen sinks and showers, while black water consists of oil and faeces. The pilot program features two separate facilities to treat both categories of waste water and involves channeling the water through a series of treatments, including constructed wetlands. Six different species of local plants are used to help filter and purify the water: water hyacinth, reeds, elephant ears, wild grass, lotus and iris are planted in a maze-like system for the water to pass through on its way to rehabilitation. The entire process is rather involved, but once the black water is purified, it can be used to water gardens and irrigate the fields. And with the proper treatment process, grey water can be reused for showering and tap water.greywater3

Garbage enzyme.
Garbage enzyme.

The pilot waste water treatment programs set up at the Garchen site are an experiment at this point and this year some kinks have been ironed out for them to work better on a larger-scale. Furthermore, the Garchen is developing into a zero-waste site using kitchen waste, cardboard, and paper for composting. Uncooked vegetables and fruit are collected for making garbage enzymes that are used for maintaining the grey and black water systems. Lillian noted, “During the last Kagyu Monlam we made over 2,400 liters of garbage enzyme for use in the grey and black water systems this year. Garbage enzyme is fermented, uncooked vegetable waste that breaks down bacteria and can be used for a variety of purposes.” Other water management systems implemented this year include swales (a method of directing grey water for recharging the ground water), and redirecting shower water to dilute the black water system before it goes out into the constructed wetlands.


“We’ve also been introducing various practices for maintaining plants in the Garchen area, such as mulching, use of enzymes, and composting,” Lillian added.

All of this serves as a great educational tool and a reminder of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s on-going commitment to sustainable, organic methods of environmental protection and water rehabilitation. The monks and nuns gather here once a year and witness practical solutions that can be replicated in their respective monasteries.

A zero waste workshop with the Tergar monks, 2011.
A zero waste workshop with the Tergar monks, 2011.

Lillian Sum spends 7 to 8 months of the year working on environmental projects on location in Bodhgaya, all of it on a volunteer basis. She has a diverse background and began her community development work as an artist/designer. Her postgraduate work involved extensive training in advanced environmental and energy studies and environmental architectural design. Since 1996 she has worked on sustainability projects using art, science and technology to deliver environmental education for various community groups in the UK, USA, Mexico, Nepal, Sikkim, Hong Kong, in other regions of India and currently is focused on Bodhgaya and its surrounding villages.

For more information on her work visit:

And check out this short film about her activities on site in Bodhgaya:


3 thoughts on “The Gyalwang Karmapa Inspires Environmental Preservation in Bodhgaya

  1. Dear Yeshe

    Greetings from the Bhoomi Magazine Team

    Eternal Bhoomi, is a quarterly magazine printed out of Bangalore, India which is committed to offering holistic and cutting edge perspectives on sustainability by renowned writers and thinkers from around the world as well as practical ideas and examples of earth conscious living. The Bhoomi magazine is brought out by Bhoomi Network, a not-for-profit organization committed to education and action for sustainable living. At present some of our contributors include The Dalai Lama, Vandana Shiva, Satish Kumar of Resurgence, Jonathon Porritt, Helena Norberg Hodge to name a few. Our website will give you an idea of Bhoomi’s work till now.

    In the last 4 years, Eternal Bhoomi has been sent to 4000 school and college Libraries as well as to many others. Feedback from teachers around the country that they appreciate articles from the Bhoomi Magazine and use them for discussions in their classes does motivate us to keep bringing it out. As a magazine without commercial ads, we survive in a gift culture where several authors, artists and photographers give us gifts of their work. In every issue the Bhoomi magazine has focused on themes like Food, Ecological Sanity, Rethinking Education, Gaia – Our living Earth, Community and Commons and so on. In addition, we cover articles that share holistic perspectives on earth consciousness and sustainability as well as stories that offer positive and practical ideas for transitioning to eco-wise living.

    We would be happy if you can support us by letting us re-publish this article in our forthcoming issue which has a section devoted to environmental pioneers. Please do also let us know the best way we can credit you for your kindness.

    Looking forward to hearing from you!

    Best Wishes

    Adil Basha
    Bhoomi Magazine

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