Reflections after Pā’s retreat By Elli Yates

Reflections on Kaitiakitanga weekend with Pā Ropata, by Elli Yates

Arriving at the Centre for the weekend I felt a new type of anticipation rising. Knowing that we were hosting one of Aotearoa’s leading rongoā experts, I felt excited to welcome him and in doing so unite with others in the sangha to ‘show’ who / how / what we are at the Wangapeka. Besides the kaupapa itself – how to be kaitiaki of the Wangapeka whenua – the weekend was a beautiful opportunity to weave tikanga Māori and Buddha Dharma, or at least feel into what that could be. We opened with karakia followed by taking refuge (which is something our Te Tiriti focus group does too). Setting intentions to open and close a space is a huge part of keeping us safe and wholesome, and it’s something we don’t have to ‘make up’ or invent when meeting te ao Māori, because at the Wangapeka we do it already. I had some trepidation about welcoming a fluent speaker of te reo Māori in my own nervous voice, but was glad, in the end, to mihi full heartedly to Pā, and to witness many others making the effort to use the kupu Māori we have in a respectful way throughout the weekend. The potential richness of cultural and spiritual sharing that can happen between Pā’s project, Tiwaiwaka, and ourselves as a Dharma centre seems ripe. And I haven’t even started on the content of Pā’s teachings …

What a privilege it was, to soak in the breadth and depth of Pā’s knowledge regarding plants in Aotearoa. As Pā said, we have some rare and special plants on the whenua, and it’s empowering to learn more about them. I’m looking forward to eating Pikopiko (fern shoots) when the right conditions arise! We didn’t have to walk far to find Kanuka, Kawakawa, Māhoe, Karamū and many more plants with healing properties. Not to mention the number of rare ferns on the walk up to the Whare Wānanga. I finally learnt the difference between Pinus Radiata and Douglas Fur, and how the fur trees feed the fungal networks underground which support the native regrowth to flourish. It’s wonderful to see so much life coming up under those big, dark, exotic trees, and to dream about the seeds which have yet to pop up beneath an increasingly diverse canopy.

One of the big questions that emerged for me during the weekend was regarding trapping. I am curious to learn more about how our sangha’s interpretation of the Precepts deal with pest control. What wholesome exploration can we have around this topic? The line from Tarchin’s Precepts in Positive Expression comes to mind: “I will live with a sensitive and responsible awareness for the whole ecology of life.” According to Pā, the “whole ecology of life” would be Papatūānuku. Papatūānuku / Mother Earth / Gaia / whatever you want to call her is the ground we walk on; the ground of awakening. This is a profound teaching in the Dharma and I think it was Namgyal Rinpoche who said that as meditators we have the power and responsibility to bless the ground. So, here is a beautiful weaving of tikanga Māori and Buddha Dharma. How does it translate in practice when it comes to conservation? Does “refrain from taking the life of any living being” focus on direct or indirect loss of life? What is the karma bound up in non-action as opposed to action and, as far as protecting biodiversity goes, is there such a thing as ‘non-action’?

Tiwaiwaka clearly states: “ka ora te whenua, ka ora te tangata – if the land is well, the people will be well.” From my perspective, this sits nicely alongside the “whole ecology of life” idea – that we are inseparable from the Earth and it from us. As we know from walking practice, our bodies are in constant conversation with the ground through the soles of our feet. And then, question emerges: what does the whenua / ecology need in order to be “whole”? What do we actually learn from Papatūānuku, when we choose to listen? Pā would say what she’s asking for is diversity. The land is functioning at optimal health when it has a variety of plants and animals making their homes on and within its surface.

We’re currently living through the sixth mass extinction in our world’s history. In our tiny corner of it, that means many many native / endemic species are being lost because of introduced plants and animals. I’m no climate scientist, but I understand at a basic level that the rats, pigs, stoats, cats and possums are a big reason for the loss of native diversity in Aotearoa. So, after the weekend I was left wondering what our role is as kaitiaki in terms of the rats eating the seeds of native trees before they’ve had the chance to germinate? Of baby female stoats being fertilised before they open their eyes, ready to birth another generation whose favourite food is the eggs of native birds? We have a pig fence to keep them at bay, but there is certainly more we could do in terms of protecting the habitat of native species. And yes, it would involve taking the life of other beings in order to protect other, more fragile lives.

It’s a huge topic and I feel strangely nervous to raise it. Perhaps this kōrero is already well underway within the sangha? I might have missed it. Perhaps we need to confer as a sangha before opening these questions to a knowledge keeper from a different cultural tradition, like Pā. I’m not in favour of taking on everything he suggested without question, but I am curious to learn how the Precepts can meet the biodiversity crisis we’re living in. For now, I’m curious to kōrero more; to learn the perspectives of our elders, and to meet the questions together as a community with open-hearted awareness.