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In Search of Plants, Peace of Mind

By Derek B. Johnson, Fairfax Connection, Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The world "sangha" is Pali, a language from India and is used to describe a community of Buddhist monks or nuns. Though Earth Sangha was founded with Buddhist principles, people of all faiths are welcome in the group.

Chris Bright, who founded the environmental organization with his wife Lisa Bright, said a religious aspect is usually present at gatherings, like the mid-morning meditation sessions. However, no one is forced or pressured to participate in them.

"[We knew that] any environmental work we embarked on really had to make sense on its own terms," he said. "It couldn’t be something that is simply an expression of Buddhist ethics."

Earth Sangha was founded in 1997 by husband and wife Chris and Lisa Bright. A Buddhist environmental group based in the City of Fairfax, the non-profit organization has environmental restoration projects both in and outside of the United States. Locally, they maintain an office on Commonwealth Boulevard in Fairfax and a native plant nursery in Franconia Park. Members spend their free time once or several times a week working with the ecosystem, stabilizing local streams and helping to restore meadows and forests. Internationally, the organization helps to counter tropical deforestation on the island of Hispaniola, home of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, through a tree bank established in 2006.

Through their native plant nursery, Earth Sangha seeks to fill what they see as a gap in the county’s ability to combat invasive plants that choke out the native plant life. Some native plants in Virginia have been here for centuries, pre-dating the state’s European colonization. As a result, much of the local flora has established beneficial relationships with the surrounding fauna.

ACCORDING TO the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, native plants in Virginia are better suited for the soil, are more drought tolerant than exotic plants and some, like the Arrowwood Viburnum shrub, bear fruit that is healthier and more nutritious to the surrounding bird population.

"The plants are really the basis for so much of what happens out there," said Chris Bright. "If you lose the native plant community in an area, you’re also going to see a tremendous amount of disruption for animals [there] as well."

Lisa Bright admitted the group did not have the most ambitious of beginnings.

"It started off as a meditation group with friends," she said. "We all shared the same sentiments, but we didn’t have a clear goal. It’s a rather uninspiring answer."

After leasing property from the Fairfax County Park Authority to grow, the mission became more focused. What started out as the growing of several dozen species of native plants in 2001 has transformed today into an operation that distributes and gives away over 5,000 specimens a year throughout the Northern Virginia region. The organization donates them to parks, plants them in surrounding forests and gives them away to visitors at their nursery. Chris Bright said practicality played a role in the defining their work.

"We chose [native plant restoration] partly because we were looking for some kind of activity that would have a real benefit but wouldn’t cost us a lot to get involved in," he said.

The work is mainly seasonal, with spring and fall serving as their busiest seasons. The group, which totals about 170 paying members and roughly 500 volunteers, according to Chris Bright, usually meets several times a week during better weather to help plant, grow and disperse the plants.

FOR SOME, like botanist and Northern Virginia Community College professor Lisa Williams, the organization was a way to kill three birds with one stone. Approximately three years ago, Williams was looking to use her knowledge of plant life to better the community. She was also looking for a sangha to join after developing an interest in the Asian religion during her studies in high school. Earth Sangha fulfilled both needs. She enjoyed her work with the organization so much she now requires her students to participate in the group for their community service requirements.

"What I like is that it’s a small group that’s fairly intimate and there’s not a major time commitment as far as having very regular religious services," said Williams, who opts to take part in the meditation sessions.

Lisa Bright is an ordained Buddhist minister, though she called the term misleading and insisted that she was "just a student" in the grand scheme of things. She described the relationship between her religious and environmental principals.

"I learned much more [about Buddhism] by working with the natural surroundings than anything else," she said. "They don’t just overlap, they are the same."

Working close to the environment, she said, has helped her gain a better understanding of not only her local flora and fauna, but also of herself and her faith.

"Buddhism is not about Buddhism. It’s about describing what real truth is," she said. "If you’re stuck at Buddhism, then you’ve missed the whole point."

source: http://www.connectionnewspapers.com/article.asp?article=323274&paper=63&cat=104

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.