Did you feel it? Eco-sage and spiritual walker Satish Kumar breezed through Toronto recently, quietly setting off ripples of good vibes. The former Jainist monk considered only a few degrees of separation from Mahatma Gandhi himself, program director of England's Schumacher College and editor of Resurgence magazine, brought his vision of reverential ecology to an OISE gathering called Holistic Learning: Breaking New Ground.
On a blustery Wednesday night, I'm sitting in the audience watching the small bearded man who has not an ounce of fat on him - years of asceticism and mindfulness will do that. The infectious, gentle teacher is certainly setting the bar pretty high for environmental and peace activism. We have to recognize, he tells us, "three aspects of life at once, like the three legs of a stool: soil, soul and society." This I take to mean a sense of connection to nature, deep communion with the self and attention to political affairs and the justice needs of society.
A tall order for your average politico, but one that's made Schumacher College (named after E.F. Schumacher, radical economist and author of Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered) an inspiration the world over. Ecologist/physicist Fritjof Capra once called it "the Harvard of deep ecology," and it includes teachers like Thomas Berry, James Lovelock, Vandana Shiva and Amory Lovins.
Sometimes it's not so much what Kumar says as what he's done that animates his fans. Born in Rajasthan, India, he was a monk by the age of nine. Later, he was influenced by the writings of Gandhi, who counselled against pursuing the inner path at the expense of the rest of the world. He trained under Vinoba Bhave, a follower of the great pacifist master, and in the spirit of Eastern mystics set off with Bhave to walk across India teaching the redistribution of land.
When Kumar decided to walk to the nuclear capitals of the world, the guru told him, "You have my blessing. For walking abroad with a message of peace, I give you my full support." But Bhave set two rules: travel as a vegetarian and go without money. Money, the teacher said, "will separate you from others. Without money you must seek out the kindness of strangers."
For two and a half years, including a proud stint in a Paris prison for demonstrating against nukes, he walked to London and Washington (via a gift of passage across the ocean). "Going to jail," he tells us with a grin, "is a noble tradition. If we are afraid to go to jail, we are afraid of freedom."
Later, I discover I've been assigned to take him to lunch. I'm excited but worried. Where do you take a former Jainist monk to eat? Where do you take a spiritual leader whose vision of the good life is a long walk and who offers advice like "slow down, take time to make your own food, break bread with others, work 25 hours a week, sleep as much as you need to. Work less, earn less. Have less, be more."
Kumar has borrowed a purple wool cardigan from a friend and has wrapped a fine shawl around his head and shoulders. As the icy Canadian wind cuts through his sweater, he signals that my choice of Raga, an Indian restaurant at King and John, will do quite nicely.