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Towards a New Paradigm of Spiritual Growth for Ecology, Sustainability and Social Justice

4 September 2016 – 4 March 2017

Course Overview

The collaborative INEB and ETA Buddhist Leadership Training took place from 4 September to 4 March, 2016.  This course was inspired by the experiences of facilitating new paradigm leadership empowerment courses to diverse groups of activists and grassroot community leaders in Southeast Asia, China and UK.

At its core is a vision to provide activists and practitioners with the spiritual energy, perspectives and skills to be able to work for social change, especially by emphasizing the ethical and spiritual dimensions of how to engage in the world and find solutions to questions about how to live together at a time of increasing social and environmental dislocation and degradation.

This was facilitated through providing space for contemplative reflection, connecting with nature, and cultivating attention in daily life; critical and systematic analytical skills to understand complexities of the modern world, especially the root causes and connections to structural violence; and experiential learning to draw lessons learned from encounters with inspiring examples of wellbeing communities.  While the course title denoted a Buddhist focus, the invitation was to practitioners from all religions and beyond, who have willingness to explore and practice core values of compassion, wisdom, contentment and non-violence.

“Education needs to be re-envisioned to include the cultivation of wisdom, as well as learning to live in society and overcoming oppression and exploitation. For education to be more effective, it has to be dialogical, inclusive, and compassionate, and needs to heal the rift between body and mind… Buddhist education begins with humanity’s ultimate questions: What is the meaning of life? What is our own deepest nature? What is our responsibility to others? Buddhism does not separate life from education.”

Sulak Sivaraksa, The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century

Wongsanit Ashram – an eco-spiritual community near Bangkok – was a base for learning, and some modules the group went out to see the reality in the field, for example to learn experiences with slum community dwellers, indigenous hill-tribe communities, and other places of practical study outside the Ashram. The course was in itself, an attempt to build a learning community as a lived example of how to create tangible, sustainable alternatives. By fostering critical consciousness and building caring and compassionate relationships among participants that were embedded within a wider understanding of the interconnections between humans and nature, it was an attempt to explore the possibilities of how to live wisely and act to change the damaging cultural, economic and political structures in the world beyond the training space.

The 6 months of the course was broken into 2 semesters, the first with a focus on personal and interpersonal practices for healing, transformation, and wellbeing, as well as a foundational exploration into the four dimensions of sustainability through ecological, eco-political, social and worldview components, which integrated the Gaia Education Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) curriculum.

The second semester focused on exploration of socially engaged Buddhist principles that address root causes of social issues, and complementing theories and practices for social change. In order to deepen the learning experience, participants were also able to explore applications in practice from diverse communities around Thailand, especially community organizing models with marginalized communities, Sangha models of community engagement, and traditional and intentional eco-communities. They were also able to learn the fundamentals of sustainability design, to provide a framework for integrating their learning into their own living situations.

The final module of the course included a Training of Trainers in Participatory Facilitation Skills for Empowerment (accredited under Gaia Education). An important assumption is that contribution to society includes being able to share and facilitate learning processes among others. This module emphasized the skills needed to put learning into practice in ways that empower others to also contribute to changing damaging cultural, economic and political structures.

The integration of Gaia Education Ecovillage Design Education Training of Trainer courses into the wider program also provided potential participants with the certification to be able to conduct Gaia Education programs in advancing education for sustainable societies.

Learning Process

The course was designed to be participative, contemplative, reflective, and creative. This was introduced throughout the course with a focus on diverse learning processes. Through these learning approaches, students were encouraged to participate actively in building a body of knowledge together, within a trusting learning community. Critical and systems thinking was integrated in order to explore from wider perspectives, to clearly articulate issues through understanding their interconnections and relationships. Mindfulness was also woven throughout the course, bringing attention and purpose. Other forms of spiritual practice were given space to provide a holistic and grounded learning experience, and build an engaged spiritual learning journey for the participants, especially as the foundation of the course realizes the importance of grounding commitment for social engagement through inner growth. The course was designed to ask deep questions, and provoke not only discussion, but a challenge to participants to truly embody the changes they wish to see the world.




Building a Community of Good Friends

4-14 Sept 2016


Mindfulness, Inner Growth and Leadership from Within

16-22 Sept 2016


Neuroscience & The Path for Inner Transformation

24-30 Sept 2016


Interpersonal Dynamics and Conflict Transformation

2-12 Oct 2016


Cultivating Compassion through Bearing Witness & Service

15-20 Oct 2016


Global Challenge (I): Paradigm Shift and the Emerging Culture

22-30 Oct 2016


Global Challenge (II): Ecology-Unprecedented Crises of Our Home

1-5 Nov 2016


Global Challenge (III): Political Economy-Structural Violence and its Alternatives

7-12 Nov 2016


Vision Quest

14-21 Nov 2016


Design Week and Wrap Up

24-30 Nov 2016



Buddhist Roots (I) Essence of Buddhism

6-11 Dec 2016


Buddhist Roots (II) Engaged Buddhism

13-17 Dec 2016


Exposure Studies

18-22 Dec 2016


Self Knowledge & Leadership from Within

3-7 Jan 2017


Mindful Art for Self-discovery & Cultivating Intuition for Leadership

9-15 Jan 2017


Reflection on key revolutions & reforms in human history

17-23 Jan 2017


Gender and Social Justice

26-30 Jan 2017


Community Organising for Empowerment and Social Movement

1-7 Feb 2017


Management Skills

8-15 Feb 2017


Exposure Visit  – Chiang Mai

16-21 Feb 2017


Practical Leadership – Mindful Facilitation for Empowerment

23 Feb-4 Mar 2017


In total, 116 participants joined the course, with around 12 participants fully completing semester one, and 8 completing semester 2. The remaining participants joined for one or more modules across both semesters. Three larger groups were also integrated into the training space at different times: a group of community development workers from China; a group of senior monks and nuns from Myanmar; and a group of college students from US. This made for an incredibly diverse and rich learning community in terms of culture and worldviews, life experiences and knowledge, which contributed to the overall learning experience in ways that fostered willingness for dialogue, openness and empathy.

Learning Themes



This was integrated across both semesters of the course, especially the first module, for bringing together diverse participants and exploring how to build a learning community. Other aspects included inner work and understanding relationships through NVC and Process Work, Enneagram and Voice Dialogue.  The building of the learning community was an ongoing process as new participants came in and out of the course throughout the six months, and was integrated into the continual rhythm of the daily learning schedule – which included morning meditation, daily wrap-up’s of key learning, ‘heart keeping’, and caring for the learning space and learning community.

Community building exercises, hands-on work during the first semester at Wongsanit Ashram and daily shared roles that supported the wellbeing of the learning community all fed into a process of knowing each other and building a sense of responsibility towards each other and the learning process. Such processes foster agency, they are critical to peoples’ ability to empower themselves.

There was potential for cleavages that could disturb the learning process – language was a barrier at times (when larger non-english speaking groups joined) that reduced interactions outside of class time, but very able and continuous translation during class time helped to create space for dialogue between participants as much as possible. The experiential nature of some of the module teaching methods also reduced challenges in language, relying on felt experience as the primary mode of learning.


“I think this was a perfect start of the semester”.

“A very nice selection of community building exercises and a great introduction into the course”.

“Among the participants who started together from the beginning till the end of the semester, the community building process has been very good and has gradually become a very caring, nurturing and safe environment within 3 months”.


Many experiential activities were predicated on an expected openness of participants – to each other and the way of learning. For some, this module did not have enough focus on building a gradual process of trust building and getting to know each other.

“It was good at the beginning to try the ice breaker exercises, but some exercises were a bit too much, especially the physical aspect with other participants who were still basically strangers”.


Exploration of worldview and paradigm shift were introduced mid-way through the first semester, and included sessions on Systems Thinking, East and West philosophical thought, transformation of consciousness, and a 3-day Deep Ecology workshop – including a Council of All Beings and further activities from Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects.  Other modules contributed to exploration on worldview, especially on Mindfulness, Inner Growth and Leadership Within, Intuition for Leadership, and The Path of Inner Transformation (Internal Family System, NVC, Process Work). These modules had a deep practical aspect of challenging participants to work within themselves and on group dynamics to explore the process of change within ourselves.

Other integrated activities included contemplative haiku writing, being in nature, art, dance and forms of non-intellectual exploration and expression. All these activities contributed to opening up different ways of viewing the world. An important activity in this domain was a Vision Quest, which included three days solo fasting in the forest. Working with this form of potentially transformative experience not only provided a platform for exploration of worldview, but also helped participants to gain a meaningful perspective to their lives.


The opportunities for transforming consciousness through a variety of approaches.

“Getting to know about myself at a deeper level was unforgettable”.

“Designing an ideal society using the iceberg model (Systems Thinking) was great”.


Despite very good experiential sessions to facilitate shifts in worldview across the training, there was a lack of a common thread to bring together the different aspects of worldview that were presented during the module on Paradigm Shift. Some modules were also very theoretical, which created a lack of coherence across the different sessions presented.

“Too much theory and too specific terminology”.

“It was my first Quest and first time fasting. A very good experience, to surrender to nature, have no expectation, no question, doing nothing but receiving such a meaningful message.
What I’ve learned from the Vision Quest is to be here and now – connected to my true nature while accessing the nature outside freely.
Through the whole process of the Quest led by a guide with rich experience, our group have learned and got to know each other more.
Thank you very much, bless you.”

Vision Quest testimonial


This mainly integrated into a specific module on political economy, which included sessions on political philosophies, structural violence, and Buddhist economics. This was more lecture-based, and while there was less space for drawing learnings and building knowledge from the participants themselves, space was given for some participants to present political economy case studies from their own countries. Other modules that connected to exploration of political economy included Gender and Social Justice, and Social Revolutions, utilizing diverse learning methods to strengthen participants’ capacities for identifying root causes, critical analysis, as well as exploration of solutions. This was supported by tools for framing learning, including qualitative research and systems thinking.  More experiential learning came from modules on Bearing Witness and Community Organizing, spending 3 days with slum communities around Bangkok and experience exchange with sex workers, and homeless people in Chiang Mai. Modules on engaged Buddhism also explored the ways that a deep understanding of our own human nature can illuminate how this manifests into political and social structures, and hence, how to understand and approach issues.

Across these learning spaces was a process of examining the complex ways inequalities and social issues express themselves in structures and behaviours, and identification of underlying worldviews and values accompanying them.


A range of political philosophies were presented, a sort of Politics 101, which has not been available for many of the participants, including those from Myanmar, Laos and China. Therefore it was of great benefit to introduce key concepts on political economy and the philosophical underpinnings.

“I enjoyed the wide theoretical portrayal of different political systems, their origins and differences”


Many political concepts were difficult for non-english speakers to grasp, even with translation. It was also a module that relied primarily on lecture-format, which made it difficult to digest all of the teachings over the week. As there was a large group from China attending this module (and the ecology module), the module could have benefited from drawing on the diverse experiences of the participants for lively discussion based on lived experiences, rather than mostly from theory. There was also little time to look in-depth at alternative models that could be practically applied.

“We need more approaches, more cases, and more comparisons to look at, to make more in depth analysis to these political ideologies”


Mainly led by anthropologist Keibo Oiwa from Japan, whose module was considered one of the most inspiring for participants, he shared over five days an holistic approach, bringing together ecology and spirituality as the core theme of his teachings. These were supplemented by evening documentaries with inspiring Asian thinkers and practitioners in alternatives to development. The overall theme also introduced the concepts of Small, Simple, Slow (and Smile – added by participants), which were part of a solution to the disturbances of modern life. His workshop covered the themes of 1) Concepts of slow and small, 2) Excess, 3) Anthropology of Weakness and Love, 4) Ecology and Spirituality, and 5) From global to local. Different thinkers such as David Suzuki, Karl Polyani, Ashoka, Vandana Shiva, E.F. Schumacher, Satish Kumar, among others, were introduced, as well as thoughtful reflections by Keibo Oiwa also. Interspersed with Haiku’s, documentary watching and a meditative Tea Ceremony, this module was both contemplative and intellectual in format, and deeply enjoyed by the participants.

Ecology was also included during the 3 day Deep Ecology workshop. Participants were initially introduced through exploring Peak energy use, and 4 different scenarios for the future (business as usual, green tech, creative descent, collapse). Then the Work that Reconnects was introduced, including a Council of All Beings, where participants were invited to fully experience the interconnections between humans and the world around them, especially relating to the degradation and exploitation of the natural environment.


The contemplative content of the work presented, which included the showing of interviews with important Asian thinkers, writing haiku’s, and a Japanese Tea Ceremony.

“ Very interesting. I like the use of arts, stories and poems to illustrate the points made”.

“ The facilitators brought and shared experiences from their personal lives, which brought a beautiful richness to the course”.


The only suggestions (out of mostly positive feedback) was that it was too lecture-based, and could have benefited from drawing the experiences of the participants.

“Many participants are busy-minded in daily life and can only spend limited time here to learn and reflect. So it is difficult for them to get the message into their soul. This may have only been an intellectual refreshment for them”.


A design week was integrated into the first semester, beginning with design through ‘Co-creation with Nature’, utilizing permaculture principles and design guidelines in the practical design of chosen sites. Three actual sites were chosen from the participants (Hong Kong, England, Myanmar) and were designed with specific goals of sites, including an existing small-scale working farm, a learning centre, and a larger-scale non-working farm. The designs had more focus on ecological and economic aspects, although the ‘softer’ aspects of the social and worldview dimensions were naturally integral in the overall designs.

In a second design process as part of the overall wrap-up of the first semester, participants sought to draw the lessons learned throughout the course into a personal project. This was framed in terms of impacts into a personal, community and global level. Everyone was given space to reflect, contemplate, and draw from their own personal learnings in order to create a project with a determination to implement it. The end results included:

  • An holistic-based ecological curriculum which is planned to be offered in collaboration with 3 schools in England. See

  • A small learning centre near Yangon, Myanmar, for artists and local youth to come together in a simple and organic landscape

  • A project for songwriting on ecological-themed songs

  • Two projects that integrate inner growth and reflective practices into behaviours and practices at personal and social levels.

Other modules exploring solutions included modules on Engaged Buddhism – with exploration into the varieties of manifestations of engaged Buddhism across the region, from Taiwan to Korea to India and Southeast Asia. Exploring the life of Maha Gohsananda of Cambodia was particularly inspiring for participants to learn of his ability to put into practice values of compassion and peace in the face of the Khmer genocide.

Another major solution-based module was Community Organising. Arising as a grassroots response to social inequalities, the theory and practice of Community Organising is an empowering process of grassroots democracy in action. Thailand has a long history and community of practitioners, providing a rich learning experience on how to challenge institutional structures and solve problems together without waiting for political change. Here participants could learn directly from slum communities who have successfully mobilized and advocated for improvement of their rights. On display was their collective power, mobilized into wider networks for social change that has built dignity within themselves, upheld rights and promoted equality through their engagement in self governance.

The final module of the course (at the end of semester 2) was a Training of Trainer in participatory facilitation skills for empowerment. This module was also interwoven with Gaia Education input on Sustainable Development Goals and Edge Work. It was an extremely diverse and multi-cultural learning community where each afternoon participants were able to practice team teaching for the group, utilizing new skills and perspectives in participatory facilitation.  Their sessions also gave them a chance to share their rich experience and knowledge with topics ranging from celebration and ritual to role playing a company coming into a village to set up a fertilizer factory; gender identity; four dimensions of sustainability and much more.

The training was a deep and meaningful experience for participants, especially the focus on mindfulness as a requisite foundation that enabled an expansion and deepening self and group learning into a holistic process of personal, social and spiritual growth.

“After 10 days I have found that being a facilitator is also the practice of how to be yourself. It’s a practice of becoming yourself”

Deng Mei, China

“I remember speaking about ego, and I am reflecting now that as a facilitator it is easy to get trapped in that space of ego. And I am guilty of that, I have stood in front of the class and told my opinions and my judgements, so I have appreciated this opportunity to release that, and I know I won’t be doing that again.I have learned a lot about mindfulness and practicing mindfulness. I have learned a lot about harvesting the wisdom from the group, and releasing myself from that process, but at the same time bringing myself back in to the role of holding space and nurturing people. I am appreciative of the fact that we got to live in this community of practice together”

Sion Zivetz, US

“What I take away from this time here, is this mindfulness practice; how to bring this into my facilitating. And how to trust my intuition, how to trust it and allow it to take me to wherever it needs to go”

Trudi Juiranz, Sri Lanka


Modeling actual sites encouraged participants, finding the balance between not only imagination and creativity, but also realistic constraints. The resource person, as a community architect, embodied the approach of a co-creative designer and was easily able to convey the overall approach despite time limitations.

The Participatory Facilitation Skills for Empowerment module as the final step in the learning journey was an immensely important process of reflective learning and empowerment through co-creating ways to learn and grow together. Beyond skills and techniques, the learning process gave participants a glimpse into the possibilities of redefining a process of how to relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us.


Not enough time to go in depth to explore the principles within the design framework in more detail, especially on the more practical aspects such as weather, land, and resource factors.


Overall, the training has resulted in participants with increasing self-awareness, qualities of compassion, wisdom and generosity, and a clearer understanding of present structural violence -both at macro and micro levels.  Participants have become better informed and have increased sensitivity to the root causes of the state of ecological and social destruction that is happening across the globe, along with serious learning on skills and methods to make the world a better place to live for all beings through community organizing and creating social movements.

The learning outcomes of the course were displayed in the journeys of personal transformation and the commitment to social transformation of the participants, inspired by the flow, interconnections and breadth of learning within the training.

“The course in Wongsanit was such a perfect learning experience. I really valued everything about it. The learning we achieved was so deep I regularly experience moments in my life where I can pinpoint a new positive behaviour or insight to a particular module of the BLT course. The parts I would like to especially thank you for are the modules of the course you put together and the fantastic facilitators you got to come and teach them, your technique of facilitation which I value so highly and your ability to envelope us all in a field of support so that we could explore and discover things that would otherwise be too far out of our comfort zones. Thank you”

Daniel Shienwald, UK

Quotes from the Learning Journey

“On a course like this, it helps us to develop friendships beyond the boundaries of what we would choose for ourselves, and this enables us to understand the world through other peoples’ eyes and through that be able to grow in other ways that otherwise we would not be able to.”

Ven. Jake Douglas, US

“I feel very at peace here because it’s the first time in my life that I trust my intuition so much. That is the real wisdom I get from here. One of the reasons I can reach this point is the group members. Thank you all for giving me the courage to meet the challenges and help myself.”

Zhijun CHEN, China

“I found myself enjoying myself very much, enjoying the ideas coming from you all. I think that this experience may not happen again for a long time. I am so grateful to take all our co-created knowledge and wisdom back home.”

Lijun ZHANG, China

“This is not only a journey of professional transformation, its at a much deeper level, its personal transformation. When I got here I was in a dark place, I had lost faith in myself, in humanity in many ways. But just being around all of you who have been so genuine, authentic, supportive, inspirational, and thanks to the contemplative spaces and reflective spaces that were provided, I think I have slowly redeemed my faith.”

Tony Zschau, US

“I think the chance to come here was the best thing that has happened to me, because at this moment I can feel that I am meant to do something with this learning opportunity. When I go back, I will consider my relationship with my co-workers and my family and my community. I found that only when your inner compassion is growing and growing, then you can expand. I hope to go forward with my inner strength and compassion so that I can care about my community, my family and myself.”

Chunhua WANG, China

“During these days I received many things that have helped me to transform. The concept of growing together, this is really inspiring and has helped me a lot to transform the parts of me that needed to change.”

Khin Sandar Nyunt, Myanmar

“When I think about harmony, I feel I dislike this quality, I feel it represents some negative qualities that I don’t like in myself; most of the time I don’t speak a lot and I like being alone, and I don’t like arguing with others. But after these days, I have found by being alone you can also do something great, and being peaceful is also powerful, so when I acknowledge these qualities in me, the essence in me, I can appreciate myself. I think there might be some other profound meaning to me in my life, so I want to take that back and explore that in my life.”

Jianfen ZHANG, China

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