Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

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The Independent Online

I've just returned from a five-day Buddhist course near Aix-en-Provence in France. I visit every year and always leave revitalised, and not only from the sunshine, delicious food and breathtaking setting. Five days of lively philosophical lectures, chanting, workshops and the opportunity to meet other Buddhists and share their uplifting stories leave me better able to navigate the ups and downs of life back home.

As an environmentalist I would long ago have lost the will to live without a grounding in Buddhist principles. Buddhism praises the ingenuity of people, stressing that, having got ourselves into this environmental mess we do have the resourcefulness to get out of it, but that this will happen with a revolution in the minds of ordinary people.

Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th-century Buddhist monk, wrote: "If the minds of the people are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds." That is, a purification of our thoughts, words and deeds will lead to a healthy society and world. The philosopher Dr Daisaku Ikeda goes on to explain that: "The desertification of our planet is created by the desertification of the human spirit."

Buddhists thus believe the solution to environmental problems lies in elevating our life condition as well as taking action to protect the planet.

During the course we took a day off to explore Aix-en-Provence. Sun-drenched gold stone buildings basked in cool sunshine slanting through the trees. We strolled along windswept boulevards studded with elegant shops and got lost in narrow streets, refreshing ourselves in darkened cafés full of furtive couples enjoying scorching eye meets. It was achingly romantic.

After lunch we wandered into a delicatessen to look for chocolate, and it turned out to be a cornucopia of epicurean delights. I bought some 99 per cent cocoa solid artisan chocolate, some tiny bottles of Pol Roger champagne and some fragrant Eros tea, a gorgeous concoction of China tea strewn with hibiscus and mauve flowers. These transactions were completed with such care, the assistant really taking time to explain each modest purchase as though it were a matter of national importance. It's these tiny things that unite us.

In our quest to "keep up", how we Brits miss out on some of the finer pleasures of life. The spirit of market towns in England has nearly been crushed by mini-Tescos, unnavigable one-way systems and bland chain stores. No chance - or time - for scorching eye meets in a Starbucks.

I'm going to support my local shops. Chelsea Green, a shopping oasis off the King's Road, has a great fishmonger, a chemist, a baker and an exquisite toy shop. Napoleon described us as a nation of shopkeepers, so let's acknowledge the next St George's Day by celebrating our local shops and not let the French beat us at our own game.